This article was originally published in “We Need Not Walk Alone,” the national magazine of The Compassionate Friends.
The culmination of all the training runs…the throng of like-minded people…the crack of the starting pistol…ah, race day jitters! Nothing could motivate me more than the start of a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or triathlon back in the day. That was then. Back then, I never looked up. I never noticed the blueness of the sky. I never noticed the vastness of the stars. I never paid attention to the sun rise. I never saw the craters of the moon. That was then.
That changed at 5:25 a.m. on August 8, 2011, when I received the news that my son, Tony James Phillips, had drawn his last breath at 22 years, 10 months, and 5 days. Unwilling to believe my new reality, I spent the next year dazed and confused, still not looking up. In my haze, I continued to put one foot in front of the other: going to work, going to school, and yes, even laughing and socializing, presenting the image of a strong woman. As reality set in and the haze lifted, I cracked. Like shards of broken glass and jagged rocks, the pain of my forever changed future pierced my heart, my soul, my mind beyond endurance. The cracks in my façade grew larger, as my focus and concentration disappeared. A perpetual sob lodged in my throat, even as keening wails escaped from it. My lack of memory grew even worse. Finally, I raised the white flag of surrender and admitted that I had lost my way. I was derailed from my linear grief journey and accepted the journey for the circular path that it is. With the compassion and support that I needed from my management, I took a hiatus from work. I started to look up.
I started to look up with the realization that Tony now possessed knowledge that I did not have. In life, he had turned to me for wisdom so many times. Now, I would turn to him. Serenity washed over me when I sensed his energy in the skies as I looked up. Among the twinkling stars, one shone brightest of all. I asked, “Baby, can you see me?” Another night, the stars over the quiet sky enveloped me like a blanket, and I felt the peace that only a mother can feel when she embraces her child. “Baby, can you see me?”
That began my foray into seeking gems from Tony in the natural beauty of East Tennessee. Energy only changes form and does not cease to exist, and so I know that his spirit lives on. Gems come to me on the wings of butterflies, in the chirping of birds, in thunder claps and flashes of lightning, in the warmth of the sun. Every living creature, every rustling breeze, every whisper of leaves, every gurgling stream carries his spirit. All the goodness and beauty that surround me on my walks encompass the good, the true, and the beautiful of my Tony. When I see a butterfly, or a squirrel, or a honey bee, or a deer, I believe these are my “shout-outs” from Tony! I rejoice and send him a silent message back, “I will never forget; I will never stop loving; you will never be harmed again.” And, then I ask, “Baby, can you see me?” I know that he can.
During my hiatus, I sat on a huge rock at the half-way point to the Gentlemen’s Watering Hole in Rugby and heard the call of doves overhead. It was an uphill walk on the way back to the trailhead, punctuated by the rustle of the water when I came across small rapids. The River Boardwalk at Ijams Nature Center eventually led me to a natural quarry with only the sounds of my footsteps to accompany me. At the University of Tennessee Arboretum, I stood absolutely still, watching a deer serenely nibble on leaves and enjoy the sun as much as I was. A misty orb appeared over my mouth and heart in a picture that was taken of me at Obed Wild and Scenic River, kisses from Tony. I watched the miniature fish in the water by a fishing dock at Clark Center Park before I leaned back to watch the fluffy clouds above. This day, my grief consumed me as my sadness carried across the water and my tears fell without ceasing. Other nights, I saw the moon as a crescent, a tiny sliver, and even in its full glory. The majestic skies revealed planets and constellations that I had never noticed before, when I didn’t look up. Riding a horse in Townsend, my guide and I were surrounded by a menagerie of butterflies along the trail that flew in a cluster beside us for several breathtaking moments. I dangled my feet over rocks at The Sinks in the Great Smoky Mountains as I basked in the sun. I stood in awe, looking into the spectacular gorge for miles in the horizon of Big South Fork. I stopped midway across a tall walking bridge in Stearns, Kentucky, to watch the dragonflies hover over the still waters below. Butterflies with blue wings, some yellow, and orange-black ones fluttered along my walk at Elkmont. The Blue Ridge Parkway leading to the scenic Tail of the Dragon on Highway 129 revealed more majestic vistas and billowing clouds.
It was at the Tail of the Dragon, on the anniversary of Tony’s death, that I laid some of his ashes along his beloved route. I drove through “S” curve after “S” curve until I finally found the perfect spot, shaded by a massively tall tree. I rested against the tree with his ashes on my lap and then plunged my hand into the bag, feeling bits of bone and ashes sift through my fingers. As I gently poured out his remains at the base of the tree, a honey bee landed next to me and crawled through the ashes. Its tiny wings dipped—my “shout-out” from Tony! Through my tears, I stroked my heart with my hand that was covered in his ashes, wanting to absorb him in any way I could. Time passed in solemn minutes until I had to acknowledge that I could not sit against the tree until the end of my days, and I slowly gathered myself up to continue the journey home. I received one more “shout-out” on the way, although this was a man-made one. Too awesome to ignore, this sign was that of two contrails from jets that had flown in opposite directions, forming a huge letter “T” in the blue, clear sky!
Yes, baby, I hear you—you are letting me know that yes indeed, you can see me!