As soon as Stella stepped outside into the fresh morning, her lungs thanked her. The crisp scent of morning dew being kissed awake by the sun invaded every fiber within her; you can’t bottle that, she thought. She stood still and inhaled, wondering how she had ignored it like an ostrich with its head buried in the sand and walked past the glittering dew crowning the rose petals.
She unlocked the door to the shed; she hadn’t been inside it for years. She had had a man who did the cutting and pruning, spraying, and weeding. For ten years, she had missed out on the playful sunlight, which tickled the sleepy clematis, the poppies that danced like graceful nymphs in the gentle breeze. She had missed everything, despite her eyes being wide open.
Inside the dimly lit shed, she looked for gloves, nippers, and a bucket. Her gardener, she smiled indulgently at his memory, had quit by dying. This was the first chance she had to rectify his neglect. She rummaged in an old dresser and found a pair of disintegrating vinyl gloves, next to a package of rough men’s gloves. Everything smelled of earth and the vapors of gasoline.
“These will have to do,” she mumbled into the dimness.
The nippers, the small spade, the hoe, and rake were neatly pegged to the wall. Tidiness was his signature. Armed and out under the sunlight, she had to squint to catch her bearing. This is what she had denied herself. All of the essentials of life: sunlight, nature, serenity, and love. And for what? So that her manicure wouldn’t get ruined? That she wouldn’t freckle? She wheeled the wagon toward the front of the house—as good a place as any to start.
For the last ten years, she danced to the tune of a hectic life. But according to the gospel of being successful, she had done it right. To starve the stresses of her demanding career, she attended yoga classes in a posh studio five times a week. Her body had morphed into a limber and sinewy shape, the rewards for diligence and commitment. Her bank account, on the other hand, had fattened up. Sadly, she hadn’t had a moment to enjoy.
A chickadee bathed in the dry dirt while its spouse watched. As clear as a bell, the sound of chirping birds made her stop to listen. Despite everything, including the tragedy, life went about its ceaseless cycle. Her first chore was to attack the ornamental shrubs. They resembled the bearded men lounging in the barbershop in need of a trim, a razor up the back of their necks. She loved the symmetry of these plants. They had become the Zen balance to her once chaotic life. Of course, there was also the big demanding sky; she was afraid to look it in the eye.
A light bulb moment: this is the tadasana they teach you in yoga.
She heard the sound of a car engine hum, the sound of the world waking; a barking dog. How often had he asked her to come outside and inspect his work? On most occasions, she’d been too preoccupied. Sometimes, to humour the sadness that flickered in his grey eyes, she consented and graced his effort with a ten-second inspection.
“Looks nice,” she’d say. Impatient to coddle the documents, numbers, and stats spread out on her desk. Looks nice; was all she had had to say.
Stella looked at the boxwood he had shaped into a heart. She remembered the day he had surprised her; she had had a meeting with a vast conglomerate; he had wished her good luck.
“That’s nice, dear. Gotta run.” She had kissed the morning stubble on his cheek. He had waited on the paving stone driveway until she was out of sight.
The heart, or what remained of it, had outgrown itself and looked more like a kidney. Stella knelt and ran her fingers through the tender green shoots; the trunk, which would have yielded to his gentle yet sometimes brutal touch, was solid.
“I miss you,” she said
In that instant, her eyes glossed over like a porcelain doll who saw nothing with its enormous orbs, always staring, never seeing. When she blinked, a salted teardrop splashed.
All along, there’d been no signs. Then again, maybe she had missed the breadcrumb clues. He had become a blur in her periphery. He said he’d been working out, a reasonable explanation for his weight loss.
“Not now, darling, I have these documents, these....” Those words were her excuse; now she understood she cheated on him with spreadsheets, accountants, and CEOs.
By then, the children left for college and had morphed into adults. Like hummingbirds, they zoomed in and out of her life. Their father had always been the feeder they returned to.
While clipping away, she discovered the shape of the heart among the wayward limbs in the greenery. It was there among the pieces that kept on growing despite the neglect. Without knowing, his disease had grown too. At times his incessant cough, just a dry tickle during the night, annoyed her.
“Can’t you take something?” She’d roll over and punch the pillow, anger blanketing her frustration.
He took something. He took his pillow and extra blanket from the linen closet and slept on the spare bed or the sofa downstairs.
Satisfied with her progress, Stella dragged the back of her hand across the beads of sweat itching her forehead.
While he coughed, she flew from meeting to meeting. Often boarding a plane twice a day, always a garment bag, a briefcase, she knew the pilot and the flight attendants by name.
Somewhere along the way, he picked up the annoying habit of habitually hoisting his slacks, his jeans, which slipped over his slim hips: incessantly.
“For god’s sake, get a belt.” She had barked at him on those rare occasions when they had time together and were attending a cocktail party, an obligatory office party.
Stella stabbed the dark dirt beneath the mulch. A wayward dandelion was taking up squatter’s rights in the flowerbed. She knew she had to dig deep and eradicate the root, or they’d multiply and always be a problem. Although she remembered that she had loved them as a child as the underdog for their lovely yellow beard.
Maybe I should get a dog? To keep me company, ease my loneliness. Funny how one stray thought led to another.
She had lost track of time; the only warning message that crossed the soft lawn of her garden was a gurgle in her stomach. Since he died, she hadn’t been eating well, despite knowing that he would want her to. Regardless of what time of day or night, he’d always come softly into the den and surprise her with his market finds: cherries in July, peaches in August, cheese imported from France, and which she ate absent-mindedly.
“You should eat something.” He always delivered his offering with an encouraging smile. She missed the soft hand hovering over her shoulder—the gentle kiss on the top of her head.
He had even spared her the cruelty of finding his body. Sadly it was the postman who rang twice and didn’t get an answer. The postman found it curious that James didn’t come to the door. Like a couple, the postman and James had an understanding. Tragically, the postman saw the blur of unmoving color on the other side of the frosted glass pane.
Stiff from kneeling, she righted herself and stretched. Everyone had given her the same advice: stay busy, allow the passage of time to heal your grief. Hollow words that meant nothing. Grief, she learned, was a passage and a ritual without a map.
Maybe she shouldn’t have, but she resigned from her position. Once the procession of funeral details and estate settling was behind her, she stood in her grand home, and slowly the pieces she had so desperately clung to fluttered to the ground.
She had come undone. She had utterly, unlovingly, failed her husband. A burden she would drag through eternity.
The children moored to their own grief, drifted on the strong currents of youth to the safety of their own lives, leaving her with the promises of, “I’ll call, I’ll write, I love you.” A weekly conversation strained because the devastating loss had taken the one parent who had been there for them.
But she could live. He would want that more than anything. And if there was one commitment she could keep, she’d listen to his whispers now. She would stop and smell the roses and eat something. And after lunch, she might even practice barefoot yoga on the lawn. He would find it funny that she was finally listening.
“Coming, James.” With a bashful glance at the sky, she murmured into the breeze as it caressed the curve of her damp neck, just as he used to.
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