An Unexpected Gift

By Fredricka R. Maister

My behavior was inexplicable that day when I went shopping and bought Richard a gift for no apparent reason.

Richard was the man with whom I had shared my life. For 14 years we had been best friends, co-writers, lovers and soul mates. We meditated together, liked the same movies and restaurants, held similar political beliefs and above all, knew how to make each other laugh, even in the most unlikely situations.

While shopping during my lunch hour, I came across a bar of men’s soap-on-a-rope, one of Richard’s favorite toiletries. I hemmed and hawed over buying it for him. What was the occasion? Was I going to buy it because I had been so abrupt when he called me that morning at work?

But why feel guilty when he understood how stressed out I was at my job? Besides, he didn’t really need more soap. But he’s a good guy so why not give him a gift?

I kept leaving the display only to be drawn back to it. A flash forward to dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant that evening, and Richard’s surprise when I would ceremoniously present him with his soap-on-a-rope finally convinced me to purchase it.

But our dinner did not come to pass. Richard was found murdered in his apartment early that evening. The autopsy would reveal that Richard had been stabbed 10 times and had a fractured skull from a blow to the head. The estimated time of death was between 2 and 3 pm, precisely the time I was in the store obsessing over whether to buy him the soap-on-a-rope.

The police interrogations, the shocking news that a close friend had been arrested for killing Richard, my appearance as a witness before a Grand Jury, and the cruel reality that Richard had died a sudden and violent death were too much to bear. In the weeks that followed, my emotions took on a life of their own, the intensity of which was alarming to me. Rage, depression, terror, acute anxiety – I never knew which would surface or when. I felt totally out of control. Most evenings after work, I would sit on my couch, crying or staring into space. Sometimes I just crawled into bed.

I consulted a therapist, took yoga, got massaged, joined a support group for survivors of homicide victims and developed a network of trusted friends to whom I could unload my overcharged feelings. I was doing all the “right things,” yet I felt no respite from the pain. Homicide was ruling my life.

A friend who was a staunch believer in the healing power of rituals encouraged me to create a “New Age” ceremony to commemorate Richard’s death, using an object that had belonged to him as “an offering.” Although skeptical, I was willing to try anything to cope with my overwhelming grief.

I had once been told that in esoteric circles the soul is believed to reincarnate 40 days after one’s death. That point of information provided the time for my ritual, but what about the offering? Parting with anything that had been Richard’s would be an unthinkable sacrifice. Then, like an epiphany, I remembered the soap-on-a-rope I had wanted to give Richard. It was still sitting on my dresser.

One beautiful April Sunday, exactly 40 days after Richard was killed; some women friends and I drove to Bear Mountain in Upstate New York, to the picnic area along the stream where Richard and I had spent many happy times. Except for a lone fisherman casting his net downstream, we were the only ones there. The stream, almost overflowing with the early spring runoff, forcefully gurgled its way past us. The setting for my ritual could not have been more bucolic and perfect – just the way Richard would have wanted it.

We scouted around for a spot to bury the soap-on-a-rope, which I had wrapped in the most elegant floral design paper I could find (I hoped the flowers were orchids because Richard really liked orchids.) We found the ideal burial place under a branch that had fallen across the stream and set to work digging a hole with sticks and an ice scraper retrieved from the car.

Once the hole was dug, we gathered around, carefully placing the soap-on-a-rope in its final resting place. As a friend held up an enlarged photograph of Richard, I announced,

“This is in honor of the 40th day after your death, Richard. Let us now have a moment of silence.”

We joined hands and reverently bowed our heads. Just as we were ready to embrace the silence, something quite unexpected happened: I broke into an “unfitting” fit of uncontrollable, straight-from-the-gut, contagious laughter. The absurdity of the scene – grown-up women, looking far too solemn, holding up an oversized photograph of a man and getting ready to bury a bar of soap – suddenly struck us as hilarious. Without missing a beat, one friend said, “That’s Richard laughing at us.”

How comforting it was to feel that Richard was with us in spirit. How liberating it was to give way to such laughter when I never expected to smile again. Could the laughter have been a sign, Richard‘s way of telling me to lighten up and be hopeful, assuring me that I would heal my emotional wounds and recover from the trauma of his murder? 

With the passage of time I have surmounted the emotional havoc of Richard’s homicide. That is not to say that I don’t have my moments when the pain of his violent death unhinges and sets my emotions churning. A tender love scene in a movie, an old song on the radio, the stories of homicide on the evening news can suddenly sting without warning. But, inevitably, the memory of my ritual at Bear Mountain breaks through, recapturing that moment when I gave Richard his soap-on-a-rope, and he gave me the hope to heal and laugh again.

About this writer

  • Fredricka MaisterFredricka Maister is a freelance writer from New York City. Her essays have appeared in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Writer, Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Jewish Week, Big Apple Parent, Coping with Cancer magazine, OZY, Huffington Post, and Sasee.

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2 Responses to “An Unexpected Gift”

  1. estelle rose says:

    you write with such clarity and
    feeling – the warmth of your relationship will never disappear.

  2. Angie biehl says:

    Very well written. It brought back emotions of my own loss and feelings that my late husband was smiling at my antics.
    Hope to see you sometime soon. You look great from your bio pic

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