Karen and Mike Donnelly were a happy, normal married couple with a teenaged daughter. Mike, a firefighter, was a hero to both his wife and daughter. Then Mike is stricken with multiple sclerosis—and as his health begins to deteriorate, so does the family. Quitting her job to become Mike’s caretaker, Karen is both overwhelmed and devastated—especially when their daughter Lori falls into destructive behavior, adding to Karen’s burden.
Seeking comfort and relief, Karen moves them to her family’s old summer house on Long Island. She wonders, why did this tragedy strike her family? Searching for solace, Karen reflects on the comfort of her happier past—and when a mysterious woman with a special gift comes into her life, Karen finally feels hopeful about the future.
Vividly told and emotionally complex, The Healing raises universal questions about love, identity, loss, and forgiveness.
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The HEALINGA Novel
By FRANCES PERGAMO
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Frances Pergamo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJune 2004
Karen Donnelly stood on the grassy overlook and gazed out at Long Island's Peconic Bay. The beach at Founders' Landing had always been a special place for her, but lately it gave her no comfort. While the gentle surf lapped at the shore below, anxiety pulsed through her—a tide with a force all its own. The roaring in her head drowned out the summer breeze rustling through the nearby trees. She was in a constant state of tension, and no curative setting, not even the place where her best memories were born, could bring her peace of mind.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. If she tried hard enough, she could slip into that other lifetime and ward off the melancholy that threatened to overwhelm her. It should have been easy to pretend it was thirty years ago. The same dense maple trees shaded the familiar spot where she stood. The same picnic tables still offered cool respite from the heat of the sun. The air smelled like it always had. But when Karen opened her eyes, she was still standing in her altered world. She looked around like a child lost in her own backyard. There was no sound of splashing water or laughing children rising from the beach like music from an old transistor radio. The picnic tables, once hidden amid the chaos of vacationing families and randomly parked station wagons, now sat like weathered sculptures on an abandoned landscape. There were no children playing, no dads barbecuing, no moms chatting over iced tea. It wasn't peaceful or heartwarming. It was just sad.
Karen swallowed hard and walked down to the beach. Over the past few months, she had learned how to suppress the anguish. When it formed a lump in her throat and threatened to erupt in a raw scream, she swallowed it and kept moving.
She removed her sneakers and felt her bare feet sink into the warm sand. Every summer growing up, when school was over and she had come to the beach for the first time, Karen would cherish the moment her shoes came off, and they usually didn't go back on until Labor Day. It was an annual ritual she had always associated with freedom. Did kids appreciate that kind of thing anymore?
Karen looked around. Only three families were enjoying the beach, and only six or seven children were in the water. A few yards away, two teenage girls were sitting on the swings and pushing the sand around with their toes, ignoring their surroundings as they muttered discontentedly to each other. Their heads were bowed, their loose hair hanging forward like curtains of rebellion. They reminded her of her own nineteen-year-old daughter, Lori, who had been battling depression since adolescence and who already had a jaded view of life.
Those young women should have been enjoying the best days of their lives hanging out at the wharf. But even that had changed.
Karen looked over her shoulder at the rectangular building next to the parking lot. The place where she and her friends used to buy hamburgers and ice cream was now locked and empty. Sneakers in hand, she trudged back up the beach and stepped onto the porch, which was no longer swarming with kids. The old floorboards had been replaced and the white trim was freshly painted, but she remembered when the railing had been nothing more than a weathered plank of wood and the loose stair treads had been bleached gray by the sun. Karen had liked it better that way. She could almost see the people walking by, licking their ice cream cones, leaving a plague-like infestation of wet footprints. She could almost hear the slap of the dilapidated screen door as they came and went. In that other life.
Mindful of her own sandy footprints, Karen walked up to one of the windows and peered inside. Everything looked so different. The wharf, with its lively legacy of summer fun, was now a well-maintained park district property that was rented out for private parties. Even the concrete patio, where she used to play basketball with her summer friends, was now used only to set up tents and serve hors d'oeuvres. Those bored teenage girls on the swings should have been sitting on that rustic porch with an army of suntanned peers ... flirting, playing their radio, and breathlessly caught up in summer romance.
Shaking her head, Karen leaned against a porch post.
Where was everybody? Why weren't they chasing bees away from their Coca-Colas and playing Frisbee by the picnic tables? Why weren't children burying their fathers neck-deep in the sand or playing with their plastic pails? Were they all at home on their isolated patios and swimming in chlorinated pools?
When Karen had grown up, there were no swimming pools in Southold. Why would there be any, when the Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay were within walking distance of every house in town?
She was only forty-six. Things shouldn't have changed this much. She should have been able to look out at the familiar horizon and feel like she'd come home. To stand under the maple trees and feel connected to the past. To breathe deeply and let the salty sea air evoke the joy lying dormant in her best memories. That was why she had wanted to move back to Southold in the first place. It seemed like the ideal antidote to the stress her family was going through. Somehow Karen thought residing in the house where she had spent her summers would bring back the happiness she'd experienced there. It should have been like coming back to her sanctuary.
Karen kept glancing at the two teenagers on the swings and thinking of her own daughter, who was already scarred by tragedy. Nobody should have to endure what Lori had been through at such a tender age. She was still haunted by the deadly car accident that had almost claimed her life, and she was only starting to learn that it was okay to feel happy again. The process was painful to watch.
Karen wondered if the girls on the swings had such a valid excuse for their discontented mood.
She turned her attention back to the bay with a concentrated squint. The view of Shelter Island was familiar, but it seemed like a mirage leading her to a false oasis.
A variety of boats dotted the bay—the colorful triangles of sailboats and the small white hulls of motorboats that whined in the distance. Karen had always loved boats growing up and often enjoyed fishing, water skiing, and diving off the bow of a family friend's nineteen-footer. Later on, after she and Mike were married, he used to say they were going to buy a boat because the Long Island traffic was such a nightmare when they tried to get to Southold on the weekends.
But they never got their boat.
The lump in her throat returned so quickly it almost cut off her air. She swallowed hard and looked at her watch. The home health aide would be leaving in less than half an hour, and Mike couldn't be by himself. His multiple sclerosis had progressed so rapidly in recent months that he was now using the wheelchair all the time.
Karen slipped on her sneakers. Her legs were taut with tension, the muscles trembling when she stepped off the porch. As she crossed the parking lot, she made a conscious effort to avoid moping like those two girls on the swings.
Over the years, Karen had covered the half-mile distance from the beach to her family's summerhouse a thousand times; she knew every crack in the road along the way. She knew the houses, too, although a few had been renovated over the years. It always struck her as ironic that the homes closest to the water were the smallest—modest ranches and bungalows that had been upgraded to year-round dwellings—while the homes closer to the main road, where Karen lived, were the larger wood frames, colonials, and farmhouses on larger lots. There was one glaring exception to this oddity of early twentieth-century real estate. At the first bend in the road, where the pavement started to veer away from the waterfront properties, a magnificent old house sat on two full acres of land.
Karen stopped to stare at the house through the wrought-iron gate, as she had done since she had been a little girl, recalling with an inward snicker how she had always dreamed she would live in it someday. Her life was far from the fairy tale she imagined back then. Would her daughter still be suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, would Mike still be in a wheelchair if they lived in Karen's dream house? It wasn't a mansion by scope or definition, although she used to think it was. Set back off the road and overlooking the bay, the house had five gables, four chimneys, a wrap-around porch, and more angles than her high school math book. Weathered statues still graced the front lawn, indicating that the house probably had formal gardens back when it was first built.
It looked more run down than Karen remembered, and perhaps a lot smaller, but gazing at it still gave her a ripple of awe. She gripped the bars of the fence and did what she always did—tried to envision what it looked like inside. She never knew who lived there and had never ventured onto the property, even as an inquisitive child. She simply conjured up her own décor over the years and imagined the worthy inhabitants of the house on Terry Lane. Of course there would be a grand Victorian parlor and a library and a boudoir for the lady of the house. Karen could clearly see a refined family comprised of Mother, Father, and three or four well-mannered children eating breakfast on the rear patio, their crisp summer clothes reflecting the morning sun and their golden hair tousled by the bay breeze.
Every once in a while, Karen had inserted herself into the picture. Thinking back on this made her smile. It was impossible to imagine her struggling family today sitting anywhere near a Victorian parlor.
With that reality always in the forefront of her mind, Karen turned and resumed walking. As before, she made sure her head wasn't hanging forward and her gaze wasn't drawn to the pavement beneath her feet. With her chin up and her eyes ahead, she spotted someone walking toward her as she neared the main road.
Before Karen could even see the woman's face, she felt a small shiver of recognition ripple up her spine. Her mind went back to a time when she and her sister Helen would see a tall, slender lady walking along the road at an unhurried pace. Sometimes they would see her passing their house, other times they would see her in town or on one of the side roads. She always wore a long, black linen shift and carried a straw tote. A pair of sunglasses rested on her narrow nose, and her dark, shoulder-length hair was pulled back with a wide clip. Sometimes she cradled a towel and a book in her free arm.
They had dubbed her "the woman in black." She was like an apparition ... a nameless, mysterious figure who spoke to no one and was always walking by herself. During the rational hours of daylight, Karen and Helen assumed the woman in black was on her way to the beach. But in their bedroom at night, when they were trying to scare each other in the darkness, they used to say the woman in black was lurking outside in the moonlight, casting spells on unsuspecting family members while they slept.
"She comes to the window when we fall asleep," Helen would say, eager to make her younger sister squirm.
Karen tried not to stare as the woman drew closer. She kept telling herself it couldn't be the same person. That was over thirty years ago.
Now the woman's hair was streaked with gray, and her aristocratic face had been hardened by too many hours in the sun. But Karen recognized her nonetheless. Wait till Helen hears about this, she almost said out loud.
The woman looked her way and gave a little nod as she passed.
"Hi," Karen offered in return. For a few moments, she resisted the urge to turn around and check that the woman didn't disappear into thin air like a ghost. Finally, she looked over her shoulder.
The woman in black had stopped at the driveway of the house with the five gables, and she was checking the mailbox. Then she continued up the driveway and slipped into the side entrance.
Chapter TwoMike sat at the old Formica table and struggled to lift a spoonful of diced fruit to his mouth in quaking slow motion. His ability to perform the most basic functions was dwindling. Fast. And what was his incentive to keep trying? This wasn't a war he was going to win, and everyone knew it. Why should he suffer through the battle with MS if the end was already decided? Wouldn't that be masochistic?
The struggle to feed himself might have been worth it if he were hungry. But his appetite had long waned, along with his will to live.
Just as he was about to drop the spoon and give up, Raymond, his home health aide, chimed in from across the table to encourage him. "Come on, Mr. Donnelly, eat some more melon. It always tastes better in summertime, don't it?"
Raymond was a young Jamaican who traveled from one house of sickness to the next in a beat-up old Buick. Yet his love for life always shamed Mike into going the extra mile—at least for the four hours he spent with Raymond every other day. The guy was worth his weight in gold, not only because he brandished enough brute strength to lift and bathe Mike, but also because his basic human compassion gave people in Mike's condition the necessary push to stay alive. It was that simple. They especially appreciated him in the Donnelly house, where Karen could no longer handle the physical demands of her disabled spouse.
Yes, indeed. It had come to that.
As Mike struggled to bring the spoon to his mouth, the screen door on the other side of the house banged shut. Swift footsteps scurried through the living room and into the kitchen.
"Sorry I'm late," Karen said, catching her breath. She gave Mike a fleeting glance, like a parent checking on a sleeping baby before addressing the babysitter. The family cat, a gray tabby named Bitsy, dashed into the kitchen and began doing figure eights around her feet.
Raymond rose to his full, imposing height. "That's okay, Mrs. Donnelly," he said in his sing-song island accent. "We were just having a little fruit salad."
A quick briefing on the last four hours followed. Raymond reported the details of Mike's day, and Karen asked a few pertinent questions. They smiled and nodded like two old friends discussing the latest baseball stats.
As Mike listened to the exchange, his jaw clenched with frustration. His wife and the foreigner who cleaned his crippled backside talked about him as if he wasn't even in the room.
Mike allowed the spoon to clatter to his plate, but nobody noticed. Instead, Raymond turned to him and flashed his good-natured smile—a dazzling gleam of white, straight teeth against his very dark skin. "See you Wednesday, Mr. Donnelly."
Mike nodded good-bye.
As Raymond made his exit, so did any remnant of the good mood he had brought with him. By the time the old Buick left the driveway, Mike knew his highly infectious discontent had filled the void. The air in the kitchen crackled with tension because of it. But it was too powerful for Mike to contain. He watched Karen in brooding silence as she fed the cat and emptied the dishwasher. It was only late June, and she was already suntanned, mostly from working outside and going on her extended hikes. Her light brown hair, once a sleek variety of dark blonde, showed the kiss of the sun for the first time in years. She wore it shorter now, but when she twisted it up and carelessly clipped it to the back of her head to keep it off her neck in the heat of summer, she looked seventeen again. She was not well-endowed, but her slender, graceful body and lean, athletic limbs were the envy of her middle-aged friends. Nobody looked better in a pair of khaki shorts and a tank top than his Karen.
"What do you feel like having for dinner?" she asked, bending over to put a saucepan away.
Mike knew he was being overly sensitive, but lately Karen seemed to bristle with nervous energy whenever they were alone, busying herself with household chores. She seemed to have a hard time looking him in the eye for more than a few seconds. So he purposely didn't answer her question.
Excerpted from The HEALING by FRANCES PERGAMO Copyright © 2010 by Frances Pergamo. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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