The Beauty of Rain
AMY FOX WALSH
The anniversary was always destined to be an awful day.
A burly paramedic throws open the rear doors, shouting through the din of heavy rain at the doctors waiting in the bay, “Patient is Amy Fox Walsh. Birth date 8/4/89. Car crashed into a tree on Route 104, north of the Merritt.”
He and an EMT then maneuver my gurney to transfer it out of the ambulance. Each bump and jiggle wrenches another whimper of pain. This isn’t supposed to be happening.
“Possible grade-three concussion, broken nose, and broken ribs with probable pneumothorax, based on her bluish lips, shortness of breath, some coughing, and tachycardia.”
An eruption of thunder seems the perfect soundtrack for this moment. I’m nauseated but too afraid to twitch, let alone throw up. Breathing stings, as if my lungs are tangled in razor wire.
A young male doctor or nurse is taking notes on a device. His female colleague points a flashlight at my eyes, her gaze trained on my pupils. “Any others involved?” she asks the EMT.
“No other vehicles. No skid marks. No seat belt.” He lowers his voice and adds, “The patient has wrist scars.”
I close my eyes. They don’t know me. They don’t understand my history or know anything about what took place on the road today. I need to reach my sister.
“Amy, can you speak?” the woman asks.
“Yes.” The effort rips through me like a sharp blade.
“Do you understand where you are?” she asks.
“Yes.” God, no more questions, please. It hurts so much to talk.
“Any allergies to medication, anesthesia, or contrast dye?”
I give the barest shake of my head, searching her gaze for reassurance.
Her expression is more focused than friendly. “Is there anyone we can call?”
My sister. I can picture her face, but it takes longer to recall her name. Drawing a deep breath to answer fully makes me cough, which sends new shock waves of pain through my chest. “Kristin DeMarco. 203-555-1234.”
“Okay,” she says, confirming that her colleague got that info. “Let’s get her inside and processed. We’ll need head and chest CTs to confirm, and check for open ORs.”
When they roll me toward the entry, I bite down against the pain. The doors whoosh open as I’m thrust inside, where I’m bathed in fluorescent light. The acrid scent of institutional cleaning solutions reminds me of my trip to the ER last July. Once again, Kristin will be a wreck because of me.
I might vomit after all.
Three months earlier
The third Saturday in January
Old Greenwich, Connecticut
This idea that you can’t control life is a lie. Of course you can, simply by choosing to end it. Yes, yes, I know: then you’d be dead and your life would be over—or your life here on earth would, but that’s another discussion. Even if you’re repulsed by this suggestion, you cannot deny that you possess the ultimate power to control your own fate.
I find that to be perversely reassuring.
Not that I’m advocating suicide. Even during these torturous past nine months, on all but one excruciating instant when another breath felt impossible, I’ve tried to find some small way to make each day count. Today is a good example.
The chocolate and sugar aromas wafting through my sister’s normally immaculate, remodeled kitchen are a rare treat. I blame the intimidating, overpriced, imported French oven for the cratered top of the sheet cake—something my generic appliance never did—although I can blame only myself for the poorly sliced and reassembled sections of this confection. My niece and nephew race to the large quartz island where I’m layering frosting on the bungled birthday cake.
“That’s Piglet?” Livvy’s face puckers. My little sidekick since I moved into my sister’s guest suite in late August. She climbs onto a stool, bouncing on her knees, her black-brown curls springing around her face.
Swallowing the bubble of disappointment rising in my throat, I stare at the lumpy mound that resembles a swollen pink hornet.
“Use your imagination, will ya?” I slide Livvy a smile to mask my defeat before sticking out my tongue.
“Scotty loves him!” She reaches for the sky with the enthusiasm only a first grader can muster.
Loves. “Yes.” My late son’s obsession with Piglet is cross-stitched into the overall embroidery of his short life. He would be five, perhaps on the verge of losing one of the baby teeth on display in the photo I’ve set on the kitchen table. The tooth fairy is a tradition lost to me, but as long as I’m alive, I will honor the day he was born.
Some might find this party macabre, but I’m not the only surviving parent to plan one. Grilled cheese—his favorite—and balloons won’t bring him to life, but they will keep bits of him present in our thoughts, and that’s no small thing.
Luca, who’s nine, swipes his finger along the base of the frosting, less interested in how the cake looks than how it tastes. Skinny but tall for his age, he’s fair like Kristin, with her same pin-straight blond hair.
“Ah, ah, ah.” I shake my head, pointing the spatula at him. “Not yet.”
“Sorry,” he says matter-of-factly, already showing signs of his father’s pragmatism as he turns and walks to the family room, plops onto the enormous suede sectional, and picks up the latest Theodore Boone book.
“Are those for us, Aunt Amy?” Livvy asks, pointing at the gift-wrapped boxes on the counter near the toaster.
“Be patient.” I use black M&M’s for the pig’s snout and eyes, then step back to see if they’ve made an improvement. Being an avid fan of The Great British Bake Off does not, apparently, improve one’s baking skills.
“Are you pestering your aunt while she’s busy?” Kristin asks Livvy when she enters the kitchen to place a card on the pile beside the two gift-wrapped boxes. When she’s not nearby, she’s no doubt checking the video cameras to gauge my frame of mind. Earlier I overheard her whispering concerns about my manic mood to her husband, Tony. It’s quite possible I’ll melt down at some point. Probable, even. Nevertheless, my bittersweet high is enough to prove this isn’t my worst-ever idea.
Livvy frowns at her mother. “I’m good company.”
And a good mimic, repeating the exact words I tell her on the mornings when she crawls into my bed before sunrise.
Kristin, wearing an amused smile, ruffles her hair. “Please go get Daddy off the Peloton and tell him to shower because we’ll be serving lunch soon.”
I turn my back on my sister, pretending to need something from the refrigerator. What I truly need is a breather.
She means well, but her careful language has hit a nerve—not that that’s hard to do lately. On some level, I get her apprehension. Caused it, even. But really, can’t we call this a birthday party? It’s got all the trappings. Her professionally decorated family room now looks like Chuck E. Cheese ran through it and barfed up streamers and dozens of multicolored balloons. The kitchen table is covered with a Winnie the Pooh tablecloth and confetti. The only thing missing is Kidz Bop blaring from the speakers.
“Mom and Dad want to Zoom when things get underway, okay?” Kristin raises her brows in question, although we both know I have no choice.
Four more eyeballs following my every move—yippee. I grab the pack of American cheese from the refrigerator. “Okay.”
“Grilled cheese,” she says gently, as if the significance of the selection has dampened her vocal cords.
I’ve spent my life in her shadow, with her being always a little smarter, a little prettier, and until recently, a lot wealthier. Not that she lords anything over me—the opposite, really, as if she recognizes her advantages and tries to diminish them, like when she used to stash her soccer medals and honors certificates in her sock drawer so I wouldn’t see them every day. I’m sure she meant to be kind, but I was never fragile. I’m always happy for her wins, even when I cannot match them.
I open the pantry to get bread and potato chips.
“How can I help?” She flattens her hands on the island.
Funny question, considering she needs my help as much as I need hers. Not that she sees it.
“Maybe grab the paper plates and silverware?” I shrug.
Kristin lays a hand on my shoulder as she breezes past. The gesture makes me stiffen. Since my husband Sean’s death (yes, I lost him with my son in one fell swoop), she’s tried to be his stand-in. My safe space. The person I confide in. Sean mostly listened without judging or second-guessing. Kristin’s a natural-born fixer, always more focused on what should happen than on enjoying what does, which doesn’t make her easy to turn to for comfort.
On top of that, she’s been edgier lately, and losing weight she doesn’t need to lose. Sometimes she’s nearly shaky. My lengthy stay and events like this one could be to blame.
While I’m buttering bread and compiling the sandwiches, Tony shows up, his hair still wet from the shower. He’s objectively handsome—the classic Italian look with wavy, dark hair, equally dark eyes, and a strong nose and chin. A contrast to Sean’s slightly dorky looks, medium-brown hair, and fair skin. A bit elfin, but sincere and approachable. Like a mirage, my husband smiles before vanishing. I blink in the hopes he’ll reappear, but of course he doesn’t.
“Let’s see that cake.” Tony glances at it and immediately covers his mouth. His torso trembles as he holds back the kind of inappropriate giggles that attack in a church pew. The epic fail on my part—and his inability to contain himself—both make me snicker, at which point even my sister relaxes long enough to laugh.
“Well, the taste is all that matters,” he says. Like his son, he can’t resist sampling a bit of icing. “Should I man the stove?”
His energy boomerangs to restlessness, perhaps a remnant of his earlier apprehension about the potential for this ghostly bash to spook their kids. A silly concern. Teaching kids to cope with something they’ll confront time and again is at least as important as teaching them algebra.
But Tony’s been patient with me. More than patient. What man wants his sister-in-law underfoot indefinitely?
I shoo him away. “Go hang with Luca. Let him tell you about that book he’s reading.”
I turn to the stove, but not before catching his nonverbal exchange with Kristin. The arch of his brow tells me my suggestion annoys him. It also means they’ve talked about this kind of thing before. If they want me to stop nudging, they should stop taking time with their family for granted.
Twenty minutes later, the remnants of our greasy lunch lie scattered across the table like branches felled by a storm.
“Cake now?” Livvy claps.
“Let’s do cards first to let our tummies settle,” I suggest, although this element of my plan could sink me.
Tony, who’s been silent, rises to collect the dirty napkins and paper plates. Quietude is unusual for him. The first time he dined with our family, more than a decade ago, he spoke animatedly about every topic from food to travel to politics. Kristin spent that meal making moon eyes at him except for the few times she’d glanced at our parents to gauge their impressions. Back then we three were still babes playing at adulthood, blissfully ignorant of what could come. How I miss that youthful cloak of invincibility.
“You don’t need to be so stoic, Tony,” I say. “This is a party. It’s okay to have fun, tell a joke. Otherwise, it’s just plain awkward.”
“We can agree on that,” he mutters wryly, the subtle barb sailing over Luca’s and Livvy’s heads.
Kristin shoots him a sharp look and then touches my hand. “Should I grab the gifts?”
I shake my head. “I’ll get them. You fire up Zoom.”
She pushes back from the table and trots to the den, returning in seconds with her iPad before logging on. Mom and Dad pepper Livvy and Luca with questions while I pass out the cards.
“Hi, Mom. Dad.” I briefly make eye contact, but watching them struggle to feign happiness while grieving their grandson will only pull me off track. I won’t let them derail this celebration any more than I’ll get sidetracked by the fact that no one from my husband’s family has called or sent a card. Donning a patient-teacher smile, I ask, “Shall we jump in?”
“Me first!” Livvy stretches across the table to grab the card she made.
“I’d expect nothing less.” I bop my finger against her nose before she opens the envelope. With great flair, she unfolds her artwork and displays it to everyone before turning it to face me.
“This is one time when Luca, Scotty, and me were at the beach—”
“Scotty and I,” my sister corrects.
Livvy scowls and I might too. I refocus on her drawing, which depicts two figures in the water (Luca and her, I assume), and then, slightly off center by himself, is a boy in socks piling rocks on the beach.
“Scotty really liked the rocks. He piled them and knocked them down over and over. That was so funny.” She giggles, her head bobbling from side to side. “We had ice cream sandwiches for lunch. It was fun.”
I remember that afternoon at Tod’s Point too. Scotty, then three and a half, disliked having gritty sand between his toes. The sock thing was cute, especially when Sean nicknamed him “Two Socks.” That day I’d driven down from Stamford, borrowed Kristin’s pass, and taken the three kids to the neighborhood beach, but none of us could coax my son into the water. Eventually Livvy sat beside him and built a rock creation of her own. She’d always played alongside him despite his social-connectivity issues. Maybe even because of them. Patience came naturally to her, unlike me, who always felt one step behind his autism.
“That was a fun day.” I reach across to squeeze her hand, hiding the way memories make my insides feel like a piñata defending against batters. “Thank you for reminding me.”
My praise earns me her winning smile.
We proceed around the table, with everyone sharing a memory of Scotty. Luca’s letter updates Scotty on how I’ve been living here now, but he’s not trying to take Scotty’s place—something I hadn’t known he’d worried about. My mother’s voice cracks on her turn; so does Kristin’s. Tony and Dad muscle through like newscasters reading a teleprompter. Everyone has their own way of dealing with discomfort. My request wasn’t an easy one, but I wish the adults would get with the spirit. Stoic expressions aren’t inspiring happiness, which is something I desperately wish to feel again.
When my turn comes, I say, “For mine, we need to go outside.”
“What about the presents?” Livvy asks.
“That’s next. Now go grab a coat.” I stand to retrieve five of the biodegradable helium balloons from the family room. Last year it was oddly warm and sunny on Scotty’s birthday. He’d been especially sensitive that day, uninterested in a party and refusing to wear the birthday crown I bought. Sean got a little pissy about wasting money we didn’t have on things we should know Scotty wouldn’t enjoy; then I got mad because his being right wasn’t helping me make the party fun for our son. Now all I wish is that they were both here, even if we relived that same argument.
Within two minutes, the family is reassembled near the sliding doors in winter coats and hats. I hand everyone a balloon, grab the iPad, and go out onto the deck.
I tried to plan a speech, but every effort got tossed in the trash. I’m no Jane Austen, able to conjure words that could render the emotional tornado in my heart. Now I grope for a starting place while the others stare at their feet in silence.
“This party might seem strange, but even though Scotty’s in heaven, he’s still my baby, and I’m still his mom, and today is his birthday.” These beautiful, painful truths keep me going when soldiering on feels as impossible as breathing underwater.
The kids stand dutifully, like they do at Easter Mass, waiting for instructions. My sister dabs her eyes and then grasps Tony’s arm. My left hand flexes as if searching for Sean’s.
It takes several seconds for my throat to loosen enough to speak again. “Scotty can’t be with us today, but I thought we could send these balloons up to him so that, in some way, he’s part of our celebration.”
Tony’s face is splotchy, his lips pressed together, zipping up his emotions. He’s clasping Kristin’s free hand so hard that his knuckles are white. For a second, their tension makes me question putting everyone through this.
“We’ll let these go at the same time and make a little wish, okay?” I look at Livvy and Luca because they, more than anyone, keep me grounded. Livvy nods, her dimples fixed marks on her cheeks. I love her and Luca, and am blessed to be loved in return. Yet I envy that they still have their lives ahead of them. They will learn about the world and themselves as they continue to grow, graduate from high school and college, find jobs, fall in love. All the things my little boy will never experience. The not knowing who he might’ve become is a rabbit hole that can easily consume me.
It’s still quiet except for the chattering of teeth. We huddle with our backs against the wind before we release our offerings.
As they rise, I blurt out, “I miss you so much and pray someday we’ll be reunited.” My voice catches, so I pause to acknowledge the yearning. “Until then, keep building rock castles in the sky.”
With my face lifted to the sun, I hold my breath as the brightly colored balloons drift inland on the wind.
“Mine’s winning!” Livvy points at the emerald-green one charging ahead of the rainbow-colored pack.
I pull her close, hoping her light will chase away the dark. My nose is runny as hell and my eyes burn, but I stay rooted until the last balloon disappears.
“I’m cold,” Luca says.
“Yes.” Truthfully, I’m more limp than cold. My big idea didn’t mitigate my loss one bit. My son is still dead, and I’m still here, surrounded by my sister’s family, with no one of my own. Try as I might to squeeze a single drop of joy from this day, my strength is crumbling. “Let’s go inside.”
“Cake!” Livvy runs ahead and throws open the door before ditching her coat on the floor and sidling up to the table.
Kristin grabs me into a hug before I cross the threshold. A silent, tight embrace that wrings out the tears I’ve held back. As we ease apart, she grabs my damp face, her gaze searching mine. She’s scared, and it’s not fair of me to be bitter. I caused that fear last summer, on a day neither of us will ever forget, and not just because my wrist scars are a permanent reminder.
I wait for her to say something, but she can’t or decides not to. She drops her hands and picks up the iPad before following me inside, where Tony has already dealt with Livvy’s coat and put candles on the cake.
“Oh boy. It really is hideous,” I croak, half laughing, half crying. Everyone goes still, as if any movement or sound will be the trip wire that makes me implode.
Livvy’s small hand slides around mine then. “You always say it’s the effort that counts. Good effort, Aunt Amy.”
And just like that, she defuses the gathering sorrow. We sing, and then the kids slice gigantic pieces of cake for themselves. My appetite is weak, but I force myself to take one bite to honor the custom.
I normally love cake, but today it turns my stomach. My head begins to pound.
“I need to lie down.” I stand, surprising everyone with my about-face.
“What about the presents?” Livvy asks.
“Those are for you and Luca. You can open them without me, okay? I got a sudden headache.”
Kristin reaches for me. “Advil?”
“I’ll clean up,” Tony says, smiling in that soft way he does when trying to soothe someone.
I nod. “Thank you.” Before retiring, I turn to leave the kids on an upbeat note. “Don’t suck the helium without me.”
“Okay,” Luca promises before sneaking a second sliver of cake onto his plate. I kiss the kids on the head and wave to my parents, who are still on the screen.
“Thanks so much, everyone. I love you all.” My throat aches, so I dash up the stairs and close the door to my room. Perhaps Kristin was right. I’ve been pushing for the impossible—a joyful party for a dead little boy. Reality always catches up. The Winnie the Pooh quote “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard” echoes like a message from beyond.
Luck. Something most people pray for. Something everyone cheered about when I won all those millions. Good luck. Dumb luck. Blind luck.
Bad luck, as it turns out.
Nobody who wins the Powerball imagines such luck will lead to the death of their spouse and only child. The result of a year of quietly playing the same numbers—our birth months and days—had seemed such a blessing. If only we hadn’t planned that celebratory trip to Exuma.
It had been a disaster almost from the start—an overconfident reaction to our big win. I called the airline in advance for special accommodations. Scotty wore noise-canceling headphones on the flight, and I managed his food sensitivities by bringing his favorite snacks. We booked a beautiful suite with ocean views, thinking that would be soothing. Unfortunately, my son’s different operating system made him prefer the company of objects to people, so the crowds and the music around the pool proved overwhelming.
The morning of the ill-fated boat tour, Scotty had spent thirty minutes yelling and then smeared his food across the table in our suite, staining his clothes with blueberry jam.
“Why can’t we ever have one easy day?” It had been a trying couple of years: the managing his proclivities to reduce his stress, the fear of the unknown, the learning curves. Even before the diagnosis, Sean’s reluctance to acknowledge an issue and my breakdown upon confirming my suspicions had begun to put a strain on our marriage. Sean left the daily work of parenting Scotty to me while he focused on his job and budgeting so we could afford the support our son might need throughout his life. When we’d won multimillions, we believed our problems were solved—or at least that we’d buy our way past the hardest work.
“What did you expect?” Sean shrugged.
“I expected us to have some fun. To reset. To enjoy our damn windfall.”
“Then we should’ve come alone, like I suggested.” Sean’s nonchalance—his lack of sympathy for my frustration—pushed me over the edge.
“Trust me, I would’ve loved to have come here alone. I haven’t had two hours to myself in years.” My smug huffiness emphasized our tired argument about which of us was dealing with more pressure when it came to child-rearing.
Sean grabbed the beach bag I’d packed for the boat tour of the swimming wild pigs. “Fine. I’ll take Scotty on the tour. Go to the spa and ‘reset’ so maybe we can relax later.”
“He won’t be able to handle the boat tour.” Another of my theoretically fun ideas that would likely end nothing like we planned.
“We already paid for it. We chose this island because he loves pigs. He knows about the tour. Canceling will likely upset him more.” Sean sighed. “It’s a small boat, so it shouldn’t be too crowded. He’ll like the hum of the engine.”
Scotty did enjoy things that hummed—vacuum cleaners, hood vents, fans, cars.
My skin itched. In that moment, I didn’t have the energy to go with them and face other people’s judgments if Scotty became overwhelmed. I didn’t honestly care about seeing the pigs. I just wanted to be pampered. To drink cucumber water, get a massage, listen to spa music, and read a book. Oh my God, that sounded like bliss. “Fine. You take him. I’ll hit the spa.”
Fine, fine—our last words to each other. That and the “need” for me time simply for doing what any good mother has done for her child throughout the centuries make me hate myself most days. Had I gone, I would’ve died in the explosion with them instead of being stuck wrestling with the effort of living without them.
I hug their photo to my chest, flop onto the bed, curl around a pillow, and weep until I’m asleep.
When I awaken, the sun is lower in the sky and my room has grown dim. The cashmere throw from the chair is swathed across me, letting me know my sister checked on me at some point.
I sit up and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror—thin and sallow—then decide to take a bath. Steam fogs up the bathroom as the soaking tub fills. My thoughts wander while I wait. If Kristin hadn’t stopped by my house to drop off groceries at the exact moment of my all-time low point, she wouldn’t have heard me slide off the toilet in my bathroom after slicing my wrists. The way horror contorted her features as she dropped to her knees—mouth gaping in a silent scream—after she opened the door and found me bleeding still makes me flinch with shame. She jumped into action quickly, wrapping my wrists tight and holding them over my head while calling 911. I should be grateful she saved me, but there are days when I almost resent it.
It’s not easy to live with the consequences of my choices. To plan parties that the guest of honor can’t attend. To mark time against one cruel twist of fate.
I take my nearly full bottle of doxepin from the vanity drawer and set it on the side of the bathtub before I settle into the water.
After Kristin picked me up from my monthlong inpatient stint in the hospital in August, she first told me how much she loved me and that she was glad I was doing better. Then she said, “We want you to come live with us for a while, but I have to ask a favor.”
Uninterested in returning to my empty home with all its ghosts, I asked, “What favor?”
“You won’t harm yourself in my home. I love you, but I can’t let Luca and Livvy witness something no child should see.”
I dropped my chin, letting the weight of her words and the pain I’d already caused my family sink in. It wasn’t an easy oath to make, but armed with antidepressants and fresh off a month of daily therapy, I hoped for the best.
In some ways, the months between then and now are like a long, indistinct smudge of getting from sunrise to sunset by making myself useful—doing the family laundry, tidying up, making dinners when Tony runs late. It’s been tough to commit to moving on when looking forward still feels disloyal to the two I’ve lost.
For all my good intentions, the holidays were a brutal test. I flew to Arizona to stay with my parents rather than risk breaking down on Christmas morning in front of the kids. At least out west, nothing reminded me of home.
I’ve done my best to heal, but real joy is still fleeting. It’s hard to feel I deserve to go on, given the reason I wasn’t on that boat.
I grip the bottle of pills.
If I took them and went to bed, no one would find me until morning. It could look like I’d had a heart attack. Even once Kristin learned the truth, the kids would never need to know. She and Tony would protect them from it—I could count on that much. And while I don’t want to hurt my sister or parents, they’d survive because they have everything to live for right here under this roof.
Negativity sinks its teeth into me, pulling me further down. Why stack empty day after empty day for their sake while the numbness inside—an invisible cancer—slowly kills me? An endless future of celebrating birthdays for the dead and holidays without them is too vast. Too hard. My hands tremble while I unscrew the cap. There are plenty of pills. I stare at them, tears in my eyes, escape within my grasp.
I’m starting to raise the container to my lips when a knock at the bedroom door startles me, causing me to drop the bottle. Pills plop into the tub and scatter across the floor.
“Shit,” I mutter, sloshing water as I reach for the now-empty container, using the back of my hand to swipe my tears.
“Aunt Amy, can you come play dolls?” Livvy yells.
She obviously likes her new American Girl doll, as I knew she would.
“Where’s your mom, pumpkin?” Hopefully she can’t detect my strained voice.
“In her office.”
Naturally. Weekends don’t mean rest in this house. Tony’s and Kristin’s jobs are rarely far from their thoughts. That’s why they don’t notice that their careers are quietly stealing their most important—if invisible—asset: time together. Time, time, time . . . so much time spent focused on things that aren’t nearly as valuable as they believe.
“Give me five minutes to dry off and get dressed.” I toe the drain and let the water swirl around me, alive if not quite living. One day—one minute—at a time. It’s always been my only life plan anyway.
“Okay. Come in my room.”
Her love has been a beautiful gift this year. Please, God, forgive me for doing anything to disappoint or hurt her.
I towel off, knowing it’s time to move out. I’ve overstayed my welcome, for one thing. Tony and Kristin aren’t nearly as affectionate with each other as they always were before my arrival.
For months, I’ve searched for a reason to keep going, but if today proves anything, it’s that even my best efforts will always come up short. None of my money can buy back what I need to be happy.
If I’m no longer living here, then I’ll no longer be bound by my promise.
The mere decision prompts an immediate, energizing flood of relief.