I could not breathe. Hot, tired and afraid, I was. Trapped in the middle of a crowd of strangers in an airport—people looking at one another more from suspicion than from wonder. Me—held in my mother’s arms while being touched and bumped by bags and elbows.
There, pushing through the crowd, a man, whom I did not know. Was he coming toward me with a red ribbon? I did not know since I was only seventeen months old.
It was in a dream twenty-seven years later that I saw the red ribbon again. My mother had told me the story of the red ribbon when I was old enough to remember stories and it was after the telling and retelling of this story that I imagined myself like I described above. The story of the red ribbon happened like this my mother said:
Your father and I were with you and we were in a crowded airport during the summertime. You were running up and down an aisle between chairs as we waited at the gate for our plane to board. Somewhere at the airport, I’m not sure where, you found the red ribbon.
You ran with the red ribbon, holding the ribbon between your fingers as it trailed behind you, twirling. Up and down the aisle you ran, smiling and laughing. Your father and I were delighted that you found a toy to keep you occupied.
Somewhere between having lunch prior to our flight and the walk to the airport Gate waiting area, you lost the red ribbon. You cried and cried. Then, as we were waiting in a crowd of people to board our plane, a young man approached us. His outstretched hand held the red ribbon. He had a kind smile on his face while you reached out to take the ribbon from his hand.
Flash ahead to the year before my twenty-seventh birthday, just after I had married. My new husband and I were more in love than I thought possible. It was August and we had planned a backpacking trip to the British Columbia mountains for our honeymoon. We hiked up to a mountain lake that he had been to as a teenager. He had memories of translucent, blue-turquoise water that sparkled and was so clear that you could see the color of the stones on the bottom of the lake from forty feet deep.
Under the mountain stars, on the second night of our honeymoon, the full moon bright, its light shining on water’s surface, we walked down from our tent by the lake to a beach. We took off our clothes and entered the cold water lake. We swam in the lake for ten, maybe fifteen long minutes before coming together to embrace in the waist-deep water.
It was then that I heard the noise, a light click as from a metal latch on a door falling back into place. This followed by a deafening bang ripping through the clear, crisp, star-filled night sky. I felt my new husband’s body now limp in my arms. Blood ran down my wet chest into the lake’s water as I stood shocked with my new husband’s dead body held in my arms.
The days, weeks and months following the brutal murder of my husband were inconsequential because it felt as if it was not me living in this surreal nightmare. It was as if I was outside of myself looking in at the person and life I once knew. The police eventually found the man that killed my husband and later told me that the murderer was a drifter, high on PCP at the time of the murder. He had a fascination with guns, they said. There appeared to be no motive. I now know that evil works in such ways. What else would you call this act of murder? But in truth, I did not care about these things now. I did not care about anything, for that matter.
Seven months after my husband died in my arms, I dreamed of the red ribbon from my childhood. In the dream I was falling and falling and falling in an ominous blackness. I might have been between two cliff edges. A hand reached down from above and in the palm of the hand, a red ribbon. I reached for the ribbon as I fell, but my hand couldn’t quite reach it.
I woke from this dream and wept. Softly at first, and then full body sobs. I had tried to cry since the murder of my husband, but tears would not come. The red ribbon image though, elicited a river of tears as I recalled the image from the story my mother had told me of the kind man in the airport handing me my red ribbon.
Walking home from work one day, shortly after dreaming of the red ribbon, I noticed a smallish rock the size of a grapefruit sitting by the edge of a concrete wall. Cream-colored, with streaks of brown, almost red, this particular rock seemed like something that did not quite belong there by the side of this wall.
I took the rock home with me and put it in the corner of my back yard next to a weathered blue bench. In the days and weeks that followed, I found myself sitting on the blue bench often. I would sit on the bench and stare at the rock.
Spending time on the blue bench and meditating on the rock occupied much of my free time. When I would travel for my job I started noticing other rocks. After meetings finished and others went out for dinner and drinks, I would return to my hotel room, change clothes, and find the nearest trail or path to walk where I would look for local rocks. I saw red rocks, slate-colored rocks, black rocks, all sizes, textures and shapes.
My pre-occupation with rocks brought unexpected comfort. I was pulled deeper into myself and to a place that was yet unknown to me, but beyond the numbing of grief and recurrent images of horror.
About one year after beginning this new ritual of searching for rocks, I was at home one spring morning, sitting on my blue bench meditating on the cream-colored rock with reddish streaks weaving around it. I recalled again my mother’s story of the red ribbon. I thought of my own dream of the red ribbon and I wept some more. But this time something was different, I felt something stirring deep in my soul—a lost part of myself that I had not felt since the morning prior to my husband’s murder.
I don’t know how best to describe this feeling. It was a feeling that was not strong— it was faint, but it was real. I guess you could say that I felt like perhaps I would again find a life that contained joy and love. Until now, after losing my husband in one of the most horrible ways imaginable, nobody could convince me that this would be possible.
I dreamed that night again of the red ribbon. Like my first dream of the red ribbon, I was falling next to a cliff edge. It was dark and a man’s strong hand holding a red ribbon reached down from above. I grabbed for the ribbon in his hand but this time, I caught his hand in the dream, and the next thing that I knew, I was safely on the ground.
When I awoke in the morning after this dream, I went to my backyard with my cup of coffee and in the corner of the yard where I had placed my cream-colored rock with reddish streaks; the rock had split in two.
© 2016, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.