The New Year’s Package
by Alice Park
Amy held tightly to the picture from last year’s New Year’s Eve celebration, as if her very grip could hold on to him. If you were to look through the window, you would notice her transfixed gaze as she traced her finger around Matt’s adoring face and her own worshipping visage as they toasted each other. A year, she thought. How could so much happen in one year? You would feel sorry for her and the grief she still held since her husband’s death.
You would be at a loss when she slides her fingers to the top of the picture and begins tearing it to pieces, first a slow crease as the picture bends to her pressure, until she rips furiously, screaming, “Happy New Year!”
The shock of his sudden death at the age of 38 consumed Amy for the past four months. She was no stranger to death, having been a nurse for the past 15 years. She lost her own parents when she was just twelve and this shaped her to be pragmatic about end-of-life. When she drove Matt to the hospital in September, with him curled up on his side moaning on the back seat, she barely worried about the need for an emergency appendectomy. Accustomed to crisis mode in the ICU, this was just a run of the mill health issue that would be dealt with, and he would come home the next day.
But an infection set in, a second surgery was performed on post op day three draining the festering spread of pustulant drainage threatening to rot any healthy tissue. Day four, Matt spiked a fever of 103, became confused, and then combative. Sedation was given and Amy pushed to have Matt transferred to ICU.
“Calm down Amy, he will be fine” lectured the surgeon, chosen for his skills and not his bedside manner.
That night as Amy slept soundly, still with her solid belief that most things work out, in fact all things work out for them, Matt became quieter. Nurses checked through the night, dutifully charting “sleeping well, no changes.” Meanwhile, the infection traveled through his body, taking on a life force of its own. By morning, his brain silently swelled. The nurses changed shifts, happy that Matt was better today, meaning he was quiet and not disturbing anyone. Amy received that same report when she called that morning as she prepared her first cup of coffee.
She arrived at Fairview Hospital, the same hospital she worked in for the past nine years, and stopped by to check on Matt before going to her unit to pull at least one shift that week. As she walked in, she immediately realized something was terribly wrong. First, the smell. The air was tainted with the faint odor of rotten eggs permeated with the undeniable putrid smell of old fruit beginning to soften with black spots. And something else, so faint that she couldn’t name it. But it caused her breath to become shallow, made her pause before reaching out to him. Dread. That’s what she felt. This was the moment that the world Amy knew and loved, shifted.
She could not get him to respond, she frantically pressed the call bell, grabbed the pillow from under Matt’s head and positioned his airway to facilitate his breathing all in one motion and without thought. She started screaming for help when no one responded. She doesn’t remember the Rapid Response Team swarming in and taking over, the code being called, a nurse trying to hold her back as they placed the monitors and intubated him. She does remember the sound of his ribs cracking as they started compression, still waking up at night from that sound. She fell to the floor begging God to save him, pleading, and then cursing God.
She buried Matt. Her companion since she was nineteen. They were married when she turned 20, with just their families and a small circle of friends to witness. They opted to buy a house rather than throw a huge celebration. Friends marveled at their seamless relationship, their shared goals, their Hallmark moment romance. The only goal that was never achieved was conceiving a child. But even with that disappointment, they faced life head on, accepting what they were given, and enjoying the total freedom of their childless marriage.
On December 29, Amy stood in the kitchen and poured herself another glass of Pinot Grigio, stopped before replacing the top and instead held the bottle up to her mouth and guzzled the contents. Stacie called at that moment. The younger sister who was always supporting Amy, trying to hold her together since Matt’s death.
“Hey Amy, whatcha up to?” Stacie’s bubbly, cheerful voice invaded Amy’s current dark mood through the phone.
Amy tucked her dark brown hair behind her ear, stood a bit taller and lied. “Just cleaning up the kitchen.”
“Just wanted to make sure you’re coming over Friday night. For our New Year’s Eve celebration?”
“Maybe, not sure now. I might need to work evening shift.” She took another long drink.
“What? You’re not on that day. You told me that last week.”
But so much had changed since last week. She kept that to herself, swallowed hard, “I volunteered. They’re just so shorthanded you know.”
“I want you to be with us though. You should be with family.” Stacie, the supportive one, constantly holding her up. She’s the one that packed away all of Matt’s things within the first week of his death, helping Amy rearrange her clothes by seasons to fill both closets. Stacie didn’t know that Amy secretly stashed one of Matt’s dirty flannel shirts from the laundry. She needed something tangible to hang on to. Soft from wear, unwashed with his musky smell, she kept it folded under her pillow and each night she buttoned it around his pillow to cling to. Until three days ago, when she took the shirt and burned it in the fire pit out back.
Amy worked hard to get her life back on track as a new widow. She picked up more hours at the hospital, became active again in a book club, accepted most invitations from well-meaning friends. She spent countless hours sorting through photos, putting together montages of their brief time together. They spent 18 years together, but now it seemed like a small slice of life. She set Matt up on a pedestal since he passed. The best husband ever, the best companion, my everything. Why do we do that? Why does someone die and they immediately are the best of everything?
On December 26, after getting through her first Christmas since Matt died, after eulogizing him once again with family, having to endure the sound of her family that was beginning to sound patronizing rather than comforting, Amy was rearranging pictures from last summer for a photo book. The doorbell rang. Amy didn’t plan to open the door, except maybe it was a package.
When she opened the door, she was greeted by a twenty-something woman with beautiful blonde hair, her distress visibly displayed on her wet cheeks. The leafless tree branches swayed with a gust of wind clacking their stick arms together. The sun constantly reshaped the melting icicles where they dripped from the eaves. The smell of wood burning fireplaces drifted on the cold draft of winter air. A neighbor walked by with his dog and raised his hand to wave, while his boots crunched through the snow on the sidewalk.
“Can I help you?” Amy said with her nurses’ compassion immediately kicking in. She briefly noticed the package in the woman’s arms.
“Are you Amy?” came a timid, shaking voice. She was hoarse, from either crying, or maybe just a cold.
“I’m Jenna. I sent you a letter two weeks ago.”
“I’m sorry, I’m confused. Do I know you? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Still soft, comforting.
“I’m Jenna,” she repeated. “This is Elisa. I wrote to you about her.”
Jenna looked down, so Amy looked at the package. She realized it was a quilt. Small pictures of rattles and baby blocks were printed on the fabric. She looked up at Jenna with confusion.
“I didn’t get a letter. I’m sorry, what is it that you want?” And Amy remembered that she didn’t open any Christmas cards this year, not being able to face the pictures of joy and togetherness of other families, and the sadness in the greeting to her. She threw them all away just the day before.
“This is Matt’s baby. She was born August 12. Matt adored her but spent so little time with her before he died,” she gasped between her crying explanation. Amy didn’t hear the rest of what she said.
Amy next became aware that she was screaming at this wretched woman who was staring back at her with fear and regret. “Get out of here. You’re lying. Why would you come say that to me? Get away from me! Get out of here, NO, NO, NO….” she stumbled back, and the front door blocked her. She stepped to the side reaching for the doorframe and slammed the door shut. As she heard Jenna shriek, Amy crumbled to the floor. She cried, screamed, shook uncontrollably while her heart was pounding out of control, her hands went numb. She felt that her very soul was leaving her body.
How much time went by? She didn’t know. When Amy drifted back, as if she was drugged and just regained consciousness, she was sitting in the living room, rocking back and forth. She slowly got up from the couch and went to the front door. She peered through the sidelight windows, and carefully opened the door when she felt reassured that no one was there. She searched for any proof that Jenna was a living breathing human. She hoped to find nothing, so she could convince herself that this was a very intense, realistic nightmare. There were no notes, or letters, no car parked out front, nothing. She turned to go back inside, and that’s when she saw footprints in the snow on the walkway up to the porch. Someone had been there.
As darkness enveloped the house, Amy didn’t think to turn on any lights. The only glimmer came from the computer, where Amy sat looking through pictures of their life together. Not one straight thought would formulate in her brain. Only small fragments of words would flit through her consciousness, but not long enough to put a coherent sentence together that would make sense. Matt always coming home when he said he would. Matt being there for every holiday. Matt helping around the house constantly, Matt supporting Amy’s every goal. Matt leaving suddenly after dinner when he received a work call. Matt having a planned business trip and wives weren’t going, all the business meetings. Matt taking a call in the other room so he wouldn’t disturb her reading. Matt sometimes coming out of the bathroom holding his phone, texting someone. Matt always working to provide for them. Matt and his computer files that she was unable to open.
She clicked on one of the password protected files that remained obstinately closed. It was labeled Work Project, High Security. Slowly she typed Elisa. Just blinking dots stared back. She typed August 12, 2019, in various combinations to the same blinking dots. She typed 08/12/2019 ELISA and pressed return. The entire screen began to populate with pictures as Amy forgot to breathe. With each second hand tick of the wall clock, another picture popped up. Elisa as a newborn. Jenna holding Elisa. Various pictures of Elisa over the last few months. And then a picture of Matt holding Elisa, then Jenna and Matt together holding the baby. When the picture of Matt and Jenna leaning in for a kiss filled her screen, she put her head down on the desk and violently cried until she was empty.
For the next three days, Amy called in sick to work. The house remained dark and quiet. The phone remained unanswered. She put Stacie off about New Year’s Eve since she never really intended on going. She continued to spiral down as she slowly dwelled on her naïve misrepresentation of her history with Matt.
And she thought about Jenna and Elisa. She went through the trash and opened every single card that she threw away. For hours, she sat on the kitchen floor, opening and reading all of the notes and cards from family and friends. And at last, she found the letter from Jenna.
She read it at least ten times in the last two days. Jenna remorsefully described a brief affair with Matt. She described his loyalty to Elisa and the fact that he insisted he would never leave Amy. In her own words, Jenna wrote:
I am so sorry that I am the one to tell you this. We never meant this to happen. But I can’t say I have regrets because this beautiful baby girl, Elisa, is precious and deserves the best. She is not at fault. Matt and I did not continue our affair after Elisa was born, but Matt vowed to make provisions for her. He wanted to remain in her life. I come to you because I can’t financially or emotionally support her. And the way Matt described you, I know that you would never turn your back on his child. Matt truly loved you. He and I made a mistake, but he wanted the best for his daughter. I am sorry for your loss. I can’t keep Elisa. I want you to meet her. I want you to have a chance to love and raise Elisa as I know Matt would want. I understand if you can’t do this, but I will be giving her up for adoption.
There was no return address, no phone number, no last name. Amy vacillated between heartbreak, love, and hate every minute of the day.
On New Year’s Eve day, Amy sent a text to Stacie saying she couldn’t come. She never did volunteer to work that evening. She walked around the house in a daze not knowing what to do, what to think, what to wear besides the pajamas she kept on for the past two days.
As the sun was setting, daylight faded to dusk, and the last rays made the snow sparkle. Amy ordered dinner to be delivered and was in the bedroom when she heard the doorbell. She trudged her way to the front of the house and opened the door. Someone was walking away and as she started to call them back, she saw the pink bundle in a car seat sitting on her front porch. She lowered her raised hand and instead just stared at the squirming quilt. She reached down, lifted the car seat and overly stuffed diaper bag, and carried them inside, quietly shutting the door.
Amy placed the car seat on the kitchen table, unwrapped the blanket around Elisa and uncovered her face. Tiny perfect arms and legs wiggled in delight, and Matt’s eyes looked back at Amy. She carefully lifted Elisa from the seat, cuddled her in her arms, and while the baby smiled with Matt’s same lopsided smile and looked up at her with Matt’s same dark blue eyes, Amy instinctively rocked her. “Happy New Year, Elisa. Happy New Year.”