When I first met her, Ingrid was sitting in a chair in the Meditation Room, smiling, a puzzle unsolved in her lap, winding a cloth scrap for the Clootie Tree. She asked if I wanted the room for something and I said no, I just meant to show it to a guest taking a tour, and would come back later so as not to disturb her.
She said, “Are you showing him the garden upstairs?” I told her that we were. “It’s so beautiful up there,” she told me. “What was your first impression of the garden?” I asked her. “Of space,” she told me. “Of more space than you think is there. And the hummingbirds. They come and bring life.” I said, “The native peoples here believed hummingbirds were messengers for spirit.” “They are,” she said. “But the garden itself is that, too. It brings life and the real world. It grounds you and you know where you are.” She began to weep. I held her hand. “I’m sorry, this just happens,” she said. “I’m really so happy to be here. The garden, Hospice itself, is such an achievement. Such an achievement. Everybody should know.” Then she said she didn’t want to interrupt my tour, and insisted I continue. “Show him the garden!” she commanded comically.
From time to time after this first meeting, I saw Ingrid in the fourth floor hall, sometimes being wheeled (reluctantly) in a chair, often using a walker to push forward toward the doors of the Garden, always in the company of humorous and loving friends. Every time she passed my door, she stopped to say hello, and we talked about a small but intense range of subjects: birds, flowers, books, music.
One particular day Ingrid arrived with her mother, a neat, upright lady, the type of woman who maintains a smiling face to the world no matter what the weather. As we were introduced, I could see something else behind this mask. She moved ahead of us and took a seat in the Garden while her daughter and I remained to chat in the hall. We looked at her sitting there, her brave profile outlined against a patch of blue sky and green leaves, and Ingrid said, “She is worried about me.” She dissolved into tears. “That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? It’s her worries that upset me. I don’t want her to be worried about anything.” “She is being a mother,” I told her. “You can’t tell her not to do her job.” She laughed as quickly as she wept. “I guess you’re right!” she agreed, and then we both laughed.
We went out together and the mother straightened cheerfully. After Ingrid was seated, we talked about the Garden around us. “The hummingbirds won’t leave her alone,” the mother smiled. “They’re my guiding spirit,” said Ingrid proudly. As she spoke these words, a pair of tiny wings came whirring among and away from us.
We talked about a book I’d been reading, Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s The Global Forest: Forty Ways Trees Help Save the World. As I described the author’s passage about the healing properties of pine forests—those fragrant, air- and mind-cleansing orchards of the high hills—Ingrid leaned back with her eyes closed, lost in rapture. I looked at her mother and was gratified to see that as she gazed at her daughter, her face had relaxed and softened. “Life is a garden,” Ingrid said when she opened her eyes. “Hospice is a garden, too.” We sat there a while longer, saying nothing, just letting the hummingbirds and bees, the breeze and the ferryboat horn fill the broad silence with gentle, wordless meaning. “Hospice is also a path,” Ingrid explained. I asked her what she meant. “It means coming here, for me, is finding the way to go,” she said. “Like following a compass, only it’s something different, more wonderful than that—it’s letting yourself be guided by the love that is here.”
A few days after this, she and I veered into one of our wide-ranging conversations, and this time we touched on the meaning of her name. “What does Ingrid mean?” she asked me. “Isn’t it something like spear-maiden, or Valkyrie?”, meaning the immortal women who carried heroes killed on battlefields to Valhalla, the Norse heaven. I told her I would look it up for her. But when it came time for me to leave my office, Ingrid was still in the Garden, soaking up the sun, the air, the distant mountains. So I left a note on my door, not knowing whether she would ever see it. My note said, simply: “Ingrid means beautiful!”
Next morning, I noticed, the note, securely taped to my door, was gone.
She had embraced as much of the summer as she could. One October afternoon, Ingrid died, quietly, leaving this earth with all the grace and economy of a bird taking flight from a twig.
And then came winter, and snow, and what would have been Ingrid’s birthday, and suddenly outside my door were her friends, her strong, smiling mother, her sister who is so much what Ingrid was, in voice, appearance, and inner light, that it is as if she never left. She and Ingrid’s friends had just given a concert in the chapel in Ingrid’s memory. Now they came to make another kind of music. “We have come to ring the bell,” they told me, and invited me to join them in the Garden.
We stood around the bell, fresh snow a rumpled white blanket at our feet, and we sang “Happy Birthday”, steaming up the frigid air, tears freezing on our cheekbones. A friend read Mary Elizabeth Frye’s 1932 poem, “Do not stand at my grave and weep”, and as the poem promised, we did see Ingrid in the sparkling snow. “I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight,” read the friend, and there, too, was Ingrid, in a flash of green and purple: her friend the hummingbird had come to feed. He perched on a twig over our heads until we said, “Happy birthday!” to the blue sky, then flew up and out to some place we could not see. Ingrid’s mother then turned to me . “She loved your note,” she said. “You were right. She was beautiful, inside and out.”