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A Heart in the Sand

A widow coping with grief gets a comforting sign that her husband’s spirit is still near.

Phil and I loved the beach. We’d go every year. Florida, Puerto Vallarta, Maui.

“Hon, we need a break from this Minnesota cold,” he’d always say. We’d stroll the shore, covering the sand with footprints and watching them fill with water. We’d get up early to watch the sunrise and hunt for seashells all morning. I even had a special place to display all the beach stuff we brought home. The top of a bedroom dresser filled with seashells.

One piece stood out from the rest. A heart-shaped shell. Phil and I had picked it up while on a Valentine’s Day getaway to South Padre Island, Texas. It was so solid and round. So perfect. So one-of-a-kind. “Phil,” I said, pulling it out of the wet sand. “Look at this!”

“Well, isn’t that something!” Phil said. “Hey, happy Valentine’s Day!”

Then he wrapped me in his arms. I felt so warm and good I wanted this moment to last forever. I thought life with Phil would always be this wonderful.

But it wasn’t. Phil started losing weight. He couldn’t eat his favorite foods. One day he got so sick I drove him to the emergency room. He stayed in the hospital for a week. When the doctor operated he found an abdominal tumor. He called us to his office for a final prognosis. “Phil, you have stomach cancer,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

That night Phil and I sat silently on the living room couch. I couldn’t look at him. I was so afraid I was going to break down.

Finally my husband spoke. “It’ll be okay, Barbara,” he said, taking my hand and looking into my eyes.

“What am I going to do without you, Phil?” I could barely get the words out.

Phil pulled me close. “I’ll always be with you,” he said. “In your heart.”

Then one month later, Phil died. I brought the heart-shaped shell to his wake at the chapel. Everyone gathered in a circle. “When you get the shell, it’s your turn to share a few words about Phil,” I said. Everyone had a special story to tell. When the shell was passed to the last person in the circle, it broke in half. Fitting, I thought. My heart was broken too.

The days after Phil’s funeral were busy—paying off hospital bills, writing thank-you cards. Friends came by with casseroles and flowers. All the activity smothered my grief.

But it stopped and I had to face the pain. Face being without Phil. I fell into a deep bottomless grief. Finally my sister arranged for us to go to Hawaii. “I can’t,” I said, but I was too despondent to put up much resistance.

The moment I stepped on the beach I felt the sadness rush in all over again, like the rising waves washing away footprints in the sand. I can’t walk on the beach without Phil, I thought. Lord, will I ever feel whole again?

The sea spray stung my face ever so slightly. I felt an urge to look down. And there I saw it, glimmering in the foam of a receding wave. A heart, half-buried in the sand. A perfect heart.

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