A Death the Day of the First Flower


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Crocus in bloom March 11, 2016.

Early on March 11, 2016, the day the first flowers bloomed in my back gardens, Shirley Schultz, 81, died quietly in a nursing home in Hiawatha, Iowa.

Counting my parents and in laws, it was the passing of her generation in my family. The men and women of the World War II and Korean War era have passed to the great beyond, and we are the elders now.

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Image family chose for her obit.

That’s a pretty sobering thought. I’m not sure Shirley would have taken it all the seriously. She wasn’t a woman of grand, flowery phrases, and she could have a wicked tongue and sarcastic wit.

She wasn’t always soft and cuddly; she was a person who had some edge. She raised eight boisterous, cantankerous children, toiled as a farm wife and had a career as a registered nurse. She had a strong heart and a tough backbone and hands that were calloused from hard use.

We’ll miss her. Her quiet smile, her laugh, a joke in the background—she might not have been a teddy bear, but she does leave a hole in the fabric of the universe.

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Shirley, 1950s. Pictures my wife has in her office. The smile is familiar.

In the end, she left this world long before she actually died. She lived with Alzheimer’s Disease, and her mind slowly ebbed away in her final decades.

Well, her family will prefer to recall the many earlier chapters of her life. They have more memories of her on the farm, working in the garden, hanging up clothes, laughing with the clan in the cramped dining room of the little ranch house where she and George raised their eight children.

I know I’m not alone in missing Shirley. But she did give me one final, personal blessing. When my mother died, I was in the room with her. When my father died, I was right outside his room, waiting in the hallway while a nurse checked him. I had been in his room right before his final dose of medicine was given, so I still think of myself as “being there.” When Shirley’s husband, George, died, many of his family, including this son-in-law, were in the hospital room with him.

When we got the word this week that Shirley was in decline, I decided to bike over to the nursing home Thursday night. I didn’t realize the crowd that would be in the room when I got there, and it made me a little nervous. I felt a bit like the Angel of Death, and when Father Phil finished Last Rites and announced, “she’s not responding, I don’t think it will be long now,” I admit I felt a bit of a chill.

You can go now, Shirley. Joe, the Destroyer, is in the room.

But, Shirley did things her own way in her own time. As it turned out, I was sleeping in my own bed 5 miles away when she drew her last breath at about 5 a.m. Friday. Link to her obituary.

Thank you, Shirley. Partly, for confirming that I’m not the Angel of Death so I can visit ill people without thinking of myself as a portent of doom. Mostly, however, just for being you, for your example of quiet, satisfying work, of family dinners, of smiles and jokes at the end of the day.

You didn’t rest a lot in this life, and “peace” doesn’t always describe your clan. But you’ve earned your rest. It’s a comfort to think of you now, with George, in possession of your mind once again, and with that mischievous Shirley smile on your face. May you rest in peace.

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