"Looks like this tree could use some water."
I looked over at my neighbor, standing 30 feet away, beside the cypress tree my former boyfriend, Denver, had planted the previous spring. His words echoed and rolled slowly across the lawn that divided us. My hands tingled, and I clasped them together to keep them from shaking.
"It's OK, really. It's a deciduous variety, there won't be leaves on it for a month or so."
My voice sounded as if it were projecting from somewhere outside my body, hollow and distant, but the man standing next to the bare branches didn't seem to notice. We hadn't spoken more than a few short greetings in the six months he'd lived next-door to me, and he'd never before expressed any interest whatsoever in my landscaping.
I'd recently become engaged to a man I loved deeply and wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Mark's bright blue eyes and deep sexy voice had attracted me from the first. His down-to-earth, calm exterior hid a warmly passionate nature, and his boyish sense of humor had won over the harshest of critics, my two daughters, whom I'd raised on my own for seven years. Our wedding was set for June, and I'd been methodically moving my possessions to Mark's home, leaving my house nearly devoid of furnishings.
So, why, on this beautiful spring Sunday, were my thoughts dwelling incessantly on a man I thought I'd put firmly where he belonged, in the category of 'past imperfect'? I'd awoken that morning nestled in Mark's arms, at his house. The restless feeling had hit almost immediately after my first cup of coffee. Our usual routine of rising early to linger over the Sunday morning paper, listening to music, was disrupted by my agitated mood.
"I've got to get out of here. I'm going to take a walk."
"Is something wrong -- what is it?" Mark's confusion mirrored my own.
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"I don't know. I just need to be alone."
Three miles later, I was still just as upset. I'd spent the entire distance forcing myself to stay away from Denver's house, which was, ironically, just a few blocks away from Mark's dwelling. I kept up a running commentary in my head as to why I couldn't possibly go visit my former lover, the most compelling being, of course, consideration for Mark's feelings. Then there was the very real possibility that Denver had company, as he usually didn't like to be alone on a Saturday night.
I walked briskly, hands shoved in my pockets, head down. An intense feeling of loneliness pervaded my being, despite the extraordinarily loving man who awaited me at home. Mark and I had met at a time when I was still healing from the intense relationship I'd shared with Denver. We'd now been together a year, and planned to marry in a few months.
Denver was tall, dark, handsome, charming -- and an alcoholic. We'd dated for three years of heavenly highs and dungeon-like lows. It was as if two men occupied the same body. The non-drinker was loving, considerate, compassionate, a gentle lover, and giving friend. The drinker was rude, obnoxious, obscene, inconsiderate, reckless, unfaithful, and mean. I'd fallen in love with 'my Denver'. My heart had been torn apart by the drinking Denver.
When he wasn't drinking, Denver's motto in life was 'Protect and Serve'. He'd shown his concern for me in countless ways during our relationship. When I made an off-hand remark about wanting a fireplace insert in my new home, he found a used one, hauled it, and installed it within a week. The following weekend, he showed up with a load of firewood, and we spent an afternoon splitting and stacking the bounty for the coming winter.
Planting trees wherever he found a likely, sunny space was another of his endearing idiosyncrasies. My yard was a testament to his love of nature. He'd planted two apple trees outside my kitchen window, so I could enjoy their beauty as I washed dishes. A dogwood and a redbud stood in alignment behind the fuller silhouettes of a white pine and blue spruce in front of the house. The cypress graced a once barren spot next to the driveway. That tree held a special place in my heart. He'd planted it after we'd decided to go our separate ways.
"I'm just glad it has a happy home", he'd replied when I'd called him, after pulling in my driveway and finding it taking root there.
His generous nature extended to anyone who needed a helping hand. A lot of our fights originated from his penchant for dropping everything and going to rescue various females who would call at all hours of the day or night in need of his assistance. He would assure me the other women were just friends and I tried hard to believe him.
Back from my walk, I'd used the excuse of mowing my lawn at my home a few miles distant, as a way to get some more solitude, but the four kids, ages 9 to 13, had tagged along. The kids voices bounced against the empty walls as they chased each other, uncharacteristically rowdy and screaming, through the rooms.
"Kids! Take it outside, please!"
They headed down to the fields which bordered the subdivision, and I sat on the wooden porch-steps to pull on my decrepit, stained mowing shoes.
It was then that my perception of reality was forever altered. When I stood up from tying the laces, the world around me was off-kilter. The sky was still blue, but now it glowed vividly, like a slide from one of those old View-finder toys I'd had as a little girl. Every branch of each tree stood out and shone with its own energy, a pulsating aura around each quivering leaf. The blades of grass were at once singular, and merged with the shimmering emerald carpet under my feet. I shook my head and blinked a few times, but the sensation remained. I could hear my blood pulsing through my veins, and I leaned over, gripping my knees and breathing deeply. It didn't help.
I was still standing in my front yard. The wide veranda stretched solidly across the front of my ranch style house to my right, and the neighbor had just commented on the bare cypress tree across the yard. But the feeling was one of seeing with a different set of eyes, hearing with a different set of ears.
My body had gone into overdrive, picking up sights, sounds and smells with thousands of times their usual acuity. Everything around me seemed to vibrate with a higher frequency, and somehow I was able to be a part of it, yet separate at the same time, observing, and participating simultaneously.
With this hyper-awareness, mowing that newly vibrant grass would have been akin to slicing off the fingers of a newborn baby. I mumbled a goodbye to the neighbor, stumbled up the stairs and into the house. Something made me lock all of the doors, even though I knew the kids were outside, playing. I went in my bedroom and shut and locked that door, as well. I glanced at the clock by my bed. It was exactly 2 p.m. on March 16, 1997.
Then it hit me. A force of energy, centered underneath my ribcage, in the middle of my stomach. I'd never felt anything like it before, and haven't since.
"I need to call Denver."
I sat on the edge of the bed and buried my head in my hands. The energy surged through me, starting where it had begun, then rolling in waves to the top of my head, back down to the tips of my toes, then returning to my midsection.
"What is wrong with me?" My whisper was barely audible.
I paced around my bedroom, tears rolling unchecked down my cheeks. I went into my bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Seeing the sight I presented in the mirror, eyes wild, face flushed, hair falling in tendrils from a messy ponytail, I muttered nonsensically, 'What would Denver say if he could see me now'?
I paced the bedroom again, frantic, the energy still surging through my midsection.
"I want my life back!"
The words poured out of my mouth, yet I hadn't formed them in my head. I pulled off my engagement ring and threw it on the dresser. The feeling of relief was almost palpable. It was like someone was saying, "That's a girl. Now you understand."
The pulsating energy which had filled my midsection left as quickly as it had appeared, but the sensation of unreality didn't. I curled up in a fetal position on my bed, staring blankly at the bare wall. Time ceased to exist. I lay there motionless, all thoughts inexplicably focused on my former love.
A distant pounding broke me out of my trance-like state. Disoriented, I sat up and looked at the bedside clock. Over an hour had passed since I first cloistered myself in my bedroom.
I opened the front door of the house to see my daughters, and Mark's daughter and son, standing on the front porch. My girls looked concerned, Mark's kids just confused.
"Mom, why'd you lock the door?"
"I'm thirsty, got any pop?"
About then, Mark pulled his Chevy Blazer into the driveway. Immediately, he knew something was not right.
"What's wrong. What can I do?"
Mark's gentle inquiry led me into a torrent of tears.
"I can't marry you, Mark. The wedding is off."
"But why? I love you. Please don't do this."
"I don't know, I don't know why. I just can't!"
He pulled me into a tight hug, and the feel of his comforting embrace only added to my confusion. I loved him so much, but something inside me was crying out in pain and heart-wrenching sorrow.
Twenty-four hours passed. I'd gone to work, lost in my own turmoil of thoughts, my ring finger still conspicuously bare. If my co-workers were unusually quiet around me, I didn't notice.
The phone was ringing as I unlocked the door of my house. It sat on the floor in the empty living room, in front of the fireplace insert Denver had installed. I answered it to find one of my friends on the line.
"Sue, this is Patty. I didn't want to say anything at work, but, did you see the paper this morning?
A cold chill slowly worked its way up my spine, spreading out to claim the space in my mid-section where the mysterious energy had emanated the day before.
"No, Patty. I cancelled the paper here. What is it?"
"Oh, Sue, I'm so sorry. It was in the paper this morning." She paused. "It's Denver. He was killed, in a car accident, yesterday afternoon. At 2 p.m."
Day darkened into evening as I sat cross-legged in the middle of my empty living room, the phone still cradled in my lap. Now, it all made tragic sense. My agitation on Sunday morning must have been caused by a premonition of Denver's accident. Why hadn't I heeded the nearly overwhelming feeling, and actually gone to see him yesterday? Would my visit have prevented the accident?
Then, the other-worldly perception I'd experienced. It had coincided exactly with the time of his passing, three miles away. Was the surge of energy I felt actually Denver's soul, saying goodbye? Had Denver been speaking through me when I'd blurted out the words, "I want my life back"? The sense of relief I'd felt immediately afterwards, to words I had no reason to utter, made it appear to be so.
Mark proved the depth of his love when he helped me grieve for the man who had preceded him in my heart. In the weeks following that Sunday in March, I cried in his arms for the good-hearted man who'd been lost. I prayed he would find peace from the addictions which had plagued him on this earth.
Thankfully, no alcohol had been in his system on that afternoon. His companion in the car that day said that he had suddenly just slumped over the wheel. That is how he lost control of the car and crashed. A heart attack, not drunken driving, killed him.
On a beautiful day in June, just days before my wedding, I looked out my kitchen window one last time. That was when I saw it: a perfect bouquet of apple blossoms topped one of the apple trees Denver had planted for me two springs before. No blooms appeared anywhere else on either tree, just this crown of white blossoms on a tree whose blooming season had long since passed. Tears pricked my eyes as I whispered, "Thanks, Denver."
Over two years have passed now, and Mark and I grow more deeply in our love everyday. I know Mark is the man I was meant to marry, and we have been blessed many times over in our union. I've grown in my understanding of spirituality since that March day in 1997. The experience unleashed an unquenchable curiosity about all things spiritual. I know I will spend the rest of my life with the certainty of life after death, and the eternal soul.
A few days ago, I had occasion to stop by and visit with the couple who'd bought my house. I couldn't help but marvel at the trees Denver planted there. The apple trees now stand taller than the roof. The cypress is vigorous and healthy, and all of the trees in the front yard look as if they've been a part of the landscape forever.
I remembered something he'd said once, when he'd been sweating over a shovel, digging a hole for the dogwood. "The reason I plant trees? They'll be here, long after we are dead and gone. I like the thought of that."
Now you know better, don't you, friend?
Copyright Susan M. Fawcett, September 1999
Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse
by Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge.
About The Author
The above is a true event which is Susan Fawcett's own personal experience. Susan began writing in earnest six months ago, when she began work on her first novel, "Mallard Bay", which has not been published yet. She's begun her second novel, a metaphysical romance based in part on her spiritual transformation after Denver's passing. She can be reached by email at [email protected]