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Mandalas at the Zen Hospice Project

On June 4th 2013 I returned home from dropping my partner off at the airport to an empty apartment boxed up in preparation for our immanent move. Suddenly alone after months together, I grabbed a bucket of unsold flowers and kneeled down on sun warmed wooden floor.

I had just started my own floral business that spring--a push cart loaded with buckets of flowers--and by that time, the tulips stems had grown long, their petals unfurled revealing a dark stripe radiating from their centers. I plucked the petals one by one and laid them flat on the floor in a circle about my arms width across. Within the circle, I placed the heads of four lace flowers, forming a diamond. Then sage leaves in clusters of three beside each head. On grew a pattern as each flower revealed it’s fading beauty converging in the center, a single opened peony.

I made that first flower mandala the day Denali left to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Inspired by traditional mandalas in India and Tibet, the practice developed as a way to repurpose the unsold flowers at the end of the day. We were not religious, but we loved nature, and the mandalas were a sort of prayer to keep him safe.

We had met as students at California College of the Arts three years before and got to know each other on romps through the local hills and adventures to National Parks. After graduation, he planned to climb K2 with his farther, a mountaineering guide, while I would tour flower farms, and then we would reunite overseas at a program to teach english in Georgia. During that time, there was much debate about what to do with our future. While the arts had united us, the mountains called to him, and I was intrigued by a potential career in floristry. All we knew was that we wanted to be together.

Over satellite phone the day before their summit bid, he described for me the softly falling snow, how magic it was to be in such a remote place. He loved the stars, the open space and the silence, and wanted me to see it someday too. "Our plans are good" he concluded, referring to our upcoming adventures, told me that he loved me, and had to go.

Only silence followed as I waited anxiously for their next call. A few days later a mountaineering blog reported them missing and I began leaving them voicemails asking them to please explain what was going on. That night I tossed and turned with a feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was wrong. It wasn't until the next day that I got a call confirming Denali and his father had disappeared in an avalanche in the middle of the night.

My memories of the following days blur together with a feeling of exhaustion I had never experienced. Every time my mind settled down enough to rest, I would recall what had happened. The blunt words "denali is dead," repeated over and over in my head, then hyperventilating. I thought of his body. The smell of his skin and the placement of his freckles were like a map leading me home. Something once so familiar, now frozen on a mountain on the other side of the world.

Friends gathered, tried to convince me to eat, and helped me make the 51st mandala. Then my mind goes blank for months, as if time has bleached out all the most painful parts as I realize over and over that my life would never be the same.

 It was as if I was haunted, or looking backwards through a prism. Without a place to live, I got a dog and moved from couch to couch, picking everything up and heading to the next spot as soon as something didn’t feel right. And almost nothing ever felt right. It was three months before I cooked a meal for myself, another six before I returned to work at a new florist in Santa Cruz.

 The first time I smiled to myself and really felt the lift of joy again was the following spring as I walked through a field of roses in various states of life, the dew on their petals glinting in the sun. However, he feeling was immediately followed by guilt. “How could you be smiling at a time like this?” I thought. But there was something new rising to the surface.  

The gravity of my loss felt immense beside the ease of flowers. I thought of how Denali lived each day with a unique fascination, and words came to me as if from somewhere else, “I must live the best life I can for him.” They were the same words he had said when his best friend passed away earlier that year, and I finally new what he meant. 

I had been constantly comparing the life I was robbed of to life I now lived, failing to see the value in each moment. It occurred to me that a person cannot know true happiness unless they have felt true sorrow, and the depth granted to me by my experience could be a tool rather than a burden.

During my shift at the flower shop the next day, I diligently collected all the damaged petals and flowers too old to sell. Then after closing, I composed a mandala on the floor of the entry way, admiring it just long enough to take a picture then sweeping it away as I continued my cleaning tasks.

I began privately making them again each day, no longer as prayers for preservation, but as meditations on transience. I learned new depths to the language of flowers--how unique each petal, and yet how vulnerable. In their beauty they retaught me how wondrous life could be, and when they wilted, they taught me how to let go.

 That year I made 101 mandalas. The final one on the anniversary of Denali’s death death, on a solo backpacking trip in Alaska in view of the mountain he was named after. I had planned the trip so that I could be alone to witness my healing and feel closer to his wild spirit. 

Shortly after my return, I moved back to San Francisco to be surrounded by all the things that I once shared with him. Only they weren’t ours anymore. They were my own, and I was returning to the city as someone new.

My life's path had turned out so differently than I had imagined. Not only in losing Denali, but almost more surprising to me, in how beautiful my life had become despite having lost him. I wanted to share my story with others who were drowning in grief as I once was. I wanted to tell them that their lives were far from over. 

Then I heard about the Zen Hospice Project use of flowers in the end of life. As expressed in B.J. Miller’s now famous TED talk, flowers are an important part of the services provided at this special home for the dying. Flowers welcome guests at the door, are placed amongst food on dining trays and in resident’s rooms. And when a resident passes away, “as we're wheeling the body out through the garden, heading for the gate, we pause. Anyone who wants -- fellow residents, family, nurses, volunteers, the hearse drivers too, now shares a story or a song or silence, as we sprinkle the body with flower petals.”  From their first moment in the guest house to their last, the residents are accompanied by flowers.

Their attitude towards death as a part of life worthy of attention and respect felt like the only thing that made sense. I signed up for the training, and by the end of the year was holding the hands of the dying, caressing their hair and telling them they are loved. I was able to care for strangers in the way I wish I could have cared for Denali.

But before my bedside training was even complete, I was asked to help with the flower donation program led by the Bloom Project. I began collecting flower donations and teaching volunteers how to clean flowers in various states of freshness and decay, as well as the joy of flower arranging.

 However, when it came time to toss flowers deemed unusable, I could see a familiar concerned look on the faces of the women around the table. I asked the volunteers to collect the heads of the older flowers in a bowl and led the group over to a low circular table. I started in the center with a cluster of floppy white lilies. Another woman scooped up pink rose petals from the bowl and formed a ring around the lilies. And just like that one by one the other ladies grabbed handfuls of flowers, placing them in patterns around each other.

For so long I had been making mandalas on my own, it was magical to step back and watch the hands of strangers come together. I came to learn that each member of the circle had their own obstacles they were navigating--a breakup, a move, a job search--and all of them made the choice to be there, radically witnessing one another. As we stand back and take in our creation each week, the ceaseless business of our lives waiting just outside, the mandala offers a moment of acknowledgement of the ephemerality of all things.

Some mornings as I pull up, car full of donated flower, it brings me to tears just thinking of how far I’ve come. My business is blossoming and the ritual that came out of my grief now encircles so many. The donations spark in the eyes of the patients, inspiring stories of their gardens back home and of their favorite types.

Flowers teach us to live in the moment, to appreciate what have, because just like them, we are beautiful for a moment and then we are gone.