I had never seen anyone glow. My daddy always said the first time he saw my mama, she was glowing. Daddy had fallen off the back ramp of his truck while unloading it at work and banged his head pretty good. Mama had been the nurse that tended to him. He said she radiated light, and he knew right then she was the one. Mama said he was just concussed.
When my parents got married, they decided to start their life in a little town called Vidalia. Then they had me a few short years later. And then a few short years after that, I met my husband Charlie. After high school, we moved to Savannah to officially start our life and open my gallery. For ten years he was in my life. He was mine, and I was his. And then he was gone. I didn’t know I’d be a widow by age twenty-five.
I could hear the hysteria in Brad’s voice in the background while Shelly talked. Charlie had gone out to play basketball with Brad and some of the other husbands from our Sunday school class. I had to go check on something at the gallery, so we had agreed to meet up for dinner later.
Charlie had collapsed during the game and had been rushed to the ER. They didn’t yet know what had happened, it was all so fast. Only twenty minutes ago Charlie was talking smack, winning the game. Then he was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. I was running before I hung up the phone. My stomach was in knots.
Something was wrong. Everything felt wrong. I didn’t know what to think as I ran the short distance to the hospital. The wind was blowing too hard. I stumbled as it shoved me. The air was wrong. It felt heavy and disgusting and vile. I caught the smell of rotten fish from the river. I couldn’t see straight as I walked into the ER waiting room. Through tears, I saw Brad and Shelly holding each other and crying. It was a brain aneurysm. He had felt no pain as he collapsed into death, and then he was gone. Charlie was pronounced dead at 3:02. He was only twenty-seven.
I rushed to his side, and cradled his head in my arms. He looked like he was sleeping, his beautiful face at peace. I kissed his cold lips as my tears fell onto his eyelashes.
“Charlie, please don’t do this. Please don’t leave me,” I sobbed.
Charlie was young, active and healthy. That’s the thing about aneurysms; they don’t care who they take. They just take, selfishly. Charlie and I decided long ago that we would both be organ donors. We were adamant that if something ever happened to either of us, we wanted our organs to hopefully do some good for others and make a difference in the world. I think I signed some papers agreeing to donate his organs, but I barely remember any other details from that day.
I buried him in his denim jacket, the one he was wearing when I first saw him. The first time I ever saw someone glow. It was his favorite article of clothing for some reason, and he could make it look fabulous no matter what the fashion trends were. It only felt right that he should wear it. I kept his wedding ring, and wore it on a chain around my neck.
I laid him to rest in Bonaventure Cemetery, underneath a massive oak tree with Spanish moss. After the funeral was over, I stayed and tried to say a final goodbye. I set a small replica of The Bird Girl beside his headstone, thinking he would appreciate it. Through my tears, I chuckled. I wanted him to be able to look down and smile at our life together. As I wiped my tears away, a heavy wind enveloped me. A seagull with no right foot and a heart shaped scratch on his beak was perched a few headstones over.
The next few months that followed were mostly a blur to me. I refused to believe Charlie was really gone. Consumed with grief and depression, I visited his graveside frequently. I took my camera with me like a security blanket. I kept thinking maybe his spirit would appear to me in photos, and I would understand that he was on the other side. He never showed.
It was hard for me to keep the gallery going alone. It was hard to do anything. Every day was a struggle. I had to go back to working at the Cotton Exchange during the weekdays. I only had my gallery open on the weekends when there was more foot traffic. Nobody really shops for photographs on a Tuesday afternoon anyway. The waitressing money was decent, but I knew why. I would frequently hear whispers from the locals. “Is that the widow girl?” “She’s so young.” “I wonder if she knew it was coming.” “Were there any signs?” “Let’s leave her an extra dollar.” “She looks like she’s going to cry.”
My mom offered me my old room, but I couldn’t go back to Vidalia. Charlie wouldn’t want that for me. We had worked so hard and come so far with the little bit that we had, I felt I would betray him if I turned back and gave up. I found a therapy group for young widows and widowers, but that only irritated me and made me even more upset. I was angry all the time. I was angry at the life that I was living, angry at Charlie for leaving me alone, and angry at God for taking him from me. How could this happen? How could this happen to us? God had led us into each other’s lives, and this was the ending? For what? Charlie’s death was pointless and unnecessary.
I cried myself to sleep on nights when I could fall asleep. At first there were good dreams, reliving the events in our life exactly as they had been.
We’d been married in June, a month after I graduated high school. I was eighteen and he was twenty. We had a simple yet elegant wedding at a barn just outside of town, country chic. My dress was something I had found at a vintage store. It was floor-length with lace sleeves and a lace collar, satin covered buttons lined up the back. Charlie wore his nicest shirt, cream-colored, with light tan pants, which matched our vintage theme beautifully.
The pastor pronounced us husband and wife at 3:01. There had been thunderstorms off and on all week, so we played it safe and had candles and tealights inside Mason jars for decorations instead of anything too elaborate in case of a monsoon. We bought a whole slew of disposable cameras and let our guests be the ones to photograph our wedding day through their eyes. It started raining after we’d said our vows, so after everyone finished eating we danced. Despite the rain and the humidity, we all danced the night away. The mud made for some hilarious photos of ourselves and our guests. Muddy, ruined outfits adorned each and every one. No one had a care in the world. The whole day was loving and delicious and joyous and perfect. Then I would wake up.
Other times, I would dream of moments we’d spent together. We were members of the Telfair Museum, and we would regularly go and sit for hours imagining stories about the paintings and statues, what the subjects must’ve been thinking to hold this pose or have that expression.
Charlie’s favorite statue was The Bird Girl. “I wonder how she feels with the weight of the birds on her shoulders?” Then he would laugh at his clever pun, which wasn’t really that clever. I fell more in love with him every time he laughed. Anytime he got tickled, his face would scrunch up. First, the lines around his eyes would crinkle up and he’d start with a chuckle, which would snowball into a full belly laugh complete with his eyes tightly shut and his lower jaw bouncing up and down. Whenever we disagreed, which was rare, I always knew if he was serious or not. The crinkles around his eyes would give him away in an instant. It’s funny, the details you remember. I remember thinking he was going to be the cutest little old man someday, sitting in a rocking chair on our front porch laughing and laughing at his corny jokes.
Sometimes if we had a few daylight hours, we would go and feed the seagulls down by the water. We’d buy some birdseed and a loaf of bread from the store, but it was never enough. It’s a little-known fact that if seagulls are in the area, a person can throw out bread in an empty parking lot, and dozens of seagulls will almost instantly appear out of nowhere. It was cheap and fun, so it had quickly become one of our regular activities for as long as we’d been together. We even fed the seagulls instead of going to both our junior and senior prom. We didn’t want to spend unnecessary money on glitz and glamour when we already knew what our future held.
The seagulls have “gull scouts,” another of Charlie’s hilariously punny jokes, that they send out to find food. When one of them spots the food, in a matter of minutes the area will be swarmed with a hundred seagulls or more. Small clusters of them would flap in synchronized formation just in front of us and we’d throw pieces up for them to catch mid-air. They never seemed to get full.
One seagull in particular always showed up. He had a heart-shaped scratch on his beak and no right foot. He’d sit over to the side, away from the crowd. I felt bad for him so I would give him his own piece of bread. We speculated how he might’ve lost his foot and Charlie decided that he was a major in the Great Gull War and lost it flying in front of his squadron, shielding them from the beaks of the onslaught. I named him Major Birdie Biddle. I woke up at the same place each time, right as Major Biddle starts pecking the piece of bread.
Soon, even pleasant dreams were tortuous. Sometimes I “sleep dream,” as Charlie called it. I think I have always done it, since I was a child. I’ll wake up, completely coherent, and see spiders or snakes or something in the bedroom, as real as can be. Or I wake up and think I’m somewhere else entirely. Charlie used to laugh at me because once I woke up and thought I was in a magical castle, and I tried to climb through the wall with no success.
On one night in particular, I woke up to the sound of clanging in the kitchen. I smelled bacon and coffee, and I saw a light coming from the other room. I woke up and walked in the kitchen, and there was Charlie, standing at the stove cooking bacon and chocolate gravy, a Southern delicacy, in his Star Wars pajama bottoms. He looked up and smiled at me, and I could see those precious crinkles in the corners of his eyes.
I started crying because I thought he was dead, but it had all been just a dream. I went to get some plates. I shouldn’t have turned away from him. Maybe I could’ve kept him there longer.
As I reached up, I heard him say, “no, love.”
I turned around. Only darkness was around me. The plate fell from my hands, shattering instantly on the floor. I collapsed beside it, uncontrollably shaking and sobbing for the rest of the night.
The more it set in that Charlie was really gone, the more my dreams turned into nightmares. Once I dreamed that I crashed my car off a bridge. As I plummeted down, down into the murky shallows, I could see Charlie on the bank. He was reaching for me, trying to grab my hand. The morning sun rose behind him, and I tried to reach out to him, reach for the light that was with him, but my clothes were too heavy. I was pulled down, down with the current and the fish until I couldn’t see him anymore. I awoke in a cold sweat, gasping for air. Another time I dreamed that I’d never known my precious husband. I was in an alternate reality; my life had gone nothing as I had planned. I didn’t recognize my surroundings or any of the people around me. I had four children, but I didn’t love or even like my husband. He was mean, abusive and cold. I was repressed and depressed, stuck in a hell of spiraling sadness. I awoke from that dream sweating, screaming in anger.
I stayed in Savannah almost two years after Charlie passed. I was a shell of the woman I had been before. I couldn’t seem to move on. I would see Charlie wherever I went. He was there, in the people I knew and in the faces of strangers. I felt like I’d never stop grieving. We had life insurance policies in case anything ever happened. I saved the money for quite a while, unsure of what I should do with it. It wasn’t even my money, it was blood money. Life money. I would gladly trade it to have my husband back.
Shelly took me out for lunch on my twenty-seventh birthday, a number that was hard for me to comprehend since I felt betrayed by it. My fearless and feisty best friend, the thing I came to treasure about Shelly over the years is that she’s a realist. She calls it as she sees it, and she’s not afraid to hurt feelings if it gets the job done.
“C,” she said, “I love you. You know I do, but I need to tell you something. Brad and I are worried about you. I know it’s hard for you, I don’t even want to imagine how hard, which is why I’m going to say what I’m about to say. You’re my best friend, but honestly, you need to move. I will miss you, but I don’t see the strength and creativity in you that I used to see. You would be better off if you moved away to somewhere that doesn’t remind you of him.” I wondered where she was going with this, her words sounded like a loaded gun.
I opened my mouth to protest. She continued, ignoring me defiantly. “It’s been nearly two years. Brad and I can see you withering away. Everything that makes you the bright and beaming Cecelia Sweeting either died with Charlie or is barely hanging on to the Spanish moss for survival. Which we both know is not a pleasant thing to hang on to. You and Charlie had planned to move to New York, so do that. It’ll be a fresh start.”
She held my gaze as I sat in silence, taking in what she’d just said. She pounced again. “And in case you say no, I have two plane tickets to New York—one for you and one for me—for two weeks next month. Your birthday present is that we’re going to be two ladies gallivanting around New York City looking for your new gallery. I also have a cousin who lives in New York, and he’s willing to be our tour guide. Bonus point, if you find somewhere that works out for you, you’ll already have a built-in friend close by.”
Shelly placed her hands on my shoulders and looked me squarely in the eyes. “You need to quit that silly waitress job and come with me. I know that you need this, and I know Charlie would want it for you, so it won’t do you any good to argue. The tickets are nonrefundable. It’s time for you to start living again. We’re doing this. This is happening.” All I could do was stare at her while I processed what she said.
Shelly placed her hands on her hips. “Brad and I will come to visit, so you obviously don’t need to stay here for us since that’s what’s really holding you back,” she said with a smirk and a toss of her head. I could hardly argue. She was 100 percent right. I had been thinking the same thing for weeks now. Charlie wouldn’t have wanted to see me this way. That’s not what we worked so hard to achieve. He would’ve wanted me to move on with my life and our plans. I called Mama that night to talk to her about it. Apparently, Shelly had already done that too, and Mama was waiting on my phone call. “Honey, you need to go. You’ve lost your light. Charlie would be so mad at you for giving up and quitting your dreams. He’d kick your tail if he knew you were letting anyone, especially him, stand in your way.”
She had already started packing her suitcase (six weeks early, because she likes to plan) and was prepared to come and watch my gallery for me while I was gone. All that I had to do was quit my waitressing job. I turned in my notice the next week to the owner. He hugged me and said not to take it personally, but he was glad to see me move on with my life. I wasn’t close to him, but that little nudge of encouragement from someone watching from the outside was the final boost I needed to make me feel confident that I was making the right decision.