The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. Summer had come in like a firestorm, all hot and dry and raging, but clear skies made the nights downright chilly. Tom McReady didn’t notice the drastic change in temperature others complained about non-stop on social networking. He was too cold inside, and numb. He’d been that way since his little boy died. Now his wife Janine lay dying in a hospital room across town as cancer raged through her like the fires that had just ravished half of San Diego County, spreading out of control, destroying over a hundred homes in total defiance of all human attempts to stop the devastation.

Tommy had died a year ago that same week, so it seemed only fitting that a cruel God would choose to set fire to the world and sicken Tom’s wife. It was like some sick cosmic joke that Tom felt powerless to change or stop. Tom and Janine had watched their five-year-old son slip away as a rare form of cancer ate at his insides. His small body didn’t have the defenses to stop the disease, and six months after he was diagnosed, his parents had to do what all parents dread in their deepest heart of hearts. They had to bury their child. Janine had barely survived the next few months; her grief was so deep she was hospitalized twice and put on sedatives so powerful they changed her into a cold, dead shell. Tom brought her home, believing he could heal her better than the drugs. But he couldn’t. Once when Tom thought she had actually been making some progress, she attempted suicide, only to grieve even deeper when she saw the pain it caused Tom. He begged her to stay alive. He couldn’t survive the loss of his son without her. They would mourn and grieve together and they would get through it. Somehow.

As the months crept by, Janine began to emerge from the dark place she had been living in, a place that Tom had begun to believe she might never emerge from again. She showered and dressed and made breakfast and even tried to engage in things she loved to do when Tommy was alive, like paint and read and watch old television comedies. Occasionally she would smile and even laugh, but her joy was short-lived, for she would always slip back into a default mode of mourning. Tom knew when it was happening, because her eyes would literally darken, as if someone reached inside of her and turned down her inner light.

Tom tried to keep her busy, and made sure she wasn’t alone too often. At one point, she even attempted doing some of the things she did with Tommy. They had planted a lovely garden together in the front of the house, and Tommy had so loved to toss assorted flower seeds to see what would grow. The end result had been a crazy spray of color that always made Tom smile as he walked to the door in the evening after a long day’s work. Tommy had called it his “mess garden,” and it was a mess, but a beautiful one no professional landscaping could rival. Tommy loved to go out each weekend and pull weeds from his mess garden, proudly showing Tom and Janine the pile of “icky flowers.”

She tried, but Janine just couldn’t bring herself to work in the garden anymore. Tom knew it tugged at her to see and smell and touch the same flowers her son once had seen and smelled and touched. Eventually, the flowers all died, replaced by a low-growing spread of red apple ivy that Tom hated, but it was the only thing that could stand the heat and neglect and lack of rainfall. Gone were Tommy’s pansies and forget-me-nots and marigolds, and his favorites, the sunflowers that once reached up to the sky like toned and healthy teenagers at the beach worshipping the golden rays of summer.

Tommy loved his sunflowers. He said they looked like “people loving the warm sun with their faces.” Tom couldn’t look at sunflowers now without hearing those words. He felt he might never again know the feeling of loving anything again. Not when it could end in such terrible loss. Such terrible pain.

It almost killed Tom to walk past that garden patch now. Most evenings, he didn’t let himself look at it, keeping his eyes focused straight ahead on the front door. He often thought about just filling it with red rocks and a few cactus plants, stuff that didn’t require a lot of water, since mandatory water rationing was being whispered about on the local news. But instead he tried to ignore it, pretending it wasn’t there, and therefore not something he needed to address right away.

The day Janine entered the hospital with severe stomach pains, Tom was convinced it was something simple, like her appendix or even food poisoning. They had just returned from a trip to Cabo that had been forced upon them by caring family and friends, a trip that had brought them a little closer, and even allowed Janine to relax and enjoy the warm ocean waters, until memories would flood over her like grey clouds in an otherwise clear blue sky.

But the pain had gotten worse over the three days she was hospitalized. Doctors ruled out a number of potential issues until an ultrasound found a mass on and around her ovaries, all the way up to her stomach. Emergency surgery later revealed a stomach and reproductive system already decimated by aggressive, fast-moving cancer.

Tom stayed with her for a week, sleeping in the hospital room on a small cot provided by a caring and sympathetic nurse. His boss had been so sorrowful, telling Tom to take all the time he needed, with pay, to help Janine get through this terrible ordeal. Tom had been grateful he had not quit his job for the better offer he’d gotten a few months before. Now he needed a kind boss more than a bigger paycheck.

Now he needed a kind God, too, but his faith was receding even as the end of summer’s final day slipped over the horizon. Dog days were ahead, he knew, but he was still always cold inside.

Tom’s mother, Della, had moved in with them when Tommy died, and she had been and still was a miracle worker. Della had kept both of them from wasting away in their grief, helping to keep Janine company when Tom was away at work. She cooked and cleaned and listened quietly as they wept and raged and mourned. She made sure there was food stocked in the cupboards and the fridge, and cooked nice dinners when Tom got home from a long day at the office.

Janine had always gotten along great with Della. Tom remembered how afraid he had been when they married, having heard the horror stories of daughter-in-law/mother-on/law relationships from many of his attached friends. But his worry had been for naught, because the two women got along like gangbusters from the get-go. In fact, there were times they teamed up against Tom, all in play of course.

He was a blessed man. Until Tommy’s death.

Della had always been like a lighthouse, and now, more than ever, Tom needed that beacon of safety to guide him. He felt in his heart he was losing Janine, and it terrified him. On the fifth day of fall, Janine took a turn for the worse. Her face was grey, and her lips colorless, and Tom held her hand tightly as she stared into space. His gut was tight. He remembered that look on Tommy’s face the day he passed over, as if the little

boy was seeing something off in the distance that caught his interest. Something neither Tom nor Janine could see.

Janine gasped and turned to Tom, her eyes now shining. She forced a smile through chapped lips, and Tom reached for her water glass, but she stopped him.

“Tom.” The word was more like a gasp as she fought for breath.

“I’m here. Right here.” Tom tried to keep his voice from shaking and giving away the precipice of grief he was about to topple over.

“Tom. I’m going to see him,” Janine croaked, her lips curling up into a smile that made her gaunt and deathly face somehow seem almost alive again. “I’m going to see our son.”

Tom tried to hush her, but she reached up a thin hand to his lips. “It will be OK. He won’t be alone anymore. And when I find him, I will give you a sign, so you know we are together again.”

“Janine, you can’t leave me. Please, don’t talk like that. There is still a chance –“

Janine turned away from him, but she was smiling. “No. There is no chance.”

She turned back toward him and her face was filled with peace, with acceptance. She held his hand tightly, looking deeply into his eyes. “You will get through, and one day, when God is ready, you will join us. But in the meantime, I will give you a sign –“

The last few words escaped her lips like a gentle breeze, drifting off as she closed her eyes and squeezed her husband’s hand for one last time. Tom sat beside her for hours, holding her hand, in shock. It wasn’t until Della came in to see if he wanted dinner that he realized his wife was gone.

Janine was buried on a cool fall afternoon when clouds filled the sky and colorful leaves fell from the trees. Three men held Tom as he shook with unbearable despair as his beloved wife was laid to rest beside his only son. But even three strong and able men could not hold him up and his heavy heart took them all down to their knees. They prayed with Tom over the graves of the two people he had most loved, and lost.

The next several days were a mindless blur of activity as friends and family came by to bring food and offer Tom consolation. But he didn’t hear them, or see them, or feel their presence. He was in a deep, dark place where his wife and child were still alive, laughing and happy and healthy. He was in the place Janine must have been in when Tommy died, where there was no sound or light or smell or stimulus of any kind. Just waves of grief that never ended.

Della kept Tom on a rigid schedule of eating and sleeping, and he obliged her without a fight. His actions were robotic, unfeeling. He didn’t really care, but he didn’t have the strength to argue, even though he was never hungry and sleep only brought him dreams of what might have been. His doctor had prescribed a strong sedative, and that helped him get to sleep, but it didn’t keep him from waking up in the middle of the night stifling screams of pain and anguish. It didn’t stop the memories that would flood back into his thoughts the moment he awakened each morning.

Twice, Tom went to the linen closet and took out a locked safe, which was kept on a top shelf. Twice, Tom opened the safe and took out a handgun he had kept for

protection, on the advice of his father, who was a San Diego city police officer for thirty years before he died of a heart attack.

Twice, Tom loaded the gun and put it to his head and closed his eyes, wanting more than anything to end the loneliness and the awful, smothering grief and go be with Janine and Tommy, wherever they were. Even the thought of an eternity of blackness was better than living without them. Even burning in hell was a better choice than facing more days and nights of memories and emptiness.

Twice, he put the gun back into the safe and went outside to sit on the front porch and look at the moon, sobbing quietly into an old sweater of Janine’s so as not to awaken Della. He had done that with Tommy, cried into the little boy’s shirt, aching for the smell of him. He stayed there for hours, until the last tears dried on his face and his ducts ran dry, usually long before his pain did.

He remembered Janine’s promise, that she would send him a sign once she and Tommy were together. But his faith was weak and he made himself a quiet promise that if he did not see a discernable sign in a week, he would take his life. Somehow, that was a deal he could live with, as if the promise of death was the only string of hope he had as he walked zombie-like through the next seven days. It brought him a strange sense of comfort, and out he could take if things just got too bad, and on some level it calmed him enough to begin to eat more, and sleep better, and even care a little about his hygiene.

Funny how the sweet promise of death’s release could do that to you, he thought.

He tried not to think about what it would do to Della, to lose her only son, but his pain was so deep and unrelenting, even the suffering of his mother seemed acceptable, and forgivable. She had her friends and a boyfriend she had been seeing for a couple of years. Tom had nothing. She would understand.

The next few days went by in a state of perpetual slow motion, with Tom doing what had to be done to get through until he could take his sedatives and try to find relief

in a few hours of dreamless sleep, before the nightmares set in. He thought about going back to work, but Della was adamant that he give himself more time. Always in the back of his mind was his escape route. If he didn’t see a sign, and the grief did not let up, he would take it.

“You need to heal, Tommy,” Della would tell him, putting her small, but strong hands on his shoulders. He winced when she called him Tommy.

“I need a distraction, Mom. I need to get back to work and have something to think about other than how empty my life is,” he replied.

But Della would just shake her head. “Healing takes time, and your boss has given you all the time you need. Don’t try to push the pain away with work. Instead, work through your pain. Otherwise, it will build up inside of you and destroy you. Janine wouldn’t want that for you. Neither would little Tommy.”

Tom knew she was right but being right was trumped by being in agonizing pain and common sense had no place next to such relentless suffering. He would return to work and see how it went. Depending, of course, on whether or not he chose to continue living. For some strange reason, having choices made him feel better, even if the choice he most preferred was ending his life.

Two days later, Tom went to the grocery store for the first time since Janine had died. Della usually did the shopping, but she wasn’t feeling well, so Tom helped her to bed and ran into town. Getting out of the house was surreal, with the normal landscape of his suburban existence suddenly too bright, too clear and sharp and focused. Nothing

seemed real, and he felt dizzy and panicky. It made him nauseous and he ended up in the bathroom of the supermarket, vomiting until his gut was empty and dry.

He barely made it home and pulled the car into the driveway, grabbing the grocery bags. Walking to the front of the house, he absent-mindedly retrieved the mail, and his gut clenched as he noticed a bill in Janine’s name. He stood still for a long moment, as if gathering enough force to get to the front door and inside, where he could drown his sorrow in pills or alcohol or anything.

As he walked past the garden, Tom looked ahead out of habit, but a flash of color drew his eyes away. He stopped dead; his breath caught in his throat so quick he made a little squeaking sound. He fell to his knees, dropping the grocery bags and shattering the glass sauce jar and a bottle of juice all over the pathway. The liquid ran out of the bag and around his pant legs, but he didn’t care. He began to cry, softly at first, but then his body shook and heaved with such force that he had to rest his hands on the pavement.

“TOM? What happened?” Della rushed out the front door to his side. She was wrapped in a blanket and looked pale, but her eyes were on fire with concern. “What is it?”

Tom couldn’t answer her. He wept and wept and wept. And then he began to laugh, a hearty laugh that seemed to rise up from deep within his belly. Della bent down to hold her son, but he didn’t seem to notice her.

“Tom, what is it? Let me get you inside –“

“No!” The force of his voice made Della wince. But he didn’t see her reaction.

His eyes were focused on the once thriving garden, now patches of weeds and red apple ivy overflowing onto the sidewalk. In the center of the ivy grew two gigantic sunflowers that reached up their big, bright faces to the amber rays of the warm autumn sun. One was much taller than the other, and both had lush leaves and thick, healthy stalks. Side by side they stood, glorious and golden, hopeful and magnificent symbols of life reborn.

Della followed Tom’s gaze and she gasped, putting her hand to her mouth and shaking her head in disbelief. “Those weren’t there yesterday...were they?” she asked.

Tom’s eyes met hers and he smiled through his flowing tears. “She found him.”