BY: Ann Kathryn Kelly
In my garden, one of the first of my summer plants to push up from the ground in late May, after the spring bulbs have gone by, is my “bleeding heart.” My sister-in-law, Jane Ann, an avid gardener, divided hers soon after I’d moved into my first home years ago. She’d whacked it down the middle of its root ball, after its flowers had dropped and its leaves had yellowed, and brought a large hunk of it in a plastic grocery bag to my door.
Fifteen years on, I’ve taken it with me to a new home. That piece of Jane Ann’s bleeding heart—as close to her own as anything could be, given her devotion to plants—has landed in several of my friends’ gardens, as I follow her lead of whacking and dividing. It propagates and charms grateful recipients with its delicate beauty.
My plant was in full bloom the first week of June when news broke from a French village that Anthony Bourdain—famed chef, author, and “Parts Unknown” cable news star—had committed suicide. On June 8, 2018, a shocked world tried, as they do with tragedies, to make sense of it. Many of us had allowed ourselves to think we knew Bourdain because he showed up in our living rooms each week, all rugged good looks and real talk, to dish about exotic street food from the world’s dustiest corners.
We don’t know anyone, certainly not celebrities and often not even those in our families, fully. Their demons. Their fragility.
The summer I was diagnosed with a bleeding brain tumor, Jane Ann would stop in every night to see me during those lost months as I weighed options. She and my brother, Pat, lived several streets away. I’d hear a knock at my door after the dinner hour, like clockwork. There she’d be, holding her Shih Tzu, Penny, whose toy legs had given out again during their walk because Penny was more doll than dog. It was easier, Jane Ann would explain with a wave of her hand, to carry her. Penny seemed to agree, her chocolate eyes radiating gratitude, a cream-and-tawny powder puff panting between yawns.
That summer, Jane Ann bore many offerings to my door. Tupperware containers of homemade soup. Lasagna in tinfoiled trays. Flowers that spilled over the fence running the length of her Victorian, cut within the hour.
Peonies. Daisies. Roses.
Deep red roses.
Her daily visits kept me engaged when all I wanted was to come home from work, pull the shades, ignore the phone, and escape into the TV or my bed. If I didn’t see anyone, I wouldn’t have to talk about what was going on. I wouldn’t have to work up my courage to schedule the surgery I needed to save my life; a surgery that would turn into almost twelve hours face down in the OR between a head vice as my skull was sliced open.
Jane Ann, a registered nurse who worked with kidney dialysis patients, watched with my family my decline across June. July. August. I felt her eyes on me each night as we visited. The only thing she pushed those evenings was Penny, into my lap, and fistfuls of flowers, into my hands. Bright spots were few that summer, but what glimpses of light I grasped for often included Jane Ann somewhere in the frame, among those who surrounded and lifted me.
As my strength flagged, my surgery date loomed, and fear engulfed me, she drove back the dark with flowers vibrant and voluminous. Ruffled blooms—purple, pink, white—exploded from her grip. In a fresh-cut bouquet of dahlias, one flower, dwarfing the others, sprang from the middle; butterscotch in its center, surrounded by a band of sunshine yellow and tipped in white. Georgia O’Keeffe would have had her work cut out trying to capture the specimen before me.
“That’s gorgeous,” I said, pointing. “And huge. What is it?”
“Dinner plate dahlia.” Jane Ann smiled and leaned in for a whiff.
Her centerpiece lived up to its name, large enough to hold a salad. Smaller dahlia varieties surrounded it. She removed from the vase on the dining room table the wilted roses she’d brought a week earlier and plopped in the latest selection with fresh water.
Jane Ann was happiest when doing for others.
I’d developed “foot drop” from my brain tumor, a neuromuscular disorder that starts out as weakness and leads to muscle paralysis, as nerve signal communication from the brain to the foot is hijacked. I couldn’t lift and flex my left foot, and dragged my toes. I’d gotten a brace.
It was bulky, impossible to get my shoes or sneakers over. Jane Ann stopped by one evening soon after I’d gotten the brace, and dropped a shoebox on my dining room table. I’d told my family I was considering not wearing a shoe at all on my left foot. The brace’s sole, however, was smooth as a baby’s ass. If I didn’t fall from foot drop, chances were great I’d land on the floor as I swayed around shoeless, the brace’s plastic sole like a banana peel.
“I saw these at Walmart, Annie.” She flipped the lid open, while Penny panted patiently by a table leg.
My face fell when I pulled the sneakers from the box. They were bright white, vinyl, extra wide, with two Velcro straps. A thick rocker heel. The size of pontoons.
“It’s bad, I know,” Jane Ann said. “But, look, you only need to wear one. Wear your regular sneaker on the other foot.”
The sound of ripping Velcro, as I tightened and retightened straps, filled my dining room. Penny’s ears flicked and turned with each rip, like radar antennas.
After a pre-op procedure weeks before my surgery, a cerebral angiogram to map my brain’s blood vessels and give my surgeon the full picture he needed prior to surgery, Jane Ann and Pat converted their dining room into a bedroom for me. I needed to be near a bathroom on the first floor, something my house lacked. Jane Ann pushed their dining room table into a corner, had a bed brought in, carried a TV into the room, and kept me fed and watered for three days until I could climb stairs again without risk of opening the cut to my femoral artery.
She took me to a hairdresser days before my surgery, after she and my mother agreed a pixie cut might be nice. There was no reason why I couldn’t have style, they said, though it would be shaved seventy-two hours later.
As I recovered in a rehabilitation hospital, learning to walk, swallow, and grasp objects again, Jane Ann planted rows of tulip bulbs along my driveway before she left for her winter in Florida. When spring came around and I was again living independently in my house, my driveway erupted into a palette of pastel splendor. I had a Monet watercolor outside my door.
She’d never mentioned to me she had planted them the previous autumn.
“I wanted you to see a rainbow when you got settled in your house again,” she later said.
The tulips bloom and re-bloom. Year in. Year out.
Days after Bourdain’s suicide, my news feed crowded with reminders that it was a bathrobe belt, that the world had lost a legend, that his body was stuck in France due to bureaucratic red tape, I read:
After a battle with French officials over his remains, Anthony Bourdain’s body has reportedly been cremated and his ashes will be flown home Friday.
My stomach churned as my eyes moved down the page. This man, who meant something to so many, flown home in pieces. Like cargo.
Like Jane Ann.
One year and thirty-seven days after a neurosurgeon returned my life to me, after my family buoyed me above lashing waves that pulled me toward its undertow, after Jane Ann used up everything in her garden and her heart to bolster me through what I was sure would end me, she ended her time with us.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, we boarded a plane; Pat, my mother, and me. In Pat’s suitcase, stowed in the overhead bin, Jane Ann’s ash-filled urn sat tucked between shirts. We were flying back from Pat and Jane Ann’s winter home on Florida’s Gulf Coast to their primary residence in southern New Hampshire, to bury her in her girlhood hometown where her elderly father still lived.
Our generous Jane Ann, reserved until she knew you, until she trusted you, but then opened her house, wallet, heart to anyone needing help. Jane Ann, friend to all animals. Our princess of perennials.
She hadn’t left a note.
We don’t know anyone, fully. Their demons. Their fragility.
I had my bathroom gutted to the studs last winter. My carpenter stopped in on a spring day to wrap up. While I had him, I asked him to hang a framed, stained glass window from a chain. I’d gone with vintage black and white tiles on floor and walls, chrome fixtures, and lots of frameless beveled glass. A splash of color, I felt, would finish it.
Ruby red, royal blue, pear green, violet, gold; jeweled pieces splay across the window in a mosaic, creating a vase-filled flower arrangement, each bloom outlined in lead.
When Mike finished, we stepped back. A spot in the middle of my chest started to ache. It was Jane Ann’s window, one she’d bought in an antique store years earlier. The center flower, a rose, glows scarlet when sunlight streams in.
It’s the color of a heart. Of heartache.
Of knowing we once had Jane Ann in our lives, and recognizing that we have pieces of her, still.
Like when the rainbow of tulips push through the earth each spring, or the bleeding heart blossoms in my garden, its red, heart-shaped flowers ending in teardrop petals that drip from arched stems and nod to me on a breeze. Like when the sun shines through the stained glass window, Jane Ann’s window, with its riotous burst of flowers.
A plant’s stalk, strong enough to carry the weight of blooms—some small, but others at times as big as a dinner plate—can be easily broken. Sometimes, from a battering rain. Sometimes, rough handling is all it takes to snap them.
Certain flowers are too fragile to last. They break, and they’re gone.
When we’ve had them in our gardens, however briefly they bloom, the space they leave behind is never filled the same way, even as other varieties open their petals to the sun.
Ann Kathryn Kelly lives and writes in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. For 40 years, an undiagnosed tumor bled in her brain. She’s writing a memoir about how the tumor controlled who she’d been all her life, and how a dangerous daylong surgery freed her from its grasp. Ann volunteers with a nonprofit, leading writing workshops for community members living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Barren Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, the tiny journal, WOW! Women on Writing, and elsewhere. Connect with Ann on Twitter and Instagram: @annkkelly