Beauty From Ashes

Entry by: EmmaM

13th October 2016
Sara swung her car into the car park next to the market square, and pulled into the nearest parking space. Turning off the engine, she sat in silence for a few moments and felt her heart pick up pace, like a runner sprinting for the finish line.

Glancing at the digital clock, she realised she would be late if she didn't hurry. She got out of the car, wrapped her coat around her, and began walking the short distance towards the cafe where she had agreed to meet them. The last dregs of the night sky were fading away, ushered out by the crisp, cold morning. The town was slowly rousing itself from sleep, people scurrying to work or to run their errands.

Sara reached the cafe and lingered outside for a moment, her breath floating in little clouds on the cold air. She realised she didn't even know what they looked like. She peered through the window and saw a few tables occupied by people sitting alone to drink coffee and read the papers. There was only one couple, towards the back of the cafe. That must be them.

Sara pushed the door open, a little bell announcing her arrival, and the couple looked up at her. She could see now that they were the right age, in their early fifties. It was definitely them. Half-smiling, Sara walked towards them. "Are you John and Kate?"

They both got to their feet. The lady was shorter than Sara, and her body had spread and softened with age. Sara could see that her face had once been pretty, but all beauty had been carved out by deep wrinkles which splintered her face. Grief had dragged its fingers through her red hair, leaving streaks of white and grey. She wore a long, dark skirt and an anorak, clothes which hung from her body like an afterthought. Her eyes held Sara's with a blend of hope and sorrow.

"It's nice to meet you." Sara held out her hand, but Kate folded her into an embrace. Sara put her arms around her, feeling the shudder of Kate's body as she sobbed. She looked up at John. He was a tall man, but stood with his shoulders hunched, weighed down by the burden of pain. His face was marked with the same lines as his wife, as if grief had slashed them both like a child with a marker pen. He stood solemnly, his poise counterbalancing his wife's unrestrained sobbing.

After several moments, Kate drew away from Sara, her face smeared with tears.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's so emotional meeting you. Let's sit down."

The took a seat at the table, and gave their coffee orders to the waitress. Once she had gone, the three of them looked at each other, the weight of their emotion strangling any words they tried to speak.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet me," Sara said, eventually. "I wasn't sure if you'd want to. But I'm very glad you did."

"We were glad you got in touch," John said. It was the first time he had spoken since Sara had arrived, and his voice was soft and low. "We want to hold on to any part of Josh we can."

He bowed his head, smarting from the pain of speaking his son's name.

"How are you feeling now, after the operation?" Kate asked.

Instinctively, Sara placed her hand over her heart. The surgery had been more than nine months ago and her doctors were pleased with her progress. She had made an excellent recovery and was now back to work, back to the gym, back to socialising. Sometimes she almost forgot about what had happened, just a blip on the graph of her life. But the scar down her chest, stretching from neck to sternum, was a permanent reminder of the gift of life that she had been given. Gratitude would forever be engraved on her body.

"I'm doing really well," Sara said, guilt threaded through her words. "And that's all thanks to you... and to Josh."

Kate grasped Sara's hand in her own. "We are so glad we could help you, Sara. It gives us such comfort to know that something good has come from our loss."

Sara tried to smile at her, but a swell of emotion squashed her lips. She saw in Kate's eyes the same shadows that she had seen in her parents' eyes when they thought they were going to lose her. For her parents, the darkness had rippled away once they had been handed the miracle of hope. For Kate and John, it was forever stamped into their hearts.

"Tell me about Josh," Sara said. "What was he like?"

Kate and John exchanged a brief glance, agreeing with their eyes what they would tell her.

"Josh was our boy, he was wonderful," John said, looking down at the table, his hands clasped together. "But, he was.... troubled."

The word swayed in the space between them, infused with a thousand meanings.

"He struggled with life, found things more difficult than other people," John continued. "He didn't seem to fit in at school, he was a bit of a loner really. We worried about him a lot."

He paused for a moment. Sara could see from the sorrow in his eyes that he wished he still had the luxury of worrying about his son.

"And then, a year ago, he met a girl," John said. "Laura. Over night he seemed to turn into a different person, didn't he Kate?"

Kate nodded, smiling through the flecks of tears. "You know what it's like, first love. They were mad about each other."

"They were," John said. "It was Laura this, Laura that, all day long. We were happy about it – she was a nice girl and he seemed happy for the first time ever. He was doing better at school and seemed to be making more friends."

John paused again, gathering his strength to tell the next part of the story.

"And then one night they were driving home from the cinema and the car skidded on some ice and crashed into a tree. Laura was killed instantly. Josh had some minor injuries, but he survived."

John began to cry, his shoulders jerking as his body tried to untangle the anguish that was knotted into every organ. Kate covered his hands with her own, her tears drying as his fell. Sara saw the reciprocity of their mourning, how each one's grief was indirectly correlated to the other's. They grieved in rotation, taking it in turns to hold back the torrent of pain that would otherwise destroy them.

"Josh couldn't cope after Laura died," Kate said, picking up the story where her husband had fallen. "We tried to talk to him, we sent him for counselling, but nothing helped. He just stayed in his room all day, barely eating. We were sick with worry, but we didn't think he would....."

Sara followed the footprints of Kate's words and heard what couldn't be said. "He....?"

Kate nodded, her head confirming what her whole body wished wasn't true. "Yes, he took his own life. He couldn't carry on. His heart was broken."

Sara put both her hands to her chest, feeling the dull thud of Josh's heart, giving life to her body. To her, his heart had been a blessing, a gift that had pulled her back from the foggy line between life and death. Every throb of his heart hummed a tune of gratitude. And yet for Josh, that same heart had been broken, scarred with an affliction so fierce that he couldn't carry on living.

"Look after my son's heart," Kate said, a whisper of urgency in her voice. "Mend it for him."

The shadows in her eyes parted for a moment to allow a blink of hope. "And maybe one day, beauty can come from ashes."