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The Crocuses Will Still Bloom- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Crocuses Will Still Bloom Redux- This blog post is informed by conversations with Dr. Bruce Sawhill, Stanford educated theoretical physicist and mathematician.


The Crocuses Will Still Bloom Redux


On Sunday, February 27 at dawn I received the call I never wanted to receive. My precious mother, Ernestine Keeling Hillis, passed away. Just before the call, my horse Scarlett who died January 17 appeared in a dream. She brought solace before the heartbreaking news.


My mother loved Scarlett and all the animals who graced our lives then and now (Dogs: Oscar, Hans Dieter, Trixie, Zelly, Skipper, Georgie, and Oakley; Horses: Misty, Squire, Scarlett, and Topsy, and my sister Kim’s beloved cat Windsor), but most of all, mom loved her family.


She would drop everything to be there for me, my sister, dad and our daughter, mom’s only grandchild Kimberly, whom she loved to call “my one and only”.

A most important and abiding love for my mother was her beloved brother Paul Ray Keeling who survived the invasion at Normandy at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, as a Navy frogman who later died of cancer when my mother was only twelve.

The enormity of this loss devastated mom and her family- her mother, Pearl Yarbrough Keeling, father- Benjamin Franklin Keeling and sister, Betty Keeling Harris as well as the extended Keeling and Yarbrough families.


Ernestine Keeling Hillis

(Left) Ernestine Keeling Hillis; (Top right) Ernestine & John Hillis; (Bottom right) Paul Ray Keeling


A few of my favorite photos: my mother as a child, mom and dad, and my mother’s beloved brother Paul Ray Keeling.


The Chocolate Bunny


Mom loved to tell the story of her brother Paul Ray appearing one day in the doorway of her 3rd grade classroom at St Joe Elementary in full Navy uniform, bearing the gift of a giant, chocolate Easter rabbit.

She loved to tell how all the kids oohed and ahhhed over her handsome brother. She placed the rabbit in her desk, went to lunch, only to return with the chocolate rabbit gone, never to be found.

Years later, when our daughter Kimberly was the same age- she surprised Granny with a foot tall, solid chocolate Easter bunny, completing the circle and bringing tears of joy and remembrance to my mother’s eyes.


The Comfort Of Family


A deep and important story my mother told me many times was how Aunt Ethel and Uncle Aaron cared for and comforted her in the terrible time while Paul Ray was dying, and Granny and Papa were ministering to him.

Mom loved Ethel and Aaron so much. There’s a deep connection on both the Yarbrough and Keeling sides- with Ethel and Granny being first cousin Yarbrough’s and Aaron and Papa being Keeling brothers.

A Gift In The Darkness


After Paul Ray died in 1950, a golden bright light was born 5 months later in August, my mother’s beloved nephew Danny Paul Harris. Mom told me how Danny brought hope to Granny and Papa and to mom in the dark days and months following Paul Ray’s death.

Danny was a big part of their family at Tomahawk- and to my mother, Danny was more than a nephew- he was like a little brother and son combined.

Mom told me so many stories about Paul Ray, I felt like I knew the uncle I never got a chance to meet. My granny grieved over Paul Ray until the end, just as my mother did. It was a deep loss that haunted me and threaded through our lives across generations.


Loss, Transformation & Healing


Very close to a year ago, we published a blog post about loss, transformation, and healing. Because of recent events, we felt the desire to revisit it.

In the intervening year, there have been two life-changing events for us. Bruce’s mother passed away on September 15, 2021 and Nancy’s mother passed away on February 27, 2022.

We just returned from Arkansas. We attended Nancy’s mother’s funeral there, held in a family graveyard at Tomahawk, Arkansas where Nancy’s relatives, reaching back to Pre-Civil War times, are buried.

The funeral was held far out in the Ozark Mountains, on a preternaturally warm sunny day, wind softly billowing through the bare oak trees, hills and pastures of brown grass to the horizon.




We returned yesterday, an epic journey requiring three flights. As they say about certain parts of Arkansas, “It’s not in the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from there.” Our last flight was so short it could have easily been driven, from SFO (the main airport for San Francisco) to Monterey, about 60 air miles.

But that flight was worth it for sightseeing value alone. We flew out to the coast and followed Highway 1, California’s famous coastal highway, south over foaming surf and redwood forests, flying right over Santa Cruz’ lighthouse and the waters that Bruce swims in, then the patchwork mosaic of farmer’s fields around Watsonville and Salinas, some brown with newly tilled soil, others fecund and green.

Too soon, it was over.

We strode across the tarmac in the open air- boisterous and chilly and sunny with the aftermath of a departed storm, transiting the tiny airport in all of two minutes.

We drove home along the arc of Monterey Bay, exhausted and grateful to be home.

A deep sadness descended- returning home forlorn without my mother. I was weeping when I looked out at the gorgeous sky.


A Sign


In the billowing, voluminous clouds on a crystalline, sparkling day- something emerged in the far distance.


A sign in the clouds

A sign in the clouds


Zooming in with the camera, this is what Bruce and I saw.


Close up

Close up


It made me smile. I thought of the words in the beautiful book The Light Between Us by Laura Lynne Jackson:


The brilliant cords of love that connect us to someone in this life endure into the afterlife. And when we feel unbearable pain at the loss of a loved one, it is like we are tugging on that cord of love. The pain is real because the cord is real. Our love doesn’t end- it goes on.

-Laura Lynne Jackson


A friend who had suddenly lost her mother to a cardiac event, told me about how this book gave her and her father solace in their grief.




A story I’ll never forget was after the Winter Olympics of 1988. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a radiology resident at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and flying from San Francisco to Boston on a red eye flight, crying over the breakup of a relationship.

Around the time the plane was over Arkansas, Granny Pearl woke up mom and said: “Ernestine, something’s wrong with Nancy”. Mom wondered if granny was imagining this.

But at 7 am the next morning, mom’s phone rang, and I told her I was devastated and she said: “Granny told me last night something was wrong.” Mom was on the next flight to Boston. Her fierce love never wavering

We rented a car and travelled over four hundred miles to Washington, D.C. to see my dear friend Steven Hirschfeld.

Sometimes you count on your parents long after you consider yourself “grown up.”

Maybe nobody is ever entirely “grown up.”

Steven said eight words that transformed my experience from despair to hope:


The crocuses will still bloom in the spring.


Thirty three years later, I find myself with Bruce remembering his comforting words again.


Field of crocuses


A Winter Of Loss


In the span of five months in 2020 and 2021, we lost four beloved beings: Bruce’s father Wally, my aunt Betty, my daughter’s grandmother Herriot, as well as our beloved sixteen year old dog, Zelly.


The Life/Death/Life Cycle


We’ve been preaching change and transformation for years and now our beliefs are being put to the test.


Animal Spirits


On the third day after Bruce’s father, Wally, died, a cat appeared suddenly in my back yard as I was working in my studio. His back was facing me and he sat up like the Sphinx, contemplating the overgrown benign neglect of the backyard.


Cat showing up- The Crocuses Will Still Bloom- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

A cat shows up


I immediately sensed Wally, as he was a magnet for cats on his walks in the neighborhood, as is Bruce. He was a deeply kind man and animals and children could sense this even without words.

I smiled remembering this about him when suddenly, another cat appeared.

A blonde cat appears

A blonde cat appears


This one had a somewhat unusual appearance and a blonde coat.


Two cats at peace


It struck me that it is highly unusual for two cats unknown to one another to be in the same backyard. They didn’t fight. Perhaps they struck an uneasy truce.

Perhaps they were a sign from beyond- a visitation from animal spirits.

Whether you believe in animal spirits or not, the cats showed up, the first time we’ve ever seen this in years.

The scene was reminiscent of the story of Niels Bohr and the lucky horseshoe above his office door in Copenhagen, Denmark. When Prof Bohr was confronted with evidence of superstition, he said,


You know, it works whether you believe in it or not.

Niels Bohr


Lucky horseshoe


This morning, Nancy found an inspiring quote from a book by David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous, about the vast depth of sense and emotion predating and underlying language, the animal spirits all but invisible now.



Bruce, sensing familiarity, said, “Who’s that quote from!?”  It turns out the author had lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the same time that Bruce did, and that Bruce had attended a remarkable party to celebrate the publishing of said book.


Outdoor festive dinner


At an outdoor dining table for ten overlooking the sunset-flamed Sangre de Cristo mountains, it turned out that everyone was left-handed, precipitating a seating kerfuffle with a happy ending.

It was already clear something unusual was going on.


Sunset, Sangre de Cristo Mountains


The next surprise was the discovery that nobody owned a television.

Later in the evening, someone saw a towel draped over something inside the hostess’ living room and pulled it off with a magician’s “voilà!” tug to reveal something that looked very much like a television.

The hostess responded without hesitation, “That’s not a television, that’s a Star Trek Receiving Device.”


Things are not what they seem, especially when a new life is struggling to be born from the ruins of the old one.


First sprout


Return To Tomahawk


This land, this land of my ancestors, this land my mother called home…the land where Isaac Newton Keeling and Emmer Osborn Keeling raised 12 amazing children- 6 brothers on adjacent farms and 6 wonderful sisters, this place of 91 first cousins…

This place called Tomahawk- where the hours of my mother’s childhood unfolded… holds stories- stories heard, stories untold, stories lost.

But one story that threads through it all- is the story my mother loved to tell. Mother’s grandmother Emmer Osborn Keeling, a healer who people traveled for miles to see- Papa and Uncle Aaron’s beloved mother, sent us a message of love that survives the vagaries of life and time.

Emmer Osborn Keeling said:

I pray for all my family, for the future generations, for all the ones I will never meet. I send you my blessing.


In Gratitude To My Mother


Now, we return to where it all began, to my mother’s childhood home- to her beloved Tomahawk, surrounded by the love and stories of our ancestors.

The land calls us- speaking the names of the ones we love: Ernestine, Pearl, Ben, Paul Ray, Betty, Doy, Ethel, Aaron, Scott, Sean, Imy, Carol…Emmer Osborn, Isaac Newton…and many more.

My mother was born of the soil and water, the lilacs and the apple tree, the love of Ben and Pearl, the life and spirit of this place and she returns to it now.

When granny Pearl was dying, mother told me she felt a breeze in the room and Papa and Paul Ray appeared. Papa said: “Don’t worry honey, we’re here. We’ve come to take Pearl home”

I believe Papa and Granny and Paul Ray and all our ancestors were there to take mom home.

To my one and only beloved mother- Thank you for your steadfast and fierce love, for your wisdom and independent spirit, for your deep intuition, for the mischievous sparkle in your eyes, and for always being there for me and our family. The waterfall of your ebullient laughter lifts my spirit and lives in my heart.

Thank you for being the most wonderful mother a person could wish for. I love you with all my heart.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


In the midst of loss is hope. Art leads the way.





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