Tulips begin as these horrid little things, more like onions than flowers. Earth and water and sun and warmth foment a transformation, and horrid little onions become colorful petals, splashing across fields and meadows. Beauty enough to lure many a bee into its boudoir, or to seduce, then crash the economy of an entire nation. The bulbs, the bulbs — if only they stayed as bulbs, then neither joy nor despair awaits. Instead, the promise of petulant red or blue or violet flowers leads us to an expectation, when the static acceptance of a burly onion bulb would be safer.
And expectations are just premeditated resentments.
Henry stared at the tulips on his window sill. Hospitals teem with flowers, beautiful but joyless. “Get well soon” say the cards and balloons, but the flowers sitting in a mass produced vase say “Look at us! We are colorful and beautiful and cut off at our stems and dying!”
The doctor had just left his side. “Sick people get sick,” the doctor had said in a frustrating syllogism. “The disease is winning, and we can’t stop it.”
Henry considered his options — slow the disease and deteriorate into a shell of his former self for a year, or accept the inevitable and fade away early with some of his dignity intact.
He looked at the tulips in the vase, bright and cheery and sentenced to die.
Henry could relate.
It started as these things so often do — as a very small cough. Nyquil and hot tea and steam baths did not seem to help, and it did not go away. Then he started wheezing and could not breathe, and like most men, ignored it for a little longer than that thinking that it would go away, like everything that had come before.
Henry reflected on that and realized that there must always be one condition that does not go away, on its own or ever.
“Acute respiratory distress syndrome” they called it. It had no celebrity telethons or poster children or bumper sticker ribbons; it barely even had an entry on Wikipedia. His own research did not help him find any useful information, but he managed to learn the definition of a syndrome — a set of correlated symptoms without an known cause.
In other words, he couldn’t breathe and no one knew why.
Nothing seemed to help, no medication, no intervention made a difference. The first thing to go was golf, then walking, then simply being outdoors, then being able to work indoors.
Now this. Lying in a hospital bed with a cannula clogging his nostrils, contemplating the inevitability of his options. Sooner or later, he thought, death would come for me.
His brain, still conditioned to respond to assaults even from his own lungs, began its fight or flight response.
A second opinion? A third? A seventeenth?
Clinical trials? Experimental surgeries? Herbal remedies?
A trip to Lourdes?
It all seemed so unfair because it is unfair. With each new possibility becoming more ridiculous until he arrived at a literal Hail Mary pass, Henry grew desperate. He pressed his morphine drip a few times and faded off into a numb sleep.
The scent of lavender and thyme wafted along the warm Provençal breeze. Henry, expatriated from America in search of the artist’s life, carried his wife’s ashes in a porcelain urn decorated with scenes from the English countryside. “Out of place,” he thought as he looked out over the French fields that lined the unpaved country road. The spot lay just ahead where he would say goodbye to his wife for the last time.
The tulips, acres and acres of tulips, swayed in the wind. The sky radiated an unnatural blue, like a photographic filter had been laid over it.
Henry continued along the path, the sound of earth and rocks crunching under foot.
This isn’t right, he thought to himself. The urn grew warm in his hands and when he arrived at the tree atop the hill where he was to release his wife’s ashes to the winds, the urn started to shake.
He tried to hold on, but could not. He dropped it, breaking the urn and spilling his wife out on the ground. The wind swirled in a small cyclone, and gathered up her ashes. They came together, and dust became bone and muscle and viscera and skin.
She stood before him, looking like she did on the day they met.
Henry gazed at her, and simply said “Hello, Flora.”
Henry took her hand, warm to the touch and real.
“This didn’t happen,” he said. “I did this before and this didn’t happen. This is where I scattered your ashes, but you weren’t there like this. This is where I said goodbye.”
Flora smiled and said, “No, this is where you say hello.”
They sat on the grass, hand in hand, and looked down the hill to the sea of tulips. One by one, petals began to fall off as the flowers started dying.
“It isn’t fair,” Henry said.
“It never is,” said Flora.
Henry woke in his hospital room, groggy from the morphine. On the windowsill sat the tulips in their cheap vase. The water was getting cloudy and the flowers started to wilt to one side, and Henry watched a petal drop. They come from such horrid little things, he thought.
And he was ready to say hello.
This story was inspired by two writing prompts from First 50 Words — The Bulbs, The Bulbs, and Warm Breeze.