"You guys got here at just the right time - some are already starting to fade."
I looked across the field of sunflowers, a beautiful blanket of yellow petals stood tall thanks to sturdy green stalks covering the land. Like a fuzzy blanket hovering over the acreage, contrasting beautifully with the green leaves and blue sky, it was hard to imagine that in a short time, they would all be gone.
We'd road tripped across the state to visit my former employee and her family. Their adventurous life of living on a duck hunting club and managing large areas of lakes and farmland, including a sunflower farm, was intriguing. They'd extended an open invitation to stay.
We had to see this life - the farming. The dog training.
So the weekend following the 4th of July, when the blooms were expected to be at their best, my daughter, my husband and I packed our suitcases and headed east.
Goodbyes. I was no stranger to them, yet they weren't getting any easier.
I seemed to be saying "goodbye" a lot.
To church family. To natural family. In fact, I still keep the now-dried red roses I carried home from both my grandma's and uncle's gravesides in my kitchen window near my "Freshly Baked Pies" sign. The flowers keep the grief close to me, and the loss stays as fresh as the goodies I often bake on the counter just below the sign. I'm learning to embrace the uncomfortable feeling of sorrow not because I enjoy it, but because I trust and believe the promise that "blessed are those who mourn."
But rarely do I need the dried flowers to remind me.
It still doesn't seem real that "the kids" don't come through my door on Monday mornings anymore. Despite the beautiful new season with my daughter, and my freelance business, the change continues to teach me seasons come and seasons go.
Although natural, it's rarely easy.
I feel I should know this by now. Working in the cancer community taught me to be ready for goodbyes. Especially the final ones, which I'm still not used to. But the "see you later" goodbyes are also hard, and they carry similar, yet different, feelings of loss.
This one came recently when my dear friend, and our family's "roomie," adjusted her orange backpack and rolled her hard-cased black suitcase toward the TSA checkpoint. She boarded several big planes to fly across the ocean to obey her calling into global missions. I couldn't contain my sadness at the airport as we hugged for the last time for at least six months. She couldn't either - the shoulders of our t-shirts were soaked with one another's tears as we walked away. Although hanging onto hope that we'll see each other again soon, it didn't make the moment of parting any easier.
It was one of the toughest goodbyes yet.
I was thinking of all of those tears, and the tears from funerals and final meetings, from "see you laters" and last days, and working to hold off more as I walked toward the stalks of sunflowers. I couldn't help it - grief's grip was tight.
Yet as I got closer to the flowers, I began to feel surrounded by a serene sense of empathy.
Standing tall for only a few weeks out of each year, with just a few left, the sunflowers were also familiar with goodbyes.
We were generously and graciously served freshly-grilled hot dogs and brats, and a delicious spinach salad tossed with strawberries and blueberries. I poured sweet tea into my red Dixie cup and took a seat with everyone else around a long, wooden table.
Our two families began talking like old friends. My daughter's cuteness overflowed. At the table, she insisted on wearing my husband's old glasses - the ones without frames - because she wanted to look older than her age.
Her creativity and spunky personality lit up the room.
Although only acquaintances, our two families sat around the table and as we started talking, familiarity quickly set in.
To the world, it must have looked odd. Professional lives blurring the lines and dripping into the deeply personal. A former-boss and employee jumping into a weekend where parents and children, boyfriends and husbands mixed and mingled so much, the relationships inevitably turned into family.
But it didn't feel odd, it felt strangely beautiful.
We spent the afternoon playing on the lake. We toured the property and then sat around the patio and drank more sweet tea. My daughter played and chased the dogs. We laughed new laughs and made new memories.
Feelings of joy returned.
Once in awhile, I'd catch myself and pause. In between the moments of happiness, fear whispered in my ear, "Don't enjoy this too much, it will inevitably demand a goodbye."
It was just like what St. Augustine said following the loss of his friend, (as paraphrased by C.S. Lewis) - "Don't let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away."
It made sense.
But then I looked over and saw them... like big, yellow guardian angels, the sunflowers heralded wisdom that seemed to be leading me in a different way.
Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
After a few wonderful days away, I walked out to bid the sunflowers a final farewell, and a secret thank you, before heading west toward home. I began to wonder: would they agree with him? Is it better to grow and fade than never to have bloomed at all?
They seemed to be saying yes.
Hidden within their yellow petals and beautiful brown seed patterns was the understanding of the temporal qualities of earth. They knew seasons change. They knew it's beyond their control. Yet that didn't stop them from living in their fullness each day.
Bees were buzzing in their fields and pollinating. Seeds that would attract new birds to the hunting club in just a few months were maturing. They embodied a life well lived. They were stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. They carried a radiant confidence my heart longed to know.
"To love at all is to be vulnerable," said C.S. Lewis in response to St. Augustine's writings. "Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken ... lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket ... it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."
It seemed as though the sunflowers were saying the same thing.
In the face of their temporal seasonality, they didn't hide underground but instead they shot up and gave their beauty away. They embraced the pain of yearly goodbyes, and because of that, they fully bloomed. Each morning they lifted their heads to follow the bright sun's rays piercing the midnight sky. They didn't seem afraid of inevitably fading away.
"Love and beauty are always worth it," I sensed them whispering to me as I turned my back and walked toward the car, a final plea or maybe a word of wisdom before I hit the road.
"As long as there's sun and seed, water and time, our season will come again."