Sunflowers for Merrie: Choosing an Afterlife Avatar

It was Merrie’s birthday last week, her 56th, if she had lived to celebrate it. Merrie was … oh it’s impossible to say who Merrie was to me: one of my oldest and closest friends doesn’t quite do it. Nor do any of these: the willowy blonde architecture student who wore red clogs; the mother of two beautiful boys of whom she was insanely proud; a woman who had the most strikingly singular personal style, who didn’t turn it off even for our Wednesday trips to Yale for her chemo treatments.

I was a freelance writer during Merrie’s last year of life and was free to drive her to the hospital for a year’s worth of Wednesdays. She wouldn’t be ready when I arrived, so I’d sit at the edge of her bed and watch her chose an outfit, trying to stave off my anxiety about being late — she’d lose her slot if I didn’t get her there on time. Merrie, for all her wondrousness, was late for most things, including the potentially life-saving chemo infusions.

I watched her try on one sweater after another, smoothing out the apple or celery green cashmere. Merrie had green eyes and much of her clothing was one shade of green or another, curving around her “awesome boobs.” Her consolation prize from a prior bout of cancer was a pair of perfectly reconstructed breasts.

“Hot, right?” she said on that morning, admiring her own chest.

Then she pinned a bee-shaped brooch to her sweater, in memory of her mom, Bee. During her last years, the formerly not-at-all-new-age-y Merrie had started exploring alternative realities: past-life regressions, sessions with psychics. On that morning, she was contemplating the form she’d take when she revisited us on earth.

“Not as a bee,” she said. “My mom still comes to see me as a bee.”

Not a bee, I thought with a glance at the clock, can we talk about this in the car?

Merrie moved onto outerwear, selecting, as she did on every cold day, a long mink coat, designed along the lines of a bathrobe, sheared so fine it resembled brown velvet. I felt another wave of fond impatience. The coat would need to be shuttled from the waiting room to the exam room to the chemo room, with me serving as the shuttler. She liked the coat to be draped just so over a chair — not hung up, for reasons I don’t recall — and also closely watched: it cost something like 10,000 bucks.

“Be a doll,” she’d instruct, as airy as a diva as she disappeared behind the exam curtain, “and hold my coat?”

In the car, she considered and rejected as her afterlife avatar a fox (too furtive) and a butterfly (too “Lisa Frank”).

“And it’s not going to be anything cheesy like a rainbow,” she said.

“No rainbows,” I said.

“A flower, I’m thinking,” she said. “A sunflower.”

We had arrived for her treatment on time after all and, according to our ritual, I dropped her off at the front door to save her the slow and painful walk from the parking garage: her bones were hurting, a concerning symptom. I watched while Merrie unbundled herself from her mink.

“Be a doll,” she said. “And hold my coat?”

Anything can start to feel normal, even chemotherapy; indeed, people living with cancer are encouraged to think of treatment and beyond — if they are lucky enough to have a beyond — as their “new normal.” But nothing was “normal” with Merrie. She was extraordinary and would sail into the chemo room dramatically, the mink around her shoulders like a cape, bringing little gifts to her favorite nurse: Meyer lemons from Florida, Frango mints from Marshall Field’s; a Mardi Gras cake; a box of Czech pastries she baked, left over from a massive batch she made for her son Sean’s classroom.

“Dude,” said the nurse, when she saw Merrie. Her name was Lynn. She had fierce tattoos, a ring in her nose and a shaved head, out of a solidarity for her patients. “What’s good?”

“We’re just here for the drugs,” said Merrie as she left me with her coat.

During her last month of life, I served as Merrie’s scribe. She wanted to leave her boys letters to read after she passed. She handwrote the drafts as long as she was able to in her precise, architect’s script. I’d type them up and bring her printouts to edit, reading them aloud when she became too weak to hold them. I recall the baseball metaphor she’d settled on for passages of her son Julian’s letter. He was an ace pitcher. She promised to forever be his “angel in the outfield.” I cried so hard my tears messed up the draft.

Merrie was also intent on giving away her most treasured possessions and I was a scribe for that, too. She even designated the pearls that were to be put away for the women her boys — then just 12 and 9 — would marry.

Eventually, these conversations became a little slower, a little less clear. Merrie faded in and out of sleep during the last visits before she passed.

“Hold my coat,” she whispered through dry lips. “Will you hold my coat?”

It was springtime and the sun was hot through the thick, hospital-room windows. I thought she had slipped out of lucidity. I took her hand in response and nodded.

Merrie died on May 5, 2007. She bequeathed to me the long, velvety, sheared-mink coat.

I teared up when I first put it on, but I wasn’t surprised. The surprise came a week later, on my birthday, which was also the same day as Merrie’s service, held at St. Bart’s on Park Avenue.

After the funeral, my husband and I returned home to Connecticut late. But even in the darkness I could make out an enormous shrubbery-sized package left on my porch, wrapped in brown paper.

Inside was an enormous vase of cut sunflowers, tall and proud with sturdy stalks and brown-velvet faces. Knowing Merrie, she had somehow pulled off ordering them in advance from her hospital bed, even though sunflowers aren’t typical florists’ fare and must have cost a fortune. Or — because if anyone could do this, she could — she was making good on her promise to visit me now and again.

Happy Birthday, said the card. Love, Merrie.


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