The Anniversary Gift

Peter Newarski

© Copyright 2010 by Peter Newarski 


She looked up from the book she was reading. She had heard her husband, Artie, faintly calling her name. She put the book down onto the sand and looked out towards the horizon, beyond the breaking waves and sounds of the surf. She rose up from her beach chair, shielding her eyes with her hand from the bright afternoon sun in a cloudless sky. She could barely see him in the churning ocean, waving frantically, repeatedly calling her name, “Connie, help me, help me.” He must have swum out too far and suffered a cramp or something. She looked around to see if there was anyone close by who could help her. There was no one else in sight. She was alone on the beach. She knew she couldn’t swim, and was afraid of the water, but she instinctively ran towards it, stopping when she felt the cool water on her feet. Heart pounding, sweating, and breathing heavily, she ran back and forth, frantically looking for someone, anyone, who could help. She looked up and down the beach as she ran, losing her footing, falling and getting up again. Terrified, she began to scream for help, not knowing what else to do. Artie was still out there, drifting even further out, bobbing up and down with the motion of the sea, still calling her name. She was totally helpless; exhausted from running, her heart now pounding so hard she could hear nothing but the sound of it in her ears.

Connie! Connie!” She opened her eyes, still sweating and breathing rapidly, almost hyperventilating. Tears were running down her cheeks. Artie was leaning over her, shaking her. Her pillow and sheet were damp from perspiration; the sound of the ocean now a faint echo, fading into her memory.

 “Honey, you were having a nightmare. You were screaming and tossing in your sleep, I had to keep shaking you to wake you up. What were you dreaming about?”

 “Oh, it was so frightening. I dreamed that you were drowning and I couldn’t save you or get help.”

 “God,” Artie said, “you know that I’m a good swimmer, I wonder why you would dream something like that? Especially in January?”

 “I don’t know. I just know that it seemed so real, like I was really there.”

Well, stay in bed. It’s almost six thirty. I’ll get up and make us some coffee and breakfast. I’m not going in today because of the storm, it’s supposed to snow all day today.”

Connie lay back down onto her pillow and closed her eyes. Her body was relaxing, her breathing getting normal now. She watched as Artie put his robe and slippers on. He still looked younger than his years. He had turned fifty a week ago, and was just beginning to show some gray at the temples of his dark brown hair. He wasn’t more than six feet tall, but he was solidly built. He stayed in shape because of his job in construction, having stayed with the company since they married twenty five years ago this month, working up to his present position of supervising their commercial division. He still pitched in to help with some of the masonry and rough plumbing when needed, but was doing so less and less. He seldom had to go to the doctor for anything other than a mild case of the flu. Artie leaned over to gently kiss her on her forehead and went downstairs to make breakfast.

Connie lay there, recalling the dream. It was all so vivid and clear. She thought maybe that was why she had been so frightened. She seldom had nightmares, and she usually forgot her dreams almost as quickly as she awakened. She wondered if it was because of stress. She had undergone a lumpectomy of her left breast three months ago, but she had feared that all of the cancer might have not been removed, or that it might return. But all of the follow up treatments and testing showed that the procedure was successful. Artie had been so good about everything, always encouraging her and going with her for all the exams and tests. And he always kept their two unmarried sons in the loop. One son, Raymond, was in the Navy, stationed in Florida and the other older son, Jeff, was teaching at a Middle School in Virginia. She and Artie had occasional disagreements, but never anything serious. She was more liberal and laid back, and Artie was more conservative. He had more of an A type personality. She would really prefer a warmer climate, like Florida, but Artie’s work was here and all of their friends were here. Connie also liked her job as a loan officer in their bank near Mystic Seaport.

Connie, it’s ready, c’mon down.” Artie called.

Connie got up from the bed and went to the bathroom, combing her hair and putting her robe on over her nightgown. As she did so, she looked into the mirror. She felt that she still looked good for her age, forty-five. She didn’t have any wrinkles other that the usual tiny “crow’s feet” that women usually get and the scar from the lumpectomy was fading away nicely. Her weight was average for her five feet four height, and her auburn hair reached her shoulders. Of course she needed some coloring every few months to keep the hint of gray out. She went down the stairs and into the kitchen to have breakfast with Artie.

After breakfast, she opened the mail that had been left on the side counter since yesterday. One large manila envelope caught her attention. It had her son Jeff’s Virginia return address on it. She opened the envelope and found a “Happy Anniversary” card inside. There were also two tickets for a seven day cruise in September, brochures, and an itinerary listing stops at several islands as well as a handwritten message from Jeff and his brother Raymond. The message read, “Happy 25th Anniversary to the best parents in the world. Enjoy the trip. We sent the tickets early so you can make all of the necessary arrangements. Love, Jeff & Ray”.

She showed the envelope contents to Artie. He smiled and said, “You know, I was thinking of going on a cruise this year. This is great!” Connie smiled and said, “I’ll call the boys to thank them. The cruise is out of Fort Lauderdale, so maybe we can drive down and stop to see them on the way.”

 “Good idea, Con, we’ll take our time going there.”

The rest of the winter passed quickly. In the spring, the housing market became active again and people were seeking loans. Artie’s company was busy constructing several large office buildings near Mystic Seaport. They both worked through the summer, only taking a week off to spend some time with Connie’s parents in Boston. As September approached, they became more and more excited about their upcoming vacation.

They left a week before the scheduled September cruise date, stopping at Jeff’s apartment and spending the night there after going out for dinner. They then drove to Raymond’s apartment in Jacksonville, where Raymond was based, working there as a mechanic. Staying overnight at a nearby motel, they left for Fort Lauderdale the following afternoon after a quick visit.

They hadn’t been on a cruise ship for at least fifteen years and were pleased to see that the ship they were boarding was almost brand new. The crew was extra polite and helpful. They happily entered their stateroom, an outside one with its own outside deck and unpacked. Connie felt as if she was on a second honeymoon. Artie was happy to just be with Connie and he was looking forward to exploring the Caribbean islands they would be visiting. The time passed quickly, and hearing the ship’s deep throated whistle blasts, they went out onto the deck and watched Fort Lauderdale and Florida slip away.

After a day at sea and stopping at San Juan and St. Thomas, they docked at St. Maartin early Thursday morning. Connie and Artie had enjoyed themselves immensely, their days filled with fine dining, cocktails, dancing and shows. They had gone to morning Mass in the little chapel on Wednesday. They had met several couples, but had kept mainly to themselves, treasuring this special time together. On the way to St. Maartin they had toured San Juan and had shopped at St. Thomas buying some souvenirs. Artie suggested that they go to the beach and relax today. This morning they happened to have breakfast with a young couple that had been to St. Maartin on a previous cruise. Artie asked if there were any good beaches near their port, and the couple suggested Dawn Beach, which was not as crowded as some of the others. The local people also visited there, so it would be interesting to get a little idea of island life.

Artie and Connie put their swim suits on under their clothing, and, packing towels and suntan oil in a tote bag, they got into one of the taxis, waiting outside of the port gates. The weather was warm with a slight breeze and a bright blue sky with only a few clouds.

Connie thought Artie was as excited as a teen-ager. He hadn’t had a chance to go for a swim all that summer due to the Mystic Seaport project. He was a strong swimmer, having been on the swim team in high school which resulted in winning several medals that he was proud of showing. They arrived at the central, quieter part of the beach. Renting a beach chair and umbrella at a nearby souvenir shop, they stripped to their swim suits and sat on the glistening sand, watching the waves rolling in. Connie began to read one of the guide books she had found on the ship. There had been a hurricane out in the ocean a week ago, and the sea was less than calm, with occasional shoulder high breakers almost reaching the shore.

Connie suddenly remembered the dream she had last winter, and got a strange feeling of déjà vu. She looked around and noticed that unlike her dream, there were two young men with two girls, frolicking noisily nearby. The men were teasing the girls, who were laughing and making faces at them. There also was a family of four further down the beach, and several bikini clad teenage girls wading and skipping over the waves as they washed onto the shore.

 “Connie, I’m just going to go out for a swim for a little bit, then I’ll come on in and we’ll find a place to eat. I think we passed a bar within walking distance.” Connie looked at him and said, “Artie, do you remember the nightmare that I had a while ago?”

 “Oh yeah, Babe, I remember that you were screaming in your sleep.”

 “Well, I’m nervous about you going in for a swim right now.”

 “Oh, Con, it was only a dream. Does this place look the same to you?”

 “No Artie, maybe just a little, but I’m worried?”

 “But there are other people around. The water is a little rough, but no worse than the Jersey shore. I won’t go too far out, I just want to get wet and cool off.”

 “OK, Artie, but be careful, honey.”

Connie watched Artie run into the clear blue water, laughing like a kid. She watched him swim out and roll over onto his back, floating and then turning and swimming a little further out. “Maybe I’m being a little silly,” she thought to herself as she sat down again, continuing to read the guide book.

Then she heard him.

 “Connie, Connie, help.” He was waving his arms. She called to him, “Artie, Artie.” She began to run towards the water, her heart beating rapidly now. She was so terrified, this couldn’t be happening. “Help, help, he needs help.” she yelled. She was sobbing and screaming, pointing towards Artie.

The two young men looked at her, and then looked out at Artie, who now was washed over by a wave. They yelled something in French to the girls, and ran into the water, then swimming towards where Artie had been seen. One of the girls, her hands shaking, was calling on her cell phone, while the other came over to hold Connie. The teen aged girls ran towards them. They all watched as the young men swam, being hidden by the motion of the waves, then reappearing. Connie was crying uncontrollably, now, feeling a deep sense of fear engulfing her. Her stomach was churning, legs feeling weak, her entire body shivering and shaking.

They brought him onto the beach, laying him on his back on top of a blanket. One of the young men began pushing on Artie’s chest with his hands, beginning to administer CPR, sirens now wailing in the distance. Some water came out of Artie’s mouth, but he never regained consciousness.

Connie sat on the living room sofa, looking out of the picture window. It was January again, and she was thinking that this would have been their twenty-sixth anniversary. She watched the snow gently falling on the front lawn in the fading afternoon light. The events of that day in September were still fresh in her mind. She had blamed herself for Artie’s death, feeling that if she had been more persuasive in asking him not to swim that he might still be alive. But the autopsy had shown that Artie had died of a massive heart attack from a defective heart valve. She came to realize that Artie would probably not have survived much longer and that she could not have known how serious his heart problem had been. Jeff and Raymond both were such a great help to her during that most difficult time. They had flown out to St Maartin to meet her and help with all of the extensive, complicated paperwork and arrangements that had to be made. The funeral was held the following week and had been attended by a huge number of friends and family. Things were now finally becoming more or less normal, although she missed Artie terribly. She had returned to work knowing that she was secure financially because of Artie’s life insurance and the savings and investments that they had accumulated. The mortgage would be paid off in another year. Connie turned on the TV and watched an hour of news and reheated leftovers for dinner. Afterwards she sat in the living room reading the newspaper and found herself dozing off, so she turned the lights out and went upstairs to bed.

There he was, standing at the foot of the bed. The sun was shining brightly through the window, lighting up his face. Artie was smiling at her, dressed in jeans and that favorite blue shirt of his. He looked so happy and healthy. She somehow knew that she was dreaming, but he looked so real. Still smiling, he turned and pointed to the top right drawer of their bureau. He turned back towards her, and gradually faded away.

Connie opened her eyes and slowly sat up on the side of the bed. The dream was clear in her mind. It was seven o’clock, time for her to have breakfast and get ready to go to work. She stared at the drawer in the bureau and slowly got up and walked across the room. She opened the drawer, wondering why Artie would point to it. It usually was used as a catch-all for photos, old greeting cards, odd pieces of jewelry and such. But right on top of an old greeting card was the heart shaped locket Artie had given her on their fifth anniversary. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen it. She picked it up, looking at it as tears filled her eyes. It was gold plated with a silver guardian angel cherub on the front. She read the inscription on the back that said, “May your guardian angel always love and watch over you” Artie had added the date of their fifth anniversary. She opened the locket and looked at his picture inside. She kissed it, closed the locket, placed the chain around her neck and closed the clasp. Smiling now, she put her robe on and went downstairs to make coffee.

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