In the beginning of the end of the life I once knew, there was nothing. My husband died and I felt and believed that he was just gone. I didn’t feel him or see him or notice his presence anywhere around me, so I assumed that it would always be that way, and I didn’t know how to live with that. It is bad enough when the person you love most just dies randomly with no warning whatsoever, and shatters your world apart – but it’s made worse when you cannot feel some tiny piece of their energy or spirit or soul floating around you. The thing that really sucked was all the many people telling me over and over how he is always here with me. I wanted to scream at them: NO HE ISN’T!!! STOP SAYING THAT!!! I DON’T FEEL HIM!!! HE IS JUST GONE FOREVER!!! A friend of Don’s, in the first couple of weeks after he died, insisted that he was a rainbow in New Jersey. She had seen a rainbow while driving to his funeral, and she told me that it was Don, and it was a sign. At the time, I literally was trying not to laugh in her face when she said this, because my husband would never come back as a fuckin’ rainbow. He just wouldn’t. He would come back as a lot of other things, but a rainbow isn’t one of them. So the term “My Husband Is Not a Rainbow” was born out of her observation and my reaction to it, and now, I have turned that very phrase into the title for a one-act play, a comedic presentation, and the book Im now writing.
The thing is, I was in too much pain back then for my husband to get through in any way whatsoever. Nothing else could get in. Not even him. Just pain. So in the beginning, he was nowhere. And I didn’t feel him for a very long time. Until one day, I did.
He started coming to me in my dreams. But these weren’t just any old regular dreams. They were visits. They were the kinds of dreams where I would wake up from them and actually physically feel his arms around me, or feel him hugging me, or he would say something specific to me, or often times we would have an entire conversation in the dream. And he was always already dead in these dreams. He was always coming back – his soul was coming back from wherever, to comfort me somehow, to help me somehow, just like he always did in life. He was trying to help me to move through and process his death. I would wake up and be shaken for days by how real these visits were. He was there with me. He had come to see me. I don’t know how the hell that shit works, but I know I couldn’t question it once I felt it. Sure, I tried to “logic” my way out of believing it was real, but he kept coming back. And in one of his visits, he told me to believe it. He said: “Does it feel real?” I said: “Yes.” He said: “Then it’s real.”
And then he started sending me even bigger signs. He would put people into my life path, exactly when I needed them. He would send an anonymous person to donate to my blog, exactly at the moment when I was drowning in bills and rent and secretly asked my husband to please find a way to help me. He led me to new jobs and apartments and scenarios, and to a bonding with his adult nephew and half-sister that I never had while he was alive. The signs became more and more constant, and as I continued the hard work of grieving and processing and breaking down my emotions with my grief-therapist week after week, I started to feel him around me more and more. This was an intensely slow process, and there was a LOT of doubt and questioning and trying to talk myself out of any of this being anything other than total bullshit. But again, he kept coming back. He didn’t give up on me.
And then suddenly, and also at a grueling and slow pace, one year became two, and two became three. Somewhere inside of year three in my “after” life without my husband on earth, I started to really feel joy again. I started to notice things like autumn leaves again, or Christmas mornings, or the lightness of the first snowfall, or the way that guitar chord sounds in that Stevie Nicks song. And each time I noticed one of these things, he was inside of it. He was inside everything, everywhere, all of the time. And then it no longer became about trying to search for him and figure out where he might be after death – because suddenly and finally, I felt him everywhere. If I were to tell you stories about all the many, many signs I have received from my husband since his death, this blog piece would be 50 pages long. Most of the stories will be in the book I am writing, but I feel the need to talk about the two biggest ones here, today, in this blog. Because they connect to one another, and because they are so completely amazing, sometimes I still have trouble believing they are real. But he keeps coming back and showing me.
One of the places that my husband Don loves to give me signs is at “Camp Widow.” I have now been to this incredible Soaring Spirits International event eight times, and given my comedic presentation eight times. Maybe Don gives me signs when I go there, to let me know that Im on the right track in what Im doing with my life, and that he approves. I don’t know. But something he has been doing lately, over the past year or so during most of year four without him here on earth, is sending me literal signs with parts of his name on them. He sends me his name, sometimes in pieces, and other times, in its entirety. Don Edward Shepherd. He puts his name on literal and actual signs, and gives me signs through actual signs, which is totally his warped sense of humor. It’s as if he is yelling at me: “You see, Boo? That’s a SIGN, with my name printed on it. See that? A SIGN. It’s a sign!! Get it? How much more obvious do I have to be?”
The sign/name thing really started taking shape during my first trip to Tampa, Florida, for Camp Widow in 2014. Because Don lived in the Largo area of Florida for so many years and while we were dating, and because I had spread some of his ashes at Clearwater Beach a couple months after he died, I already felt him close to me while I was in Tampa. And then on Sunday morning, during our Farewell Breakfast Buffet, we were sitting in a big banquet room at the Marriott Hotel, eating our eggs and saying our goodbyes at the end of camp, when one of my widow friends pointed at the big coffee thermos in the center of our table and said: “Kelley, look!” She picked it up and showed it to me. Right there, at the top center of the thermos, it said “Don.” It was just typed there like that – “Don.” There were maybe 10 other round tables in the room, so I got up and checked each thermos on the other tables. Every single thermos said: “Don.” Now you might be thinking to yourself, how on earth is his name showing up on 20 or so coffee thermoses relevant? Well, one of our favorite movies to watch together and quote together was Steve Martin’s “The Jerk.” And one of Don’s favorite parts of the film to quote to me specifically, was a song that Steve Martin sings to Bernadette Peters, about a thermos.
It goes: “Im picking out a thermos for you. Not an ordinary thermos for you. But an extra best thermos you can buy, with vinyl and stripes and a cup built right in. Im picking out a thermos for you, and maybe a barometer too. And what else can I buy, so on me you’ll rely. A rear end thermometer too.” We would hold hands in bed and he would sing this to me in this incredibly silly voice. So in that moment when I saw his name there, it made total sense to me that my husband was not a rainbow, but he WAS a thermos. And then it got even better. I went up to the staff and asked them if I could purchase a thermos with his name on it, and explained why it meant so much to me. I think they thought I was a lunatic, but they told me they arent allowed to sell the supplies used in the hotel, but that they would go ask their manager where they bought the supplies so maybe I could buy it myself later on from that company. So the guy comes back and tell me the name of the company that supplies the thermos and some other stuff. The company is called “Edward Don and Company.” Their website is www.don.com So now we have his name on each thermos, and his first and middle name is the supplier company name. When you go to the site, it says in big letters: “Who is Don?”
Then last year, I attended and presented at Camp Widow in Toronto, Canada, for the first time. “Camp Widow” happened to fall on my birthday, which is September 26th, which happened to be the first day of camp events, that Friday. So I had arrived in Toronto on that Thursday night by train. I had decided to take the Amtrak train instead of flying, because I hate flying, and Ill do anything to avoid it. Plus, Don absolutely loved trains. He loved everything about them. He even loved the band “Train”, and their song “Drops of Jupiter’, which , as it turns out, is all about the lead singer’s mother and where she “went” after she died. But anyway, Don was obsessed with trains. He had the Lionel Train Engine Set in our apartment, he had model trains that he would put together, and he loved riding the train with me. He even had this dream of us getting married and having our ceremony on a moving train. We had found one in Cape Cod Massachusetts, but the logistics of doing it were too difficult and it was very expensive, so it didnt happen.
So I took the 12 hour train ride, and I felt very close to him while on the train. That night, I was in the lobby where the Wi-Fi was free in the hotel, writing my weekly piece for the Soaring Spirits blog “Widows Voice.” It had just turned midnight, so it was now my birthday officially. My good friend Joclyn suddenly ran in, yelling: “Kelley, you have to see this! You will never believe what I found today, just a couple miles from here, while walking around just outside the city.” She started to show me pictures on her phone. It was a picture of a small building. It was a train station. It had a one-word sign at the top center. The sign said: “Don.” I was in complete shock at what I was seeing, so I googled “Don train station in Toronto”, and I came up with a website for the Toronto Railway Historical Association, which explained in detail the history of the Don station. His name was all over the website. It was unbelievable. The Don station sits inside the Don Valley, which is across from the Don River. It had opened and closed several times throughout the decades, but re-opened for the final time with an open house in October of 2006, our wedding month and year. So it looks like Don got his wish, in some strange way, of having our wedding day on a train. Out of several 19th century stations, the Don station is the only one still in existence today. The Main Subway Line is called the Shepherd Line, and runs along E. Shepherd Avenue. So once again, my husband is still not a rainbow. But he is a train station. My awesome friends Arnie, Judy, and Angel, drove me to the station location, and I got out and took this picture.
This year, about two weeks ago, I went back to Toronto for my second time presenting at Camp Widow. Once again, I took the train. About two weeks before my trip, I was screwing around on Facebook one day, and just happened to notice a link that someone had posted about something called “the rainbow bridge” in Toronto. I started laughing immediately, thinking to myself how Don is not a rainbow, but he WOULD be a rainbow bridge. Actually, it made complete and total sense why he would be a rainbow bridge. For those who dont know, Don was a paramedic, but he was also a huge animal lover and activist. He loved cats and dogs especially, and in his free time on his one day off, he both worked and volenteered at our local PetSmart in New Jersey, doing everything from feeding and brushing the kitties to helping out with their adoptions. That is where he collapsed and had the massive heart attack, on a random Wednesday early morning on July 13, 2011. My husband was a lot like me in his belief system. Neither of us really believed in the idea of heaven or hell, but he hoped that he would somehow see the pets he had lost when it was his turn to die. At his funeral, some of the staff from PetSmart gave me a beautiful plaque with a poem called “The Rescuer at The Rainbow Bridge.” It talked about a man or figure who lived at the Rainbow Bridge, and whose job it was to greet all the animals when they crossed over and make them feel welcome and at home. The Rainbow Bridge is the term used for a sort of “pet heaven”, a place filled with meadows and grass and trees and places for animals to play and run around and be happy forever. This is how the people at PetSmart saw Don – as the Rescuer who lived at the Rainbow Bridge. So, with all this in mind, I clicked on the link for the rainbow bridge, and quickly discovered it was only a couple miles or so from the Marriott Hotel we were staying at. I also discovered that once again, his name was all over this website. The rainbow bridge was just off the Don Valley Parkway, and could be found at the base of the East Don Trail. “I must go there”, I thought, and posted about it on Facebook, seeing if anyone else who was going to Toronto would have a car to get me to there.
Enter my friends Sarah and Mike. Sarah lost her fiance Andrew (she called him Drew) in a helicopter accident. Mike lost his wife Meghan to complications from cystic fibrosis. Sarah and I have became very close over the past couple of years, spending hours and hours on phone calls talking about life and death. This past March, Sarah and I both attended Camp Widow Tampa. We sat down next at a table during the meet and greet on night one next to a guy named Mike. Fast-forward to today – Mike and Sarah are in love and starting a life together. Mike and Sarah would be traveling to Toronto by car, so Mike volunteered to take me to the rainbow bridge. None of the three of us had any idea what to expect from this little day trip on the Sunday that Camp Widow had ended, but it felt as if we were supposed to be going there together. The best way to describe what we felt and saw is through lots of pictures. In true Don fashion, he just kept showing himself over and over and over again. Driving there, Sarah and I were both rushing to get each picture of each sign as it quickly passed by us. One after another after another after another:
I was actually laughing as we passed each new sign. It just seemed so incredibly surreal. Sign after sign with his name. Why was he coming through so strongly in Toronto? Two years in a row now? I still dont know why. But the signs were literally all around us as we kept driving into our adventure ……
Finally, after maybe 20 minutes or so of endless signs (there are actually more than this, but some are repetitive and I think you get the idea), we arrived at our destination of “The East Don Trail.” We had no idea whatsoever what to expect, except that there was apparently a rainbow bridge in here somewhere. Never in a million years did I expect to see this beautiful walking trail with the beautiful views of nature, exactly how I always pictured the Rainbow Bridge area looking – where animals go when they die. If such a thing exists, this is what it would look like:
As we continued to walk in stunned silence, I noticed something. People were walking by with their pets. People were walking their dogs down these paths and right by us. It felt like we were someplace special, someplace meant for us and meant for the animals and meant for life and death to embrace in that moment through the trees and the flowers and the streams of water. It was magical. Eventually, before we reached the rainbow bridge, we passed a small bridge that had graffiti written all over it. On the outside , and on the inside. Remember when I told you that it felt like the three of us specifically were supposed to be there that day? Yeah. I wasn’t the only one who received epic signs. As we walked, there were weeping willows down the paths of trees, which was Mike’s wife Meghan’s favorite tree, and a sign she sends him. Then, on the graffiti bridge itself, in huge blue letters, the word STAR was spelled out. Sarah and her late fiance’s initials spelled the word STAR. (Sarah Treanor, Andrew Ridge). Since Mike and Sarah have been dating each other, she has seen stars over and over and over. Sarah and Mike both believe that their late partners have had a huge part in putting them together to fall in love. I believe this too. Especially now.
As we passed underneath the bridge, there were the usual typical writings all over its inside tunnel walls. “Fuck You”, “Eat Shit”, lots of pictures of drawn penises, and our favorite: “Dildo In My Bum.” And then, in the midst of all that disgusting and crude writing, was the word “Mommy.” This was a sign for me and Sarah specifically. For reasons much too boring and dull to explain here, Sarah and I have a private joke where we call each other “mommy.” And there it was, written on the wall. So damn weird.
We walked some more, and finally we came upon the rainbow bridge, a small bridge with a painted on rainbow. Something about it made me feel safe and silly and at peace. It reminded me of the animated style artwork that is going to be on the cover of my book. It was cartoonish and lovely all at once. It was the rescuer, taking care of all the animals and making them feel welcome and loved. It was everything that my husband was and is. I took out the bag of his ashes that I had brought with me, and left some right under the bridge, in the corner. We walked underneath the bridge and came through the other side, slowly looking at all the artwork drawn on the inside of the bridge. This was another thing I never expected – drawings on the inside that had actual relevance to Don and were MORE signs upon signs that this was him, SCREAMING AT ME, “Im here!!! Im alive!!! Im everywhere that you are!!!”
As I passed underneath the bridge, two of the drawings struck me. They were Don. One was of a man walking a dog, with a city skyline behind him. The other was of a man riding his bike, with a skyline behind him. We lived on Boulevard East in New Jersey, just eight minutes outside of NYC, and our street had the NYC skyline all along it. It was gorgeous. Don had a bike and he loved to ride it. He would ride it along that street, with the skyline behind him. He always wanted a dog, but our apartment building wouldnt allow them, so we had two kitties. But every dog on earth would come up to Don and love on him, and I have this vision in my head that always sticks, of him taking our neighbors dog for a walk, with that skyline view behind him. He was so at peace while walking that dog. It was magic.
When we came across the bridge and out the other side, we came across an older couple with two dogs. They were very friendly, and we started chatting, and they asked us if we were visitors of Toronto and why we were there. We told them the story about how all of our partners had died, and we were here for a widowed people event. We told them why we were at the rainbow bridge and the significance of it, so they offered to take our picture with one of their dogs.
As we were talking to them, another man walked by and one of the dogs sniffed him a bit, nothing serious. The man sort of over-reacted, and started rattling on to the couple about how they should probably keep their dogs on a leash. The husband said very matter of factly: “Oh really? And you should probably go fuck yourself.” It was EXACTLY what Don would have said in that same situation, and in that same kind tone, like he was telling the guy to have a nice day. It was so hilarious and re-affirmed that this place was indeed, a place for the animals to be happy and free.
After walking under the brige and saying goodbye to our new couple friends, we came upon The Don River. It was really gorgeous, and I took the rest of the ashes I had with me, and let them go into the river below. It felt like the perfect ending to an absolute perfect day. Don was all around me and I felt so calm and safe. And I didnt question any of it. Just like Don told me when he visited me long ago, if it feels real, then it IS real.
In the beginning, he was nowhere. And now, he is everywhere. And that amazing shift in feeling has made all the difference in how I live each second of this thing called life. Beautiful, glorious life. Thank you, Don, for showing up over and over and over again, and teaching me how to live once more. I love you. And for all those people who kept annoyingly telling me that my husband was “in a better place”, I say to you now, perhaps yes. In Heaven? Hell, no. Canada.