We bought white lilies

An excerpt from a memoir piece.

TW: Loss, cancer

I will always remember that summer when us three girls were on the brink of turning nineteen. Every summer, our houses would be surrounded by fields full of rapeseed with its sweet pollen smell drifting through the air. It coated the fields in sunshine yellow and we knew school was out. That year, the news called it an ‘Indian summer’. It summed it up for us and we spent hazy, long days relaxing after our exams and dreaming of a future that rolled out in front of us like the shining expanse of gold fields surrounding our childhood. There was nothing in our world that we couldn’t overcome. Our youthhood, completely wrapped up in a world of light and absorption with ourselves that we hadn’t seen the dark clouds rolling towards us.

It wasn’t that the news came unexpectedly. He had cancer for months but he had fought it before. He had his leg amputated but he could live. Of course, he recovered at seventeen. No-one dies from cancer at seventeen.

‘You will be fine darling, it will be just the same as it was before,’ my mum had said as I was putting off visiting him. The last time I went was before he became sick. We all had a massive sleepover and no one had cancer and we didn’t need to worry about anything.

I drove down the familiar street. His once normal home, became a home where a teenager with cancer lives. The front room where we had the sleepover was now his bedroom, as he couldn’t get up the stairs. I pretended not to notice. Once I was past those slight shifts and I saw his face, it was just as mum said. He joked about his car, how fast it would go with the pedals adjusted for his one leg. We were going to go for a cruise soon. He would be better soon. I left him, smiling with his shaved head doing wheelies in his wheel chair whilst another stream of visitors arrived into his childhood home. I was happy I went. I didn’t know then that that would be the last time I ever saw him.

Before him, I had the memory of visiting churches, for history lessons where we would trace the carvings on the gravestones and the people buried below us only existed in another world, one of ghosts and fairy-tales. It wasn’t how I had imagined or watched on films like an overwhelming wave of grief. I don’t think I cried. It was stunned silence.

His funeral came around quickly. We had the date. We went to the florists. We were adults now. We had to be prepared. Yes, you take flowers. White lilies. There is note.

“What would you like to say?” the florist said. My friends looked at me. I cannot even remember what I wrote. We were grown up now. That’s how you handled it when people died. You brought white lilies and you said things like, we are sorry for your loss. Or, we send our condolences to you and the family.

When we arrived at the funeral, it felt like it was just us three there. Everyone else turned into weeping strangers. I imagine now that they were all dressed in black, but the invitation had said to dress cheerfully. I don’t remember what people wore. The funeral car drove past with his friends sat atop the sunroof. Flowers spelt his name.

I couldn’t get out of the car I felt my heart falling out of my chest my lungs choking in the thick summer air my body shaking uncontrollably I was losing it his coffin was too small he was too young too full of life to be buried he was the sweetest boy in the class it wasn’t something people just said after he died he really was he was the first boy I kissed I saw him just last week it wasn’t really happening he’s going to get up now and it was all a joke on all of us just like his joke in class when he yanked his trousers up and pretended to be the class geek and we all laughed and we all loved him for it.

I cannot remember how I recovered. But I remember being picked up off the floor as I struggled to pick up the lilies. A sickly-sweet smell drifted under my nose. But the smell could not have been from the lilies. The florist had removed the pollen stems. Cut short. Their deformed stumps stuck out at me. I have hated amputated lilies ever since.

Published by Shereen Malherbe

Shereen Malherbe is a writer & author. Her novel, Jasmine Falling has been voted as one of the top 20 Best Books by Muslim women. Her second contemporary fiction novel, The Tower, was published by Beacon Books on April 2019. Her first children's book, The Girl Who Slept Under The Moon is out now.

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