People & Places

Promise in the snow
Massachusetts father finds encouragement in storm wind

story copyright © 2005 by Mike Colclough, all rights reserved.

A photo of what Massachusetts mail carrier Scott O'Malley believes is the Virgin Mary appearing in snow during the Blizzard of 2005. The appearance comforted O'Malley and his wife following the loss of their daughter. (Photo courtesy Scott O'Malley)

SALEM, Mass. - To many Boston area residents, the Blizzard of January 23, 2005 was a white curse in a winter that had already clogged their narrow streets with enough snow. But in Salem, which tied Plymouth for the storm's jackpot of 38 inches of snow, mail carrier Scott O'Malley looked at the snow and saw the purity of a divine promise.

When the blizzard hit, O'Malley, 38, and his wife Sharon, 35, had been grieving the loss of their daughter Alyssa for nine months. The 12-year-old had suffered with a brain tumor since she was 18 months old.

She'd been "In and out of Children's Hospital," for her entire life, says O'Malley. "She had a real tough time." She was blind in one eye, had a feeding tube, and endured radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and two surgeries in her life.

But doctors said she wouldn't live longer than three years. O'Malley, who still has a son, Benjamin, 6, calls his daughter, "My champion. She fought, and amazed all the doctors."

One weekend in March 2004, spinal fluid built up in her brain. Alyssa went unconscious and had to be put on a life support machine. The O'Malley's had a 24-hour window to decide whether or not to keep their daughter alive mechanically. They decided against it.

"We took her off life support at 11 a.m. Sunday," he says, but she continued to fight for 23 hours. "She passed away at 10 a.m. Monday."

Despite the years of watching his daughter suffer, O'Malley says her death was still hard on his family.

"We kind of knew," he says, "But you're still never ready. Any time you lose a child it's a tough time and you're never ready for it."

The O'Malleys had Alyssa cremated, and the urn holding her ashes sits in their living room.

That was where they were on Sunday morning, January 23, watching storm coverage on TV while snow blew sideways outside their sliding glass door.

That was where Sharon noticed the sign.

There, outside the sliding glass door, says O'Malley, was the Virgin Mary. She appeared, perfectly sculpted into snow plastered onto the glass by winds exceeding hurricane force.

"It was only there for like a minute," says O'Malley. "My wife said, 'That looks like something.'" So O'Malley got out his camera and took a picture. Then the subject disappeared.

When they looked at the image they'd just captured, they "Realized it was the Virgin Mary holding a baby - not necessarily the Baby Jesus but maybe Alyssa, saying, 'It's OK, don't worry about it.'"

O'Malley, a practicing Catholic since childhood, emailed the picture to his mother, also a devout Catholic, in Florida. She saw the same thing he did. So did his brothers, when he emailed it to them.

But Sharon - who is Jewish - had noticed it first.

The following day, Salem began digging streets and sidewalks like canyons through their drifted snow. Removing it was such a problem that the city's students got the entire week off. O'Malley excitedly drove his Postal Service minivan through the streets, delivering mail and eagerly showing off the picture to anyone who seemed in the mood for a good story.

The appearance has healed some of the pain he and his wife had felt from their loss.

"She (Alyssa) had suffered a long time, so I guess this was the best thing that could've happened," he says.

O'Malley hopes people who hear his story will take something positive from it: "I believe in faith. There's no such thing as a coincidence and there's no such thing as a mistake."