Fifty Days to Sunrise
Her life is a love story, but then…
What’s a woman to do when her husband
dies three thousand miles from home?
Scream, cry—or run.
It’s a year and a half after her husband’s death.
Fifty-three years old and alone, Lissa Maguire’s
seething with grief. She has to cope but makes
a self-destructive mess of it.
Lissa’s parents ask her to spend the summer in small-town
Gifford, Minnesota, helping them move to an apartment.
Cleaning out the attic of her childhood home, Lissa discovers
her old diaries, and her potholed road to healing begins.
But when an old friend turns up, she’s confused…and surprised.
There was a time I wasn’t in pieces.
I barely remember.
Today, yesterday, tomorrow— Each day the pieces break a little smaller. I fear becoming dust.
Lissa Makkinen Maguire, 2003
Every cell in Lissa’s middle-aged body howled for rest.
Not a chance. No way was she giving in to that wounded- animal urge. She wasn’t bleeding—just dying of a broken heart. Dying for a year and a half, so this summer shouldn’t make much difference. She could always dig back into her burrow and lick her grief wounds, after she got her parents moved.
Still, it was unbelievable she’d let her mother talk her into coming home for the entire summer. Not like she had anything else to do, but if she did, she couldn’t do it.
She bit the inside of her lower lip to stop the thoughts. Without Sean, absolutely nothing mattered.
Lissa shifted her grip and hauled her suitcase up the stairs. Rather than bang the walls of her parents’ house, she let her ankle take the beating. Standing on the landing the rest of the day wasn’t going to accomplish a thing.
Stomping on every step would have helped, but the weight of the suitcase made that impossible. Anyway, she was no longer a child storming off to her bedroom; she was a woman raging against the image of her husband ahead of her on the stairs, easily handling the suitcases, his laughter filling the hall. Phantom laughter.
At the top of the stairs Lissa dropped the case on its wheels and flinched, as if dishes crashed. Her heart twinged. She hoped the noise hadn’t startled her parents.
She jammed her fingers in her gray-streaked hair and shoved it out of her eyes. Never. She’d never had to carry what felt like a load of pig iron in a suitcase. Sean always…She bit her lip again.
Giving her suitcase a push, she sent it bumping over the threshold. First room on the left—“Melissa’s Room,” the wood burned plaque on the door announced—her old room. With a grunt, she heaved the case onto the bed where it landed beside its smaller mate.
This homecoming was proving to be harder than Lissa had imagined. Turning her back to her suitcases, she plunked down on the edge of the bed and exhaled. Her body sagged, ready to slip off the mattress and puddle on the floor. Oozing through the floorboards seemed like a good idea.
Lissa closed her eyes, wishing away her life as she now knew it.
She sat—frozen—tried to free her mind of thoughts that stung like nettles. Relaxing didn’t come easily anymore.
Tick, tick, tick. The windup clock on the nightstand ticked a heart-calming sixty beats a minute. Deep breath…exhale.
Familiar smells charged her brain as she took in the scents of the old house, a house she’d known for so many years. The sweet smell of Tide drifted off the bed, the tang of wood and varnish, a hint of mustiness. Home.
Lissa let all that was home wrap its arms around her and squeeze.
When she opened her eyes, there was Daisy in black-and- white, gazing at her from the framed photo on the dresser. A sharp breath stabbed the back of her throat, and she stood and picked up the picture frame in both hands. Lissa couldn’t hug her old dog around the neck, but could only press Daisy’s picture against her chest.
Lissa still missed Daisy. She was the best dog a child could hope for—well, usually. A smile tugged at Lissa. There was a day when Daisy wasn’t quite the perfect dog: she was an apron thief—over forty years ago.
Daisy had run around the swing set and the clothes pole so fast, Lissa informed her family that Daisy might have turned into a pool of melted yellow Labrador butter. Everyone laughed, even Mom.
Mom’s apron lost the tug-of-war between Lissa and Daisy. Lissa had thumped straight down on her behind when the apron ripped.
The memory of chasing Daisy in the backyard faded and so did Lissa’s smile. Setting the photo back on the dresser, Lissa rested her fingertip on Daisy’s nose. When Lissa had snapped the picture many years ago, Daisy was in the same pose she had been in after the apron caper—lying in the grass with her paws crossed in front of her, muzzle down on her paws, looking up at Lissa. The old dog’s muzzle and a mask across her eyes shone white.
Lissa frowned. The glitter of the afternoon sun coming in the bedroom window caught Daisy’s eyes and gave them a disturbing light. Lissa opened the top dresser drawer, laid the photo face down, and slowly closed the drawer.
Her gaze fell on the Bible lying beside where the photo had been; her saliva went sour. She couldn’t touch the Bible. Where were You, God? All those years believing in You.
Was God withholding Himself? Invisible? No. It was her— she was becoming invisible. Blotted out by grief. Really, the living become the specters, slipping in and around life, unnoticed. And, after a time, uncaring.
Lissa spun back to the bed and her suitcases. Seeing the thirty-five-year-old photo of Daisy in her old age stabbed like a pinprick.
A phone call from her mother had started all this. Lissa replayed the conversation in her head, but it was too late now.
Just six weeks ago, Lissa had been at home trying to write, but mostly she stared at the computer. Five lines of depressing verse. I fear becoming dust. Yeah. Blown around. Then gone.
She had wandered outside into the spring air. Past her neglected flower beds. Past the soggy vegetable garden. Until she stood at the end of the dock—watching rain-swollen clouds cast a fractured reflection on the lake.
Her phone vibrated. Lissa had given up not answering calls, since nobody left her alone. It was Mom.
“Lissie, honey, do you think you could come home for the summer? Dad and I could really use your help moving to our apartment.”
“What? The summer?”
“I’ve talked to Ray. He said it would be perfect. The twins could stay at the farm while you’re gone.”
“Oh?…The twins?…Well, I…”
“And Jack could help out too. He said that would be no problem.”
“Sounds like you’ve got this all planned.” Lissa couldn’t hold back the sharp edge. Mom had thrown her brother, her nieces, and finally her son at her. Mom had a way of being manipulative, but wasn’t usually this obvious.
“Dad and I have talked about this for a little bit, and we think it would be a good idea. It would be so helpful to have you here.”
“Let me think about it, Mom. I don’t know what to say. This is out of the blue.”
“You know, we’ve been planning this move for some time. The first of August is our moving date. Remember?”
Remember? No, she didn’t. Her nose prickled, and her eyes stung.
“Sure, Mom. Sure. Just let me think about it, okay?”
She had so much to take care of, she couldn’t possibly be gone that long. Traveling from Maine to Minnesota seemed like going halfway around the globe when it was an effort just to navigate herself to the next day.
“You could bring your little computer and work on your novel here, couldn’t you?”
Oh, that. She hadn’t touched her current project for a year and a half. “I could,” she said. But she wouldn’t.
Lissa changed the subject. Their gardens were something Lissa and her mother could talk about easily. But after a few minutes, silence dangled between them. Before her mother could again bring up the plans she had for her, Lissa said she’d call back in a few days. They exchanged “love you” and hung up.
Six weeks later. How did this happen? Here she was, in her old room at her parents’ house. In Gifford for most of the summer. The pity party chafed like a hair shirt, and she shook it off, sick of it. She’d go for a run later. That would help. She groped for normal, familiar. Easy to find in the old family home.
She always looked for changes as soon as she walked in her room, though nothing had changed in over two decades. She had visited home and stayed in her room many times over the years, but this was different. What had changed was that Sean wasn’t with her. Again. She drove those thoughts away. Happy times. Those were the thoughts she wanted. Family times.
Little in the room was the same as when she lived here. It had been difficult to leave, and she’d moved out in stages. She hadn’t taken much with her going three blocks away to a dorm room up the hill at St. Lucy’s, but then moving to New York for graduate school left an empty room for her mother to decorate. Mom had delighted in making the room pretty and pink, somewhat, Mom admitted with a twinkle in her eye, because Sean didn’t care for pink, but Lissa loved it. The cushioned window seat was still here, piled with soft pillows and an afghan Mom had knit.
Lissa opened the window and let in the perfume of the shrub roses below. The lace curtains fluffed out.
She stripped off her black summer cardigan and flung it on the bed. It was going to be a long summer.
Lissa had never left the farm in her nieces’ care before—not that there was that much to do. One more worry. But the twins were good kids. They had to be, being pastor’s kids. And Jack would help out, he always did. Her sweet son.
Thinking about the farm and the girls was pointless: there wasn’t anything she could do about it, except go home, which was ridiculous.
She unlatched the biggest suitcase and flung it open—took out piles of T-shirts, capris, shorts, and a plastic bag containing her running shoes. She scooped out the novels grabbed off her bookshelf and tossed them on the bed.
She turned away from the mess, stalked over to the window seat, and sat down hard. A moment later, she sprang up and headed for the kitchen to find her mother.
At the landing on the way down the stairs, Lissa took the left turn down the five steps into the kitchen, rather than to the right, which led to the front entryway. This split stair layout had made running around the house especially fun for three kids.
Mom wasn’t in the kitchen. Lissa expected Mom would be starting dinner.
Passing through the kitchen and the dining room, she found Mom and Dad, a tableau of old people sitting in their easy chairs on either side of the fireplace. Dad put his newspaper down; Mom jerked her head up from a doze.
“How about I put the kettle on for tea?” Lissa hitched up her tan slacks, a move she regretted. Mom noticed.
“Oh, that would be lovely. I guess it’s near enough to teatime.” Mom didn’t get up, and Lissa turned back to the kitchen.
Dad called after her. “Missy, I’ll have mine with lots of milk please.” Dad still called her Missy.
Out of sight, back in the kitchen, Lissa put a hand on the counter to brace herself. Her parents looked so much older, especially Mom. Normally, Mom scurried around, serving people.
She wished Ray and Boots were here. She needed her brother and sister.
Guilt kinked Lissa’s stomach; she hadn’t come home after Mom’s stroke. Couldn’t. She just couldn’t. But she was here now. And she needed to get a grip and get busy.
She filled the copper teakettle, put it on the stove, and lit the gas burner. Lissa huffed. Mom refused to replace the old Roper stove. Lissa would have to remember the oven temperature ran about ten degrees hot, or she’d have dried out lasagna.
She opened the light-blue painted cupboard to get mugs, but then stopped. Ah, this was an occasion for the good tea set. Start this summer off right.
While the water heated, she crossed back over the pale- yellow linoleum tiles to the dining room and pushed the swinging door against the wall. The golden oak flooring, combined with the rich red and blue of the old Persian rug under the table, gave the room a warm glow in the afternoon sun.
From the bottom drawer of the built-in oak buffet, Lissa pulled a square blue-and-white checked tablecloth. She spread the cloth on one end of the mahogany table and repositioned the vase of snapdragons.
The Crown Staffordshire tea set was kept in the upper glass-fronted china cabinet. Mom said she enjoyed the view provided by the mirrored back of the cabinet. Lissa gently put the tea set on the table: three cups and saucers, three plates, sugar bowl, creamer, and the teapot.
Lissa had never seen another set like it. The pattern was Bluebell: white bone china, with soft, yet vivid blue flowers and green leaves. The teacup handles and the finial of the teapot were a lovely light green. The cups had six deep flutes, just the right size to funnel tea to thirsty lips.
Lissa loved this tea set: so delicate, so English. A wedding present from the family Mom stayed with her junior year in England, the tea set had been a treasured possession ever since, a family heirloom.
Lissa noticed Mom watching her lay out the tea service. Lissa glanced at her mother for approval of her decision to use the Crown Staffordshire. Mother and daughter smiled at each other.
The squealing kettle called Lissa back to the kitchen. Fig Newtons out of the English cottage cookie jar would have to do for biscuits.
During tea, Mom and Dad talked about the plans they had for the next several weeks. They intended to go through the house and get rid of things that wouldn’t fit in the new apartment.
Mom and Dad had obviously been discussing this move for a long time, but Lissa only came in on it six weeks ago. The more her parents talked, the more her chest tightened. It didn’t help that she had to avoid looking over the mantel where Sean’s painting of their children had hung.
“Mom, what are you planning for dinner?” Lissa couldn’t sit still any longer.
“Oh, I thought I’d fry some pork chops. Would you like boiled potatoes and vegetables to go with the pork chops?”
“Sure.” Lissa’s thoughts ground in her brain. She had no interest in food.
“Do I have time to go for a run?” She quickly added, “Leave the tea things here, and I’ll wash them when I get back. It should only be thirty or forty minutes.” She avoided her mother’s eyes.
“I suppose.” Lissa caught the edge in Mom’s voice. “We won’t eat till around six thirty, now that we’ve had our tea.”
“You could go run on campus.” Dad took another Fig Newton.
“Sounds good.” Lissa usually ran on campus when she visited.
Inside her head she bolted from the table, but on the outside she pushed back her chair and walked at a normal pace through the living room, past the baby grand piano, and up the front steps. Once she rounded the corner on the landing, she flew up the stairs, two at a time, to the relative safety of her room. She needed a run to clear her head. Desperately.