Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The flower lady

Jonathan B. Ferrini
La Jolla, California, United States

Photos by author.

The Flores Family Flower Shop was founded by my grandfather as a roadside stand. It has now been a favorite flower shop in San Diego for the past fifty years. Six days a week at 4:30 in the morning, I drive the truck to the wholesale market, purchase flowers for the day, and unload them at the store. I also do the flower deliveries.

My father handles the office, my mother and sister are expert flower arrangers, and we all work the phone and the counter. We do our best to provide cheer or empathy to our clients depending on the circumstances. During these years of Covid, we have also worked tirelessly to accommodate the needs of so many people in need of flowers for funerals.

Covid did not discriminate when choosing its victims. June was a soccer mom whose thriving bookkeeping service failed when businesses closed during the pandemic, placing extra pressure on an already crumbling marriage. She sought stress relief from wine, then turned to leftover prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet. When those ran out, she fabricated ailments to get new prescriptions, until she was found out and cut off from her daily fix. Her husband divorced her and got custody of the kids, the judge ruling her to be an “unfit mother.” She found herself homeless and living in her minivan. With the stress of her circumstances, her addiction escalated into daily heroin use.

One day, seeking a quick nap on a comfortable couch in an art museum, June marveled at the beautiful flowers painted by Van Gogh. She dreamed of running free through a field of sunflowers. A security guard woke her up and kicked her out, but not before she had come up with an idea. Soon, word had spread through town that a “Flower Lady” was giving out flowers to strangers in hopes of a handout. We suspected the flowers came from the waste bins behind flower shops.

Returning one morning from the market, I saw a beat-up minivan with a person sleeping inside. I flashed my lights at the car, and the woman inside woke up and sped away. I opened the trash bin and noticed that all of the discarded fresh flowers had been picked through. “Let her have them,” said my father. “Better giving pleasure to somebody than landing at the dump.”

Every morning that week, I parked the truck down the block before returning to the shop and watched her carefully assembling bouquets made from discarded flowers. She was quick and demonstrated real skill in floral arranging. My father suggested that we leave her a fast-food breakfast, coffee, orange juice, and a dozen roses with an invitation to come inside. She entered the store carefully as if fearing arrest. We invited her into the office and handed her a cup of coffee that she grasped and savored.

June was only about five feet tall and emaciated. Her long, stringy, blond hair was now mostly gray. Her clothing and shoes were thrift store castoffs and the faint scent of urine suggested the lack of regular bathroom facilities. She said she was sorry for taking the flowers and begged us not to call the police. Instead, my father offered her a job and said he would pay her $100 cash.

June cleaned up in the bathroom and we gave her a clean shirt and florist apron to cover her disheveled clothing. She immediately went to work at the counter and took orders over the phone. She was great with the customers, relating to the emotional suffering of a teenage girl without a date who wanted a corsage for the prom. She was equally empathetic with a young man selecting flowers for a first date who had a tight budget.

One day in the middle of work, June began to sob and retreated to the restroom. My mother knocked on the door and discovered that she was worried she might never see her children again. My mother connected her with a pastor named Sunny Dominguez who ran a substance abuse meeting and offered my parents’ support when it was time to go to court again for visitation rights. My father gave June a full-time job and the use of a cot in the storeroom where she could sleep until she got back on her feet.

In the ensuing weeks, June was always pleasant, upbeat, and hardworking. The work around the store, combined with the opportunity to meet other people at meetings, brought June happiness and sobriety. She mastered all facets of the business including the register, taking phone orders, creating flower designs, and even making deliveries when I was not available. Customers would call and ask for June by name.

About three months into the job, June was excited to report she had been granted a visitation hearing. She hoped her regular attendance at meetings, a steady job, and my parents’ testimony would win visitation rights with her children. But the judge denied her those rights, citing still “unproven sobriety.”

June never returned to work. We did not see her for months. One morning, I spotted her minivan. She was slumped across the steering wheel with a hypodermic needle in her arm. There was an envelope addressed to my father. Photo albums of her family were open around her; likely her last moments together with memories of those she loved. My father opened the envelope and found a cashier’s check payable to a funeral home for a cremation and scattering of ashes at sea. There was a second cashier’s check made payable to our flower shop, requesting the creation of a simple spray of tropical flowers.

My mother and sister immediately went to work on the flowers and we donated the check to Sunny’s substance abuse center. At the funeral, Sunny eulogized:

“The world is full of fragile souls with loving hearts who become lost on their journey through life. When faced with adversity, and despite valiant efforts to recover, they succumb. June was one such soul.”

Her ashes were placed in a floating container along with her photo albums. The beautiful tropical flowers were set on top, and we watched as the vessel was carried by ocean currents as the sun set into the ocean.

JONATHAN B. FERRINI is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.

Spring 2022



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