116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — When 38-year-old Elizabeth Hildebidle was killed by a drunken driver on Thanksgiving Day 2019, her mother had a hard time coping with the flowers left behind.
Her aunt, Caren Wasta of Cedar Rapids, was one of the relatives left to help mother Deborah Waymire sort through much of what was left behind: Elizabeth’s belongings in South Carolina, affairs for her 19-year-old son and a garden of silk flower arrangements.
Over decades, Elizabeth and Deb had built a litany of artificial flower arrangements. Deb was an artistic type, according to sister Caren. After Deb took a class in silk flower arrangements, she wrapped up Elizabeth in her daisy chains, enlisting her in a hobby that they would come to own together.
Together, the mother and daughter had practice arranging memorials for multiple relatives who had passed before them. So when Elizabeth died, nobody knew how to let go of the petals left behind.
“Big silk vases everywhere. Deb had a story for every one,” Caren said. “It got to the point where we were laughing when I tried to give these away.”
How it was planted
In honor of her late niece, Caren wrangled the flowers in her garden. Every couple of weeks through 2020, she gave away 25 to 50 bouquets arranged with hours of care. Each one, at first, was placed in a makeshift vase like an old pasta sauce or jelly jar.
She gave them away on a regular basis by setting up a table in the neighborhood with an adapted political sign: “Free flowers.” Within a few months, she became known as the Flower Lady throughout various neighborhoods in northeast Cedar Rapids.
“I started doing the flowers … because (Deb) lost the person she put these flowers together with,” Caren said. “When I went down (to South Carolina) to help her through things, she couldn’t get rid of the flowers.”
Caren, a surgical nurse, led by example — giving away live flowers to honor Elizabeth’s memory when Deb couldn’t bear to give away the artificial ones.
But just as Deb started to let go of her own bouquets gathering dust, she died suddenly a year later — days before Christmas 2020. After she was found slumped over on the kitchen counter, a toxicology report came back with no conclusive cause of death for the healthy 62-year-old.
“I think she died of a broken heart,” said Caren, 61. “I think there truly is a broken heart syndrome.”
How it bloomed
After that, Caren had two reasons to give away flowers: her niece and her sister. But with her second season of even greater giving in 2021, a new purpose took root as the Flower Lady grieved the older sister she was so close to.
After two deaths in 13 months, Caren used distractions to delay the inevitable journey of grieving. Her grief didn’t come in a linear way, she found — the loss sinking in bits and pieces at a time, and uncontrollable sobbing when she least expected it months after Deb died.
With loss on two of the biggest celebrations of the year, the holiday season is a difficult time for her family. They celebrate in less traditional ways and on different days than they used to.
But cutting more flowers than ever, the spectrum of colors she curates for friends and strangers alike has not become another distraction lining her path of healing. They’ve become her way of dealing with it on rosier terms — an outlet that makes room for healing and remembrance without loitering under the crushing weight of grief.
How it preserved life
By giving away live versions of the silk blooms Deb adored, Caren has ensured flowers aren’t just a symbol of sympathy seen at funerals. Instead, she’s made them a living reminder of who Deb was and — like the silk flowers that never fade — how she will always remain in the memories of those who loved her.
Flowers didn’t entangle Caren as another distraction. They just became her personal way of confronting death.
“It keeps (Deb) current. Some people can’t talk about people who’ve passed, and I can, because this makes me feel better,” she said. “I don’t want to cry every time I talk about her.”
But what’s more is that by harnessing that regenerative power in her journey to healing, she’s touched the lives of others who have similar stories of loss, too. Each week, she receives about two thank-you cards from those who take her flowers home, some of whom have lost family members suddenly or tragically.
The stories of those who have lost siblings stick with Caren the most.
“It’s heartwarming to know that I’m not alone,” she said. “Everybody has their story of loss and likes to share it. It gives them that outlet.”
Nearly two years after Deb died and three after Elizabeth was killed, her bouquets are given away in decorative vases a far cry from the repurposed glass jars she used to use. Those who know Caren donate dozens of ornate vases and trinkets to decorate flowers, and the more the Flower Lady gives away, the more vases she seems to receive in return.
After trying to help Deb dispose of flowers she didn’t need, the rate of vase return has a special irony to it.
Who Deb and Elizabeth were
Deb was a classic middle child who was outgoing, gregarious and silly all the time, according to her younger sister.
A native of Cedar Rapids, Caren said Deb was “truly the middle kid,” remembered for her flair for drama.
Caren’s favorite memory of her was the time she spoke with an Irish accent for an entire meal, staying in character at the restaurant and referring to Caren as her “older” sister.
If Deb was a flower, she would be a zinnia.
“It’s one that blooms bigger. The more you cut it, the bigger the plant gets,” Caren explained. “It’s colorful, it’s loud, it was her.”
Elizabeth, described as a city girl turned country girl in articles after her death, would have been a peony, according to her aunt.
“A big personality, it smells beautiful, but it has a shorter life,” Caren explained.
With the same gregarious nature as Deb, Elizabeth had a passion for rescuing horses and took care of a variety of animals on a 234-acre ranch at Two Tales Stables, a horse-riding school she founded with a friend in Ridgeville, S.C.
“She would tell all the kids that the horses were big unicorns and she goes around counting the unicorns,” close friend and Two Tales Stables co-founder Kaijsa Dignam told their local news after her death.
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