The Smile Sent from Heaven

A grieving mother is comforted by a photograph she never knew existed.

- Posted on Feb 27, 2015

Photo of author's daughter from the magazine

That smile. If only I could see that smile again...

The colorless walls of the hospital waiting room closed in on me as I watched the minute hand creep around the clock. Three hours down. Two more to go. Oh Lord, this is torture, I thought.

I leaned forward on the stiff couch in the corner of the room and leafed through the dog-eared, coffee-stained magazines that littered a table. Desperate for a distraction. Anything to take my mind off my husband, Myles, undergoing his third heart surgery in less than two years.

But it wasn’t just Myles. Another loved one haunted my thoughts. I flashed back to the day six years ago when our daughter Linda’s life came to a tragic, inevitable end.

I had been in a hospital just like this one. Those same suffocating beige walls closing in on me. The soulless beeping of the heart monitors in the ICU. And Linda lying there helpless, a swelling the size of a tennis ball on the back of her head. Clumps of dried blood still clinging to her scalp.

The official cause of death was head trauma, but Myles and I knew the truth. She had passed out and fallen down the stairs, drunk before breakfast.

If I closed my eyes, if I pushed my memory, I could still see Linda as a happy girl. She had a smile that could make the grumpiest person smile too, like the sun bursting through the clouds. It was hard to pinpoint exactly when that smile began to disappear.

Linda started drinking in high school, maybe to fit in, maybe out of boredom or insecurity, maybe because of me and my history. I’d never know. She dropped out of college and went to rehab. One year later, she was carrying a thermos of vodka to work, “just in case.” No recovery program—not even some time in prison—was enough to divert her from that dark, descending path she was on.

If anyone could understand where that path led, it was me. I knew those depths all too well. I’d been sober since Linda was a baby, but I’d never hid my alcoholism from her. I told her what it was like and how I’d struggled until she was born. She’d even gone to AA meetings with me.

But my salvation was not hers. The program just didn’t take. By age 40, Linda’s liver was failing, and I’d stopped keeping count of the number of blood transfusions she’d had, the number of detoxes and rehabs.

“Mama, I’m gonna get clean,” Linda promised me a year before she died. “You wait and see. I’m going to be happy again.”

I hugged her tight. “Okay, baby girl,” I whispered, wishing I could believe her, wishing I could give her the desire to stop drinking.

The call I’d long dreaded finally came. Linda was in a coma. “There’s too much alcohol in her system,” the doctor said. “We couldn’t operate even if it would help....”

My beautiful, troubled daughter. Gone forever at age 45.

I stood up from the waiting-room couch and began pacing, as if I could walk away from my memories. I twisted my hands together, wringing them. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a smaller room connected to the waiting area.

I wandered toward it and found myself in a cramped, stuffy nook with even more magazines. One stood out. It practically shone—a bright yellow cover featuring lemon pie, my favorite dessert. “Spring Is Coming,” the headline proclaimed, though sunny days were months away.

I took a closer look. An issue of Southern Living magazine from five years before. But it looked brand-new! No creases, no stains, no wear at all, apparently.

It was so strangely well preserved that I couldn’t resist flipping through, pausing now and again to peruse a recipe. I found an article about Foley, Alabama, a city close to where Linda once lived.

All at once time stopped; the waiting room walls receded. It was just me and the magazine in my hands. I stared at an unmistakable image. There, on page 32, in one of the photos from around town, was a young woman, beaming as if lit from within.

That smile. Those eyes, so full of life. Of love. Linda. She looked happy. Joyous. Free from the pain that clouded her life. I held the magazine to my chest, dazed, yet comforted.

Myles got through his surgery just fine. I contacted Southern Living. They had never gotten Linda’s name. They weren’t sure when the photo was taken, or what the circumstances were. They couldn’t explain how a mint copy would show up after six years in a hospital waiting room.

They did, however, send me a copy of the photograph. Every time I look at it, I take it as a reminder of the healing that awaits us all.

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