It was only 2pm, but it looked like twilight outside. The windows shook in their frames, pummeled by the wind and rain. I turned the page of the book I was reading, comforted by the weather. It matched my mood. It was only my first week in the new house. I was adjusting to living here alone. Life didn’t always go as planned, and I was trying to be okay with that. Thinking back on the chaos of the last year, I felt a tightness in my chest and suddenly found it hard to breathe. This was supposed to be the home I shared with the love of my life, Ryan. We had shared everything together. Last month was supposed to have been our wedding. Instead, he had been hooked up to a ventilator and I watched him take his last breath.
My eyes welled up with tears, but before I could get myself settled in for another crying session, the sky outside was pierced with wails. For a moment, I considered ignoring them and seeing what would happen, but then I sighed heavily and dragged myself out of my chair and towards the basement steps. I’d lived in the Midwest long enough to know to take these warnings seriously.
Before heading to the basement, I grabbed a flashlight and my emergency candles and a lighter out of the drawer in the kitchen. The wind was howling now, and hail pelted the side of the house. I had always loved thunderstorms. Ryan and I used to cuddle together on the couch and watch scary movies whenever it stormed. I wondered if he was with me now, watching over me. As always, thinking of him sliced me open, and I was still amazed at how sharp the pain was.
I settled in on the couch in the basement and switched on the tv. The meteorologist had a map of the area up, and my neighborhood was smack dab in the middle of the red zone. An alert telling everyone in my county to take cover flashed across the bottom of the screen. Just then, the lights flickered once, then went completely out. I sighed and reached for the candles I had set on the coffee table. Once they were lit, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and switched it to power saving mode in case of emergency, then stretched out on the couch and closed my eyes.
Ryan’s face was there waiting for me. Smiling at me. Reaching for me. Though I knew he was now just a memory, it comforted me to imagine him here. The future just seemed so bleak now. We’d had everything planned out together. We’d chosen this house together. Our honeymoon was paid for. Everything was in order for us to start our lives together and now this. Me, here, alone.
I opened my eyes and looked up towards the storm windows. Lightning flashed and illuminated something in the corner chair. Curious, I got up and walked over to it. A heart. A metal heart shaped box. Taped to the lid was an envelope with the words read me first scrawled across the front.
My heart started racing. This was Ryan’s handwriting. I clutched the card and box to my chest and tried to focus on breathing. How did this get here? Did he have something planned? For a brief second, my grief-addled brain entertained the thought that he had sent it to me from beyond the grave. Then logic took over and I reasoned he had planned a surprise for me when we first moved in together.
I brought the box and card over to the couch and set them on the coffee table. With shaking hands, I opened the envelope, took a deep breath, and began to read.
My dearest Elle,
If you’ve found this, that means you’ve either completed the scavenger hunt, or convinced me to just give you the prize anyway. Regardless, congratulations! I love you so much, my darling, and I will never run out of ways of showing you this. Inside this box, you will find five small boxes labeled 1-5. I want you to open them in order, but do not read my explanations until you are holding the objects in your hand. Go ahead. Open box one now.
At this I smiled. He had been endearingly bossy in life. Of COURSE he found a way to boss me around after he was gone. I reached into the heart and pulled out package one. It was tied with a piece of coarse twine that easily came undone. Inside was a small, smooth stone. I smiled even more. A worry stone. I picked up the letter again.
Box one: The Worry Stone.
Yes, I know you, my love, and I know how anxious you get. This stone is for you to carry with you at all times. Whenever you feel that familiar dread coming on, pull this bad boy out and give it a rub. It might not take it all away, but it sure will help. You are so much more than your anxiety, my love.
My eyes welled up with tears. My thumb caressed the smooth stone lovingly. A gift beyond measure. Something I would cherish for the rest of my life.
Box two was a round mahogany box with a hinge lid. I popped it open to find a compass with a gold plated engravement on the inside lid which read: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams and live the life you imagined.
But how could I do that, when the life I had imagined was with him? My heart started speeding up again, and my breath was coming too fast. Outside the thunder roared, and the lightning flashed. I rubbed the worry stone and tried to focus on controlling my breaths and counting them, and before too long, I felt in control again. Okay, back to the letter.
Box Two: The Compass
This is a reminder to you, the love of my life. Never stop wanting more for yourself. Never forget that you want to see the world. Give in to the wanderlust and experience life before it passes you by. Take that vacation. Climb that mountain. Eat croissants and cheese in Paris. Ride a gondola in Italy. You have your entire life ahead of you and I want you to live it.
Again, I was painfully reminded of all of the vacations we had planned together. The pain was just a dull ache now, something I was kind of getting used to. The thought of traveling alone terrified me, but at the same time, thrilled me a little. Ryan’s death had shown me just how fleeting life was. He was right. I needed to experience life. I couldn’t hide myself away forever.
Box three was a silver bracelet. Engraved on the inside were the words: Be a warrior, not a worrier. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. All that you need is within you. Keep going. Love always, Ryan. These gifts were becoming almost eerie to me. Prophetic, in a way. Almost like he knew he wouldn’t be here when I opened them. The letter read:
Box Three: The Bracelet
I know you like sentimental gifts more than anything, so this is a little of both. You are very strong. I know you get down on yourself a lot, and I am here to tell you to knock it off. You are everything you are supposed to be. You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Everything that you need in life is already within you. Whenever you are struggling, reach inward and you will find your peace there. I love you so much, my little warrior.
I was trying that now. Reaching inward, I could still feel him there, in my heart. I knew he would never leave me, that my love and memories would keep him alive. The fact that he believed in me was enough to help me to believe in myself a little more. The deeper I got into these gifts, the more soothed I was. His gifts were like rubbing aloe on a sunburn.
Box four was a keychain with a QR code on it. I grabbed my phone as quickly as I could and took it off power saving mode. While I was waiting for everything to boot back up to normal, I went back to the letter.
Box Four: The Keychain
Now I’ll always be with you. Whenever you’re feeling down, all you have to do is zap this QR code and there I am, reminding you of how much you are loved. You know, in case you ever dared to forget it.
I picked up my phone and opened the camera. I snapped the QR code and his voice filled the room:
“Hey Elle, it’s your husband Ryan, just reminding you that you are beautiful, and I love you.”
He couldn’t have known at the time what an amazing gift this would be. Everything so far had been lovingly picked out with my doubts and fears in mind. He knew my insecurities and wanted me to start our lives together fresh and new. Knowing I could hear his voice whenever I wanted took a little of the heaviness out of my chest. He would always be with me now.
There was only one box left. I pulled it out and traced the ribbon with my fingers. I didn’t want this magical moment to end. It was like we were together again, in this haven in the dark while the storm raged outside. I didn’t want to go back to the real world. I wanted to stay down here where my love was showering me with gifts and building me up.
With a sigh of resignation, I lovingly untied the ribbon and set it aside. I opened the lid of the box and peered inside. A small jar filled with…nothing? An empty jar. He got me an empty jar. Curious, I turned back to the letter.
Box 5: A Jar of Nothing
As your husband, I always strive to get you exactly what you want in life. This is for all those times that I asked you what you wanted for your birthday, holidays, etc, and your response was always “nothing”. I am proud to have gotten you exactly what you asked for. I love you, baby.
I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud. That was my Ryan, a smartass until the very end. My mood was definitely lifted, and outside the storm had begun to die down. For the first time since his passing, I felt hope. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew that each day would come with new challenges, and moving on to life without my love would be incredibly difficult. But I felt a new sense of purpose from these gifts and words. Ryan wouldn’t want me to stay sad forever. He wanted me to live and love and feel things, and I knew I would again, someday.
The lights turned back, and I wiped my tears away and headed back upstairs to my new life.