HE SAID IT WITH FLOWERS
“You’ll never grow old in my eyes,” he’d said, knowing that he’d prune her flower when its first petal began to droop. That’s how Adelaide Smith explained her late husband’s fixation with gardening and with her beauty. They’d had four children together after the war and then they were stationed stateside. He didn’t want to work anymore. He wanted to quit the military and garden. But the children were still growing and there were so many years ahead to be paid for. A woman couldn’t support a family of six. Maybe he could find work at a nursery or a farm, she’d suggested. “How ‘bout a hothouse?” he’d said, holding both her cheeks with one hand. “I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you, my little orchid.” Everything personal he ever said to her was always in the language of flowers, but it didn’t always make her feel good.
When she asked Tom Smith for a divorce, his face reddened, and she could see the veins in his neck throbbing against his shirt collar. The next thing she recalls was him being taken by ambulance (or was it a police car?), to the VA Hospital in Palo Alto where he stayed for a few days. Every day her phone rang a hundred times. Tom was calling to say that the grass needed to be mowed and he was going to take care of it as soon as he got back home. “I’m going to mow all of it. There won’t be any grass left when I’m done,” he’d said.
Adelaide called the VA Hospital and explained that he’d been calling her a hundred times a day and that she feared for the life of her children and herself. The hospital representative kindly asked her to repeat everything he’d said that had sounded threatening, but when she told them what he’d said about mowing the grass, she could hear the smirk on the other end of the telephone line. They stopped being kind and arranged for Tom’s discharge and a VA car to drive him home.
I sat on the edge of Adelaide’s neat little kitchen chair listening to the story of this now eighty-year-old woman, wondering how it had all played out so long ago. I knew she was a widow, so things must have worked out alright after her husband Tom’s return from the VA Hospital. “He must have been suffering from PTSD,” I said, making a gross assumption. I watched her shrug her shoulders and then we sat in awkward silence until my curiosity got the best of me. “How did he die?” I asked.
I put my hand over my heart and shook my head, offering all of the empathetic signals and gestures that I think are so important when someone is recounting the loss of a loved one. She seemed to appreciate the gesture. “Your children were too young to know what happened?” I asked, hoping to be right.
“The children were here when he did it,” she said.
We were sitting in the house she’d lived in and raised her family in since coming back from the war on the GI Bill. “Oh my God,” I said. “They saw?” I rationalized my questions as part of my assessment of her relationship with her children and their ability to care for her. I was hunting professionally, I justified to myself.
“He did it in front of them,” she said.
I upped my exaggerated facial response. “What a blank, blank, blank!” I was thinking.
Adelaide decided to trust me with her story because more came tumbling out. “He would have killed us all if my parents hadn’t talked him out of it. That was his plan when he said he was going to mow us all down. He was going to kill me and the children and then himself. But he liked my parents for some reason, and they’d just arrived from Germany.”
“They were in the house too?”
“They came to the door from the airport while he was holding a gun to my head, and he let them in. I don’t know why, but he always liked them.”
“What a miracle,” I said, so lamely. She shrugged her shoulders.
“For two years after that, I don’t remember very much. I know that I worked.”
I continued gesticulating my support and amazement. “That’s incredible,” I added.
And then the expression left her face. She spoke softly now. “He held that gun to my head for six hours.”
I stopped trying to communicate with gestures.
My mom’s half-sister was bludgeoned to death by a man who said he was in love with her. I went to school with a woman who was found in the trunk of her car, murdered by someone she’d met online. I knew an artist who was murdered at a construction site by a guy she dated.
When I was young and carefree, before I became a social worker, I hung out with a Swiss girl here on a student visa until she was murdered by a homeless man she’d befriended. I dated a guy for a bunch of years and then one day my friend called panicked that he’d murdered me. “He’s just so tightly wound,” she’d said. He’d called me his little flower. He’d held my face in his hands and told me that I’d never grow old in his eyes.
See, Adelaide and I each have our own PTSD that will never truly leave. How could it? In school, I took all the classes on how to help people recover from trauma. It’s mostly aimed at veterans, of course, which is fine. A lot of them suffer from PTSD. In order to help them, you have to teach them to believe that the world is a safe place. You get them to understand that a bomb is not going to explode at any minute right where they are. Unfortunately, I’ve never felt quite right trying to teach that to another woman.
About the Author
Beri Balistreri's essays, stories, and poems have appeared in journals from 'Encodings' to 'Exquisite Corpse.' She is the 2019 recipient of the 'Golden Pineapple Award' for her travel essay about a silent meditation retreat. Her 2017 play about a lonely veteran and his caregivers was produced at three venues in Monterey County, California, where she lives and works as a medical social worker. You can find her novel, 'Woman Murdered,' about an autistic son accused of murder, and the darker side of human nature, available online at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and select retailers, along with her collection of poems, SpaceBar Poetry+. For more information or to contact her, go to www.beri-balistreri.com. Follow beribalistreri on Instagram, or tweet with her on Twitter @Beri_Balistreri.