Katie Phillips couldn’t tell you the names of all the flowers in the garden she’s grown between her house and her neighbor’s.
“I go to Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart — wherever I’m looking for plants — and when I see something I like, something Tracy would like, I get it. I tell people, ‘I pick pretty,’” Phillips said.
An unseasonably cool breeze wafts a perfume up from the garden — English lavender and jasmine get the top notes, but Phillips said the garlic planted here and there sometimes gives off its unmistakable scent, too.
In this garden, Phillips said she feels calm. And she remembers her daughter, Tracy Phillips Flax, as she turns dirt and waters the plants.
Tracy Flax was 48 and had recently retired from the U.S. Air Force and moved to Krum with her husband, Steve Flax — known to family and friends as Opie, thanks to his red hair. Tracy wanted to be closer to her parents. Her father, a career Air Force man named Johnnie, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Her mother, Katie, is still managing a rare form of cancer. Tracy wanted to help her parents transition into their golden years while beautifying the property around her home in Krum.
Then, while checking her mail near the road on FM1173 on May 13, 2017, a man driving a pickup drifted onto the shoulder. He hit Tracy, and she died later that day from her injuries.
The Phillipses were a typical military family. Johnnie, Katie and Tracy lived all over the world during Johnnie’s service. In Oslo, Norway, Johnnie remembers his daughter showing an aptitude for leadership — she even took on the construction of a softball field for the children in the community, not just the children on base. Tracy’s organization, follow-through and pluck so charmed the general on the base that he offered to recommend her for a spot at the Air Force Academy. Usually, academy hopefuls need a raft of recommendations and a congressional nomination. A general’s recommendation would be meaningful.
“She came to us and she told us that she didn’t want anything to do with the Air Force,” Johnnie said.
Tracy changed her mind after a while, waking her parents at 3 a.m. one day to ask them to accompany her to a recruitment office.
“We told her, ‘Absolutely,’” Johnnie said.
And when their daughter was given the option of officer training school as a recruit?
“She didn’t want to do that, either,’” Johnnie said. “She told us she wanted to be enlisted and understand their experience. She wanted to be part of it with them instead of doing officer training.”
Tracy had a successful military career, and Katie remembers her daughter’s careful memory for Air Force regulations. Once, when a ranking officer dressed her down in a parking lot for failure to salute, Tracy challenged her superior.
“She told him, ‘I see a captain out of uniform, and I’m not required to address him,’” Katie recalled. “He didn’t understand, and she told him that he wasn’t covered. ‘Your hat isn’t on your head,’ she told him. ‘It’s on your belt loop.’”
Johnnie said the captain put his cap on his head and immediately got the salute he was after.
Tracy applied her studies and understanding of military regulations to her fellow soldiers, helping them get their medical benefits and walking them through what can sometimes be a mystifying bureaucracy. Her parents still tear up remembering how their daughter got a burger and fries for an unkempt veteran who was sitting on the floor at the Dallas VA hospital. Tracy didn’t merely get him a meal, they said. She left him with an appointment to apply for a job training program and a veterans information line to help him better understand his benefits.
She even helped get her father use his military benefits to get a van equipped to tote his scooter. Before her death, Tracy helped found a local women’s veterans chapter.
“She and Opie were the kind of people that would help people,” Katie said. “Opie still does it. He really likes volunteering.”
Tracy raised two children, Jonathan and Nina, with her husband. Jonathan is in the military, and Nina’s husband-to-be is in the armed forces.
Katie said the months after the couple buried their daughter were dark. Tracy was their only child. She was a joyful surprise to parents who thought they were infertile. Katie pointed to Johnnie, who studied his folded hands and listened to his wife describe their grief.
“This one went to bed. He said he wanted to die,” she said. “I had to be the strong one for a change. I told him he wasn’t going to die on me. He wasn’t going to die on my watch. You never understand how much a child is part of your life until they aren’t there anymore.”
The garden outside their door was the result of Katie’s memories of her daughter.
“When they bought that house [in Krum], Tracy wanted to plant flowers,” Katie said. “She went and bought plants.”
A short time afterward, Katie said her daughter showed up at her mother’s door, bawling and asking her mother what color her thumb was. The plants had all died. Katie took her daughter to a garden center and they bought more plants.
“I never dug so many holes in my life, and Opie was working so hard,” she said.
But with patience and her mother’s skill for plants, the property blossomed. Each Friday, Tracy would pick her mother up and they’d hit the thrift stores to buy yard art. They even made a planter out of a 100-year-old butter churn Katie bought when they were living in Turkey. One whole side of the house was all dressed up in ‘Knockout’ roses.
Katie smiles at the memories and confesses that she’s only once had the strength to visit her daughter’s house since the family bid farewell to Tracy at a packed military funeral. Opie always picks up the phone when his in-laws call, Johnnie said, and he’s quick to drive to their home when they need a hand.
Katie started Katie’s memorial garden as a sort of spiritual practice. The Phillipses put tables, chairs and a bench in the small space. Bird feeders are carefully placed near plants, and the basket of a bright blue bicycle is overflowing with trailing blooms and a garlic plant, its gray-green leaves poking straight up like tiny swords. Judy Moody, who lives next door, said neighbors visit nearly daily.
“They come out here to meditate,” Moody said. “It’s really peaceful. I think it’s just beautiful.”
Katie said that when new residents move into the gated retirement community off Spencer Road, she introduces herself and invites them to use the garden.
Johnnie said his wife is probably in the garden about five hours a day — sitting or working in it in the morning and evening. On Mother’s Day, Katie said, she and her husband might enjoy one of their daughter’s favorite meals.
“We’ll laugh. And we’ll cry,” she said. “I just love being out there. I feel Tracy’s arms around me. It might sound crazy, but that’s how I feel. I feel Tracy is out there.”