Who Will Save the Dahlias?

It was a fall day in Cape Cod. I was visiting JoAnn, shortly after her friend Lee had moved in with her. While JoAnn set up a stunning home, she didn’t do much with the yard, which is where Lee came in with her gardening expertise. Most of the flowers had finished their show and started their autumn slumber. The highlight of the garden – with flames still burning brightly – was a patch of red dahlias, staked and climbing up into the sky. Brilliant against a deep blue backdrop, they were like starbursts – big, glorious, hearts of scarlet, beating beautifully in the air. I asked Lee if she lifted them in the fall, to save them for the next year. She nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve kept these going for a few years now.”

I am always impressed with those who save their tender bulbs until the next year, bringing them into their basements or garages each fall for survival every winter, then re-planting them when it’s safe to do so in the spring. She weeded a bit more, then stood up. It was, after all, almost time to put the garden to sleep. The remaining weeds would wait until next year too. We went inside to find JoAnn.

That weekend I got to know Lee a little better. I’d met her years before, at one of the many Cape gatherings JoAnn put on, and she was always gregarious and outgoing – the life of the party who knew how to make everyone else feel like they were having the time of their lives. In the house at North Beach that she shared with JoAnn, that spirit wasn’t dampened when there wasn’t a party going on. The next morning she joined in one of JoAnn’s famous brunches, crafting the most beautiful Bloody Mary I’ve ever seen or tasted – stacked with a toothpick of olives, celery, even a shrimp. This was a meal and, more than that, a work of art. I took a photo of it – it remains one of my favorite photographs.

Later that day she took me into Mashpee Commons for the afternoon, where I tried a plate of steamed oysters for the first time, looking out onto a Cape Cod inlet. Fall had arrived. The wind was strong. Inside, I was making a new friend – and, as with most of JoAnn’s Cape friends, it was fast and easy and comfortable. We talked about work, about the future, about the loves in our lives, and by the time we got back to the house, it was time for another party at North Beach – one of JoAnn’s famous fall gatherings, around a fire pit, with her brother Wally’s cider, and her roommate Lee beaming and enjoying herself and teaching us all how to laugh a little louder.

I don’t think she realized how much she taught us – or maybe she did. On another visit, she was dog-sitting a pair of poodles for a friend – yippy, high-strung little things that required more tenderness and patience than either JoAnn or myself had. For some reason, Lee entrusted us to take them for a walk along the beach. We looked at each other incredulously, but she didn’t give us a choice. The dogs were placed in the back of a car, and we were on our way. At first we laughed at the situation, struggling to get them on their leashes, running through scenarios of how we might explain losing the things should the worst happen to happen, but after a few minutes we settled into it. The sun was just starting to lower itself in the sky, and the breeze kicked up over the water. Our restless hearts calmed a little, the dogs enjoyed themselves, and we took in the moment. Neither of us was very adept at that.

It was like Lee knew that it would do us good, that it would help not only the dogs (who needed to get out) but also JoAnn and myself, who needed to think of someone and something other than ourselves. To see what it was like taking care of an entity that was completely reliant upon us for survival. Somehow Lee understood that, and to this day I remember that walk on the beach, and those dogs, and I wonder at how she knew.

I never once saw her down or depressed. She didn’t even get moody or groggy in the mornings. When the rest of us were in the worst spirits, Lee was always smiling and bubbly and ready for the next adventure. She had an indefatigable love of life, of always being open to happiness and joy. She loved to have a good time, and it was impossible not to be drawn into the happiness when she was around.

When JoAnn told me that Lee was pregnant with twins, I smiled. No one would make a finer mother. Those kids would grow up knowing what it was to love, what it was to live, what it was to make a difference in the world.

It’s not right that someone so vibrant should be taken away so early. She had just given birth to her twin boys before she passed away, and it won’t ever make sense to any of us lucky enough to know her. A great light has gone out in the world, and though there are now two little legacies who will grow up hearing stories of how wonderful their mother was, it won’t ever fix the broken hearts she leaves behind. I like to think that she had gone to sleep happy and content, filled with nothing but the hope and joy that her new babies had given her. It is a thought that gives just the faintest of solace.

She was on my mind as I planted this year’s garden a few days ago. I thought back to that fall when we talked in the garden. Lee was one of those special people who saved the dahlias, who took the care to see them through the winter. She’d cut them back, brush the dirt from their tubers, and package them up for safe-keeping in the basement. Who will save the dahlias now? We needed more people like her in the world – the ones who would take the time and make the effort to help, to save, to celebrate, to love. We needed her here.

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