Lemonade light filtered through the fog, casting a warm, golden tone across us as we watched Ryan run down the empty beach, a kite string clenched in his tiny fist.
November usually brought rain to San Francisco, but this particular day was clear, and we wanted to take advantage of the sun—even if it was chilly and damp out. Surfers bobbed off the coast, waiting for their ride, and gulls skittered along the shoreline. Later, after we ate our picnic lunch, we planned on exploring the tide pools.
James snapped a picture of Leo and me snuggled into a fleecy blanket. I waved him over to us, and he settled into the sand, his jean-clad leg touching mine. He tossed his arm over my shoulder and hugged me close.
“This is nice,” he said. Ryan had stopped running to inspect something on the beach, and Leo crawled off my lap into the sand. “But this is more fun.” James turned and tried to tickle me through my layers of bulky clothes.
We laughed and smiled and were so very happy.
That’s how I want to remember us.
November 23rd, 2010
Why wasn’t my phone ringing? She said seven thirty.
Relentless late-November rain battered the trio of windows behind me. It was nearly eight in the morning, two days before Thanksgiving, and I sat in the tiny family room of my San Francisco flat trying not to envision every reason why my phone was silent. Had she realized I was a hack and changed her mind?
Relax, no one is ever on time.
I opened the well-worn notebook in my lap and studied the questions my husband, James, and I had excitedly crafted the night before. Earlier that year, I had signed with a New York literary agent, and now an editor wanted to talk to me.
My writing had been squeezed in during sports practices and after the boys went to bed. James traveled frequently for work, and I often stayed up well past midnight to write despite long days of work, volunteering, and mothering.
I hadn’t mentioned my new passion to James until I received three offers of representation the day I submitted the manuscript to agents. He had been baffled that I had had time to write a full-length novel but not surprised that I had actually written a novel. As he put it, it was a very me thing to do.
I stared at my blank phone screen. Why hadn’t she called?
In an explosive burst of boy-noise, Ryan, my nine-year-old son, sprinted into the room and flopped on the end of the couch. His Catholic school uniform shirt was untucked, and his two blond cowlicks stuck straight up. I glanced at his feet. No socks or shoes.
“Can Grandma get me a bagel?” He gave me a hopeful, missing-tooth smile.
I set my notebook aside. “Did you ask Grandma?”
“She said if it was okay with you. I’ll even ask her to get one for Tate and Leo, too.”
I chuckled. “Do you really think Grandma would walk you all to school, get only you Boudin’s, and leave your brothers hungry?”
“Go finish getting ready, and if you have time, Grandma can get all of you bagels.”
Ryan leaped off the sofa and raced past James standing in the doorway of our family room.
“Hey! No hugs?” James called after Ryan.
“Sorry!” Ryan threw his arms around James’s torso. “Love you!”
James rubbed the back of Ryan’s head. “I love you, too.”
Ryan broke free and his footsteps thundered down the stairs. “We can get bagels!”
Our front door slammed, followed by my in-laws’ door closing. They lived in the flat below and often helped care for the boys. My mother-in-law, Molly, worked at their Catholic school—the same one both she and James had attended.
I was immensely proud that my boys were the fifth generation of James’s family to live in our three-story house, and I planned on never leaving. James had grown up there and so had Molly, and now it was the boys’ turn. Molly and Joe, my father-in-law, lived in the second-level flat, and my family lived in the third level. The garage and a small in-law unit occupied the ground floor.
James’s family roots ran deep in San Francisco, a park was even named after them, and I wore it as part of my identity. We were the Doyles from 11th Avenue (even though we were now the Suttons), and that meant something in our small community.
Molly and Joe were good sports about allowing me to put my own stamp on the house, going along with whatever my current obsession was. When I said I wanted to be a modern homesteader and turn our deep backyard into an organic city farm with fruit trees, bees, and chickens, they didn’t blink, and they let James buy me a chicken coop for our anniversary.
No matter what my current obsession was—like starting an online shopping site, becoming a personal shopper, or taking on the task of revamping our school and church’s annual festival—James supported me. I was a whirlwind, and he was the calm hand that steadied the ship.
“I’ll call when I get to work. I want to know how everything goes.” James’s Chelsea boots clomped against the hardwood floor as he walked toward me. He wore dark jeans and a black leather bike jacket that showed off his trim figure, and the olive-green messenger bag I had given him for Christmas bounced off his hip. He hadn’t bothered to do his messy, brown hair because he’d fix it at work after he took off his motorcycle helmet. I teased him that he carried more beauty products in his bag than I did, but really, I gave him a hard time because he was more pulled together than me.
Unlike James, my days consisted of mom things like going to the park and dust-bustering Cheerios off the floor. I did, however, shower, dress, and do my makeup every day after running a 5K at 5 a.m. The other moms marveled that I always managed to look presentable with three kids under the age of ten. I’d laugh and say it was my secret weapon, Molly, but the truth was the thought of anyone seeing me less than perfect bothered me.
“Are you sure you don’t want a ride? It’s pouring.” A mist of grayness swirled outside. Driving James meant I would have to take the call in the car, but I needed to offer. After all, he would have insisted on driving me.
“I’ll be fine.” James flashed a reassuring smile. “I don’t mind getting a little wet, and you need to focus.” Every day, James rode his cherry-red Vespa downtown. Taking Muni was an exhausting, smelly experience that took three times as long, and parking a scooter was cheaper than parking a car. It had been a great solution.
The rain had eased into a gentle sprinkle. Really, it was no more than the heavy fog that normally hung over the Richmond District. “We should get you a rain shield.”
“Probably.” James checked his phone’s weather app. “If I go now, I should be okay.”
“Are you positive you don’t want a ride?” I nervously tapped my notebook. Everything I had worked for was coming to fruition, and I didn’t want to mess it up.
“Positive.” James placed three kisses on my forehead–one for each of the boys. “You’re going to do great, Bee. Just be you. Everyone loves you.”
“But do they love my book?”
“The editor wouldn’t call you if she didn’t.” James playfully pat my cheek, cupping my face on the last tap. He lifted my chin and stared into my eyes. A sense of calm ran through me. “It’s going to be great, just like everything else you do.”
I loved making James proud. He worked hard for us, and even though he constantly told me my job of being a mother and wife was more important than his, I felt I should do more, contribute more, be more.
My phone rang, and I startled. James mouthed, “I love you.”
Unlike every other day, I didn’t sing out my normal, “Be good. Be careful. Don’t do bad things. I love you,” as he disappeared down the hallway. My phone was already to my ear.
The house shuttered when James slammed the front door.
I never saw that version of my husband again.
I peeled the phone away from my ear. An unknown number had been calling for five solid minutes, and I was annoyed. Thankfully, the editor and my agent couldn’t hear the beeps, but it made focusing difficult.
“So, that’s all I have,” the editor said. “What do you think?”
I pushed the strange number from my mind. “Sounds great! When do you want the changes?”
My agent, Kathleen, laughed. “We’d rather you do them right and not rush.”
“So . . . timeframe?” I hated open-ended deadlines. Everything needed a beginning, middle, and end. It was logical.
“Well, first I’ll send over an edit letter. Read through it with Kathleen, and if you have any questions, just ask.” The editor had a pleasant, young voice. She was probably under thirty, which made me feel ancient at thirty-four.
“So, no timeline?” I asked.
Wonderful. The publishing world couldn’t be more different than the tech world I lived in where everything needed to happen yesterday.
My phone beeped again, and I held back my huff. “I look forward to getting your letter,” I said. “I love your ideas.”
When I hung up, my phone rang again. Thinking it was Kathleen, I didn’t look at the number as I stared out the window. The heavy rain had flooded the back garden, leaving a pond-sized puddle in the middle.
“Hey! That was great! I loved her ideas!” I was still unsure about the appropriate agent-author relationship and struggled with feeling either too friendly or too businesslike.
“Ummm . . . hi. This is . . .”
Sirens blared in the background, drowning out the man’s wavering voice.
“Can I help you?” I asked. Rain slammed into the side of the house, and beads careened down the windows.
“I picked up his phone. There was an accident. I think it’s the guy’s who was hit?”
My heart stopped. “Hit? Who was hit?”
“A guy. Yeah. He was riding a scooter, and a truck hit him.”
The room dimmed, and I blinked my eyes. Did the power go out? “Where?”
“Van Ness and Geary.”
Breathe, just, breathe. James is most likely at work by now. You’ve been on the phone for forty minutes. He’s always to the office by nine. Call him. I stared at the microwave clock. It was 9:10 a.m. James wanted to know how my call went.
“Is he okay?” I don’t know why I asked. What I should have been doing was calling James, not chitchatting with a stranger.
Another siren wailed. “I . . . I don’t know.” The man sounded like he was on the verge of tears. “He’s in the ambulance. They’re working on him. It was bad. He . . . he got caught under the truck. Under the tire. They’re taking him to the hospital.”
James rode a scooter, and he always went through that intersection. A burning dullness filled my ears as my brain tried to protect me from the man’s words.
“Hello?” the man said. “Are you still there?”
“I don’t know.”
There was a long pause. “The ambulance just left. I’m sorry.”
“Was his name James?” The room spun, and I steadied myself against the sofa. Say no. Please say no.
“I don’t know. I just picked this phone up off the street, and this number was listed as his in case of emergency contact.”
“Then why didn’t you call from that phone?” I asked. Maybe this was a terrible prank?
“I don’t know,” the man said.
I hung up on him and called James’s cellphone. The man answered.
“Why do you have my husband’s phone?” I shouted. “Why?”
“I’m going to let you go now. I hope he’s okay.”
With concrete feet, I ran my hands along the hallway walls until I came to the steep, curving staircase. Halfway down, my knees buckled, and I slid to the bottom.
Screams pierced the air, and I pressed my hands over my ears, trying to block the horror of James being hit from my mind.
Molly flung the glass front door open, and I crumbled at her feet. She would know what to do. She’d fix this.
My youngest son, Tate, hid behind her and stared at me with deep-brown eyes that looked like James’s.
James. I needed to find James.
“What’s wrong?” Molly asked calmly as she stooped down next to me. She was our family rock, and nothing rattled her.
“James was hit by a truck. I don’t know if he’s okay. He was taken to the hospital.” The words sounded foreign. How were they coming from my mouth?
Molly hauled me into her flat. “What hospital?”
I shook my head, afraid to speak in front of Tate. He, however, seemed unaware of the possible tragedy unfolding and karate chopped a block tower. When it tumbled to the ground, he stared first at me, then at the rubble. I didn’t respond, and he kicked the blocks across the room with a laugh.
Molly shoved a worn phonebook into my hands and scooped Tate up.
“Take a breath and start with General. I’ll call CPMC. We’ll find him.” Molly placed Tate next to her on the couch, flipped her phonebook open, and punched the hospital’s number into the house phone. Like James, she was always calm and level-headed in a crisis.
I was learning I was not.
I thumbed through the tissue-thin pages until I found the number for General. I had to find James. He had to be okay because I would know if he wasn’t, wouldn’t I? I’d feel my soul shatter. I’d feel the void of losing him.
General had no report of him. No hospital did. Hours ticked by, and I called and called and called, but not a single hospital in San Francisco had a record of James.
“Where the hell is he?” I couldn’t control my fear any longer. “Where is he?”
“Keep calling.” Molly led Tate to the kitchen for lunch, and I slipped off the floral couch and onto the pink-carpeted floor. I lay prone, staring at a crack in the also-pink coved ceiling. It ran across the ceiling and down the wall with mini cracks radiating away from it. One crack had led to many smaller fractures.
I rolled my head to the side and kept my focus on the spiderweb of cracks. James loved me. He wouldn’t leave me. He wouldn’t dare.
Everything about us happened fast, including our wedding. We knew each other only six weeks before he proposed. There was no ring, just a promise that when he returned from college in December, we would get married. It wasn’t the proposal of my dreams, but it felt inevitable, because if I knew anything at twenty-one, it was that James and I were meant for each other.
Who else would know where James is?
The ambulance company.
After my third call, an angel answered. “Honey,” the gentle voice said, “he’d be at General if he’s a trauma. They most likely haven’t processed him yet. Everyone gets admitted under an alias until the hospital can confirm identity.”
“He’s at General.” I sprinted down the short, narrow hallway to the microscopic kitchen. Tate and Molly sat at the mail-strewn table, and Tate picked at a plate of red grapes. “I’m going to get him.”
Molly shook her head. “Wait for Joe. He’s on his way home. He’ll drive you.”
But I couldn’t wait. James needed me, and I needed to be with him.
There’s a song, “An Olive Grove Facing the Sea” by Snow Patrol, that will forever be seared into my brain. It played on repeat as I weaved my car from the west side of San Francisco over pothole roads to the southeast side. I couldn’t turn the song off because my phone was in the glove box and not easy to reach.
At a stoplight on Divisidero, my phone buzzed. I hesitated before diving across the seat. Answering it meant knowing. Did I want a world without James?
It rang again, louder, like an order for me to answer. I ripped the glove box open and disconnected the phone from the charging cord.
“Hello?” I whispered.
Please, please, please don’t say it. Don’t say it.
“Is this James Sutton’s wife?”
“Can you come to San Francisco General? He’s been in an accident.”
My minivan’s windshield wipers beat in frantic unison with my pounding heart. “Is he okay?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t give that information over the phone. You’ll need to speak to a doctor.”
He was dead.
I rested my head against the car seat. Someone honked, and I tapped the gas too hard, launching my minivan into the intersection.
“I’m coming now.” I had no tears; my brain was focused solely on being with my husband. “Tell James I’m coming.”
I waited in a line five-people deep to find out if my husband was dead. I waited to find out if everything I had ever wanted had ended.
Hushed conversations swirled around me, and I strained to hear them through my mind’s protective veil.
I would be okay. James would be okay. Everything was going to be okay.
“Jordan,” a burly man answered.
“The doctor will be out in a minute. Have a seat.”
A blast of cool air hit me from behind and blew the protective veil off. An uncomfortable numbness spread from my head to my toes, and I shuffled forward one step.
The woman in front of me had thin streaks of silver sparkled throughout her dark, bra strap-length hair. When she moved forward, her hair swayed against her back.
I need to tell James’s work he won’t be in today.
I stared at my phone. Who should I call? Who would care that James wouldn’t be in today? The only name I could think of was the CEO’s assistant who I had met a few times, and she seemed to like James. When she answered, I told her James had been hit, and she asked about his condition.
“Maybe dead.” Only the enormous pit in my stomach kept me from crying.
“It’s my turn.” I hung up.
The desk attendant typed James’s name into her computer and refused to meet my focused gaze. “A doctor will be out in a minute.”
As I stumbled toward an orange, plastic bucket seat, Joe and Molly burst through the sliding glass doors. At six foot two, Joe towered over tiny Molly, and he often barreled into rooms, leaving Molly to trot behind.
“Is he here?” Joe’s booming baritone filled the packed waiting room. He taught high school English at an all-girls school. Had he left in the middle of the day? Had James and I inconvenienced him?
I pressed my lips together and exhaled through my nose. “I’m waiting for the doctor.”
We huddled together on the chairs. Molly squeezed my hand, and Joe stared off into space. James was their only child, but most importantly, he was the glue that held us all together. Everything Molly and Joe did was for James, and by default me and the boys.
“Where’s Tate?” I realized my son was missing.
Molly tried smiling, but the corners of her mouth didn’t pull up enough, and her hazel eyes were flat. “Mr. Hanley has him. He’ll keep Leo and Ryan, too.” Mr. Hanley was our Catholic school principal, a big man with a bigger heart, who Molly had worked with for years. Outside of our family, there was no one I trusted more with my children. “He promised to take them to Hamburger Haven for dinner.”
“They’ll like that.” The boys always begged me to take them to the greasy spoon, and I always refused out of disgust.
The heavy, metal door separating the waiting room from the ER swung open, and a middle-aged doctor with tightly pulled-back hair assessed the room.
“Sutton?” She scanned the room, and her gaze zeroed in on me. “Sutton?”
Molly gently pushed on my back but didn’t get up herself. When Joe started to stand, she held him back. “Let her go first.”
If James were dead, I didn’t want to know. I wanted the possibility of him for as long as I could hold onto it. I didn’t move.
I blinked in confusion. I wasn’t Mrs. Sutton, that was Molly. Did they want to talk to her first?
Molly prodded me forward, and I stumbled toward the doctor. The door softly closed behind us as we entered the cold, sterile hallway where a strung-out man lay handcuffed to a bed, and a woman yelled from deep inside the bowels of the hospital. My shaking legs refused to hold me. I leaned against the cold wall and fought to calm my ragged breath.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t walk toward something I didn’t want. The need to run away from the tragedy rushing toward me grew. If I walked out the exit, could I restart the day? I’d tell James I loved him and insist on driving him to work. I would fix things if I could just get a do-over.
The doctor backtracked to me. “Your husband sustained multiple injuries, but he’s going to be okay.”
He wasn’t dead? I shut my eyes tightly, trying to process the doctor’s words. James was alive? My exhale came out in a rush, and when I inhaled, relief settled into all the empty places, but I still couldn’t move.
“He’s going to be okay, I promise,” the doctor said softly.
“Okay how? Okay as in never walking? Okay as in a few scratches?” Was it greedy that I wanted him returned the way I had sent him off that morning?
“He hurt his wrists, dislocated both his shoulders, has severe road rash, and received thirty stitches on his backside, but he’ll be fine.” The doctor stopped outside an open door. “He’s resting, but he’ll be okay. It looks scarier than it is.” She tapped her head. “He’s lucky he had on a helmet. If he hadn’t, we’d be having a different conversation.”
I inched closer to the doorway, and the doctor gave me a confused look. “He may have a mild concussion,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s anything too serious. The nurse will walk you through the symptoms and care.”
I stared past her into the room and gasped. My whole world was on a cold, sterile table under a crisp, white sheet. Bright lights glared down at James, and dozens of machines whirled around him.
In that moment, I knew my life had changed, because all my supposed strength, all the bullshit type-A stuff I did, failed me. I failed James, and I failed us.
From the day we met, James had been my life, and me his. We’d occasionally let other people in, like the boys, but at the end of the day, it was always only us. The boys would one day grow up and leave to start families of their own, but James and I had chosen each other forever.
In that hospital room, we were given a chance at a longer forever.
My chin trembled, but I didn’t cry. James hadn’t left me, and he was going to be okay.
“You can go in,” the doctor said with a twinge of confusion.
“I know it looks scary, but he’s fine. Really.” She motioned me forward, but my leaden legs held me in place. “Is anyone else with you? Should I get them?”
I trapped my sobs behind clenched teeth and nodded.
The doctor walked away, leaving me clinging to the door frame. James’s chest rose, and I sank to my knees, a guttural sob ripping from my throat. He was alive. Broken and bruised, but alive.
Molly touched my back. “He’s going to be okay.”
I wiped my face with my sleeve and moved so she could pass by. In another life, Molly would have been a nurse. Through all three of my awful pregnancies, she had cared for me by changing my sheets, emptying my puke bowl, and making sure I ate what I could.
Joe lumbered behind her, and after collecting myself, I joined them in the room. James’s unfocused eyes fluttered open before closing again. His clammy, pale skin matched the white sheet, and his hair stuck up at strange angles.
James hadn’t left me.
Relief battled with horror inside me. I wanted to wrap James in my arms and never let go, but James did not look fine. He looked broken, fragile, and nothing like the strong, solid husband I knew. If I touched him, would I break him?
“I’ll get the discharge papers ready,” the doctor said.
I drew my brows together. “Already? He looks awful.”
“He’ll be okay with rest and time.”
“But don’t you think—”
“He’s going to be fine, Mrs. Sutton.”
While we waited for the discharge papers, Molly fussed over James. I let her gingerly change his clothes into leftovers from the hospital Lost and Found. I watched as she helped James shuffle toward the car because his stitches prevented him from sitting in a wheelchair. I waited as Joe arranged James, stomach side down, in the backseat of their sedan.
I did nothing to help my husband.
As I drove home alone, with a plastic bag of James’ shredded belongings, I blared “An Olive Grove Facing the Sea”and fought the sinking feeling that, despite the doctor’s reassurance, James wasn’t okay. How could anyone be run over by a truck and be okay?