The sky poured its grief on the mourners six weeks later, participating in their grief for the loss of a prosperous life that was tragically shortened. Shelby had everything going on for her: a close-knit family, the wonderful friends who loved her to bits and a stable career that afforded her yearly vacations. With a deep breath and squeezing his fists in the pocket of his coat, he needed to keep his emotions in check before he entered the crematorium hall. If he allowed himself to bawl his heart out now, he didn't know when he'd be able to stop.
In the middle of the crematorium hall was the veneered word casket with the enlarged framed A3 picture of a grinning Shelby attached at the front of it. Wreaths of flowers possibly from her peers in her field of work were scattered behind the casket, but clear enough for the mourners to read the messages if they wanted to from this end of the area. Rows of plastic chairs were placed for them to have their quiet moment in grief or prayers. Greeting him as he entered was the book of condolences. He refused to pen his message on it because no amount of words illustrated the sadness he harbored at Shelby's death. He additionally believed that his physically being there for Shelby's family was a better comfort than the messages in a book.
His peripheral vision caught the sight of Mrs. Winters seated alone at the front row of the chairs and he offered his condolences to her.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Winters. I really am.”
“Thank you, Jerry. I really appreciate it.” Her eyes were rimmed raw and swollen. “Can I ask for a favor?”
“Since you’re Shelby’s good friend, would you mind to offer the eulogy at the funeral mass and lead the seven day prayers tonight at eight?”
“I don’t mind it at all. I can do both.”
Mrs. Winters gripped Jerry’s hand as her way of saying thanks.
The decision to return to the park a month after Shelby's funeral left a sour note in his throat, but it was something that he had to do if he wanted to overcome his grief. While he felt emotionally lighter and less burdened now, it was still a working process through the five stages of grief with acceptance a far distance away. He leaned over the wooden railing and sighed. Although he knew that Shelby would be upset to see him in the depressive state, the journey of closure was harder with each passing minute. His face lost all traces of cheeriness. It was fixed in a permanent frown. Most of his nights were accompanied with silent tears, which affected his sleep. He was barely eating, which was evident on his five-foot-eleven frame. He lost additional weight and was dangerously close to emaciation. Functioning in his daily life was draining the remaining energy that he had, but he was also relieved that it wasn’t affected his work. Work was his only escape from reality.
Their friendship spanned for such a long time - seven years now - that her absence was sorely missed. Her departure blew the brightest candle in his life, killing all of his happiness. It would take the right person to replace the darkness and mend the hole in his heart. He was unsure whether he’d be given another opportunity for that to happen or if he was capable of loving again.
His mind returned to the time when Mrs. Winters informed him that Shelby was admitted to the hospital after collapsing in her bedroom.
Armed with the information provided by Mrs. Winter earlier over the phone, Jerry dashed out of his parked car and into the hospital. As he walked closer to the ward, he could hear Mrs. Winters’ soft cries and pleas to her daughter to make a full recovery. With a deep breath, he knocked on the door as a sign of his arrival.
“Hello, Mrs. Winters.” Jerry forced a smile. “How’s Shelby?”
“She isn’t in a good condition, I’m afraid, Jerry.” Mrs. Winters rose to her full height and repeated the doctor’s words before turning to her daughter. “It’s the beginning of the end now. Since it was Shelby’s choice to forgo medical treatment, we can only wait for the time when her body’s decided to throw in the towel.”
“Can I have a word with you outside? There’s something I have to ask.”
Mrs. Winters took hold of her purse and followed Jerry out.
“The thing is,” he continued after they were out of earshot. “I’ve asked Shelby why she refused further treatment, but she avoided the subject. I was wondering if she’s told you the reason?”
“She has. She told me that whether she continues with another round of treatment, it’ll ultimately rob her of her limited time to enjoy life. She doesn’t want to be plugged into the machines monitoring her every move and holed up within the four walls. Plus…” she trailed off, finding the appropriate words to express herself. “Another reason is you.”
His eyes furrowed. “Wait, what? I didn’t ask her to stop treatment, Mrs. Winters.”
“No, let me elaborate.” Mrs. Winters raised both hands. “When I pressed Shelby on this, she replied that she didn’t want you to spend your time on her when there are better girls than her out there. To be more specific, she was falling in love with you.”
“She couldn’t see a bright future with you, Jerry, if you two got together. Her illness will always be an issue that you two will have to tackle with and now that it arrived at this stage, it’d be a matter of time before goodbyes have to be said. Although she knows that it’s a tough thing to ask for, she wants you to love again and think of her as a distant memory of your past. If you ask me, Jerry, I actually believe that she sacrificed her short-lived happiness in exchange for your eternal one with someone.”
What Mrs. Winters revealed left him speechless that he lost his voice.
Looking up at the bright blue sky above him, he now wanted to rewind the time to their first encounter and seize his chance while he could. He swore that instead of beating around the bush, he would come clean with his honest feelings with her. He made one of the gravest mistakes in his life and now that Shelby was gone, there was no way of correcting it.