Age 9 – December 25th: My brother and I spent our first Christmas with Shirley, Robert, and Jon Dylan. She lived in the same town as us at the time. Jon Dylan got a Teddy Ruxpin bear as one of his presents and Robert threw it against a wall and broke it. He was a jerk.
Age 14 – July 1st – 16th: My brother and I traveled to Arkansas to spend a couple of weeks during the summer with Shirley, Robert, and Jon Dylan. The boys spent hours playing in the creek looking for crawdads and mudpuppies, while I experimented in Shirley’s massive blue make-up kit from Amway. On the 4th of July Robert shot a bottle rocket up Shirley’s dress, burning her leg. I believe the word “Bastard” flew from my lips. Man I don’t like that guy.
Age 19 – October 28th: I spent my first college holiday with Shirley and Jon Dylan in Arkansas. It was fall and she was working for her best friend in a little flower shop called House of Flowers. She’d finally managed to divorce Robert who was spending time in jail for assault, drug possession with intent to distribute, evading arrest, and who knows what other crimes. She and Jon Dylan were living in the cutest little apartment and I fell in love with the flower shop while I was there. Without Robert she was a totally different person. Thanks to AA she’d been clean and sober for nearly 4 years. We spent the weekend really talking and getting to know each other. She was really fun. That weekend marked the start of our friendship.
Age 20 – October 4th: I was expelled from college (well, “expelled” is probably a much stronger word than the college would have used – “asked to leave” is probably more like it) and decided I didn’t want to go back to southwest Kansas. Shirley offered me an opportunity of a lifetime – working in her little flower shop in Arkansas. I jumped at it! I moved in with her, Jon Dylan, and Johnny (her new husband) and began my internship.
Age 21 – December 4th: My world was abruptly dismantled with the sounds of twisting metal and shattering glass. It was Shirley’s birthday – her 41st to be exact. She and Johnny were turning into the restaurant where they had planned to quietly celebrate together, when a dump truck emerged from the misty night and slammed full force into their pickup truck. Johnny was killed instantly when the steering wheel impacted with his chest. Shirley’s head slammed through the passenger door window, cracking her skull open from her right ear to her crown. Paramedics responded to the scene as quickly as they could and worked for over an hour trying to keep her alive, but it was too late. She was gone too.
Life changed drastically for my two brothers and me that night. My youngest brother, Jon Dylan, was only 14 at the time. Thankfully, he’d gone to church with some friends that evening. I truly believe that had he been home he would have been in that truck too. Kelly and I were living in Florida at the time, and we flew to Arkansas the next day. Numbness and grief consumed our every thought. We’d only just begun to know and understand this woman who was our birth mother, and now she was gone forever. Kelly was especially devastated as he’d idolized her for years – placing her on a pedestal; overlooking her faults; refusing to accept that she’d abandoned us for a lifestyle of sex, drugs, and Scotch.
In truth, it wasn’t until she was gone that I learned the sex, drugs, and Scotch were just a bi-product of a much deeper problem – and that she gave us up to our dad because she knew he would be able to provide us with a stable home, full of love and commitment. She knew that she wasn’t capable of giving us what we needed………she showed her love for us in her sacrifice. I wish I’d grasped that before she was gone – I think it would have made a huge difference in our relationship.
As we stepped into her house on December 5th, the first thing that met my eyes was not the sea of sorrowful faces sitting at the dining room table, or the mountain of sympathy cards that had begun to arrive, or even the counters full of food and flowers, but her Christmas tree. It was stunning, and it stole the breath right out of my chest. For a fleeting moment I was certain that I was going to walk in and see her sitting at the dining room table in her favorite caftan, thumbing through a seed catalog with her coffee and cigarettes in front of her – a mischievous smile on her face.
In that moment I was certain that the previous 24 hours had all been a bad dream – a nightmare; and I was about to wake up and everything would be completely normal. I would be able to pick up the phone and wish her a happy belated birthday. She would still be there to make my wedding bouquet, as she’d promised. She’d be around to see Jon Dylan graduate from High School. She’d be one of the first people to hold her grandchildren. She’d be there to give me advise, and to be a shoulder to cry on if I needed one. But unfortunately, the moment passed as quickly as it had come and I was once again reminded by the solemn faces around me that reality was not as beautiful and comforting as the soft glow from her Christmas tree; and my hopes and dreams for the future shredded my soul as they dropped to the ground like shards of shattered glass.
Its been 12 years since that horrible day. And even still, Christmas is always an especially prickly time for me; as it is for many people who’ve lost loved ones around the holidays. There are many years when I don’t even want to dig out the decorations – I just want to forget about Christmas and pretend it never happened. Shirley loved Christmastime though. There were some days in the shop when she was nearly giddy with holiday spirit. As a florist, she’d start making Christmas wreaths, centerpieces, ornaments, and swags in August. The trees in the flower shop would start going up in September. And she always had her house beautifully decorated from floor to ceiling before Thanksgiving with twinkling lights, colorful ribbons, delicate hand blown glass ornaments, hand painted Santas, colorfully wrapped gifts, and deliciously scented candles and potpourri. Christmas was truly her favorite time of year.
And while my meager words can not really convey just how special and important this woman had become to me before she died, I hope to at least let you know that even though time has dulled the harsh sting of death I still miss her every time she crosses my mind.