by Winnie Kay
A strong family offers thanks in the midst of great loss.
No roasted turkey adorned the table that Thanksgiving in 2005. The preparations for the traditional dressing, scalloped oysters, green-bean casserole, and Grandma’s famous cherry cheesecake were abandoned and nonessential. The dishes delivered by solemn-faced neighbors, friends, and church members remained untouched on the kitchen counters. The Davis family gathered, as always, at the matriarch’s house, but no football game blared from the den. The TV slept, cold and silent, in the corner of the room. An awareness that something terrible had happened replaced the children's carefree excitement and laughter. They sat quietly, cherished in their parents’ arms. The usual cheerful, chaotic mingling of two dozen voices discussing their lives, their hopes, their dreams did not echo throughout the little house. They settled in chairs and on sofas and on the floor. Some softly crying. Some discussing funeral arrangements. Many, still in shock, stared off into another world. A few vented their anger and vowed revenge.
What the Davises did maintain and strengthen that Thanksgiving was their love for each other. The family priest came by. He didn’t try to explain why this happened. He didn’t try to theologize as to where God was in all of this. He didn’t try to calm Jack’s anger and hatred for God. He simply pointed out to them how blessed they were to be members of this strong, Christian family. He said a prayer of thanksgiving for their love of one another, for the fact that little Anton was unharmed, for Michelle’s entrance into heaven.
The Harris County Medical Examiner released the body early Thanksgiving morning and Rosemary insisted on immediate verification of the unthinkable. She cried in her husband‘s arms. “I know our baby is gone, Jack, but my heart doesn’t believe me. I have to see for myself.” Jack just nodded.
He had hardly spoken since he found Michelle, bludgeoned and lifeless, Monday night in her tiny apartment. The rest of the Davises remained at the family homestead while Jack‘s uncle, aunt, older brother, and sister accompanied him and his wife to the private viewing of their twenty-year-old daughter.
As they entered the funeral home, Jack’s sister, Winnie, whispered, “There’s nobody here.” Just then a tall, middle-aged woman appeared from around a corner. She maintained the practiced expression of one experienced in the presence of the grieving. She reflected no undertone of regret for having to work on Thanksgiving Day.
“You must be the Davis family. I’m Julia Spencer. We’ve been expecting you. We only received your loved-one an hour ago from the Coroner’s Office, so you understand... there has been no time to prepare for a formal—”
Rosemary interrupted in a controlled voice. “I understand, Ms. Spencer, but I must see my daughter... Please.”
Julia acknowledged the desperate plea with a nod of her head and motioned for the entourage to follow as she led them down a narrow hallway to a room off to the right. She stepped aside, allowing the six mourners to enter.
The white shroud encompassed Michelle from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, exposing only her face, her countenance frozen in eternal sleep. The funeral director stood next to the cold metal table. His manner was professional and compassionate, but his aura sent a message to the small gathering not to touch, not to explore.
Jack began to shake as he viewed his daughter’s body, the wounds now hidden from view. His brother and uncle grabbed him just as he collapsed to the carpet. His voice was barely audible, gasping between sobs. “Look what he did to my baby.”
Jack’s aunt and sister stood on each side of Rosemary, holding her upper arms, ready in the event she, too, lost her footing. In spite of the funeral director’s guarded position, she shook off her supporters and stepped closer to the metal table, raised her hand, and placed it on her daughter’s cold cheek. Everyone watched. No one spoke. The funeral director shifted his weight from one foot to the other as she looked down at her child, not noticing her own tears falling on the shroud. She stood expressionless before the corpse and let her mind wander back to just a few days ago when Michelle had life and breath and laughter surrounding her, not this shroud.
Rosemary spent time Saturday shopping with her daughter in preparation for the family's traditional Thanksgiving feast. They laughed as the two strolled through the aisles, Michelle pushing the buggy carrying her seven-month-old, Anton.
“You think Grandma will like my yams, Mom? This will be the first dish I’ve brought to the dinner.” The young woman glanced down at her son and smiled, then turned her attention to the potatoes in the bin.
“Will you quit worrying, Shell. Your yams will be the best thing on the table, except for my deviled eggs, that is.” Rosemary playfully punched her daughter in the arm. “Now come on. That husband of yours is waiting for us in the car.”
Rosemary loved her son-in-law, Hugo. He even called her Mom. They had moved down the street into their own apartment a month ago after living the last year with Jack and Rosemary. They seemed happy despite the typical challenges of family life. Hugo had recently been laid off from his position at the local Pizza Hut and he seemed moody at times, but that was to be expected with the responsibility of caring for a new baby and a wife. Rosemary remembered how stressful some days were for her and Jack when the kids came along. She was sure once Hugo found a job, things would be easier for him.
The next day, Rosemary did not hear from Michelle, and though a bit worried, she refused to be the interfering mother. Her son, Mike, called from across town, and they talked about what he and his wife and two sons were bringing to the Thanksgiving feast.
“Darla is fretting over the pies. I told her, ‘What’s to fret over. Just run down to the bakery and buy some pies.’ But no. Says she can’t bring store-bought pies to Grandma’s. Has to make them from scratch. I tell ya, Ma, between her throwing flour all over the kitchen, and the boys jumping on the couch, I’m going nuts here. What’s Michelle and Hugo bringing?”
“Uh... They’re bringing yams. By the way, have you heard from your sister today?”
“No, I haven‘t. Why? Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know. I just have a funny feeling..."
“For Christ’s sake, Ma, you don’t have to talk to her every single day. I gotta go. Darla just spilled flour all over the dog. Bye, Ma.”
Rosemary hung up the phone and stared out the window. She ignored the nagging compulsion to call her daughter. Jack walked into the kitchen for a beer and to check on the progress of his Sunday dinner.
“Rosie? What are you looking at?” Jack followed her gaze to the window.
“Huh... Oh, nothing. Dinner will be ready in a minute, hon.”
Jack turned to go back to his football game in the den.
Rosemary prepared for work Monday morning. Jack had already left for his shift as manager of an office supply store. She was picking at her curly black hair when the phone rang. Shell was probably running late, she thought. Rosemary’s car was in the shop, and for the past week, her daughter had been giving her a ride to work before dropping Anton off at day-care and going on to classes at the local community college. She picked up the phone.
“Shell, we better get going, girl. It’s 7:30. Are you on the way?”
“Mom... It’s Hugo.”
Rosemary felt that nagging in the pit of her stomach again. “Hugo? Is everything okay?”
“Oh yeah. Listen, Michelle isn’t feeling well this morning, so I’m going to take you to work. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Not feeling well? Is it serious? Let me talk to her. Is the baby alright?”
“Uh...she was up late last night with a headache. She’s finally asleep and so is Anton. She’ll call you later at work. I’ll be right there.”
Rosemary looked at the disconnected phone and fought against the sensation that something wasn’t right.
Monday evening, Jack and Rosemary were on their way home from work.
“Thanks for picking me up. I waited an hour at the office for Hugo. I’m telling you, Jack, something is wrong. I can’t get an answer on her cell phone or their main apartment line. She never called me at work today, and Hugo was acting strange this morning when he picked me up. He looked like he hadn’t slept and he was so quiet. He wouldn’t look at me.” Rosemary punched the familiar numbers into the phone again, stabbing each key with forceful resolve. “He wouldn’t even look at me, Jack. He kept changing the subject when I asked about Shell and the baby.” She held the cell phone up to her ear and her hand trembled as the call went to voice-mail. “There’s still no answer. I got a bad feeling, Jack. You know how she calls me everyday, and it‘s been two days with no word from her.”
Jack took his eyes off of the road for an instant and looked at his wife. The fear he saw in her transferred into him like a virus. He hit the left turn signal and made an illegal about-face in the middle of the boulevard, just blocks from their house. “We’re going over to the apartment. Start calling the family and see if anyone’s heard from her.”
Rosemary called Winnie.
“Give me the phone, Rosemary.” Jack struggled to keep his voice calm. “Winnie? Have you heard from Michelle in the past couple of days? I’m sure everything is okay, but we can’t seem to get in touch with her.”
“Not since Friday when she called over at Mom’s house to ask how much yams she should bring. I was visiting Mom and I talked to Michelle for a while. She sounded excited about Thanksgiving and seeing everybody.”
Jack asked his sister to call around and see if anyone had heard from Michelle and to call him back. As he handed the cell phone back to Rosemary, he asked, “You still have that extra key Michelle gave you when they moved in?”
“Yeah, but we can’t just barge in on them.”
“The hell we can’t. Give me the key.”
Rosemary rummaged through her purse for the key as Jack approached the driveway to his daughter and Hugo’s little garage apartment. He pulled in and turned off the engine.
Jack knew something was terribly wrong. It wasn’t like Michelle to avoid her mother’s calls or fail to take her to work. Even if she was sick, she would have called Rosemary and asked for help with Anton.
He had to admit he didn’t much like his son-in-law. There was just something about the boy‘s manner that worried him, but he kept his mouth shut because he knew his daughter loved him. They were close throughout their high-school years, and when they announced their engagement shortly after Hugo’s tour in Iraq, Jack couldn’t dismiss their happiness.
His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the cell phone in Rosemary's hand. She answered on the first ring.
“Hello!” She turned to Jack and told him it was Winnie. As she listened, she shook her head. "No one's heard from Michelle, Jack."
“I’m going in,” Jack said as he opened the door to their SUV. “You stay here.”
“What’s going on?” Winnie shouted through the phone.
“Jack’s going into the apartment. We‘ll call you right back.” Rosemary hung up and watched through the windshield as her husband knocked on the door and called out their daughter’s name. There was no answer. He unlocked the apartment door and disappeared inside.
Jack slowly walked through the tiny living room and glanced at the kitchen to his left. The sink was full of dishes. “Michelle? Hugo? Are you guys here?” He stopped and felt the blood rush through his veins as he saw red streaks on the wall leading to the bedroom. The few pieces of furniture they owned were toppled over—a straight-back chair, a TV tray, a coffee table. Their X-Box games were strewn across the floor. Jack proceeded into the only bedroom, praying that he would simply experience a little embarrassment at catching his daughter and son-in-law in bed. The baby’s crib was empty and the usual stack of diapers, which Rosie made sure they always had, was gone. The room was a mess. Clothes were thrown carelessly on the floor. There were heavier, darker red streaks on the wall leading to the bathroom. A red hand-print decorated the closed door. Jack’s hand trembled as he reached for the knob and twisted the cold metal orb. He pushed his way into the nightmare that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Red streams had congealed in the grout of the tile floor. He detected a subtle, unpleasant odor as he stared at the shower curtain enclosing the tub. Oh, dear God, please don‘t do this to me. Please spare me this, he prayed as he raised his head. He noticed the ceiling was covered in red dots. I have to do this. I am her father. He held his breath and in one smooth motion jerked back the curtain.
The screams coming from the apartment were unrecognizable. The wails of a father’s worst nightmare were heard throughout the neighborhood. Rosemary closed her eyes and acknowledged what her motherly instincts had tried to tell her Sunday afternoon. She felt her heart pounding in her chest. She couldn’t breathe. She climbed out of the SUV just as Jack ran down the driveway towards her. His movements were jerky, like a drunk trying to convince others he was sober. His face was contorted, a grotesque Halloween mask with bulging eyes. He reached his wife and pushed her back into the SUV.
Jack’s words came out in gasps. “She’s gone, Rosie. Our little girl is dead.”
Rosemary fought to get past her husband. She had to go to her. She had to go to Shell.
“You can’t go in there, Rosie. Please... Oh, God... You can’t go in there. She‘s all tore up. You can‘t go in there.”
Rosemary pulled her hands through her curly black hair and screamed, “Where is the baby. Where is our grandchild! And Hugo... Is he in there?”
The homicide detectives had arrived at the scene and found Michelle’s body in the bathtub. She was lying on her side facing the wall. There were multiple blows to the head caused by a blunt object. The left side of her skull was caved in. A bloodied hammer was found on the kitchen table. Preliminary examination of the body determined that the time of death was sometime Sunday afternoon.
An all-points-bulletin had gone out for Hugo’s apprehension as the prime suspect, and an Amber Alert was issued for Anton.
Authorities found the baby, unharmed, in the custody of Hugo’s parents late Monday night. Evidently, he had taken his son there Sunday with no explanation, and fled. His parents were questioned, and they admitted that Hugo was known to have episodes of violence and rage. They claimed to have no knowledge of their son’s whereabouts and stated that he could not have done such a thing to Michelle. Child Protective Agency left Anton with Hugo’s parents for the time being.
The police apprehended Hugo after a brief highway chase early Tuesday morning. After hours of interrogation, he confessed to the murder of his wife.
Today, Anton is a happy, intelligent, typical eleven-year-old. Jack and Rosemary won custody of their grandchild, and he is their joy in the midst of devastating sorrow. He talks to his mom in heaven every evening when he says his prayers. The Davises remind him often of his mother’s love for him. He seems to understand that he is a special member of the family.
Thanksgiving continues to be celebrated as the clan gathers for the traditional feast, but a new tradition has been added. Before the meal, everyone is silent as Jack stands and offers a toast to the memory of his Michelle and to the love that binds a family through loss and healing.