Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Some kids like watching Saturday cartoons,
And some girls listen to records all day in their rooms,

But what do birds leave behind, of the wings that they came with,

If a son's in a tree building model planes?




Note: The names of some folks in this entry have been changed to protect their privacy.

My wife and I bought our house just over 4 years ago. We had first looked at the house about 3 months before we actually purchased it, and were ready to make an offer, but then we found out that we were really locked into our lease and buying our way out would have eaten up a serious chunk of our down payment. So, we decided to pass, wait a few months and begin looking again then. It killed us, because we'd completely fallen in love with the house, but breaking the lease would have cost us over $4000 so that was just out of the question.

So, fast forward about two months. My wife is returning from a beach vacation with her parents and our kids, I've stuck around Austin to get work done. I run to the airport to pick them up, then drop them home and return to work. Christine calls me about 15 minutes after I sit back down at my desk, excited, saying "You're not going to believe this!" Our real estate agent called and told us that, out of the blue, she'd heard from the sellers, the Gales, and that they'd decided to drop the asking price *and* pay the lease breakage penalties out of the closing funds, if we were still interested.

Well, obviously, we leapt at the opportunity. No additional negotiations, no chiseling down the price. We talked with our agent, set up a time to get the contracts signed the next day, and started getting our finances in order.

But something was really eating at us.

Why us? Why did they suddenly come out of the woodwork and contact us with this offer? So we asked our agent and she said she'd see what she could find out. The next morning, she called us with some more information bout the house, information about lenders, etc., and when we finished up we asked her "So, did you find out anything?"

Well, she sort of paused, and then said "Ummm. Do you really want to know?"

We said "Of course," of course.

Well, it turned out that 3 weeks after they'd bought their new house and moved into it, in the middle of the night, their 9 year old daughter Maggie came in to their bedroom, screaming in pain, and clutching her head. They brought her into the bathroom, whereupon she screamed once more and collapsed. Turned out that she'd suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, and she died within seconds. 9 years old, and she died right in front of them.

God, it's hard to write about stuff like this.

Anyway, in the couple of weeks after that, after they'd buried their daughter and began trying to figure out how to sort their lives back out, they decided that they needed to get their old house, the house where their daughters (both of them) had been born and spent their early years, off their backs. So, they knew we loved the house, they knew what our issues were, and they decided that it would be in everyone's best interest to just make the issues that were preventing us from buying go away.

4 years later, and I still feel the strangest sense of guilt about this, like somehow we benefited from the worst tragedy that can possibly befall parents.

Christine met them both at the house inspection -- they wanted to be there to make sure any concerns we had were addressed. The moment Melanie, the mom, walked in the room, Christine just lost it, began crying and apologizing, asking how she was doing. Melanie lost it as well, and they just hugged. They'd never even met before that moment, but stuff like this tends to bust through petty social barriers and protocol concerns.

Tom (the dad) and I had a talk the day after we signed. I'd decided to do some painting before we moved in, and he happened to be driving by and saw my car. So he stopped in to talk, to see if everything looked good or if I had any questions or concerns about the house. You know how, often, when couples or families suffer a loss, one person seems to instinctively step up and be the "solid" one, the one who keeps everything together so that everyone else can fall apart? Well, he'd fallen into that role. He was actually curiously upbeat, all things considered.

Anyway, I asked how he was doing and he just sort of shrugged and said "I'm doing what I have to do." I told him that I felt horrible, that I felt like, in some way, we'd taken advantage of their tragedy and he just kinda laughed and said "Are you kidding me? You have no idea how good it is to know that our old house is owned by people who wanted it and love it as much as we did. You're doing us a favor."

As I recall, I had something in my eye at that moment and had to excuse myself. Maybe it was allergies.

Later that day, alone, I walked through my house, stopping in each empty room, footsteps echoing in the vacant spaces, talking to Maggie. Telling her that if some part of her is lingering here that she's welcome to stay.


A few weeks after we moved in, we attended mass at our church and, as it turned out, it was a mass that was being said in Maggie's memory. We heard the priest say her name, and it felt like punch to the gut. We both wound up crying, shoulders hunched and shaking, quietly choking on tears in the pew. Some connections can be strikingly strong.


Well, over 4 years have gone by. Last time I saw the Gales was about 2 years ago. Ran into them at the grocery store. Melanie was looking good -- healthier, more together. And their other daughter was with them as well, seemingly happy.

Tom, though, looked like a ghost. Unrecognizable. At least 30 pounds lighter than the last time I'd seen him. We heard through friends that about 8 months after we bought the house he finally allowed himself to grieve, and it had hit him extremely hard. He'd sunk into a deep depression, sleeping all the time, unable to pull himself out of bed in the morning. I think this is not unusual for the the one who "holds it together" during a tragedy. The delayed pain festers, growing stronger, and when it finally gnaws its way out it consumes you.

I hope he's well. I hope they've managed to rebuild their lives. I hope that Maggie is in a better place. Sometimes I dream of a little girl who is not my own, playing in my house, laughing and happy. Sometimes I see a child out of the corner of my eye and I turn to look but she's gone. I have a vivid imagination, and dream often, but who knows. If they're not dreams, if it's not just my imagination, I'm glad that she seems happy here.


This morning I'm in my garage, spraying ScotchGuard on the chairs that came with our new dinette set. When I finished, I walked over to my paint shelf to put the spray can away and glanced over at the beat up cardboard box that has all of the old paint cans we'd gotten when we bought the house. You know, the stuff people use to cover little scuffs on the walls and whatnot. Tom had put it together for us when we moved in.

And then I noticed some writing on the box that I'd somehow never seen before. There, scrawled on the side of the box, in black magic marker, was Maggie's name. She'd been practicing writing her name in cursive, it appeared. There was her name, twice.

Maggie Gale.
Maggie Gale.

The shaky, unsure signature of a child long since dead.

I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and went inside. Showed it to Christine and we shared a moment, a brief, sad little moment of reflection. And we went inside, hugged our kids, and got on with our day.

Mood: Somber
Now Playing: Tool, "10,000 Days"


Ray in New Orleans said...

That was so sad, and beautifully written.

Gregg P. said...

Thank you, Ray.

melanie said...

breaks my heart.. I can't even imagine losing a child. Thank you for sharing the story.