HE’S ALWAYS THERE
My glasses banged into the top of my nose as I fell flat on my face. The rough concrete stones crunched into my knees, and warm blood trickled out of my nose.
“Are you OK?” a male voice asked. “That was some fall.”
I couldn’t believe my ears – his voice was so familiar. These seven years after my beloved husband John passed away, he still follows me around. He has a special knack of appearing unexpectedly, especially in fragrant places.
I tried to answer and couldn’t speak. There was no air in my lungs. I wondered how many bones I’d broken falling onto the concrete path in the Japanese Garden in Seattle. And if I’d be able to get on the plane a few days later to return to India, where I was working? Painfully I rolled over onto one side.
Someone was stroking my hair. I hoped it was John.
“Mom, what did you do?” my daughter, Shelley asked. “Let me help you sit up.”
She gently lifted the glasses off my face. I was aware that my mind was in a state of semi-oblivion.
“The lenses are all scratched. Can you see at all?” Shelley entreated when I didn’t answer.
My eyes were wide open like a somnambulist. The pale, anxious faces of my two granddaughters slowly came into focus. Seven-year-old Danielle’s troubled eyes gazed into mine. Her younger sister Lia’s large blue eyes were wet with tears. I felt bad that I’d scared them. How could I tell them that I thought I’d seen their late Grandpa, sitting there on the bench – the very man who was now leaning over me?
I was conscious that my thinking was completely irrational, yet even the stranger’s voice shared John’s deep richness when he spoke. Such was the effect of my illusion.
“Can we help you to sit up?” the stranger interrupted my reverie.
“Just give me a few minutes,” I said lifting my head, as I got my breath back. “I’m winded but I think I’ll be OK.”
Slowly I stood up, leaning on Shelley’s arm with my left elbow and the stranger’s arm on my right. I couldn’t quite believe how gently he was touching my painful wrist. A wave of dizziness engulfed me as my heart thumped away. I was in a kind of waking chimera. Yet I let myself dream on to see where it would take me. My imagination carried me into a wild hypothesis.
“He’s back… he’s back…he’s back,” my internal voice repeated. I felt so bewildered. My stomach churned as bile oozed into my mouth.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I chastised myself, “John died over a year ago!”
My granddaughters, normally chattering and giggling, were quiet, so I guessed I looked a bit blue and bloody. My knees throbbed and my palms burnt where the skin had scraped off.
I pondered how much longer I was going to keep projecting my grief onto strangers. And why did I keep seeing John in so many places? As my head cleared, I became aware that Shelley was talking to me.
“Mom, it’s good that you can walk, so you haven’t broken anything,” she said hugging me. “Here, hold on to me.”
Befuddled I staggered forward and then slumped onto the nearest bench. My head still felt heavy from the effects of my fall and the extraordinary fantasy, which I couldn’t banish from my mind.
“I can’t believe I’m so clumsy,” I said holding a tissue under my nose to soak up the blood. “I guess I just missed that step. “
I was so insincere. What I really wanted to say was that I’d thought the stranger was my dead husband. I didn’t want to disclose the fact that I still clung to the hope that he’d come back to me. How excited I’d been to see him. The loss was excruciating as my aching chest closed up. Was this the agony John had experienced as the asbestos fibers had nibbled away at the lining of his lungs? It was as if my unrestrained metaphysical pain was embedding itself into my bruised body. I smiled weakly.
“I’m glad you’re OK,” the man said letting go of my arm as he eased his large, warm hand off my wrist.
He was tall, and the corners of his mouth curled up gently. His brown eyes were full of concern. I stared down at his shoes. The very same tan moccasins with tassels that John used to wear. In fact he was so very much like John. But the cold reality was that it was a stranger, and John was not there. My throat burnt as I swallowed my despair.
“Thank you for helping. I’m so sorry to have disturbed you,” I added, wishing he could stay a bit longer.
He nodded and walked back to the bench where he’d been sitting, and casually hung his arm over the shoulder of the woman he’d left there when he’d rushed to help me.
That couple had no clue that they’d been the cause of my fall. When I’d walked along the path on that chilly spring day, the scene of this loving middle-aged couple sitting on the bench had overcome me. They looked so much like John and me. The fragrant pines and spring blooms had brought back so many sensuous memories – of walks in gardens and forests, and generous kisses enveloped with the bouquet of pungent wild mushrooms and rhododendrons. I’d even felt John’s broad hands touching the skin under my sweater. The vision was so real, so much so that I’d not noticed the stair and stumbled flat onto my face. It was as though his presence threw me down on the concrete path. How much longer would I keep getting so upset?
As I shuffled to the car, I started to laugh. A silly nervous giggle, trying to disguise the pain of my folly. The harsh fact was that it was three months after the first anniversary of John’s death, and I was still struggling to believe he was gone for good. The joyous fragrance of spring evaporated. Purple and pink blooms faded away. The garden seemed stark and bare.
“What happened to you? “ Shelley asked softly as she eased me onto the front seat of the car. She looked at me strangely. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
I wished I could tell her I had. My imagination, kindled by the sweet breath of spring, had tugged me into an emotional turmoil. My mind had raced down a nonsensical fantasy. Normally a rational, logical person, I was scared that I might be “losing it.” I’d also always tried to shield my kids from pain – theirs and mine, and I found it hard to open up to her then. Bemoaning my fate was not going to help anyone, and I didn’t want to further upset the girls. To assure her, my granddaughters and myself, I kissed them and pronounced that I was going to be fine. Yet I worried how I would ever convince myself that John would never be back.
Later, at her home, Shelley pampered me with painkillers, arnica and ice. As I sank into the pillows, loamy, evocative spring smells returned uninvited, clinging to lining of my nostrils. Distraught, I fell asleep listening to young bluebell stems crunching under my back as John nuzzled into my neck. Tears welled around my puffy eyes as reality chased away those precious memories.
The following morning I woke to find Shelley sitting on my bed holding out a cup of tea.
“Thought this might do you good,” she smiled. “How are you feeling now?
I sat up to take a sip.
“My ankle still looks blue,“ I replied pushing my leg out from under the duvet. “But the swelling seems to have gone down. I guess a sound sleep along with your amazing treatment has done me good. What does my face look like?” I continued gently touching my nose.
“Well, you’re no picture painting,” Shelley laughed. “Do you feel OK to get up? The girls are dying to show you how well they jump rope.”
I gingerly eased myself out of bed, and couldn’t help but worry as to why I floated so tenaciously between acknowledging that John was still somewhere close to me, and accepting the reality of his death. I closed my eyes, and saw myself scattering his ashes on a blustery March afternoon on a hilltop near Bolton in England, where he’d grown up. The sticky flakes blew back into my face and clung onto my moist lips as I threw his soul up into the cloudy sky.
I could taste his salty, charred body all over again. I needed to remember that final ceremony. Fantasy needed to be banished if I were to begin moving forward, even if it was only one step at a time.
After breakfast, the floor vibrated with life as I swung the rope for my energetic granddaughters to jump over. There was so much vitality and laughter around me. It was up to me to invite that energy back inside my body.
“Here, let me have a go,” I laughed, as they squealed with delight.
I could still jump on one leg, and my healthy ankle joined in the fun. No one was more surprised than I was.
“You know Mom, you’ve been doing so well since John passed on,” Shelley said hugging me. “But please try to be more careful.”
“Thanks for always being there for me,“ I replied tearfully.
I realized that the loss of John had penetrated my very being far more savagely than I was prepared to recognize. Perhaps moving to India instead of sitting night after night in the mute living room of our London home, hadn’t given me the time to grieve. Yet, what was once our warm, cuddly sofa had far too much space for me on my own. I just couldn’t sit there day after day missing John, wondering if he would ever be back.
Only last summer I took Danielle, now eleven, on a hike up to Twin Falls, near Seattle.
“Lets go down to the river,” she shouted, as she hopped from log to log.
I’d sensed John there with me amongst the aromatic firs, and forgot to concentrate on my footing. I heard the sound of my muscle tearing as I tripped over a boulder and again twisted my ankle. Danielle came rushing back up to me.
“Gran, are you OK or would you like to go back?” she asked concerned.
“I think I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” I responded tentatively, angry with myself that I’d been so careless, and upset that my loss was still, at times, so painful. The powerful memories of my time together with John still barged into my heart uninvited.
Danielle smiled broadly, when she heard my reply. Her braces reflected the sunlight squeezing in between the trees.
Her small hand pulled me up to standing and I wiped the mud off my jeans. My ankle bore my weight with some discomfort. I could still walk, albeit slowly, so at least it wasn’t broken.
“How come you always seem to keep falling?” Danielle asked as we carried on up the path.
How could I tell her that I still see her Grandpa in so many places, and still fall flat in so many ways? Yet she so often seemed to be there to help me up. I’d reconciled myself to the fact that I was strong enough to pick myself up when the going was tough. But I also acknowledged that I needed help and support around me to do that. Lively grandchildren and a loving family were a key ingredient in the journey back to life.
Coming to terms with the loss of my beloved husband has been complicated by a steadfast belief that John would return. I haven’t stopped looking for auspicious signs that might lead me back to him. Strangely, that has helped me enjoy John even though he’s gone. I’m now able to share things with him that I know he’d relish. During a vacation to France I had the audacity to invite him to our special tearoom in Paris, and ordered his favorite patisserie – a ‘napoleon’ cake consisting of puff pastry interlaid with a rich custard filling. With each bite, I could feel him licking his lips with joy. Somehow he’s always with me.