• • •
Melanie’s mother wipes the face of a 20-month-old girl with a floral ribbon in her hair and lifts her from her high chair. “Kisses and hugs for Gabe,” she says, and lets the girl’s 3-year-old brother nuzzle her before carrying her upstairs to bed. They are Melanie’s children. Chris comes to babysit twice a week now, 10 years after the fire, in the little house Melanie bought on a quiet street in Southbridge two summers ago, an hour from where she grew up.
The winding road that led here from the fire took time to reveal its course. After Melanie’s burns healed, she could not conceive of going out with friends, never mind dating. Chris told her that she would meet someone, live again, and that hers would still be a good life, if one very different from what she had planned.
Melanie did not believe her, not at first, but she began to make peace with what happened inside the club the night she let go.
She learned that John and Mark were likely killed instantly by the blast-furnace flash that burned her. It gave her comfort. They didn’t suffer, and there was nothing she could have done. She came to believe their spirits helped guide her out, and now they wanted her to live.
She crafted elaborate crosses for her brother and her fiance and for the two others from their group who died, painting and repainting them, decorating them with mementos. She took them to The Station site and planted them in the ground.
Sometimes Melanie went with Chris to West Warwick, and sometimes her mother went alone, Chris’s own visits becoming twice-weekly, then weekly, now monthly. She no longer buys tea candles by the case; she can visit The Station without crying. And years after the smell of Mark’s cologne faded, his sweater, long since washed, rests comfortably in a drawer. But he remains her first thought every morning, her last at night.
In the Southbridge house, Melanie’s son sings his way down the hall, skating in an imaginary game of hockey. She will never forget that night, but it no longer defines her. “She has found her place in life,” her mother says, proudly, trying not to imagine what would have happened if Melanie had gone another direction that night. If Melanie had not let go.
• • •
As the weak winter sun begins to fade on the lemon cake at Dave and Joanne’s house, the woman in black and teal lights candles and puts on soft music. She scribbles in a notebook and calls out questions:
“My birthday,” replies Nick’s half-brother Dave, born on March 18.
“You need to know you are not alone.” She suddenly breaks down and cries. “Oh my God, I’m sorry, Dave. I don’t know why they want me to feel this.” It is the spirits, she says, making her feel alone and empty. She collects herself. “I’m hearing from the other side: No more close calls.” Nick wants Dave “to take better care of yourself.”
“Okay,” Dave says, softly.
Dave rubs Joanne’s shoulder. Joanne’s posture is tense, but her eyes are soft and smiling.
“Where are my shoes, Ma?” the medium says, relaying words from Nick.
“In the closet,” Joanne replies.
“Did you take them out?”
“I was just looking at them today.”
“It’s his way” — Nick’s way — “of saying he was right there,” the medium says.
The session over, people get up and gather around the cake. The family sings Happy Birthday, with gusto. Little nephew Asher puffs out the candles. Joanne cuts the cake. She is in a very good mood.
“Nicky’s really happy everybody gets together for his birthday,” she says. “That is part of his job, just to let people know that their loved ones are with them, and life never ends.”
Joanne and Dave understand people outside the family may roll their eyes. Or that some will think: How sad for that poor family, hurt so bad they created an imaginary son.
Skeptics don’t bother them.
“For the people who don’t believe, it may be because they haven’t had a reason to,” Joanne says. “Losing a child? You can’t even imagine what it’s like until you get there.”
The daily signals “have enabled me to breathe,” she will say. “They’ve enabled me to function. It’s how I get through. It’s how all of us get through.”
Eric Moskowitz can be reach at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMoskowitz.