The Flowers of Early Summer


The Flowers of Early Summer

She was young and beautiful—young enough to be largely unaware of the grace that unfolded with bashful uncertainty as the days passed. But in the third month of her 17th year, she died, cut down by a rare disease.

He was 18 and her friend. They never really dated. He had kissed her once at her 16th birthday party in front of her mother and everybody. He had done it as a joke, so that no one could accuse her of being “sweet 16 and never been kissed.” But she had always seemed too young for him to consider her seriously.

They both lived in a small town in Montana. To the east was prairie, and to the west a range of mountains.

Because of the few LDS students in the high school, Dave and Cathy attended early morning seminary. Each morning at 5:00, he jabbed at the buzzing alarm clock, struggled out of bed, showered, dressed, ate a hurried breakfast, and drove to her home to pick her up. She often kept him waiting, but finally she would rush out—a book, a purse, a piece of toast in one hand, a hair brush and a coat in the other.

One evening in April, her mother phoned Dave to say, “Cathy won’t be going to school tomorrow, so you won’t need to pick her up for seminary. She isn’t feeling well.”

That was the beginning.

Dave graduated from high school in May, was ordained an elder in June, and began working in a clothing store in order to earn money for his mission. Each day after work he visited her. On the days when she was feeling better, he found her in the backyard.

Her backyard had once been mostly lawn. But through the years the vegetable garden had been enlarged until now there was left only a small strip of lawn in front of the patio. Even with the threat of losing all the lawn to the needed vegetables, her mother always insisted that a patch of flowers be preserved.

One day when he came, Cathy was lying on the lawn, her chin propped up by her two hands, intently studying the determined efforts of several bees that were working the flower garden. Dave paused at the gate and quietly watched her. She wore a pair of Levis and a western-style shirt. Since he had visited her last, her long hair had been cut into a more practical summer style.

When he finally went through the gate, she turned and sat up.

“I wish I could spend all day watching flowers grow,” he teased.

She stood up and came over.

“Who cut your hair?” he asked.

“My mother. Do you like it?”

“I like it fine.”

They walked together, inspecting the long straight rows of beets, lettuce, and tomatoes.

“Did you have a date last night?” she asked.

“Yes, with Karen. We played miniature golf.”

“Do you like her?”

“I don’t know. She’s okay. It’s hard to get involved with anyone when I know I’m going on a mission in four months. Maybe she’ll write to me.”

He picked a small flower for her from a bush that clung to the trellis by the house.

“Will you write to me?”

“What do you want, a fan club? ‘Dear Elder Dave, you are so great! All us girls at home are just sighing our lives away until you return.’ Is that right?”

“It’ll do,” he grinned. “And I’ll write each of you a mimeographed letter. ‘Dear Sister Friend, We baptized 500 last week. I’m trying to remain the humble self that you’ve all grown to love. I hope that none of you are dating while I’m away.’”

“Is that the way it’s going to be?” she asked.

“I guess not,” Dave replied.

“Dave,” she said, suddenly serious. “You will be a good missionary, won’t you? You’ll remember the Savior and represent him properly?”

“I hope so,” he answered.

They sat on the lawn chairs on the patio.

“I was sitting here this morning,” she said, “looking at the flowers in the garden. I remembered what the Savior said: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.’ Where’s that found in the Bible?”

“I thought I was finished with scripture chasing when I graduated from seminary,” he teased.

“Okay, I won’t press you. Anyway, that’s not my question. I had a picture in my mind while I was thinking. I want to tell you about it.”

She held the flower he had given her in both hands and studied it carefully.

“It’s early morning,” she began. “There are mists still hanging over the Sea of Galilee. A lone man walks along a path leading away from a small fishing village. It’s the Savior. He walks up the slope away from the water. As he walks, he comes upon a patch of wild flowers. He kneels down to get a closer look. He reaches out and touches the petals. He bends over to examine the insides of the blossom. My question is, what does he see?”

“A flower.”

“Is that all? Just a flower?”

“What else could he see?”

“Jesus was given the responsibility by Heavenly Father to create this earth. At one time, he knew the purpose of every feature of that flower. Did he remember all of those details? Or did his great mind understand the function of each part of the flower just by careful observation? That’s my question.”

“I can’t answer that.”

“I know, neither can I. But I don’t believe that he ever considered anything to be common. I think he valued the beauty of every sunset, each view of the Sea of Galilee—in sunshine or in rain. I believe that he was sensitive to beauty. When he said, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,’ I believe that he had considered those lilies in greater detail than most of us ever will.”

Her father, home from work, came through the gate and began to pull some weeds from the garden. He was a quiet man who took pride in straight, neat rows of vegetables. Often when he worked, he whistled a tune with no recognizable melody.

He picked half a dozen strawberries, washed them off with the hose, and brought them over for Dave and Cathy to sample.

“They’re coming along nicely, aren’t they?” he asked.

In June Cathy spent a week out of town undergoing tests at a university medical center. When she returned, she didn’t look any better, and her parents were strangely evasive when asked what the specialists had found.

As the summer passed, Dave could see that she was slowly getting worse. Often when he came, she was in bed. Sometimes he only stayed a minute because she looked tired. But she enjoyed seeing him, and some days she felt good enough to talk.

“Dave,” she said on one of his visits, “I found a scripture for your mission.” She reached for the triple combination on the table by her bed, and, finding the place, read aloud: “‘Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of your God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day.’ (D&C 4:2.) How’s that?” she asked.

“You’re determined to make me a good missionary, aren’t you?” he asked.

“There’s so much to be done. I wish I were going to be around to help.”

He looked up, trying to read her face.

“I know what’s happening. I’m dying.”

“No, you’re not.”

“We traveled a thousand miles to see a team of doctors. After two days, we came home. My parents never say anything about the results. They won’t talk about it. Now my dad asked me about taking a vacation to California. He wants to cash in his life insurance to get the money so we can all fly down. We’ve never gone on a big vacation like that before. When my parents come into my room, they’re both so cheerful. But yesterday I heard my mother in her room crying. And the worst part is that we can’t talk about it. We spend 20 minutes talking about the weather, clinging to the topic as if it were a life raft.”

Just then her mother came in the room with another vase of flowers. Cathy’s bedroom was filled with potted plants and cut flowers given to her by friends. Her mother picked up two vases of old flowers and left the room.

Cathy continued, “Dave, I need you to talk to. I can’t talk to my parents yet. I need to tell someone how I feel so I can define it in my mind and see the limits of my fear and measure it. There must be boundaries to it.”

They talked for a long time. Mainly he listened as she tried to find out if she could face her future.

“I know that none of us can be guaranteed a long life and that Heavenly Father won’t deny me any blessings. But I don’t want to leave this earth. I like it here.”

Before he left, she asked, “Will you give me a priesthood blessing?”

“Shouldn’t your dad do that?”

“He’s already administered to me. I need a priesthood blessing so that I can face it and so that my parents and I can talk.”

“I can have the bishop come over,” he said weakly.

“No, you’ve got all the priesthood you need. I want you to give me a blessing.”

“I’ve never given a priesthood blessing.”

“It doesn’t need to be today,” she said.

“Do you mind if I talk to your dad and the bishop about it? If they approve, I’ll be glad to.”

Sunday afternoon he arrived prepared. He had spent two days in reading. He had talked to Cathy’s father and the bishop and asked for their help and counsel. They had encouraged him to respond to Cathy’s special request. He had fasted and prayed since Saturday morning.

When he came, she was waiting for him, sitting in a chair in her bedroom.

He stood behind her. The room was silent except for the outdoor sounds coming through the open window. He placed his hands lightly on her head, touching the silky texture of her hair. Closing his eyes, he paused and then began, “Catherine Edmonds, by the power of the Melchizedek Priesthood which I hold, I place my hands on your head to give you a priesthood blessing …” The words seemed to flow easily and naturally. He blessed her that she would be comforted and that she would be able to talk openly to her parents about her condition.

When it was over, they both felt peaceful. He helped her into bed, sat down in the chair, held her hand, and talked with her until she fell asleep.

Monday afternoon when he came again, she was lying outside in a recliner. Her father was building a screened-in room with a covered roof so that she could spend more time outside.

“Daddy,” she asked, “could we move those potted plants from my room out here? I’d like them planted in the garden with the other flowers.”

“I don’t see why not,” her father answered. “Are you getting tired of them in your room?”

“No, I just want them to be here in the sun.”

The next day when Dave arrived, her plants had already been transferred to the garden.

“Don’t they look good?” she asked him. “I’ve been watching them all day. The bees have been visiting them. Out here they have the sun and the warm soil. I’m glad they’re out here. Look at all they’d miss if they were still cooped up in the house.”

Saturday he worked in the morning, but he took the afternoon off so he could be with her. They sat together in the enclosed patio.

In the late afternoon, dark clouds, which had been building to the west of them all day, finally moved in.

Her father gently asked, “Don’t you want to come inside? It looks like rain.”

“No, I like it out here. Let me watch the rain.”

The summer storm struck with fury. The large drops were driven almost sideways by the wind.

Then the hail came. At first it was just one or two scattered, marble-sized stones striking the grass and bouncing back. But as the storm approached, the crashing of the hail on the green fiberglass roof of the patio sounded like hundreds of cannon rounds.

In a few minutes it was over. The lawn was covered with a layer of white.

Her father stood up and walked out into the garden. Standing in the light rain, he silently observed the damage. He picked up a broken stem from a tomato plant, examined it, and then let it drop back to the ground. He slowly made his way to the flower garden. The flowers had been flattened to the ground.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have moved these plants out here,” he said. “They would have been safe inside.”

She stood up and, with some difficulty, went to her father.

“No, Daddy. I wanted them here in the garden. They were safe inside, but out here, even though it was only for a few days, they’ve had the warm sun and the bees and the gentle summer wind at night. I’m not sorry we brought them here. It was worth the chance just to have them in the garden—even for a short time.”

Somehow they both realized that now they were talking about more than flowers. He held his daughter close to him while she repeated softly, “Daddy, it’s going to be all right.”

The next day she told Dave that she and her parents had finally talked about the future.

Two weeks later she was admitted to the hospital.

Three weeks later she died.

Some who attended the funeral may have wondered why, instead of the customary wreath of flowers on the casket, the family placed there a bouquet of flowers from their garden—flowers that had endured the hail and yet lived on.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Parry Merkley