Lovingly written and photographed by Ellen Nadarajah
Five years ago I was travelling through the countryside on my way to a wedding, camera at the ready, when we passed a field and I suddenly gasped and shouted at my friend to pull over for a photo. Never before had I seen such a sight - a huge expanse of row upon row of giant sunflowers. This is not what made me stop. What amazed me was that we were driving west towards the setting sun, yet the entire field of shimmering flower heads was facing east, backs to the sun. I snapped my treasured photo, pictured here, shared it with my friends, and tucked it away as a beautifully mysterious memory.
I had all but forgotten about it until this weekend when my kids and I ventured past their school's front garden on our late-afternoon walk home, and stumbled upon a row of sunflowers. I thought it strange that they were planted behind the school's sign, yet unlike the sign, they didn't face the road, but rather, the school. We walked around to see their faces, and I took this photo, the sun starting to set behind them. Once again, they were facing the wrong direction. I had to figure out why.
I of course, Googled it. I was thrilled to come across an article which seemingly revealed the mystery. It cited a recent study which found that while young sunflowers are in fact solar tracking (heliotropic), mature varieties slow their circadian rhythm to perpetually face east, in eager anticipation of the morning's rising sun. As if that wasn't amazing enough, I also learned that "eastward-facing flowers are warmer than westward-facing ones, which serves to attract more pollinators." How completely brilliant, mother nature. Well done!
This got me thinking about the symbolism of these mature sunflowers standing tall, facing east, staring at the school facade in anticipation of a new day, a new school year and the return to work and routine. These were the teachers, the parents, the guardians, the elders. Face east - more warmth. More warmth, more pollinators. Strength. Stability. Protection. Life.
Then I thought of the young sunflowers, expertly tracking the sun on its journey westward then returning to face east each night. Always on the go, never settling down until nightfall, then sleep, sleep, regenerate and wake anew. Jump out of bed, ready for the day. Never miss a beat. Students learning. Lives enriching. Growth. Health. Energy. Life.
I see my cancer friends as my treasured field of shining sunflowers. Some are so young and still growing, others are mature and strong, but all have been touched by a disease that has weakened us to varying degrees, making us more susceptible to the elements. I think of my life post-cancer, now middle-aged, with the spirit of a young sunflower and the body of its eldest relative. Wanting to follow the sun but instead sitting in safety, energy in reserve, waiting patiently for the morning sun to breathe new life. Grateful to be standing tall and strong today. Cautious of the wind that sometimes blows in from nowhere and rattles our leaves. Fearful of the storms that linger nearby, threatening to take us down. Tearful for the flowers that have left us. Hopeful that the strength of many stalks intertwined is enough to hold us up. Confident that we are firmly rooted to this Earth. Certain that we are living each breath with the purpose, honour and respect it deserves.
I can tell you that my children, my three young flowers, are growing with their feet firmly rooted in the Earth. They stop and stare at cloud formations and sunsets. They gasp at the colourful canopies of forest leaves. They say please and thank you and hold the door open for strangers (but not for each other - sigh). They hear the creek abuzz with life. They get lost and found in the moon each and every time they see it.
This summer the lovely Austrian pine tree which towered over our house and gave much welcomed shade to our front yard, succumbed to a needle disease. It came quickly, spread rapidly and could not be saved. We had no choice but to remove it or risk harming its neighbours. How uncanny that it was so much like my breast cancer. The kids cried when the tree timbered down. Before we ground the stump we surrounded it with love and thanked it for its years of service. Now lies an empty plot of richly mulched earth awaiting new life.
I think we'll plant sunflowers.
Stump of Love
Ellen is a 45-year-old mother of three wondrous kids. At the age of 39, two weeks after the birth of her third child, she was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer and spent a busy year undergoing chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiation therapy. An avid photographer, nature lover and aspiring writer, her heart is happiest when camping, travelling by rail and waging pun wars. Second only to motherhood, her greatest accomplishment has been kicking cancer to the curb, then swiftly backing over it with a dump truck.