The Tulips Were a Heaven-Sent Sign of Forgiveness

A colorful spring surprise let her know that her late mother-in-law had accepted her peace offering.

Posted in , Mar 29, 2022

Illustration by Anna Godeassi

It was good to come home refreshed that spring, right before Easter, the flowers in full bloom. Peter and I had just flown back to Pennsylvania after a long-overdue getaway. I was still unpacking when the phone rang. It was his sister calling to say that their mother was in the hospital. “She thought she was having a heart attack,” Peter said when he got off the phone. “But the doctors say it’s an esophageal stricture. She’s fine, nothing serious…but she wants me to fly out to Chicago to see her.”

My mother-in-law relied heavily on Peter, who responded like a good son to her every summons. I understood Peter wanting to do all he could for her, even if my mother-in-law and I had never been close. But after years of witnessing him never saying no to her, I was running out of patience. For too long I’d watched my husband suffer under the pressure of his mother’s demanding nature. How were we to know when she really needed him? “Call the airline,” I said. “See just how much that roundtrip flight will cost.” I hoped that would settle it.

The last thing Peter needed was unnecessary stress after the tumultuous year he’d had with his own health. In fact, that was the reason we’d decided to finally take a vacation—a honeymoon, actually, after 18 years of marriage. Peter had undergone two open-heart surgeries for aortic aneurysms, the result of a disorder that affected the connective tissue of his vascular system. The disorder was genetic, so his family was tested for it. All but Peter had been cleared, including his mother. The doctors were saying she was fine. I hated to see Peter jump on another flight right away.

He was talking to an airline ticket agent when I heard another voice: “Let him go.” It didn’t come as a thought. No one else was in the room. It wasn’t a man’s voice or a woman’s. But I heard the words as clearly as if they had been spoken in my ear. “Let him go.”

Peter hung up the phone, ready for a difficult discussion with me, but I couldn’t ignore the voice I’d heard. I knew he had to go.

Peter flew out to Chicago on Easter Sunday. He spent two days by his mother’s side. The day he returned, we received another call from his sister. This one was a shock: Their mother had died. “She was misdiagnosed,” Peter said. “It was an aortic aneurysm.”

I thanked God for the voice that had guided me. I never would have forgiven myself for arguing over Peter’s final visit with his mom. In Chicago together for the funeral, I mourned the daughter-in-law relationship I had never managed to build. Even as I cried, I struggled to forgive my mother-in-law for her part in that. I struggled with myself for not trying harder.

The following fall, I chose a spot in our yard to plant tulips in her honor. The nursery didn’t have any yellow tulip bulbs—her favorite color—so I settled on variegated purple and white. The color is dramatic, just like she was, I thought the day I planted them. It felt good to dig my fingers into the dirt, pushing the bulbs deep into the soil, where the squirrels couldn’t get them. I found myself remembering the things about my mother-in-law I could appreciate and admire. As dramatic as she was, she was also intelligent and creative, and loved her children. I felt as though I was burying years of the anger and resentment I’d felt toward her. My feelings for her softened as I watered and cared for our garden. No doubt she would have insisted I find yellow tulips for her, but maybe being in heaven had softened her too.

I had months to wait before the tulips bloomed. But sure enough, one day the following spring, I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a flash of color. It was as if the tulips had sprung up overnight. I rushed outside for a closer look. The variegated bulbs I’d planted had a surprise for me. The tulips grew in two neat rows, with pure purple tulips on the ends. The tulips in the back row were pure white. But the tulips in the front row? They were bright yellow. Heaven seemed to smile with me. I like to think my mother-in-law found a dramatic way to show me she accepted my peace offering. Forgiveness had grown in our garden.

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