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shelley davies The Globe and Mail

It was a beautiful October day in 1999. My husband was home again after numerous hospital stays and we both knew that his advanced stage of heart failure was irreversible and the inevitable was but a few months away.

Taking in the fall colours, he pointed out a large whitish section on the trunk of the Schubert chokecherry we had planted in our backyard after moving into our home in 1985. The tree gave us privacy and dappled shade on our deck, turning it into an outdoor living room.

Now there was a huge gaping wound on the trunk. We immediately called in an expert from a reputable nursery. The diagnosis: virulent, contagious fungus. We were told that the tree must be removed and we shouldn't replant the same kind.

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Reluctantly, we had the tree cut down. Mindful of the advice given to us, we replaced it with a young crabapple that was to bloom pink and produce fruit that would attract birds as the chokecherries had.

It broke my heart to see the tree go, more so because it was so distressing to my husband, and we both regretted having acted so hastily. It symbolized, in a way, our 37 years of marriage that was coming to an end. Psychologically, the timing could not have been worse.

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Fall melded into winter and my husband's health deteriorated at an alarming rate. With his death on Feb. 3, 2000, at the age of 72, my life fell apart. So began the long and painful journey to the other side of grief.

With the arrival of spring, the young crabapple looked lost and out of place. Each time I looked at it, it brought pain, memories and regret at having lost the chokecherry, which now symbolized a much greater loss.

Summer must have come and gone, but much of that time was a blur. As the fall colours came around again, I got ready for the drive south, this time alone, to sell our winter home.

I drove back to Canada in 2001 with a heavy heart. It was early May when I got home, and the crabapple was still there, forlorn, unwanted and unloved. It was as sad-looking as I felt.

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As I gazed out, I was torn by indecision, torturing myself about selling our house. But I felt a presence saying, "Don't do this to yourself. You don't have to sell our house. You can stay here." It was as if a curtain had been pulled aside to let the sunshine in. I stayed and never looked back.

In early fall, I approached the crabapple and realized that it had never taken root, and never would. I pulled it out with minimal effort and smiled sadly. It struck me that my husband had never wanted this tree and was letting me know that he had been instrumental in letting it deteriorate.

The message was clear. Ignoring all previous advice, I promptly drove out to a nursery and bought a young Schubert chokecherry. I drove it home, planted it, watered it and knew that it would be a long time before it became a tree of any significance.

How wrong I was. It exploded in rapid and healthy growth with the first days of the following spring. I knew that it was my husband's doing, that he was still in my life and this was a message.

The Schubert is known to be a fast grower, but this tree went way beyond the usual rate of growth. It spread out year by year, bearing more flowers and fruit, which brought the birds back.

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Last year, it was glorious, tall and dense and covered with white blossoms that developed into chokecherries to the birds' delight in late summer.

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A visual treat every day, it is a source of poignant joy and nostalgia for all I have lost and for the life we had. But it is also a comfort, as I choose to see it as a sign that somehow, from that special place where he has gone, my husband tells me that he is with me always. As long as I am here, he wants me to go on, developing new interests and honing long-standing ones, adding new friends to my life while nurturing the close friendships we held in common, and endeavouring to keep as fit and healthy as possible and to age with dignity and grace.

It has been a long and painful 10 years. The hole in my heart is still there. I still cry on all our special days, and sometimes just because. And always just after the new year, during those weeks leading to the anniversary of his death.

But I have also learned to laugh again, often and out loud. I am comforted when a cardinal flies into our yard and stays for a while, one of the little signs that let me know that he is still here with me, along with the most enduring of all, the Schubert chokecherry.

Jeanne Emelyanov lives in Ottawa.

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