Photo: Jonny Valiant
A sea of furniture, bicycle, kids' toys and more.

Euphoric Calm: The Day Before the Sale

At an empty Starbucks in a strip mall off Westford's main drag, Bates is radiating a sturdy, almost dewy good health that belies her 48 years. Her eyes are wide, her mass of auburn curls cut short and sensible; she is both brimming with energy and preternaturally composed, as if preparing to run the 400 meter hurdles. Between phone calls from volunteers ("Where are you now? Okay, I'll meet you there"; "I'll be back at the house at quarter of, then I've got to go back to Littleton"), she clutches an iced coffee and sinks into a chair; it's the first time she's paused in weeks. "This is probably the calmest I've been," she admits. "It's an excited, euphoric calm. At this point, what's done is done."

She tries to explain what drove her to add the event—which has mushroomed into an undertaking beyond her, or O's, wildest dreams—to her already full schedule. "After Matt was diagnosed, after Aidan drowned, these things were all we talked about," she says, her tightly coiled energy softening, her tone almost matter-of-fact, in the way of someone who has cried out all her tears. "What to do for Matt and [his wife] Sara, what to do for their older son, Michael. And that becomes overwhelming." Aidan had survived two days after being pulled from a koi pond in the Mallios' backyard, and Matt, still reeling from his leukemia diagnosis, had checked himself out of the hospital against his doctor's orders to be with his wife and son in a different hospital. In the weeks after her nephew's death, Bates and her family babysat Michael, 4, and made countless trips to Matt's bedside. But still Bates felt helpless. Until, about three months after the accident, she approached Matt and Sara with her playground idea. "They were still so overcome with grief, but touched," she recalls.

For Bates, the fund-raising process has given structure and focus to an incomprehensible situation. "Obviously we are still working on getting Matt better," she explains. "But sometimes, when things are tangible, it's easier to deal with them. What is grief? This is a playground. We're building a playground."

Bates glances at her watch. She'll soon be off to the Abbot School to meet the trucks and a clutch of shockingly eager teenage volunteers, who will hoist stacked cases of Doritos and Poland Spring water from her trunk while Bates fields more phone calls ("You rock, Cathy!"). Meanwhile, Delaney, loud and youthful in a blond ponytail and denim skirt, will unload plastic bins of clothing from a borrowed white van, pausing to admire a zebra-stripe dress as window blinds, a KitchenAid mixer and a Yamaha keyboard stream by her into the gym courtesy of men in blue polo shirts from 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Tomorrow's volunteer schedules will be passed around, and everyone will have a task and be cheerfully and efficiently executing it. That's when Bates, the beating heart of this organized chaos, slightly dazed behind her minivan, will flash a tight smile to no one in particular, as if to say, "Here goes nothing."

Next: Pizza, a Queen Victoria's teapot, a wicker dolphin figurine and more


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