Prologue

They lug the last box through the door, exhausted, aching and sweaty. High fives all around, toasts to the new house and happy memories. Friends clink plastic glasses of soda and water while a few enjoy the cold wash of beer down their throats after their labor. There are the expected jokes about being too old for this, even though most of them are early 30s and don’t have a clue what being old is all about. The air is warm but comfortably so, allowing them to relax for a bit and revel in a moving day without any major hiccups, injuries, or breakages. But soon they all drift off one by one, hugs and more offers to help unpack, until at last it is just the three of them left. They are home.


The new house is a huge milestone, as it should be. Homey, comfortable, with room to spread out. A decent yard that’s big enough for privacy but not too much to maintain, partly shaded for those hot summer days. The porch that offers a taste of time gone by. He thinks about where to plug in the gaming stations so the cords will reach; she’s focused on whether the baby could squeeze through the porch railings. You see an all-American family excited about their future. Father, mother, baby boy. Their reality looks like any Hallmark movie.

 

But how did that movie become our expectation? Who sets the stage for what life is supposed to look like? The script plays out time and again, generation after generation: Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They pledge their lives to each other. There’s a baby or three who completes their family, living proof of the legacy they’ll leave. And a home, always some sort of home, a cozy nest to call their own. That’s where Jennifer and Marc are right now. 


Home. 


The next few months will find them making it their own. Of course, the big stuff is easy. Couch on that wall, love seat over there. Bed has to go here because of the window. That all gets put in place pretty quickly. A whole lot of boxes marked in “kitchen” in her neat penmanship, every one of them carefully packed and full of the utensils they’ve been convinced they can’t live without but somehow rarely use. Whisks and sauté pans, cake knives and juicers. More Tupperware than anyone could ever use (but at least every container had a lid, Jen made sure of that) is tidily stacked away. Spices and glasses and forks all found their space in cupboards and drawers in fairly short order. In the meantime, there’s every day life. Jobs and daycare drop offs. The biting phase of every almost-two-year-old who can’t quite figure out his emotions, so he sinks his teeth in to let his feelings out. The date night for a friend’s wedding. The maintenance appointment for the car. It all goes on, just as always, as normal as you please. From every angle looking in, they are a perfect family settling in to their new life. 


But peel back a layer and you’ll catch a quick glimpse of something quite different. Old photos of a little girl who doesn’t exist anymore but bears an uncanny resemblance to him. Dig just a tiny bit deeper and, surprise, there’s a needle in bathroom (safely out of the baby’s reach – they both make sure of that). There’s the serum in the medicine cabinet at the ready for his next scheduled shot. And when the light hits her arm just right, you can see the scars, a small series of them lined up like matchsticks. But only when the light is just so. 


What you see from all the angles is still true. It’s not a mirage and it’s certainly not a façade. They are, indeed, a sweet family filled with love, laughter and memories in the making. But what’s not so easily seen … what isn’t at all obvious … is what got them to this place, living out the storyline whose scenes we all know so well. Those who see this happy little trio in their first home don’t know that Jen and Marc, stars of this would-be Hallmark movie, very nearly never made it at all.  


Because a bomb ripped their lives apart. A verbal kind of bomb, of course, but one that was every bit as catastrophic as the kind that leaves physical wreckage scattered for miles. The debris ripped apart the very fabric of this sweet family when it was just the two of them, newlyweds still in their newly wedded cocoon who approached each day as a sparkling opportunity to share their lives and deepen their love. And this bomb, like so many physical ones, claimed its own kind of collateral damage. 


The bomb was dropped on what Jen remembered for a long time as the last normal day of her life. And irony of ironies, it came on Valentine’s Day… a “gift” she never saw coming and almost never recovered from.