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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life


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Before I retired, one of the things I admired about my clients was their ability to stand up to outside pressures in addition to the tragedy that had shattered the life they knew. To watch grief-stricken clients solving problems — from family, work, and society — while facing the worst loss they could imagine was a rare privilege.

Katie, though she never believed it, was one of the most awesome examples of this phenomenon. The fact that she drew her strength from an experience we both identified as paranormal makes her story all the more riveting.

Going Home Early

Katie had been vacationing in Costa Rica with her husband, Ricky, when she grew ill from a parasite and soon became too sick to travel. As the date approached for their return flight to San Francisco, Katie worried that Ricky wouldn't get back in time for an executive meeting at the sportswear manufacturer Equinox and Co., where he had worked for ten years.

Luckily, Katie's parents, who lived in Philadelphia, had joined them for part of the trip and were staying in the same condominium. After much discussion, Katie told Ricky that it would not be a problem if he went on ahead and let her parents take care of her until the bug she had picked up was out of her system. Ricky reluctantly agreed — he hated to leave Katie behind but knew it was important to attend the meeting. It would be just a few days before she recovered and took the next flight home.

Underlying everyone's concern was the fact that Katie had barely survived a ruptured appendix and three separate surgeries a few years before, when she and Ricky lived in Kyoto, Japan, where Equinox had its factory. Katie was still angry that during one of the operations, a surgeon had damaged one of her fallopian tubes, which now threatened her ability to have children. Even now she had continual abdominal pain, and doctors in San Francisco had warned her that another operation might be necessary. Here in Costa Rica, it made no sense to take any chances — complete bed rest seemed her best and perhaps only choice.

Ricky thanked Katie's parents for agreeing to stay on and packed up to go. At the door he threw a smile so dazzling and hopeful to Katie that she knew he was thinking of the new house they had just bought and furnished in San Francisco. With it was their plan to start a family regardless of the "bungled surgeries" and to fill the place with kids. Katie smiled gamely as Ricky closed the door. His smile seemed to sweep all the old doubts and anger away.

A few hours later, her father tiptoed into the bedroom, looking for Katie's airplane ticket. Her mother was waiting in the living room, where the English-speaking TV channel had just announced that Flight 398, on an airline I'll call TransNational, had departed from San Jose, Costa Rica, earlier that day and crashed into the Pacific Ocean on its way to San Francisco. It appeared that all 88 passengers and crew members had been killed.

Katie's parents believed that 398 wasn't the flight Ricky had taken. They remembered that his return trip made a stop in San Diego, whereas 398 had been a direct flight. Sure enough, when they found Katie's ticket, it wasn't for 398. "Thank God," her father whispered back in the living room as he showed the reservation to her mother. Ricky was probably still waiting for his flight at the San Jose airport, where he must have heard about 398. Surely he would call soon to put Katie's mind at ease.

When the phone did ring, however, Katie's mother listened in shock as a TransNational Airlines representative explained that Ricky's name had been found on the roster for Flight 398. Apparently he had arrived at the airport early and switched reservations to get on the nonstop at the last minute. Katie's father picked up the extension and stared at his wife in disbelief. The TNA agent said that helicopters were searching a grid of ocean about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles where Flight 398 had crashed. He didn't know if anyone had survived.

Katie woke up to the stricken looks on her parents' faces as they told her that 398 had crashed and Ricky might have been on it. This couldn't be true, she said. Commercial airplanes didn't just take a nosedive into the ocean. Not a TransNational Airlines plane, not Ricky's flight. Her parents nodded sadly at all this and didn't argue.

The kind of media whirlwind that follows a catastrophe like this hit Katie and her parents hard. Headline stories and TV news showed ghastly photos of helicopters flying over floating suitcases and airplane flotsam; the phone rang constantly from reporters and friends back home; TransNational wanted to send "bereavement specialists" to the condo, and of course it was inevitable that lawyers representing other surviving families immediately announced "an impending lawsuit."

At least it didn't take long for the parasite in Katie's system to fade away so that she and her parents could get out of the condo, which felt like a prison by then. They changed their tickets and flew to Santa Maria, California, the city nearest the crash site. Here TransNational Airlines officials met with the press to discuss what they knew about the crash — not much so far — and showed family members the few personal belongings that had been recovered. Katie had difficulty concentrating on the questions and answers around her. By now there was no doubt that Ricky had been killed, and yet she expected him to come around the corner any minute. She insisted on going home alone, and her parents were weeping as they put her on a flight to San Francisco, but her departure and her arrival were a blur. Katie wandered around the new house, picking up Ricky's car keys, reading his refrigerator notes, feeling a sick kind of emptiness.

After an hour Katie found herself staring at the pair of pink Equinox shorts that Ricky had brought home with much celebration for her to try on before they left for Costa Rica. Equinox had launched a new women's style, in a new women's color — "bubblegum Gore-Tex!" he had announced, as though he couldn't believe the idea of pink running shorts himself — and as he had done all the way back to his assignment at the Kyoto factory, Ricky had given her one of the first samples off the assembly line. And like the other times when he had burst into their apartment with the latest design, she had put them on right then so that they could go out for a run to celebrate. She couldn't imagine living in this beautiful new house without Ricky — this house with its promise of a brood of kids in little Equinox pants running around.

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