Life, Death and Mandalas: Lessons from Flowers

A group of four women kneel down at a circular wooden table dispensing petals from a bowl into circular patterns. One starts the pattern with a center of peonies. Another adds an exterior border of ombre rose petals that fade from orange to blush. The others fill in with patterns of color and texture, riffing off one another like silent jazz musicians. They dispense each piece of the mosaic, placing each flower at a time until it is complete. Then step back to take in the spontaneous creation: a flower mandala.

These women are volunteers at The Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Through the Bloom Project, they collect and arrange donated flowers for hospice patients and common spaces at the six bed victorian guest house in Hayes Valley. Once they are done with the arrangements, all flowers that are deemed too wilted are used to create a mandala on the wooden backyard deck. The mandala is unique each week based on whatever flora remains, and is allowed to blow in the wind and decay as the week progresses – a reminder of the beauty in vulnerability.

The origin of the flower mandalas had come about the day my partner, Denali, left to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, with his dad Marty, an international climbing guide.”

I had just given up the floral business that I had started in the spring – a wooden push cart a friend had built for me, loaded with buckets of flowers – to join Denali to teach English abroad once his climb was over.

After the whirlwind of planning, packing and farewell parties fell away, our home felt suddenly empty. With everything in boxes and my eyes still wet from his morning departure from SFO, I ripped some remaining wilted flowers from their vase on the mantle and sunk to the floor.

The blossoms had become curled with wilt and patinated with rot, a state that I rarely got to see in my work as a florist. With just a slight tug, the petals of a tulip unhinged to reveal a deep maroon and indigo interior, in contrast to the sun-faded blush exterior. Another exposed veins of gold and magenta and powdery blue pollen. On I went, plucking the stem one by one and transferring each petal to the sunlit floor face up for inspection.

Standing back up to see them all, I noticed the larger scale-like pattern about my arms width across, and crouched again to form a ring of eucalyptus leaves around the edge. As I focused on the placement of each leaf in groups of three, everything else fell away. The worries about Denali’s trip, the stress of moving and my own approaching departure date could not be further from my mind as my hands danced across the floor.

The mandalas became a daily practice, meditations in form, color and texture that marked where I was in time and space.”

They served as documents of the wildflowers, stones and other objects around me. I numbered each one, counting down the days until I would be reunited with my love.

Acting as Denali and Marty’s liaison, I received phone calls via satellite every few days with updates on their progress I would then email out to friends and family. Each contact was a relief. He told me of the people of Pakistan and how friendly they had been, and of the flowers he collected along their trek that reminded him of me. I told him about the mandalas, that I had made one for each day he was gone and heard him sigh from the other side of the world. He had a way of sighing at beautiful things that could express what words could not.

After 47 mandalas, he called to say that they would be attempting their summit in the next few days. He described how the softly falling snow looked like stars, just as he had when we first met. That was always how he talked, constantly in awe of the world around him. But that day I was having none of it.

“Shouldn’t you be worried about the weather?” I asked, too concerned about safety to get caught up in his magic.

“It’s very faint,” he assured me, “now’s our chance.” He paused. “Our plans are good, and I will see you so soon,” he concluded.

The next few days, I watched my phone anxiously, ready to hear he was safe. But the call never came.

Instead I got a phone call from a mutual climbing friend.

“Denali and Marty are dead,” he choked.

“What am I going to do?” I hyperventilated over and over. “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” As if anything could be done.

I thought of his body. Something once so familiar, now frozen on a mountain on the other side of the world. The avalanche that ravaged their camp in the night had buried them so deep, they could not be found.

Image by Larisa Minerva
Image by Larisa Minerva

The shock of that night is sharp in my memory. Processing what had happened over and over again in my mind felt like digging into an open wound. I didn’t want it to scab over, I wanted to feel it. I couldn’t sleep or eat, all I could do was imagine their last moments over and over.

But somehow I also remember resolve. “We have to live the best lives we possibly can for him,” were words that came out of my mouth, as if from somewhere else. The reality was that my bright and shiny future with him was ripped away, leaving a dark void I had to enter alone.

Without a place to live, I 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, and another eight before I had blown through my savings meant for our travels. I was able to hold it together long enough to land a job at a florist in Santa Cruz.

The gravity of my loss felt immense beside the ease of flowers. The first time a smile crept it’s way onto my face was in that shop, my hands busy with the abundance of the local roses, ranunculus and plum. I didn’t even recognize my mood shift until it was proceded by the guilt of feeling joy at a time like this, and quickly wiped it away. But there was something new rising to the surface.

For months I had been constantly comparing the life I was robbed of to the life I now lived, failing to see the value in each moment. I thought of how Denali lived each day with delight and whimsy and the words that came to me the night he died came again, “I must live the best life I can for him.”

Throughout the rest of my shift, I carefully set aside all the damaged petals and flowers too old to sell. Then after closing, I composed the first mandala since Denali passed away on the floor of the entryway, admiring it just long enough to take a picture then sweeping it away as I continued my cleaning tasks.

I made one again each day, no longer as prayers for preservation, but as meditations on transience.

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.

Through my work with flowers, noticing each petal’s unique way of crumbling and decaying, and the new colors and textures that were revealed only with age, I relearned 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, on a solo backpacking trip in Alaska and in view of the mountain he was named after. No longer wanting to be a victim of my circumstance, I moved back to San Francisco shortly after my trip 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.

In searching for others who had been through a similar experience, 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 residents’ 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 made so much sense to me after my experience. I signed up for the training, and soon 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 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 art of flower arranging. As it came time to toss flowers deemed unusable at the end, I could see a familiar concerned look on the faces of the volunteers and instantly knew what to do.

I asked them to collect the heads of the older flowers in a bowl, and once we were all cleaned up, I led the group over to a low circular table in the garden. I started in the center with a cluster of floppy white lilies forming a circle. 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 spontaneously as if they had been doing this for years.

Image by Larisa Minerva