By Katy Goforth
For the longest time, I couldn’t even say his name. The smell of pine trees would send me into the weird, dry parts of my brain where nothing of value could flourish. The stain of the day—the incident—spread throughout me and eventually began to fade. Edges of grief so faint others couldn’t even detect. I sat down several times throughout the years to write about it. A therapist once told me it was the only way to move forward. Face the grief and the trauma to get to the other side of it. My last attempt at taking this advice resulted in me thinking, “Ok. I will write, and I will face the grief.” But I hadn’t faced the loss of a life-long partnership or even more profound yet, the loss of a child. My grief didn’t sound as tragic, so I still didn’t write.
As a decade without Lee peeked around the corner, I tried to take this advice again. A decade can erode memories, leaving a flat place void of any ups and downs. As I sat down to write about my loss, I knew I could only do this if I stopped pretending. To stop pretending meant to not only face the loss again but to also recount the day. The memory had been double sealed and sent to the back of my mind. Shoved so far back it was forgotten and eventually covered in ice and of no use to anyone. So, I sat down to thaw my grief.
My close friend, Penny, had invited my husband and me to dinner. “Anywhere you want to go.”
“Who is he?” Her nervous fidgeting indicated there was more to the invite.
“He owns Anderson Arbor Pros. He climbs trees all day.”
She had been at a pick-your-own strawberry patch with her daughter, and a man in overalls with three kids of his own in tow had approached her. Now I was being pressed to select a place to have dinner and meet this forward, strawberry-picking, tree-climbing dad of three. “Fine. We can go to the pub. If I’m going to be forced to meet a stranger, I can at least ply myself with fish and chips.”
We went to dinner. I did not like him. From the time we walked to our table to the time we got up to go home, I thought he was cocky, loud, and told horrible jokes. The next day, my friend wanted to chat and break down the night before. I hesitantly voiced my observations, and she smiled. I decoded the smile in a flash. She didn’t give a damn what I thought, even if she was asking. But she was my friend, and I cared about her, so I was going to give this loud, cocky, strawberry-picking stranger more chances.
Shortly after the dinner, dark times fell over my house. I had been diagnosed with cancer. My husband had been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, and it was quickly winning. With no family close by and our pride in the way, we started to disintegrate like a wet newspaper breaking apart in a driveway. On a particularly hard day for both of us, we were trapped in our bed and starting to panic a bit about how things were going to get done. Not only did we need to work, but we had a house to take care of.
My husband heard the noise first. The shuffle of someone’s work boots moving side-to-side all around the roof of the house. Next, the burst of gas-powered air. Someone was on the roof blowing all the leaves out of our overflowing gutters. It was the cocky, strawberry-picking stranger.
As the dark times continued to stretch before us, Lee became a bright spot. Turned out he lived close by and often worked in the area. Random texts would come through, summoning one of us to use all our energy to peel ourselves from our sick-couch position to answer the door. We were often greeted with groceries and enticing takeout meant to encourage us to eat. It didn’t take long for Lee to understand we needed even more than an excellent Pad See Ew with a number two spice, and his deliveries started to include a visit. Days would stretch out before me and my husband when we might not see a soul, but Lee always made sure to punctuate the week at just the right time. He became more than my friend’s love interest. He was my friend.
On an unseasonably warm April day, we made our way to Lee’s house. It was a Sunday and not one of those Sundays where you dread the looming Monday. I was firmly planted in the goodness of the day. One of Lee’s kids had a birthday. We were greeted at the back door with offerings of cake. There were two kinds—one full of sugary goodness and one deemed the healthy version. He flashed a signature grin and said, “The healthy one tastes like shit.” We visited and laughed. He talked about his three children and how they were growing up. The conversation was light. It would be the last time I saw him.
I was sitting at my desk in the windowless office, and I considered ignoring the piercing ring of my office phone. Its demands bounced off my naked office walls. I stared at it until it stopped. I had moved into this new office and only a handful of people knew. I leaned over to look at the caller ID, and my cellphone began barking at me. It was the only ringtone my mostly deaf ears could hear. Pushing off the floor with my four-inch heels, I sailed across the office to my barking tote bag thinking, “What in the hell can be so important?”
I grabbed my phone and before I could offer a greeting I heard, “I need you. I’m on Laurel Lane in Pendleton. Can you get here?” Penny’s voice was filled with shaking fear, and my mind went straight to her young daughter. She interrupted my racing fears with, “It’s Lee. He’s fallen.”
Scrawling down the address, I grabbed my keys and my bag. I popped my head in my officemate’s door to tell her I had an emergency. She was concerned and wanted specifics. I waved around my scrap paper heavy with the address I hadn’t even known existed a few minutes before. I wasn’t making sense.
My officemate grabbed my shoulders and told me I should pull myself together if I was going to go help. Feeling like the real me was floating above my physical body I thought, “Yes, my friend has fallen out of a tree, but by God I will have no emotions.” I refused her offer to come with me.
Laurel Lane was alive with blue and red lights. I eased my car up next to an officer and explained who I was. He shot his hand up, palm facing me, indicating I was not to move forward. A few minutes passed, and he waved me through. My stomach was up in my throat. I didn’t want to be waved through. I couldn’t do this.
Pulling my car off to the side of the road, I swung my legs out with my gold heels and close-fitted tomato red dress indicating I didn’t belong here. Emergency personnel and tree service employees swamped the area. Penny was nowhere in sight. I tapped the shoulder of a young man in a paramedic’s uniform. “My friend called me and said there’s been an accident. I need to see them both.” He stared back at me, and I willed him not to say it. My eyes begged him to turn and ignore me—just leave it hanging in the air a bit longer. Don’t say it and shift my friendship into past tense. But that’s exactly what he did. “Ma’am, he’s gone.”
My legs stopped working. It felt like someone had slammed into me from behind, and I couldn’t get any air. The young man’s arms reached out to scoop me up before I hit the asphalt. The strawberry-picking father of three, not even near forty years old, was gone.
“He fell more than sixty feet from that pine tree. Was trying to top it. Your friend is in the garage across the street. News helicopters are all around, so someone took her over there for privacy.” I nodded still in shock. “Ma’am, it would be best if you didn’t see him.” The flood broke, and my tears came. I had rushed there thinking he was alive. Hurt, but alive. I didn’t sign up for dead.
The young paramedic handed me a handkerchief. I cleaned my face and made my way across the street to the garage. Penny was sitting on the top step to a stranger’s kitchen door. A woman came around from the back of the house to ask who I was. She was marching towards me with the determined speed of a seagull who had just sighted a piece of stale bread tossed on the beach. She was protecting Penny, and I was grateful. We sat in the garage in silence. Life had changed in the moment. We were sitting in-between. Once we walked out of the safety of the garage, we would be in our post-Lee life. No rewind. No new memories. No more random deliveries of a Pad See Ew with a number two spice.
The first 48 hours piled up fast, packed with to-do lists. Still sick and at this point exhausted, I pushed through each task on fumes from my rage. The hardest task was standing by my friend’s side as she told Lee’s three children he was gone. The youngest, less than double digits at the time, crawled into my lap and wrapped himself around my neck. I tried to absorb all his fears. All his tears. But tragedy and grief doesn’t work like that. They let you keep them close in your own body—ready to torment you at a moment’s notice.
The smell of fresh cut pine trees triggers my flight response from the tragedy, pushing me towards bright memories like the last Sunday filled with chit chat and a shitty-tasting vegan cake. A year or more had passed when I had a dream. I say a dream, but I had drifted to an in-between state of light sleep with a soft-edged awareness of the room. Something pressed on my leg, so I rolled to my side, propping myself up on an elbow. He was there. There was no soft-lit ghost at the end of my bed. No spirit voice filling my ears. But I felt all the good parts of my friend in the room with me. He came to make sure we were okay. A visit.
We keep a picture of Lee in our entryway. Much like some people keep weapons in their bedside table, we keep his smile for protection—of us, the house, and anyone who enters it. We sit down with a good Pad See Ew number two spice and touch the grief. It leaves a watermark on you. A place where even if you can’t see the delicate difference, you can feel the textured change. It’s a reminder of an easy friendship. A friendship with no strings.
A pine forest is full of life. It’s a lively place full of birds and mammals depending on the seeds and the bark for survival. The pine forest floor a thriving community. It’s alive. When I smell a pine, I remind myself of these things. My mantra to ward off the panic from the grief. It’s my way forward and a way to not fear the pines but welcome them, reminisce with them.
About the Author:
Katy is a writer and editor for a national engineering and surveying organization and a fiction editor for Identity Theory. Her work has been published in The Dead Mule School and Montana Mouthful. She has work forthcoming in Reckon Review. When she’s not writing, she’s traveling the country following her favorite musicians and collecting oddities for her menagerie. She was born and raised in South Carolina and lives in Anderson with her spouse and two dogs, Finn and Betty Anne. You can find her on Twitter @MarchingFourth and katygoforth.com.