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Persian legend says a man
Committed suicide over an untrue report
That his love had died and that where his
Blood fell, tulips grew up.
A cliché shouldn't have pushed her over the edge, Jenny Owens Matthews knew, but it did. She went straight down, crashing into tearful hysteria that didn't really subside until Tia Warden and Libby Morrison found her curled in a fetal position on the living-room couch. Then the storm subsided to Jenny's hiccuping and blowing her nose on the edge of a linen-and-lace doily from the nearby coffee table.
"Welcome to the First Day of the Rest of Your Life," a magazine article headline trumpeted from the floor where Jenny'd tossed it. "Reinvent Yourself in the Millennium and Beyond."
"C'mon, Jen, drink this," Libby urged when she emerged from the kitchen armed with a teapot and large mug. She looked as cozy and motherly as she sounded in her faded bibs, soft plaid flannel shirt, and Birkenstocks. "I've already added honey and lemon. And I started a pot of soup with a chicken breast from your refrigerator and some egg noodles I found in a drawer."
"Contrary to your opinion," Tia muttered, "tea and chicken soup do not cure every ailment known to mankind. Especially not those of the heart."
Tia was still dressed in her sleek navy power suit with matching leather pumps, a pristine white blouse, and oh-so-proper pearls. Her hair was pulled tightly back in a chignon, which emphasized the exotic tilt of her eyes and her flawless complexion. Only a slash of bright red lipstick and the flash of long red fingernails as she ran her fingers through Jenny's silken hair, gave the slightest hint of color to the ensemble. Her look was as formidable as her touch at the base of Jenny's neck was gentle.
Libby ignored the tart response. After all these years, she knew that Tia sounded the most imperious when she was upset.
Lee Matthews's funeral had been last January, three months past. Both Tia and Libby had hoped that by now Jenny would be finding some order and reason in her life, not sliding deeper into the terrible grief she'd suffered at the death of her husband of twelve years.
Jenny stiffly struggled to sit up. Every joint and muscle in her body mounted an insurrection at being asked to move, and her head pounded with another of her frequent headaches. Crying was not for sissies. It was excruciating work.
"Thanks, Tia, Libby. I'm so grateful you came by. I should have called, but the telephone seemed to be a hundred miles away." She looked ruefully at the cordless model on the nearby table. "I really crashed and burned, didn't I?"
"You might say that," Tia agreed in obvious understatement. "What brought it on?"
"That." Jenny pointed an accusing finger at the magazine. "I was shot down by off-the-rack, two-bit psychology."
Libby picked up the magazine, which fell open to an article entitled "Ten Steps to a New You: The Millennium Message." She looked confused. "What does this have to do with anything? We've been bombarded with this junk for ages."
"Think about it, Lib. ‘Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life.' I thought it was a faddish catch phrase years ago, and now it really depresses me. I have no life! Not without Lee. He was the only life I ever needed or wanted. How can I reinvent myself now? Nothing will ever compare to that!"
"You don't think it will," Tia said matter-of-factly. "But you don't know that for sure. The shock and adrenaline that kept you going after Lee's death are wearing off, and reality is setting in. I'd say you're perfectly normal, considering what you've been through."
"Normal? Nothing is normal anymore."
"This is your life now," Tia said bluntly, the compassion and pain in her expression softening the harsh words. The truth pained Tia as much as it did her friend. "So what are you going to do about it?"
Tears welled in Jenny's eyes.
"Tia ... ," Libby warned. "She's had about as much as she can take."
Tia sat down by Jenny and took her hand as gently as if she were handling a newly hatched hummingbird. "Jen, honey, you scare me." Her words were as soft as a caress. "During Lee's funeral you were the Rock of Gibraltar. You comforted the rest of us, made the arrangements no one else could manage, reminded us that Lee was in heaven and happier than the rest of us could ever imagine. You carried us! And now ..."
"God," Jenny murmured. "That's how I got through the funeral."
"Exactly! But the zest for life has seeped out of you ever since. Jenny, you're fading before our eyes. Where's God for you now?"
Pain and confusion played on Jenny's features. She'd asked the same question. He was there with her as she had seen the life blood pour out of the only man she'd ever loved and was helpless to do anything to stop it. God had given her the words to comfort Lee's aging parents and frantic older sister. And he'd gifted her with the strength to face her own family while they'd mourned the loss of Lee like that of their own son. And then God had disappeared.
"I don't know, Tia. I can't feel God anymore. After the funeral, the relatives, and the thank-you letters, I finally took a deep breath and he was gone."
"Oh, Jen ... ," Libby murmured.
"Help me find my way back!" Jenny pleaded, her voice cracking. A single tear slipped from the corner of her eye. "All I ever wanted was Lee."
"From the time you were nine years old," Libby agreed.
"He was the desire of my heart, and now ..." She picked up the discarded magazine to point at the article that had triggered her frenzy. "'Reinvent myself.' Start doing whatever it is Jenny does? Well, what does Jenny do? She cooks. She cleans. She does laundry, shops, and makes a home for her husband. That's what Jenny does. That's who Jenny is. And now her job's been cancelled!"
"We all know that you chose to give one hundred percent to your marriage. You'll find yourself again—with time."
"If that's the case, I should be fine. The only thing I have an abundance of lately is time."
If only they understood how many endless seconds there were between midnight and 6 a.m. She'd been awake to see every one of them. Some nights Jenny lay in bed impotently willing herself to sleep until the early hours of the morning. Every fiber of her body ached with tension, not the relaxation and release for which she longed. She'd started grinding her teeth during the infrequent hours she did sleep, so that she always woke with a dull vicelike headache around her skull, and her jaw muscles grew taut and strained. It was just one more little misery in a litany of them. She'd come to dread nighttime even more than the endless days.
Tia took Jenny's hand. "Where is the Jenny who was always laughing and never feeling sorry for herself? Where is the person who cooked like a professional chef and planned church banquets without a blink? Who turned the music on full blast so she could dance while she vacuumed? Where's the most vibrant, funny, witty person I've ever known? The more you hibernate inside this house, the harder it's going to be to adjust and to live again."
"When Lee died from the aneurysm, he took my life with him." Jenny's gaze drifted to the kitchen, where she had been forced to watch helplessly as life ebbed from him. "Even the paramedics said they'd never seen anything quite like it ..."
"Stop this, Jen," Tia pleaded. "Don't relive it again."
"I can't help it. It's permanently embedded in my brain."
"I'm going to check on the soup," Libby announced. "Tia, can you help me?"
In the kitchen, Tia leaned against the butcher block over which hung a circle of shiny copper kettles.
"Now what?" Tia muttered. "I think she's pedaling backward, Lib."
"She's stumbled on her faith walk. That's not surprising. We all know it's strewn with land mines." Libby's lips twitched in a small smile. "What's that quote? ‘I know that God will not give me more than I can handle, but I wish he didn't trust me so much.' Every day I refuse to get out of bed in the morning until I tell myself that nothing will happen that day that together God and I can't manage." She thrust a spoon into the pot and stirred. "These days my own faith walk is more of a faith stagger like Jenny's."
The rhythmic click of the spoon against the side of the pan was the only sound in the room as Libby stared absently into the kettle.
"You're handling more than you used to, if my observations are correct," Tia murmured, a note of question in her voice.
Libby nodded but said nothing. For her, her aging parents' mental and physical deterioration was a painful subject. She'd committed herself to being there for them as long as they needed her and had remained steadfast and unshakable in her decision.
"If I were you, I'd be wrung dry of patience and compassion by now," Tia said frankly. Then she grinned. "Of course, my patience is about as long as my attention span."
Libby smiled wanly. "I'm glad your parents are in good health, Tia. Being cared for by you would be like being nursed by a whirlwind. Believe me, there is nothing about the elderly that approximates the speed of a whirlwind."
"They are trying your patience," Tia observed. "Big time."
"No one gets by without some challenges." Libby summarily dismissed her own problems. "Right now Jenny's have to come first for us." Not for a moment did Libby assume that Jenny would have to handle her problems alone. She and Tia were there for her. God was, too, if only Jenny would believe it.
"Are you talking about me?" Like a specter, Jenny floated into the kitchen, her hair tangled, her eyes vague and unfocused. She wore an afghan draped across her shoulders. One corner dragged on the floor. She looked very frail and vulnerable with her blouse unevenly buttoned and a coffee stain on her shirttail. Radiating an air of bleakness, Jenny was a phantom of sorts, a pale shade of her former self.
"Soup's ready," Libby offered, ignoring the question.
"I'm not hungry."
"How much weight have you lost?"
"I don't know."
"Are you taking vitamins? Eating anything at all?"
"I don't remember."
What was food anyway? It all tasted like sawdust and unflavored gelatin these days. Even its textures repulsed her, reminding her of gristle and phlegm. When she swallowed, her esophagus rebelled, threatening to send the food shooting back upward. Anxiety seemed to have taken residence in her gut. There was no room for food to sustain her.
Jenny stared down at the steaming soup mug as if she didn't recognize what it was. A tear dripped into the pale yellow broth. "What am I going to do?"
Tia stayed with Jenny until morning. Though Jenny slept little, Tia slept even less. Her time was spent in prayer, knowing that at her home, Libby kept the same vigil.
It was nearly 9 a.m. when Jenny woke. Tia and Libby had exchanged the watch at six that morning so that Tia could go home to shower and dress for work.
"Why are you here?" Jenny asked sleepily when she saw Libby leaning over her with a worried expression on her features. "Wasn't Tia ..."
"Working. But I don't have to be anywhere special today. Tia told me to take as much time as I needed from the store so I could be available to you. It's nice to have a boss who is also your best friend. Such perks. Mom and Dad are capable of getting their own breakfasts."
Libby began to fold the comforter Jenny had kicked to the floor during her restless night. "I don't know how I'd manage to care for my parents and hold down a job if Tia hadn't hired me on at the store."
"You were afraid to leave me, weren't you?" Jenny accused.
Libby remained silent.
"I don't need a baby-sitter. I'm a grown woman."
"You haven't been the same since Lee died. We have no way of judging whether or not you might—"
"Hurt myself? Put an end to it all? Please, Libby! Give me a break. You know I'd never do something like that."
"I used to know. I'm not so sure now." Libby looked as though she were about to cry. "You've changed, and it scares me."
"Oh, hon, I didn't mean to do this to you." There were tears in Jenny's eyes too. "I had a bad day yesterday, that's all. Some days are worse than others. Today is going to be better. I know it. I feel it in my bones! I want you to go home and get some sleep. Frankly, you look terrible."
Libby smiled wanly. "Now that's the pot calling the kettle black."
"And if you're going to call me names besides ..." Jenny mustered a grin. "Scoot. I'll take a shower and eat some breakfast. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?" Libby had seen this more familiar side of Jenny emerge and then become lost again more than once.
"That I know how to take a shower or eat? Positive."
"But do you know how to ‘be fine'?"
Jenny patted the Bible on her bedside stand. "I know where to go for help." Jenny didn't want to admit, even to Libby, the terrifying depth of spiritual void that she'd experienced in the past few weeks. "I just got lost for a while, that's all. And just because I got lost doesn't mean God did." Jenny knew what would comfort Libby. It was what she longed to believe too. Perhaps all she needed was a little more time.
"Scram, my friend," Jenny said, fluttering her hands at Libby as if to dust her right out the door.
"I'll be back," Libby warned.
"Fine. But wait until after lunch. I may soak in the tub until then." Jenny looked down at her fingers. "And do my nails. They look as though I've been using them to scrape texture off walls. Why didn't you tell me how much I'd let myself go? Get out of here so I can get beautiful."
As soon as Libby was gone, Jenny's instinct was to lock the door behind her and crawl back beneath the covers. She would have, too, except the idea of a long hot soak in the tub to ease her aching body was very appealing. Jenny crept into the bathroom, dumped half a jar of bath bubbles into the water, and unbuttoned her nightgown and let it slide to the floor.
The sight in the mirror shocked her. She'd never been heavy, but neither had she been as slight as she was now. She could actually see her ribs, and her upper arms looked like sticks. Her hips were boyishly straight, and her legs appeared longer than ever.
For the first time in weeks, Jenny stepped onto the scale and was shocked to find she was more than twenty pounds thinner than the last time she had weighed. No wonder Libby kept trying to force-feed her chicken soup!
As she eased herself into the water, the warmth and billowing bubbles surrounded her like a cloud. Tomorrow she would drink a shake or eat a candy bar, Jenny decided as she slid beneath the water and felt her pale blonde hair fan out around her.
Maybe Libby and Tia were right. Though today she doubted it, perhaps there was a chance she could learn to live again.
She'd dozed off in the tub, Jenny realized. The water was cool, the bubbles had dissipated, and her fingers and toes had turned to small white raisins. After a quick wash and rinse of her hair, Jenny dried off and pulled on a soft flannel dress. Lee had never liked the dress. He'd said it made her look heavy. Nothing could make her look large now. Besides, Jenny liked the way it hid her scrawniness.
Before she could put a comb to her damp hair, the doorbell rang. She started downstairs, stopped halfway to ask herself if she really wanted to see anyone, then gave in to the persistent chimes.
It was George Hardy, the old gentleman who lived down the street. He wore a kindly but worried expression on his deeply hewn features. His blue eyes were buried deep in the folds surrounding them. His granddaughter Kim, a tiny girl with pale hair and large eyes, clung to his big hand.
"Did I get you out of the shower? I can come back later ..."
"Not at all. Sorry about the hair, though." Jenny fingered the naturally curling strands. "I haven't dried it yet. Hello, Kim. How are you?"
The little girl watched Jenny somberly. She'd been here several times with her grandfather, and it always took her a few minutes to warm up to strangers.
"Looks mighty fine to me," George said kindly. He was a neighborhood favorite of Jenny's, who had always watched the house when she and Lee were away. George was an extraordinary gardener with lush flower beds and a lawn that both looked and felt like carpet. More than once Jenny had admired his work and been rewarded with a bloom of the moment, whether it be a first spring tulip or a late fall mum. What's more, he was always Johnny-on-the-spot with his first roses of the season, offering them up to her as though they were diamonds. By George's own admission, Jenny knew she was the only one on the street who regularly received any of George's roses. To show her appreciation, she'd purchased a special crystal vase in which to display his offerings.
"Would you like some coffee?"
"Thanks, but I've already had my limit of the leaded stuff," George quipped. "How are you, my dear?"
"Upright. Putting one foot in front of the other. It doesn't sound like much, but it's an improvement over last month."
"It's hard, I know it is. Though my Clara and I had fifty wonderful years together, it just didn't seem like enough. When I lost her, I wished I'd gone too. It takes time to realize that there's still life to be lived, even without a mate."
"I'm not so sure of that as you are, George. I hope you're right."
The old man frowned. "Maybe this isn't the best time to say what I've come to say ..."
"Nonsense. Come inside and we'll discuss whatever it is."
"Perhaps you should step outside since that's what I've come to talk about." With a courtly gesture, George waved her by him and into the yard, his granddaughter at his side.
Jenny looked around, wondering what was out here to see. She'd barely glanced at her yard since Lee died in early January. Tia's father had shoveled snow then and was mowing the grass on occasion now. She had considered it no further.
George cleared his throat nervously before speaking. "I know you don't need one more problem on your plate, Jenny, but it's come to my attention that some of the neighbors are discussing the state of your lawn. It's not gossip, mind you, but concern. I know Mr. Warden mows whenever he can, but with the rainy spring weather we've been having, it's hard to keep up.
"Could I be of some help to you? Trimming around the house and trees? Pruning the shrubbery? Your dogwood is getting leggy. What's more, if you allow those plants around the porch to cling too long, they'll rot the wood beneath."
Jenny stared at the dogwood as if seeing it for the very first time. Her plants were growing wild. The dogwood was choking out her miniature lilac and tangling itself in the railing of the porch. "It's huge!" she blurted. "How did that happen?"
George gave a commiserating chuckle. "You've had other things on your mind. And I know Lee did all the yard work. Spring is an important time of the year for a gardener, and this spring has been especially early. It probably never occurred to you that it might need a little attention. Everyone knows how difficult it's been keeping everything together since Lee's death ..."
Keeping myself together, was Jenny's first thought. "I am simply mortified at the appearance of this yard!" She blushed until her face was the color of one of George's favorite roses. "I had no idea what an overgrown, unkempt mess it had become." She walked to a flower bed. "There are so many weeds in here that the perennials haven't got a chance. And the pond!" The green sludgy soup occupying Lee's pride and joy horrified Jenny. The fountain was crusty with moss and obviously plugged. Not a dribble of water came out of the tipped urn the boyish statue held.
"What about the fish?" She looked in horror at her neighbor. "Did I kill them?"
"No, of course not. I brought them to my house." George chuckled. "They're thriving in my pond. I'm just glad you didn't miss them or you might have thought there was a fishnapper on the loose."
Jenny took George's hand in both her own and squeezed it gratefully. "Thank you. I'll do something about this right away."
"I didn't mean to make more work for you, lass. I'll just come over with my trimmer and—"
"It's a bigger job than that," Jenny insisted. "I wouldn't dream of asking that much of you. Besides, it will give me something to think about. And when it's done, you can bring the fish back, knowing they won't suffocate in the murk."
"If you're sure ..." He looked doubtful and a little worried as he beckoned to his granddaughter, who was studying the empty pond. He seemed concerned that he'd put too big a burden on such small, thin shoulders.
"Positive." Jenny stood on her tiptoes and gave the old man a kiss on the cheek. She watched him leave and felt her heart swelling in gratitude to the old gentleman. Even though she and God had not communicated much lately, she realized that he had been sending her human angels to minister to her as she needed them—Libby, Tia, and now George.
Posted September 7, 2000
What an amazing debut performance by Judy Baer. The issues dealt with in the book are very current and handled with a nice touch of conscientiousness and religion. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a dose of fresh writing. Great job Judy!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.