THE PENDANTS

As she filled my glass with ice water the waitress smiled, “I love your necklace!” I looked down at the “smiley face” pendant. I then smiled across the table toward my 88-year friend John. “Thanks. He gave it to me.”

I’m a plain Jane. I’ve always worn jewelry because of its sentimental value to me, not necessarily its beauty. Every day, for decades, I wore the gold crucifix I had bought in Rome when my husband and I visited his grandmother a few months after our wedding in 1981. I wore my wedding ring until I “grew out of it” and had to graduate to the larger anniversary ring that my husband gave me on our 19th anniversary. The Claddagh ring that Dad bought for me when we were in Ireland, Grandma’s simple silver band with diamonds I chose after she died, and the earrings given to me years ago by my Ukrainian friends completed the mix that I’ve worn every day for years, with variations only for special occasions.

About 13 months before Ben died, while he was taking classes at the firefighters’ academy, he kept having dreams that he died in a house fire while saving a 6-year old girl. I remember many conversations I had with him about that persistent dream. After one of those conversations, he sent me a text: “And if that happens, Mom, I want to be cremated and some of my ashes put in glass vials for you and Dad and Cami, and whoever else wants one, to wear around your necks.” I kept that text for some reason–only God knows why– and still have it on my cell phone today. Horrible to read it when it was received. Devastating to think of it today!

I had always hated the thought of getting a tattoo but, about six months after Ben died, I felt very compelled to get one to evidence my love for him. I chose to have Ben’s real Italian name (Berardino II) incorporated into an infinity symbol on the inside of my left wrist…the one closest to my heart. Thus began my affinity for the infinity symbol. Shortly after having it done, I got brave and showed my tattoo to my friend John as we were having breakfast one Saturday morning. John’s son had died 3 years before Ben, so he and I have developed a great love and mutual understanding and compassion for each other. Though I had anticipated disapproval from him (because he was an older man), John had not appeared shocked at all and actually seemed to understand why I had felt driven to have Ben’s name permanently inked on my body.

Up until that time, John had given me several pieces of jewelry which I had quickly become attached to…a silver pin and necklace resembling white feathers (one of my signs from Ben), a red cardinal pin (John’s sign from his son Mark) and others. After seeing my tattoo, John started giving me “infinity” jewelry. Beautiful pieces that absolutely touched my heart and made me feel closer to Ben. Every time I wore one of them, I felt more connected to Ben, and to the world…someone out there (John) understood my pain and had empathy. I could touch the diamond infinity necklace. It was solid and it was an affirmation that my love for Ben is infinite.

It was always in the back of my head as something I had to do, but I could not gather the strength, or even fathom where I would find it, to be able to “shop for a necklace to hold my son’s ashes.” Almost a year and a half after Ben died, I had to make funeral arrangements for an elderly friend of ours. While the funeral director was out of the room, I started leafing through the catalog that had been left laying open on the table. I flipped through the pages and there before me was a sterling silver infinity pendant. It was not a glass vial, per Ben’s text, but I instantly knew it was meant to be. It was time to do what I hadn’t been able to do. Even though it was still so emotionally terrifying and devastating for me to take the step that I had vowed to take “someday but not today,” I placed the order for the necklace to hold my son’s ashes. The funeral director took care of all of the details. When it was ready to wear, my daughter Gina went with me to buy a silver chain for the infinity pendant. She eased my pain and heartache by giving me a huge hug after we had chosen one and she had lovingly clasped the chain around my neck. The infinity pendant was where it needed to be. Close to my heart. I now wear Ben’s infinity pendant every day.

This past February, for my birthday, my friend John gave me my “smiley face” necklace. It’s probably an inch in diameter with white diamonds for the face and black diamonds for the eyes and mouth. As I opened the package, John had said to me, “I wanted to give you something that would make you smile every time you looked at it.” And I do. I wear that smiley face, along with Ben’s infinity pendant, every single day.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been fighting so hard to find a balance in my life…carry your pain and heartache in your left hand while hesitantly reaching forward (toward “living again”) with your right hand…that I am continuously aware of the presence of the two pendants that I wear every day. Their innate symbolism may not be apparent to anyone else but me. A smiley face alongside Ben’s infinity pendant, which symbolizes all of my love for Ben as well as all of the heartache that my heart could possibly hold. The paradoxical pendants. Side by side every single day.

When I look down and see the smiley face, it does make me smile, just as John had wished. But almost every time that it does so, a thought similar to this goes through my head: “Here’s the smile that the world wants to see…even if I can’t wear a genuine smile on my face at this very moment, here’s one for you.”

Ben’s infinity pendant is always tucked inside of my shirt or camisole. Always. I haven’t quite figured that one out.  Is it because I want to keep Ben close to my heart, as my sister suggests when I wonder out loud? Is it tucked inside, next to my skin, as a reminder of the days when I cuddled baby Ben against my chest? Or do I wear it tucked inside in order to protect my grief, as an assurance that I do not need to feel pressured to get over it (my grief is there, it’s mine, even though you may not see it)? Or do I tuck it inside in self-defense, in order to avoid questions which may lead to tears? Perhaps it’s done in defiance of a society that is not as accepting of sorrow as one is led to believe (It doesn’t matter what you think….I will not deny my pain, at least to myself)?

It may be one or all of the above, but it’s definitely because I know that, regardless of what you may see on the outside, my heart is badly broken and always will be. That regardless of the millions of many genuine smiley faces I may give the world from now until my last breath, I, and maybe only I, will always be aware of the hidden pendant that lies close to my heart, the pendant that symbolizes my infinite love for Ben as well as the infinite void that will always be a part of me.

Only I knew the depth of the emotions behind the smiley face that the waitress admired as she filled my glass with ice water. “I love your necklace!”

I checked to make sure that Ben’s infinity pendant was where it was supposed to be.

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