Daffodil Dreaming

            "How're we going to tell Dilly?"  Her father's warm baritone slid under the door.  She couldn't hear her mother's response – weak, soft, defeated – as her face had been when she came home today.  Creeping upstairs, she had avoided both Dilly and her father.  Her dad, with a worried glance at the empty staircase, had shepherded Dilly into her room to do her homework, then joined her mother in consultation.
            Dilly had waited until she heard their door close, then crept into the hallway to listen.
            "But this is serious," her father protested.  "She has a right to know what's going on."
            Another soft murmur, then her dad's voice rolled out again.  "I don't want her to worry either, Elaine.  But cancer is a serious matter.  She ought to know..."
            Footsteps rang against the hardwood floor of the bedroom.  Dilly jerked her ear from the ground and ran into her room.  Cancer?  She didn't know exactly what it was, but she did know what it meant:  she could lose her mother.  Just like Andrea Johnson had lost hers the year before.
            She flopped onto her bed and shut her eyes.  Did people always die of cancer?  Their teacher had told Andrea that some people didn't, that some people had the tumors removed or their bodies fought off the disease.  But Andrea's mom had died.
            In the darkness formed by her closed eyelids, she tried to picture life without her mother, but every time she arranged a scene, her mom was in it somewhere.

***

            From her tire and rope perch, Dilly gazed at the old sycamore branches swaying above her.  Her dad had fashioned a seat of soft rubber, like a saddle, for her to sit in, and she loved to swing here, soaring above the yard like an astronaut escaping from earth.  She shifted her gaze, surveying the take-off and landing strip, that little worm of brown earth surrounded by trimmed green grass.
            Her feet stopped pumping when she spied the daffodil patch.  Bright yellow petals floating on a sea of green.  How she hated daffodils.  She'd been named after them – her mom's favorite flower – and she always avoided this patch in the corner of the front yard.  Stupid flowers, so fragile.  She'd picked one once, when she was very little, clenched it carefully in her awkward fist, but she'd fallen before she could reach the house, and the flower in her scraped hand was crushed.  Since then, she'd insisted on being called Dilly.  Stupid flower, stupid name.

***

            "Your teacher called today, Dilly.  She said you lost your temper on the playground and hit one of the boys.  She said you wouldn't apologize."
            Dilly looked at her mom, at the pale hands grasping the arms of the rocking chair, at the ashen face showing more grimace than frown.  She felt rage again, like she had on the playground, when Jimmy had been laughing as he maimed ants with a stick.  But this time she clenched her anger deep inside.
            "So," she announced – voice sassy – and sauntered out the door.  Her mother was too tired to follow.
            Before she realized what she was doing, she was in the middle of her mother's prized patch, kicking sun-gold daffodil petals into the air, their fragile beauty scattering like feathers during a pillow fight.  They were so easy to destroy, and it felt wonderful to get rid of the useless plants.  So much for beauty, so much for delicacy.  What good did those do a person?  She trampled and kicked joyously.  Why had she been named after something so easily crushed? 

***

            Another successful take-off.  Seconds later she was pumping hard, trying to gain maximum altitude in order to attain the proper orbit.  She was on a mission to photograph comets, like the astronomer in their science film.
            When Dilly saw her mom bending over the broken daffodils, she explained to the other crew members that theirs was really a spy mission.  She could see her mom's mouth moving, but she couldn't hear what she said.  She ordered the plane to land and crept closer to try to hear the whispered words.  She walked quietly, like the Indians she'd seen on TV.  Tears coursed down her mother's cheeks as she piled the wilted bodies on the grass. 
            Dilly pushed away the regret that nibbled at her mind.  Why hadn't her mom been named for the stupid flowers?  She was as weak as they were.  She ran away before her mom could see her.  Maybe I'm glad she's dying, Dilly thought.
            She passed the swing and hid behind the raspberry bushes.  Viney stickers reached out and grabbed her clothes.  The neighbor's dog ran over, wagging his tail as usual.  She pushed him away.  Stupid dog, he didn't believe she wouldn't pet him.  Just cocked his head and fed her a lopsided grin.  She kicked him in the chest and he blinked at her, still disbelieving.  She raised her foot again and he ran away, tail tucked between his legs.
            Her movements displayed the grass stains on the knees of her jeans.  My mom named me Daffodil hoping I'd be soft and beautiful, she thought.  But instead I'm scruffy, hard, dirty.  I don't care.  I don't want to be a flower, easily killed by an ugly child.
            She lay down, closed her eyes, and tried to imagine what it felt like to be dead.

***

            Dilly and her father ate dinner alone that night.  They were awfully quiet.  Was this what it would be like without her mother? 
            She noticed, as if for the first time, the loud tick of the grandfather clock in the corner of the room.

***

            Her mom was doing something else to the flower garden.  Scratching the surface with a tiny rake until it lay flat and brown, and even Dilly's rebellious footprints were erased.
            Dilly watched secretly until her mother left, then tiptoed to the bare spot and sank down on the grass beside it.  A wound, it now lay anesthetized, but lonely, unwell.  She couldn't help but notice how it resembled a fresh grave.  She still remembered attending her grandfather's funeral two years ago, walking through the cemetery, passing a fresh grave, a person newly buried.  "Is that Grandpa?" she'd asked. "No," her mom and dad had chorused, but they'd squeezed her hand tighter, hurrying her along.
            She wondered if her mother's grave would be like that – so barren, so lonely.  Her guilt became confused and she wondered if she'd killed her mother, instead of the flowers.  Maybe she had been too much trouble, or maybe she hadn't loved her mother enough.  Maybe Andrea Johnson hadn't loved her mom enough, either.
            Unable to keep the tears of guilt and fear inside any longer, she lay face down in the grass, outstretched fingers touching the soft moist earth, and sobbed unspecified apologies.

***

            A comforting hand landed on her back like a gentle bird, fingers brushing her bare shoulder as tenderly as wingtips.  "Dilly?"  A soft voice, just rising above the breeze.  Her mother.
            Dilly swiped at her eyes with earth-stained hands, leaving trails of mud snaking across her wet face, then propped herself on her elbows.  But she wouldn't meet her mother's eyes.
            "Are you okay?" her mother asked.
            "I...I'm sorry I killed your flowers, Mom.  I know they were your favorite."
            Her mom sat down beside her, putting her cool hand on Dilly's forehead.  The child could smell the warm, musty scent of the compost her mother had been carrying.
            "Honey, you didn't kill them.  They'll come back next year.  That's why I'm giving them nourishment.  To help them recover.  But you did end this year's beauty.  For that I do accept your apology."
            "What do you mean they'll come back next year?  Don't you plant new ones every year?"
            Gentle laughter as her mom smiled.  "My Goodness!  Who's been letting you grow up without teaching you about flowers?  Daffodils are perennials.  That means they'll return every year."
            "Return from where?"
            "Perennials have roots that stay alive even when the flowers or stems are dead.  Like grass.  It's brown all winter, but every spring the roots send up new green shoots."
            Dilly remained silent for a minute, then looked up at her mom, who smiled again at the sight of Dilly's earth-streaked face.  "Why did you name me Daffodil?  I'm tougher than them and I'm not pretty."  It was out of her mouth before she could stop it, but her mother did not seem offended by the question.  Instead she wiped absently at the streaks near Dilly's eyes.
            "Beauty is only part of their nature.  Daffodils may look delicate, but their roots are strong enough to survive the cold winters and the warm, dry summers,” she said.  “You are beautiful to me, Dilly, but you’re also very strong.  If you go through sadness or hardship, you may have to keep your happiness curled up inside for a while.  But eventually it'll come bursting out again.  It always does.  Something that strong's just waiting to blossom."
            Dilly felt tears welling in her eyes and fought to hold them back.  "I don't want you to die, Mom," she said.  "I don't want to lose you."
            Her mother sighed and hugged Dilly fiercely, hands absently smoothing Dilly’s tangled brown hair.  "I tried to protect you from knowing, Dilly, but I suppose I should have been honest with you.  I'm sure you were angry when you discovered the truth.  But don't worry – I'm not dead yet.  I've got a lot of fight left in me.  Like those daffodils there."  As if just realizing it herself, she murmured, "We can beat this together, Dilly."

© Sharon Henriksen