Recently, I came across a photo online, one I have seen before but which took on a whole new meaning to me when I saw it this time. Sometimes referred to as the “tree that ate a bicycle”, the image shows a tree on Washington’s Vashon Island that seems to envelop a long-forgotten bike.
The stories differ on how it actually got there (and there is at least one fabricated tale that it was left behind by a boy who went to war and never returned), but that matters little to this story. Looking at that image, it occurred to me that it quite accurately represents grief and how one might cope after losing someone they love.
Here I am, about 17 months in, and my life continues on. Many tears have been shed, many changes have occurred, and there have even been many reasons to celebrate. Our life, on the other hand, stopped when my husband’s heart stopped beating. There will be no new memories made with A by my side. Any new experiences I have will be mine, not ours. Even now, this is a very strange feeling for me.
Hurricane Irma recently blew through Florida, as you likely know. While my kids stayed here to ride it out together, I was off making some of those new memories. Although the trip had been planned well in advance of Irma’s impending arrival, it still felt somewhat off to board the plane that day leaving them behind. Thankfully, they all made it through with little more than a few lost shingles and downed tree branches. We (they) were fortunate enough to not even lose power for more than a blip or two. It certainly made my trip more enjoyable as I knew I wasn’t off enjoying myself while they suffered in the heat without air conditioning.
Although I specifically made the trip for a surprise 50th birthday party for an “old” friend (it was 80s theme, causing me to dress in my best 80s fashion, crimped hair and all, and although I was aiming for Demi Moore a la Jules in St. Elmo’s Fire, I ended up looking more like Dee Snyder on a job interview), I was fortunate to have spent time with a good number of friends both at that party and in the days following. Much of my visit included going out to breakfast, lunch or dinner (resulting in at least one stomach poke from my mother warning that I would need to diet when I got home), but there was also a day trip to the casino, and an overnight visit to Martha’s Vineyard.
A dear friend (from pre-elementary school, if memory serves – it just seems as if I’ve “always” known her) lives on the island and has been asking me for years to visit, but the timing has never seemed to allow it. This time, however, we made plans well in advance (and she even arranged a ride for me – how could I say no?), and four of us piled into another friend’s vehicle and off we went on our little adventure.
Three of us in the vehicle had known each other since around kindergarten, although I hadn’t seen R for possibly 35 years or more! And one of my earliest memories of the driver, M, was from kindergarten when I asked my mother if I could get off the school bus at a friend’s house. She told me “no”, but that same day I got off at M’s house – Mom hadn’t said “no” to that, you know – and needlessly worried my mother when I didn’t get off at my own stop as I was supposed to. Fortunately, M’s mom called my mother who came to get me with stern words and quite likely a spanking, as well. The fourth passenger, D, became a new friend rather quickly, and after joining the hostess, the five of us shared good food and many laughs around the island.
The hostess, G, had me feeling like a celebrity as soon as we arrived. As we sat in her dining room to enjoy the turkey dinner she had waiting for us (yes – an entire turkey dinner!), she looked across the table and exclaimed, “After all these years talking online, I can’t believe you’re sitting across my table from me! I can’t believe you’re here! Cheri’s here!” (I admit, it felt really good to feel that wanted.)
G and her husband share a home with six (yes, 6!) large “lapdogs”. Although each weighs
at least 75 pounds, I imagine, they all think nothing of trying to curl up on the laps of any two-legged friend who passes through the door. Although at least two of the gentle giants smelled faintly of the skunk the troublemakers disturbed a few days earlier, I couldn’t help but soak up all the furry affection they were sharing. (And truth be told, I’ve always thought the aroma of skunk – and cow manure – to be somewhat comforting, weirdo that I am, and so their aroma was rather pleasant to me.)
After staying up drinking wine and catching up until the wee hours of the morning, we spent the next day wandering around the island. As it was my first trip ever, G arranged to take us to some interesting spots around the Vineyard. We ate, we shopped, we visited several filming spots from the movie Jaws and ended the day at an ice cream shop near where we would board the ferry for the start of our journey home.
While we began entering the shop, a little car zipped into a parking space out front and a slender man jumped out and introduced himself as Peter Simon, local photographer, and asked if he could take our picture. Our hostess knew of him, as did at least one other of our party, but I was clueless, as usual. Turns out he’s Carly Simon’s brother, and he really is rather well known, and “kind of a big deal” as he himself claimed when I wasn’t suitably impressed. [Mr. Simon – my apologies. I’ve since looked into your work, and there are some incredible photographs in your portfolio. Consider me impressed – and humbled. Thank you.] In any case, he took our picture, got an email address from the hostess and we all soon had a copy of the image from this well known photographer, a memorable keepsake from the trip.
We boarded the ferry home shortly after the photo and ice cream, and were treated to an incredible sunset as we glided across the bay on our way to the parking lot where M’s car waited to take us home. As I bid farewell to D, R, and M with promises to make our next trip longer, I couldn’t help but feel A’s absence in it all. We had talked many times about taking the kids to Martha’s Vineyard, but never quite made it there. Finally making it to the island, but not having him, there was definitely a bittersweet moment.
The next day, I went to a casino with a former boss with whom I’ve stayed friends for almost 30 years, and we inadvertently stepped into a filming of Sneaky Pete, an Amazon series starring Giovanni Ribisi and Bryan Cranston among others. Although we never saw any of the series actors (that we know of – and I would have been fangirling had we seen any of the stars), we were “cautioned” that by remaining in that area of the casino, we were granting permission that our “recognizable images” might be used in the show. I joked that between the photograph the day before and the possibility I could be shown in the background of a television series that I was “thiiiiiiiiiiis close” to true celebrity status! (And maybe G was simply preparing me for that life by being so excited to see me!)
After a week of spending time with old friends and new, I headed home and back to the “real world” where I had time to think back on the trip and all the new experiences I had. I realized that the tree of my life, the one I began so many years ago with A, is still growing strong. His presence allowed the roots of that life to grow deep and secure, able to weather the storms that would inevitably blow through. His absence, however, has left behind the grief that I must absorb and learn to grow around.
My tree will remain firmly planted and will continue to experience seasons of abundance and want, sunshine and rain, ever expanding as my family grows, yet the grief his passing left will be obvious. Much like that bicycle that has become a part of that tree out west, my grief will ever be a part of my future, a striking contrast to its previous appearance.
I can choose to turn it into something hauntingly beautiful, a reminder of what an amazing life it was, and what an amazing future it still can be, even as it is clearly something different, or I could let it allow me to wither and topple. Either my life will swallow the grief and I will continue on, or the grief will swallow my life. The choice is mine.
In all things, I choose beauty.
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