COMMON STRANGERS

Carly steered her SUV down the gently winding road that led into the center of the large cemetery. As she pulled into her usual parking spot, she glanced to her left and saw the same blue minivan that was almost always there.

For several months she had crossed paths with the woman who drove the van, but every time they noticed each other, they averted their eyes in a careful form of avoidance. Sadly, from her body language, the woman appeared to be grieving just as deeply as Carly was, and it made her wonder about the person’s loss and the pain she was experiencing.

Today, just like every other day, Carly had come to visit her little boy. The anguish she felt driving into the cemetery had not changed over the last eight months. Every trip down the winding road brought a wave of emotion, and she worried if it would ever get better.

Just as she was getting out of her SUV, the other woman came up the walkway leading to the parking area. They briefly looked directly at each other, and Carly nodded. The individual returned the nod before disappearing into her van. Thinking she probably should have just looked the other way, Carly turned and started down the same walkway that led to the grave that had decimated her life.

Over a period of weeks, the two women continued to see each other, and eventually, the nod of a head turned into an exchange of small waves. For a long time, blinded by their suffering, they had been oblivious to those around them, but it had become impossible not to at least acknowledge the other person with some type of simple greeting.

However, with their heartache still fresh, neither was eager to engage beyond that. But, eventually, Carly’s curiosity got the better of her, and one morning, she summoned the courage to speak up.

As the woman came up the walkway, Carly stepped towards her and said, “Hi. My name is Carly Miller.”

The woman responded. “Alena Kelham. It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Close up, Carly was surprised to see that, just like her, the woman appeared to be in her early thirties, and she couldn’t help but notice that Alena had the same haunted look on her face that Carly saw in the mirror each morning. “I hope you don’t mind me saying hello.”

Alena answered, “It’s fine. We’ve seen each other so often that it seems natural.”

“I just didn’t want to intrude.”

“It’s not an intrusion. I’ve almost come to expect you to be here.”

“Same with me. It’s just that being here is so personal and private. It’s not the kind of thing you want to share with a stranger.”

Alena smiled slightly. “Well, we see each other so frequently that you don’t seem like a stranger to me anymore. I know what vehicle you drive, and I admit, I always look to see if you are here.”

Carly was surprised. “Me too! So many times I’ve wanted to talk to you, but I didn’t know if I should.”

“I’m glad you did.”

Feeling relieved that they had finally broken the ice, the two women continued to chat for another minute or so, and then they went their separate ways.

***

A week later, Carly pulled into the cemetery and parked near the blue minivan. She had not seen Alena since they spoke. She headed down the walkway and spotted her sitting on a nearby bench under several large trees. 

They smiled and waved and then Alena surprised her by calling out, “You’re welcome to join me if you have the time.”

Carly was in no hurry, so she turned and walked over to her. She would visit her son’s grave after they were done.

Sitting down, Carly said, “It’s such a beautiful day.”

“Yes, it is. I couldn’t resist being in the fresh air for a while.”

To their left was a large stand of pin oaks. As they watched the squirrels scampering around searching for acorns, Carly said wistfully, “Autumn used to be my favorite time of year.”

The comment was followed by an awkward silence as she debated whether or not it was proper to ask a personal question of someone you did not know, but under the circumstances, it seemed appropriate. She turned to Alena and said,  “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but who do you come here to visit?” Carly knew the chances were that it was her either her mother or father, and that made her thankful that both of her parents were living and in good health.

Alena took a deep breath and then said softly, “My daughter.”

Carly’s face froze. The possibility had not occurred to her that they both came here to mourn a child. She instantly felt a connection with Alena. For so many months she had wondered about the person in the blue minivan, and it was startling to realize that they had both been going through the same torment at the same time. “Oh my God, I am so sorry…… After that kind of loss, you’re no longer the same person.”

Her remark struck Alena as being unusually insightful, and she agreed. “Yes, nothing is the same anymore – and I don’t believe it ever will be again.” There was a long pause, and then she asked, “What about you? Who is your loved one?”

Carly answered, “My son. His name is Hayden. He was seven years old. I also have twin girls who are four.”

Alena was stunned. She could hardly believe she was sitting next to a person who had also lost a child. She looked away and gathered herself before saying, “Isabel was only six. I have a son who is three.”

Carly did her best to keep her voice from shaking. “Hayden had acute lymphocytic leukemia. He battled it for eighteen months.”

Alena shook her head in disgust. “Pediatric cancer. Jesus! That is unbelievable…… My daughter had a medulloblastoma brain tumor. She lived seven months after she was diagnosed.”

Surprised by the awful coincidence, Carly could only say, “It’s tragic enough when an older adult dies – but when a little boy or girl is denied the chance to live, it’s not fair.”

They sat quietly for a time, each lost in their own thoughts about their child. Finally, Alena said, “Becoming a mother was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Nothing else even comes close.”

Carly smiled slightly. “I didn’t know it was possible to love somebody so much. I still vividly remember when the nurse put Hayden in my arms. It’s a kind of joy that’s difficult to describe.”

“Of course, that kind of love carries a corresponding level of anguish when it’s taken away from you.”

Carly certainly knew that was true. “I don’t know if you can die from grief, but there were times when I wished I was dead.” She thought of her twins. “If it wasn’t for having my daughters, I don’t know what would’ve become of me.”

Alena admitted, “All of the things I used to worry about and thought were so important no longer matter. They’re insignificant and meaningless. It makes me sick to think about all the time I wasted that could’ve been spent with Isabel. I wish I could forgive myself, but I can’t.”

“Time is a strange thing. In some ways, it’s been distorted since Hayden died. Although it’s only been months, it already seems like years since I’ve hugged him.”

“They claim it gets easier with time, but I don’t know.”

Carly was skeptical too. “I still have days that are unbearable. It’s amazing how the most innocent thing can spark a memory of my son and send me into a downward spiral.”

Without hesitating, Alena stated flatly, “There cannot be anything worse than outliving your child.”

Because the last eight months had proven to Carly that Alena’s statement was an indisputable fact, she quickly added, “For the rest of our lives, every birthday and holiday the pain will return. Of course, you mourn not only the person but also all of the moments in life you won’t get to share with them. Who knows what Isabel and Hayden would’ve accomplished, but now the impact they could’ve had on the world has been lost forever.”

Alena sighed heavily. “I hate the way death not only claims its innocent victims but also rips apart the lives of those left behind. It makes it so hard to keep going.”

The depths of Carly’s despair was evident in her voice when she said, “Trying to explain to my girls why their brother was never coming home was impossible.”

Just hearing those words made Alena angry. “You know what the most infuriating part of this is? It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, cancer is unpredictable and unforgiving – but if all the nations of the world would focus their financial resources and intellectual capabilities in a concerted effort to find a cure, it could be done. Cancer could be eradicated.”

“I agree, but because of apathy and inaction, we’re left on our own just hoping that our family won’t be next. I mean, you try to convince yourself that something that frightening can’t happen – but then it does. One day everything is okay, and suddenly, out of nowhere, symptoms appear. Hayden was a happy healthy little boy, and then he began to have weakness and fatigue. Eventually, he developed shortness of breath and terrible headaches. The doctors kept testing and testing until they finally made the diagnosis.”

“Isabel began to have severe dizzy spells and her coordination became unsteady. Just like you, the doctors kept running tests until they found the tumor at the base of her brain…… At that point, you can’t help but wonder, why my child? Somewhere between 250 and 500 children each year develop the type of cancer she had. Why did it happen to her? Was there something I did or didn’t do? I was her mom. I was supposed to protect her. Was I somehow responsible?”

Carly had been living with feelings of guilt too. “So often I wished I could trade places with Hayden. I would’ve gladly taken his place in that hospital bed if he could have been healthy.”

“Exactly. I often prayed for God to take me instead of Isabel. But at every stage of her disease, my prayers went unanswered.” Alena cleared her throat before saying, “I hate to admit it, but now I think those prayers were a waste of time.”

Carly remembered some of the families she’d met at the hospital. “Just like so many other parents, I prayed as hard as I could – but their prayers were answered, and mine were not. Why was that? Why was their son or daughter allowed to live while my child’s life was taken?” She stopped to let her anger subside before asking a direct question. “Do you still believe in God?”

Alena thought before answering. “I grew up a Protestant, but my faith has lapsed, and I don’t know if it will ever come back…… Do you believe?”

“I was raised a Catholic, but I’m also struggling.” With subdued regret, Carly said, “I want to believe there’s a creator who loves us and protects us – but I’m becoming increasingly doubtful. I can’t stop asking why God would allow innocent children to die. For what purpose? Couldn’t a supreme being affect change without destroying lives? Why would a deity choose to make the world this way? What could possibly be the purpose of taking away our babies?”

With a hard edge to her voice, Alena was brutally honest. “The death of a child is so cruel, it makes you wonder if life is really worth living.” 

Carly looked out across hundreds of graves, perfectly positioned in neat rows, each one a silent reminder of human mortality. “I’ve lost count of how many people have told me in various ways that Hayden’s death must’ve been God’s will. I guess they’re just desperate to explain the unexplainable – but then they make it even worse when they tell me they are still praying for me. I hate that. Their prayers did nothing for my child, so why would they miraculously make a difference now?”

Alena understood. “People try to impress you with how much they care by sharing their religious views – but what you want to hear are expressions of compassion and condolence, not a sermon.”

There was a brief pause in the conversation before Carly said, “You know since Hayden died, the one place that bothers me the most is the city park. Watching happy children running, jumping, and playing is more than I can stand. To hear their excitement and delight as they have fun without a care in the world hurts so much. And when I see the parents on their phones not paying attention to their kids, I want to scream at them to appreciate what they have and to stop taking them for granted.”

Looking towards her daughter’s headstone, Alena agreed. “When I see families together, I can’t help but be envious. I know I shouldn’t feel that way because everyone deserves to be happy, but it makes me think about all the things that Isabel will never get to do, the life she’ll never have…… Sometimes I can’t handle it. I end up lying in bed crying unable to do anything. I know it’s not fair to my son. He needs me. It’s just so difficult sometimes to get through the day.”

Carly had also struggled. “I became so withdrawn and despondent that my doctor finally prescribed antidepressants, but I didn’t take them for long because of the side effects. Besides, they did nothing to erase the disturbing mental images.”

For the first time, Alena had difficulty controlling her emotions as her own troubling memories came flooding back. “The last forty-eight hours of her life, Isabel didn’t know who I was. I kept telling her that mommy loved her, but there was no sign of recognition. Even now, when I close my eyes at night, I see her tiny body hooked up to all those machines with more wires and tubes than I could count. But no matter what I did, she just laid there staring at nothing. I held her hand and whispered in her ear, but she never responded.”

“Helplessly watching your child slip away is the most wretched horror there is in life.” In Carly’s case, it had taken several months before she was able to talk about those final moments. “At the very end, Hayden gradually grew weaker and faded away. Eventually, his breathing was so faint and shallow that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him because I had to make sure he took another breath – but then, despite all of the treatments, and all of the prayers, his breathing stopped, and there was silence. Even though I knew it was inevitable, I still couldn’t believe it when the color drained from his face, and his eyes became fixed.”

Both women fell silent as they reflected on the nightmare of watching their child die. Ever since Isabel’s death, Alena had felt alone, as if nobody could possibly understand what she was going through, but here was a woman who knew exactly what it was like to be crushed by sorrow – and she had found the strength to survive.

Feeling drained by their conversation, Carly glanced at her watch and said, “My husband and I have been discussing taking a trip. We’re thinking maybe for two weeks. He believes it would be good for us to get away from everything. I don’t know, he might be right. We have relatives out on the coast who’ve invited us to come and stay with them.”

Alena’s expression changed. “That sounds nice. I’ve been considering taking a trip myself – but I haven’t decided for sure. It would be good to leave all of this behind.”

“Any place in particular?”

Alena shrugged. “Nothing definite.”

Carly smiled weakly. “I wish we could have met under different circumstances, but there is a certain comfort in discovering someone else who has experienced the same thing you have.”

Alena said, “Yes, I’m glad we finally got together.”

“Thanks for listening and letting me pour out my frustrations.”

“Thank you as well. It’s good to talk to someone who is not judgmental.”

They sat together for a few more minutes and then Carly slowly walked to Hayden’s grave, and Alena left for home where she would make yet another attempt to come to grips with the reality of her life.

***

Two weeks later, Carly returned to the cemetery. When she pulled into the parking area, she automatically looked for the blue minivan, and when she didn’t see it, she decided that after visiting her son’s grave, she would wait a while to see if Alena stopped by.

The trip had turned out to be a good idea. As she sat behind the wheel of her SUV, Carly felt more relaxed and at peace. It was not a magical transformation, but rather a subtle shift in how she felt. Although her mind was still dominated by memories of Hayden, and he was still the first thing she thought of each morning when she opened her eyes, she could tell her grief had eased ever so slightly.

She got out of her vehicle and began to walk down the path. It was overcast with a chance of rain later in the afternoon which caused a heavy gloominess to settle over the cemetery.

At the end of the walkway, she turned right and headed towards Hayden’s grave. Without consciously thinking about it, she glanced to her left to where Alena’s daughter was buried, and what she saw made her gasp.

Carly turned and started to walk in that direction, but she was soon overwhelmed by the urge to run. With every quickening step, she pleaded with God Almighty for it not to be true – but, tragically, it was.

She stopped short, no more than ten feet away, and stared in disbelief at the fresh grave next to Isabel’s. Slowly, Carly approached the mound of dirt covered in lavish floral arrangements as her eyes scanned the new headstone which read simply:

ALENA DIANE KELHAM

August 23, 1988    October 17, 2020

Beloved wife and devoted mother of two precious children

Please forgive me, but I could not go on

Carly stood perfectly still as a numbing weariness swept over her. She was sick of dealing with death, but it seemed to be everywhere, and now a woman who had suffered the unimaginable had lost the opportunity to watch her remaining child grow up, and to Carly, that was deeply disturbing.

Brushing away tears, she reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out her phone. It only took a quick search to piece together the fact that Alena’s death was by suicide.

Reeling with shock, Carly walked to the same bench where they had sat together only a couple of weeks before. Dropping down, she thought about how she and Alena were just two average people who, through no fault of their own, had been forced to endure the foulest most excruciating pain there is, and that, even though they were vulnerable, they had willingly opened up and shared their burden because each understood the agony of the other. It was that brief but powerful bond, that made Carly feel sorrow for a person she didn’t know well but who had still managed to touch her life.

For whatever reason, Alena had taken a course of action that was difficult to understand, but Carly had no desire to judge her. Whatever had happened, she would forever believe that the real cause of Alena’s death was a broken heart.

As she slowly looked around her, Carly realized for the first time that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living and that in the future, each time she came here, she would have two graves to visit. But for right now, all she wanted to do was go home and hug her twin daughters as tightly as she could.

Although unsure if there was an afterlife, she hoped that Alena had found peace and that, just maybe, she had somehow been reunited with her child. As Carly had learned from personal experience, that was the fervent hope of each and every mother on earth.

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