This article was first published on the website of the “Grief Project” located in St. Paul, Minnesota. The story is about the sudden death of my fifty-four year old husband and what I did to make sense of my life in the months and years that followed.
Finding my loving, fifty-four year old husband without breath lying in our bed—a bed we shared for twenty-eight years—shattered my life into tiny pieces like a jig saw puzzle scattered on the floor. During the tumbling pain of the first year without him, I never thought I’d live to see the July sweet corn tassels waving in the summer breeze. Several years later, watching the cornrows fly by the car window as I drove to church one Sunday, the thought that I was still alive and walking on this earth amazed me.
His July funeral had passed over me like a distant fog, silent and dense, leaving me with a solitude I hated. I remember the July 4th parade my sister dragged me to the day after the funeral, both of us trying to live a normal life, pushing the emptiness away. The scream of the paramedic sirens that kicked the parade off triggered images of the night he died. As clowns strutted down the parade route handing out candy to the children and bands blared their songs of celebration, I stood on the cracked sidewalk in tears wanting to run away and never come back. To be with my husband, that’s all I wanted. Unlike George Gershwin’s “Summertime” song where the “livin’ is easy,” living through that first summer, the months and years that followed were the most difficult journey I had ever taken.
As I struggled through each season of the first year alone without my husband, memories of our life together rolled over me from one day into the next. Fall was John’s favorite season. The changing leaves reminded me of the autumn walks we shared hand-in-hand and fall bon fires with the golden and roasted marshmallows we twirled in the evening fire. As flashes of our life together flew through my mind, I realized my life had changed forever and John was never coming back.
Facing my first Christmas alone, I tried to hang on to some of our traditions. With the help of my loving sister, I forced myself to put up a tree. Among the branches, I scattered a few of the ornaments John and I had given each other over the years and draped gold garland along the tree’s boughs. Celebrating Christmas Eve with my sister’s family, I longed to feel my husband’s body nestled next to me on the couch and hear his contagious laugh as we opened gifts. With the room filled with the crackle of festive wrapping paper and voices bouncing with excitement, all I felt was the emptiness of my life. Without John, my life was like the opened gift boxes torn and tattered in the middle of the living room floor.
When the spring tulips poked their heads through the moist late April soil, memories of my husband continued to bombard me. Accepting that he was never coming back, I struggled to accept my “single life.” I looked forward to the first year of grief to be over, hoping my life would be back to normal by then. On June 30, 2001 —the first anniversary of his death—alone I drove to the cemetery. I cleaned off the marker with both our names on it, and arranged the bouquet of carnations in the grave vase. Sitting on the grass covering his grave, I stroked the smooth marble stone and cried, asking God to help me go on alone.
As the summer months rolled by, I continued to pray and talk to God, asking for guidance. One day while walking alone in the yard, I spotted the perfect place for a memorial garden. Over the next several weeks, I pulled weeds, dumped fresh soil into the special spot and planted an assortment of John’s favorite perennials. I bought a small, gray birdbath on sale at Fleet Farm along with a bench that required “some assembly”. After several hours of rereading directions over and over, I tightened the last screw on the bench and set it upright beside the garden.
It’s thirteeen years since John died and the memorial garden continues to bring me peace and comfort. Happy to be alive, I often sit on the bench faded and worn from the long, bitter Minnesota winters. Feeling John’s presence, I immerse my soul in the lush vegetation and beautiful flowers. Each visit I make to the garden, I reread the inscription on the stone I was drawn to in a local garden shop. Its message, I Heard Your Voice in the Garden, assures me John will live in my heart forever.
Updated: July 19, 2013