FLOWERS FOR FAITH

Ashley pulled into the parking lot of the Golden Oaks Discount Center and began to search for an empty spot. As usual, the huge store was busy on Saturday afternoon, and there were no available spaces in front, so she was forced to park on the west side of the building, a fact she was not happy about because of the severe wind chill.

Tired after working a week filled with long hours at her floral shop, Ashley wanted to make this a quick trip. The store was only a couple of blocks from where they lived, so it was always convenient to stop on the way back to the house. She cut off the engine of her small SUV and unhooked her seatbelt. Turning to her daughter, she said, “Okay, remember, Olivia. In and out. I have a lot to do at home, so we are not going to stay here long.” Her little girl loved to wander through the large discount retailer looking at everything. She was the most curious child, and at times it drove Ashley to distraction, but she was thankful that Olivia’s mind was so active. Her daughter didn’t begin to resemble the gloomy description the doctors had painted for a child born with Down syndrome.

Ashley put on her gloves, got out, and went to Olivia’s side of the vehicle. The winter of 2019 had already set records for frigid temperatures, and because it was yet another cold, blustery day, she said, “Please put on your hat and gloves.” Her daughter made a face of protest but obeyed. Ashley tried not to laugh as she watched Olivia pull on the adult-size stocking cap that was several times too big. In their haste, she had grabbed the wrong one when they left home earlier that morning.

“Wait a second, Sweetheart. Let’s roll your hat up a few times so it fits better.” Olivia wiggled restlessly while her mom adjusted it. The little girl wanted to get going.

When she was ready, Ashley got her out. It was a steadfast rule that they always held hands in a parking lot. Although nine years old, her daughter was tiny for her age. It would be quite easy for a driver in a hurry to back out and not see her. Even in her comically huge glasses with the bright red frames, (Ashley had told Olivia she could pick them out herself. A mistake she now regretted.) her daughter’s eyesight was far from perfect. Because the little girl was excited to be at one of her favorite places, she could easily forget to pay attention.

Hand in hand, they began the long walk down the side of the gigantic store. As they were approaching the front of the building, Ashley noticed someone sitting with their back against the wall. They had an old tattered blanket pulled over them in a desperate attempt to block out the icy wind, consequently, their face was not visible. In this weather, Ashley could only assume they must be miserable.

As luck would have it, Olivia had also spotted the individual at the same time. Several people ahead of them went out of their way to steer clear of whoever was huddled against the side of the building, and because she wanted to do the same, Ashley began to guide Olivia away to create space between them and the covered figure. But her daughter had other ideas and began to pull hard as she headed straight for the person. Ashley leaned down and said as discreetly as possible, “Olivia, come on. We don’t want to bother them.” Unfortunately, her daughter’s stubborn streak could appear at the most inopportune times. Like right now.

Still tugging with all her might, Olivia ignored her mom and continued to pull in the other direction. They were about ten feet away when her daughter called out to the individual, “Hey, are you ok?” Olivia stopped in her tracks waiting for an answer.

Ashley whispered with measured intensity, “Let’s go right now, young lady!”

Olivia looked up at her and asked, “But, Mom, why are they out in the cold?”

Before Ashley could answer, the figure under the blanket began to stir. As mother and daughter watched, a deeply creased, weather-beaten face slowly appeared and both were surprised to see it was the face of a female.

Again, Olivia asked, “Are you ok?”

The woman blinked a few times and then in shock asked, “Are you talking to me, child?”

Olivia smiled. “Yes, ma’am.”

In a voice weakened by the harsh cruelty of life, the woman said, “That is very kind of you to ask.” She looked up at the person who was obviously the child’s mother and nodded.

Feeling incredibly awkward, Ashley managed to smile back as people continued to walk by, all keeping their distance.

Without hesitation, Olivia said, “You need a new blanket. That one is full of holes.”

Ashley’s cheeks began to flush crimson with embarrassment at her daughter’s boldness.

The woman said, “You are right. It has seen better days.”

Olivia said, “I have this hat that is too big for me. Would you like to have it so you could be warmer?” She reached up to pull her hat off, but the woman stopped her.

“No, no, Child. You need that hat in this cold. I’ll be fine, I’m used to the weather.”

Skeptical that anyone could be fine with the wind howling, Olivia said, “I’m sorry, but my gloves won’t fit you.”

Suddenly an idea occurred to her. Turning to Ashley, she declared, “Mom your gloves would fit!”

At that point, Ashley wished she was just about anywhere else on earth rather than right here in front of this unfortunate person. “Well, yeah, maybe they would.”

Once again the woman politely declined. “You both are very kind, but really, I will be all right.”

Olivia studied her and said, “But it’s so cold out here. You should be inside where it’s warm.”

The woman smiled and said, “I’ll be okay, but you are right about it being cold. You two better go and get warm.”

Ashley saw an opening so she tugged on Olivia’s hand. “Come on, Sweetheart.”

But before her daughter would take a step, she said to the lady, “My name is Olivia. What’s yours?”

The woman said, “Olivia. That is a pretty name. I’m Diane.”

 Olivia repeated it. “Diane. I like that. This is my mom. Her name is Ashley.”

The woman said, “It’s nice to meet both of you.”

Shivering against the cold, Ashley said, “I’m sorry, but we have to go.”

Diane nodded again. “Of course.”

Pulling her daughter as firmly as she could, Ashley finally got Olivia to walk toward the sliding doors of the store, but after only a few steps, her daughter turned back and called out, “Bye-bye, Diane!”

The woman raised her hand and waved.

It didn’t take long before Ashley regretted stopping at the store. What they needed wasn’t that important, certainly not worth the grilling she knew she was going to have to endure. Once inside, her inquisitive child unleased an onslaught of unsettling questions.

“Why is Diane out there?” Olivia asked first.

“I don’t know.”

“Have you ever seen her sitting there before?”

“No.”

“Do other people sit there?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Will Diane still be there when we leave?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Ashley was hopingfor the latter.

“How old is she?”

“It’s hard to tell.”

“Is she married?”

Guessing, Ashley answered, “Probably not.”

That answer escalated Olivia’s concern. “So she is all alone?”

“I’m not sure.”

Olivia abruptly stopped in the middle of the aisle. “Could you buy her a new blanket?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Guilt was creeping up on Ashley, and this conversation was not helping.

“Then could I buy her one? You can keep my allowance until I pay it back.”

The guilt increased. “No. We’re not buying a blanket.”

“Could I buy her a hat?”

“No. Not today.”

“Gloves?”

“No. You don’t understand.”

Olivia was trying to understand. “Someone is cold, and we can make them warmer. Isn’t that it?”

Her mother replied, “It’s not that simple.” However, in her heart, she knew it was exactly that simple.

Olivia started to ask another question, but not wanting the interrogation to continue, Ashley stopped her. As clearly and firmly as she could, she told her daughter that they would discuss it further once they were at home – but not now.

Meeting the woman who was homeless had captured Olivia’s attention and there was no letting go. Part of her mental and emotional makeup was a tendency to become obsessed with something, and the woman outside the store had both fascinated and worried her.

Frustrated, by the tone of her mother’s voice, Olivia did her best to convey her unhappiness by utilizing a powerful weapon that was at the disposal of small children everywhere. In order to demonstrate just how grievously she had been wronged by unfair parental guidance, the young girl deviously tortured her mom with “the silent treatment” (more commonly known to adults as pouting) while she traipsed around the enormous retailer. Her mother, however, was not the least bit impressed by her effort, having been subjected to it on several previous occasions. In fact, Ashley rather enjoyed the peace and quiet.

When their shopping was completed, they stood in line, paid for the items, and stepped through the sliding front doors. Once again holding her mother’s hand, Olivia couldn’t wait to get to the side of the building. As soon as they came around the corner, she immediately started to search down the length of the wall, but the woman was gone.

Alarmed, Olivia broke her silence. “Oh no! Mom, where did Diane go?”

Trying to sound more confident than she was, Ashley replied, “I’m sure she took your advice and went somewhere warm.”

Pleading, her daughter implored, “Do you really think so? Really?”

“Yes. Now let’s get moving. I want to get you out of the cold too.”

***

Ten minutes later they were back at the house sitting in the kitchen. If she was going to get past the issue of the woman at the discount center, Ashley needed to be patient and answer her daughter’s questions – but she figured she could misdirect some of her thinking with milk and cookies. Ashley promptly found out she had figured wrong. Olivia hadn’t even taken a bite of the first cookie when she asked, “Why was Diane sitting there in the cold? Why wasn’t she at home?”

Unfortunately, Ashley was checking her phone and without giving the answer the thought it deserved, she replied offhandedly, “I don’t think she has a home.”

She glanced up to see her daughter recoil in horror as she exclaimed, “What? How can she not have a home? Everyone lives somewhere.”

Cringing at her mistake, Ashley realized that she had just poured gasoline on a smoldering fire. She put her phone down and, weighing her words more carefully, said, “Some people are not as lucky as we are.”

“So where does she live?”

Her mother answered, “Just wherever she can I guess.”

Olivia frowned at her answer.

Trying to put her daughter’s mind at ease, Ashley explained, “What I mean is, there are places called shelters where she can go. They give people food and a bed to sleep on.”

Olivia couldn’t believe it. “That is supposed to be a home?”

Ashley said, “It’s temporary, but it is better than living on the street.”

Her daughter’s eyes brightened. “Maybe Grandpa could help us.”

“No. We are not going to drag him into this.”

Olivia wasn’t about to give up “Why doesn’t Diane have a home?”

“I don’t know, Sweetheart. There can be any number of reasons.”

“Could that happen to us?”

“No. If we had a problem we have a lot of family nearby who could help.”

Olivia persisted. “But she was a lady. I thought only men had to live outside.”

“Anyone can end up that way.” Afraid her daughter was just getting started, Ashley asked, “Why did you want to talk to Diane in the first place? It couldn’t have been because she was a woman. We hadn’t seen her face yet.”

“I just wanted to talk to the person. Does it matter whether you are a boy or a girl if you are freezing?” Olivia asked innocently.

Her mom shook her head. “No, it doesn’t.”

Olivia said, “I just didn’t want them to be in the cold. You didn’t either, did you, mom?”

Ashley groaned under her breath. “No. I don’t want anyone to be in the cold – but it happens all the time.”

“But it isn’t right.”

“No, it’s not right.”

With great determination, Olivia declared, “When I see Diane again I’m going to ask her why she doesn’t live somewhere.”

Ashley wanted to prevent that at all costs. “Well, it’s doubtful we will ever see her again, but if we do, that is not the kind of question you ask someone. That is personal, and it’s none of our business.”

Olivia was still concerned. “Where is Diane going to sleep tonight? It’s freezing outside.”

Although pleased that her daughter cared about others, her mom didn’t want her to worry. Attempting to sound as reassuring as she could, Ashley said, “She will find someplace safe and warm.”

Olivia thought before asking, “How can she get a real home?”

Shrugging, her mother answered, “She would need to get a job and make some money.”

The little girl’s face lit up. “You have the flower business! Could you hire her?”

“No. I don’t need another employee right now.” It was difficult enough for Ashley to meet her current payroll.

Olivia was adamant. “But she needs a job now. She can’t wait.”

Trying to placate her daughter, Ashley said, “There are other businesses around here that are hiring.”

“But they might not be as nice as you are.”

Ashley felt all new stabbing pangs of guilt. She wished she was as nice as her daughter believed her to be, however, the reality was that between being a single mom and being self-employed, she didn’t believe she had time to take on any other responsibilities. She hated to think that way, but sadly, she thought getting involved with a person who was homeless was probably just asking for trouble.

Olivia had yet another question. “Why doesn’t someone help people who don’t have a home? Don’t they think they are important enough?”

Ashley was not enjoying this conversation. “Yes, of course, they are important, but you’ve got to try and understand, Sweetie, you can’t help everyone.”

Olivia challenged her. “But we can help one person. We can help Diane.”

Ashley was silent. Her daughter had a way of seeing the world in absolute black and white, with no shades of gray whatsoever. Something was either right or wrong, and that was it. Ashley said, “We don’t even know the woman -”

Olivia interrupted, “Diane.”

“Yes, okay…… Maybe we could help someone we do know.”

Skeptical, Olivia asked, “Who do we know that needs help more than Diane?”

Ashley sighed heavily. She couldn’t believe she was losing an argument to a nine-year-old, but she had to admit to herself that they were not acquainted with anyone in such a desperate condition. “The thing is, we know nothing about her particular situation.”

Olivia gave her mom a look that conveyed her childlike disappointment. “We know she was cold and alone. Isn’t that enough to help someone?”

Ashley shifted in her chair. “Well, yes. The thing is, sometimes when people don’t have a home it’s because they have a serious problem. Sometimes it might not be safe to be around them. I’m your mother, and it’s my job to protect you. That’s why we hold hands in the parking lot. When we met Diane, I didn’t want to take any chances.”

Her daughter thought about it and then said, “Diane didn’t seem dangerous to me. Did she seem dangerous to you?”

Rubbing her forehead, Ashley was forced to agree. “No. She didn’t seem dangerous.” Then, because she was more than ready to wrap up the discussion, she said in her serious mom voice, “All right, that is enough about Diane. I appreciate your concern for her, but I’m sure she will be fine.”

Olivia knew that her mom meant it when she said that was enough. “Okay.” But then she added defiantly, “I’m still going to worry about her.” As in you can’t stop me.

“That is your choice.” Ashley didn’t dare say it out loud, but she would worry too.

Over the next few days, Olivia would occasionally bring up Diane. They would talk about her for a short time, and then Ashley would move on to another subject, assuming that the woman who had briefly entered their lives was now just a memory.

But she would soon find out that was not the case.

***

One evening, less than a week later, Ashley dropped down on the couch. She still had more housework to do, but the tightness in her neck and shoulders made it clear that it was just going to have to wait.

It had been a particularly exhausting day at work as she juggled one crisis after another. People without firsthand experience would never believe the challenges of running your own business. From the outside, it looked like you were your own boss when actually every customer you had was a boss. But without a doubt, the biggest headache was getting and keeping good employees.

Ashley’s floral business was trying to compete with much larger local companies as well as online competition from around the nation. Consequently, she depended on her staff to follow her example and provide personalized service that would keep customers coming back. But this morning, one of her most trusted employees, a woman who had been with her for more than eight years, gave two weeks’ notice. Her husband had received the promotion of a lifetime, and they were being transferred out of state. Although happy for her, it left the flower shop in a difficult position.

Stressed and wanting to escape from her problems, Ashley leaned back on the sofa and checked her watch. It was time for the late local news, so she grabbed the remote and switched on the TV. She barely paid attention to the first couple of stories, but then she heard the news anchor begin a report on a fatality with the words that took Ashley’s breath away. “The body of an unidentified woman was found behind the Golden Oaks Discount Center just before dawn this morning. It is believed the individual was homeless and seeking shelter from the elements in the alleyway behind the business. The woman’s cause of death has yet to be determined. In other news –”

For a few moments, Ashley couldn’t breathe, but then her chest heaved involuntarily as a toxic mixture of sadness and regret consumed her. She turned the TV off with her mind racing back to the sight of Diane huddled against the brutal cold.

Feeling at least a partial sense of responsibility, Ashley struggled to process the disturbing news, but it was impossible to make sense of such a needless tragedy. Realizing it was useless to try to ease her conscience, she went to bed, where for the next hour she stared despondently at the ceiling as her thoughts ran through a series of disturbing questions. What had caused the woman’s death? Was it the elements or something else? Why had she not gone to a shelter? Did she have any family to notify? And, worst of all, Ashley wondered what it must be like to die alone, believing that no one in the world cared about you.

No one, that is, except for a little girl named Olivia.

Thankfully her daughter was asleep and hadn’t seen the story. Ashley decided right then and there not to watch any news for the next few days just in case there were more reports. Hopefully, it would not be long before Olivia forgot all about their chance meeting with the woman.

But for Ashley, the memory of the encounter was being seared into her mind as she began to think about all of the simple things she could’ve done to help the person. Obviously, she could have given her money. But besides that, the giant discount store had a food court. She could’ve gotten her a hot meal. And even though money was tight, Ashley knew she could have bought her a warm coat or a blanket. So many things would’ve made a small difference, but instead, she had argued with her daughter who had been far more compassionate than she was.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, Ashley drifted into a fitful sleep that did not provide near the rest she needed.

The next morning, still groggy even after two cups of coffee, Ashley called Olivia into the kitchen for breakfast. Always amazed by the amount of energy her young child possessed at such an early hour, she sat down across from her daughter who immediately started scarfing down her oatmeal. “Please slow down. You don’t want to get choked.”

“Okay.” She did as her mother asked, but after a short time she stopped eating altogether, pushed her red glasses back on her nose, and asked, “Do you think we will ever see Diane again?”

With a lump forming in her throat, Ashley turned her face away from Olivia. “I don’t think so, Sweetheart. Now go ahead, and finish up. You don’t want to be late.”

***

Five days later, Ashley needed some office supplies for her business, so, after dropping Olivia off at school, she made a run to the same discount center where they had met Diane. The parking lot was not nearly as crowded as it was on the weekends, and this time she was able to park in front of the building. The weather had improved some, but the temperature was still below freezing, and it was overcast.

Because Ashley had been purposely avoiding the store, this was her first trip here since seeing the news report of the woman’s death. She cut off the engine of her SUV and started to open the door, but hesitated as she flashed back to the day they met Diane. By now Ashley assumed the body had been claimed, and a simple graveside service held. She could only hope that someone had bothered to attend.

Sighing heavily, she stepped out of her vehicle and was immediately struck in the face by a stinging blast of wind. Pulling the hood of her jacket up over her head, Ashley quickly headed for the sliding front doors, but at the last possible second, she veered hard to her left. Although knowing full well that what she was doing was pointless, for some unknown reason, her guilt compelled her to take a look at the area where Diane had been. She walked briskly until she got to the corner of the building, and then she swung to her right to have a clear view down the side.

At that moment, Ashley saw something so stunning, she could not believe her eyes. Speechless, she stared in utter disbelief because fifteen feet away, huddled under the same tattered blanket in the exact same spot, was Diane.

After days of believing the person was dead, it was like coming face to face with an apparition – but in this case, the individual was very much alive and sitting right in front of her. Astounded, Ashley took a few tentative steps forward but stopped when the woman looked up.

Gulping hard, Ashley said gingerly, “Hello, Diane.”

Diane looked at her quizzically. “Hello…… I’m sorry. Do we know each other?”

“No. We don’t actually know each other, but we’ve met before.”

“We have?”

Hit by another gust of wind, Ashley plunged her hands into her coat pockets and said, “Yes, about ten days ago. My daughter and I were going into the store, and she stopped and spoke to you.”

Diane’s face broke into a huge smile. “Olivia!”

Surprised that she remembered, Ashley returned the smile and said, “Yes. That’s right.”

“And you are – let me think – you are Ashley. I remember both of you now. She is a precious little thing.”

“Thank you.” There was an awkward silence and then unable to contain her relief, Ashley blurted out, “I’ve been worried about you. I’m so glad you are okay.”

“What are you talking about?” Diane asked.

Ashley hung her head and said softly, “I was afraid you might have died.” Diane’s face gave away her confusion, so Ashley explained, “I saw on the news a couple of nights ago that a woman who they suspected was homeless had died in this area.”

Now Diane understood. “Oh, yes. I saw the police and ambulance in the alley, and I knew something terrible had happened.”

With an intense need to confess, Ashley said, “The thing is, I treated you badly the other day. I could have offered to assist you in some way, but I didn’t. Olivia desperately wanted me to, but I dismissed her as just a child. The truth is, my daughter was right, and I was wrong. I’m sorry, Diane.”

The woman shook her head. “Please don’t apologize. I wouldn’t expect you to help me.”

“You might not expect it – but I should expect it of myself.” The two women spent a few seconds sizing each other up until another stiff gust of wind hit them, and at that instant, Ashley made a decision that would change both of their lives.

Guessing Diane to be in her late thirties, maybe five or six years older than she was, Ashley couldn’t stand the thought of walking away again and leaving the woman sitting in the cold. “Listen, I just live a few blocks from here. I’d like for you to come with me for a few hours. You can get warm, have a meal, some hot coffee, and we’ll talk. I’ve even got a few things that might fit you, and –”

Diane held up her hand for her to stop. “Wait a second. You shouldn’t invite a stranger into your home.”

She was right, of course, but Ashley realized there was a simple precaution she could take. “I tell you what, my father lives less than a mile from me. “I’ll call, tell him what I’m doing, and ask that we randomly text back and forth the entire time to make sure I’m safe. Will that put your mind at ease?”

“But inviting me into your home? I’ve never heard of such a thing. How can you be sure I won’t try to steal from you or something?”

“It’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Ashley replied.

Now it was Diane who was staring in disbelief.

Ashley said, “I believe you are a good person. You were so nice to Olivia, and –”

“That’s another thing. What about Olivia? Won’t she be coming home from school?”

“Yes, but when I go to pick her up this afternoon, I can drop you off at the shelter on the way. That still gives us several hours together.”

“Aren’t you busy? Don’t you have things to do?”

“Nothing as important as this.”

It had been a long time since Diane had been able to trust anyone, and that made her suspicious about Ashley’s motives. “Why are you offering to do this?”

Speaking honestly, and without any pretense, Ashley bared her soul in a single sentence. “I guess I want to be the person my daughter thinks I am.”

For many personal reasons, her answer touched Diane’s heart.

With the desire to be completely truthful, Ashley said, “When I thought you were the person I saw on the news, it really affected me. I was saddened and, I admit, I felt guilty. I don’t want to make the same mistake again. It’s not so much that I want to help you or do something for you, it’s more that I just want to be a friend in whatever way I can, and if that is something you’d be interested in, then please let me get my vehicle, and we’ll go to the house.”

In her mind, Diane kept going over how strange this was, and that left her unsure about how to respond. She had a natural reluctance to go with a stranger, after all, it wasn’t easy to trust someone you met in a parking lot, but she had not eaten since early yesterday, and a warm house with soft furniture and hot coffee was almost too much to resist. After a few more seconds of deliberation, she decided that if Ashley was willing to trust her – she would return the favor and trust Ashley. Diane replied, “All right. I’ll come with you – but first, I need you to text your father and tell him what is going on.”

“Fair enough. I’ll do that right now.”

The text was sent and then Ashley brought her SUV around. She raised the back hatch and placed Diane’s meager belongings in the vehicle. Embarrassed because she had been living outdoors for more than six months, Diane said, “I’m sorry, but my clothes are not clean. I don’t want to get the inside of your vehicle dirty.”

That made Ashley chuckle. “Oh, Diane you have nothing to worry about. I’m a florist, and I often deliver flowers in this thing. It’s full of potting soil, peat moss, and God knows what else.”

 “Okay.”

They climbed in, but instead of starting the engine, Ashley paused.

“What’s wrong?” Diane asked.

Ashley grinned and said, “We don’t even know each other’s last names!”

“My God, that’s right. Let me introduce myself. I am Diane Evanston.”

“Ashley Clark.”

With both of them still trying to make sense out of the unusual turn the day had taken, they buckled up and drove the three blocks to Ashley’s modest home.

***

Within thirty minutes, the two women were warm and comfortable, sitting at the kitchen table eating scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. Each had started on their second cup of coffee, and Ashley had sent another text to her dad telling him all was well.

As they ate, there was a peacefulness that settled between them. Ashley had anticipated immense awkwardness, but it wasn’t that way at all. Diane did not seem scary or threatening, nor did she seem like someone interested in lying or stealing. Mostly, she just appeared to be beaten down, as if she had lived through something that had exacted a terrible toll.

Her guest pushed her plate away and said, “The food was delicious. Thank you so much.”

“You are very welcome.” Ashley glanced at her phone when her dad responded to her text.

“It must be nice having your parents living so close by,” Diane said.

“Yes, it is nice, but it’s just my dad. He’s semi-retired, and he owns a couple of properties that keep him busy…… My mom died when I was about Olivia’s age.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. It has helped me stay focused on the importance of a mother in a child’s life. I try to be a good mom.”

Diane said, “I don’t believe the bond between a mother and child can ever be broken – no matter what happens.”

Agreeing, Ashely said, “That little girl certainly changed my world. I can’t imagine life without her.”

Diane studied Ashley before saying, “You know, the afternoon we met, people passed by me all day long, and Olivia was the only person that spoke to me. The only one. If you had been alone, would you have spoken to me?”

Ashley’s face flushed. “I’m sorry to say, I probably wouldn’t have.”

It was not Diane’s intent to make Ashley uncomfortable. “Please don’t misunderstand. Before it happened to me, I was the same way. Anytime I saw someone like that, I just assumed that it was something they did to themselves. Something they alone were responsible for. But during my time on the street, I’ve met many people who are homeless for reasons beyond their control.”

Just like her daughter, Ashley was curious about what had caused Diane to end up being at risk, but she didn’t dare ask.

As it turned out, she didn’t have to. It was almost as if Diane could read her mind, when she said, “I know everyone wonders how a person becomes homeless – especially a woman.”

“I would be lying if I didn’t admit I’m interested,” Ashley said. “But it’s none of my business.” Smiling, she added, “I better warn you though, I am, by nature, very nosey. I guess that’s where Olivia gets it from.”

Diane said, “That’s okay. Homelessness is a mysterious thing because it occurs on the fringes of society, so I think it’s pretty common that people assume that if you are living on the street you must be an alcoholic or addicted to drugs. Legal or illegal. But I’ve never taken an illegal drug in my life. However, I have been prescribed so many legal meds that I can’t begin to remember them all. Mostly antidepressants.”

An alarm bell went off in Ashley’s mind. She did not want to jump to conclusions, but a mental health issue would explain a lot.

“And as far as alcohol is concerned, I’ve never cared for it. I haven’t had a drink since I was in college.” Diane said.

College? Ashley was caught off guard by that, because, without meaning to, she had already formed opinions about the woman’s life without any knowledge of the facts. She didn’t know what to say, and, of course, she could not be certain that Diane was telling the truth, but she believed she was. In any event, this was not a conversation she had anticipated having.

Ashley decided the best thing she could do was be honest. “Diane, even though we don’t know each other, when I saw you again today, it made me happy…… So, here we are sitting together, just two people talking face to face. If you want to tell me about yourself, I will listen and do my best not to pass any kind of judgment. If you’d rather not, that’s fine too. Either way, I just want you to be comfortable.”

Diane played with the rim of her coffee cup. It had never occurred to her to discuss the tragedy with a complete stranger, but Ashley was obviously a caring person, and because she was a mom, she certainly understood the importance of family. Maybe it was time to open up and tell someone her secret.

Although it was incredibly difficult to talk about that horrific moment, Diane hoped that in some small way it might ease her burden if she shared it with another person. So, in a voice shredded with anguish, she said, “I was once a mother just like you.”

When Ashley heard the word was, her body began to tense up.

Diane took a deep breath and with a weariness that proved just how soul-crushing it could be for a person to be alone in the cold, she began her heart-wrenching story. “My husband and I had tried for so long to conceive that we had just about given up, but then one day we got our miracle. We were absolutely ecstatic to get the news. It was like all of our dreams came true at once. Everything went as planned. My pregnancy and the delivery were uneventful, and our beautiful little girl was born healthy at 6 pounds 9 ounces.”

She paused and then said softly, “We named her Faith.”

Just saying her daughter’s name out loud hurt Diane like no other word could, but she did her best to suppress her pain as she continued. “From the beginning, she was a contented baby, and there were no significant issues, to speak of. But, because I had waited for so long to become a mother, part of me thought it seemed almost too good to be true. As it turned out, it was.

With her voice faltering, Diane said, “Faith was only four months old when……” She paused as tears filled her eyes. “She will be four months old forever.”

Ashley gasped. She had imagined all kinds of scenarios that might have caused the woman to end up sitting outside against the wall of a building – but nothing as awful as losing a child.

Struggling even harder to keep her emotions in check, Diane said, “One evening, I was rocking Faith, and she fell asleep in my arms. I laid her down in her crib, just a few feet from our bed, kissed her goodnight, and that was the last time I saw my baby girl alive.”

Wiping away tears as her voice broke, Diane said, “Hours later I woke up and listened, but there was no sound. Somehow I could just sense that something was wrong. I turned on the light, went to her crib, and when I looked down at my angel, I saw that her lips were blue and her skin was a waxy pale color. Instantly, I knew it was too late. She was gone.” Covering her mouth, Diane began to cry.

As gently as she could, Ashley said, “My God. I am so sorry.” Seeing the pain etched on Diane’s face, she realized the person across the table had gone from being an anonymous individual huddled against the cold, to a flesh and blood human being who had suffered the greatest agony there is. It was unnerving for Ashley to consider how easy it would have been for her to walk past the nameless woman without even acknowledging her existence – if Olivia had not been with her.

Diane spoke in barely more than a whisper as she picked up her story. “To determine the cause of death, they had to perform an autopsy on her tiny body. The results came back, and it was described to us in a clinical matter-of-fact way that it was ‘a simple case of crib death’. Of course, it was officially listed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

“I simply couldn’t believe it. I had taken every precaution to keep her safe. I laid her down on her back. There were no pillows, blankets, or stuffed toys in her crib, and she had her pacifier. I keep going over that night in my mind. Was it still somehow my fault? Did I miss something or do something wrong? Was there something I should have done differently? For God’s sake, what kind of mother was I to allow it to happen? How could I let my baby die when she was within arm’s reach?”

Ashely took hold of her hand. “It was not your fault. You are not to blame.”

Shaking her head, Diane said, “But I still live with the guilt every day. It’s the first thing I think of when I open my eyes in the morning and the last thing I think about each night. I will never stop wondering if I was somehow responsible.”

There was a brief silence before Diane said, “I had never been to the funeral of a baby, so I had never seen a casket so small.”

The mental image of such a tiny casket at the front of a church made Ashley feel sick. She wished there was something she could say that would make a difference, but for now, she was convinced the best thing she could do was to just listen.

Diane once again covered her mouth with her hand, trying to keep any more sorrow from escaping before she said, “I don’t know how much God can expect a human being to endure, but losing my baby was more than I could bear…… and it turned out to be too much for my husband as well.”

Instantly, Ashley thought of her ex-husband and how awful their relationship had been.

As her shaky voice changed to a tone of deep regret, Diane said, “Our marriage struggled along for the next year, but neither one of us could come to grips with the loss of our daughter. My husband is a good man, but the pain slowly broke him. We stayed together as long as we could, and I tried to help him, but at the same time, I couldn’t cope with life either. There came a point where he decided he couldn’t stay, and one day he just disappeared and never returned. That was two years ago, and I’ve been on a downward spiral ever since.

“It’s hard to believe now, but we were once an upper-middle-class couple. We both had degrees and careers we were pursuing, which rewarded us handsomely. From all outward appearances, we were the picture of success. But all of that changed when Faith died.”

Nervously tapping the table with her fingers, Diane confessed, “I never for a second believed I would ever become a person who was homeless. That happened to other people. But, far more importantly, I never thought I would be a mother who lost her child. One day everything was perfect, and the next day my baby was taken away, and our entire world collapsed.

“I don’t want to use my daughter’s death as an excuse for why I ended up living on the street, and I don’t want to blame my husband. It’s just that the grief was overwhelming. I couldn’t think clearly anymore. Nothing made sense, and nothing mattered…… I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like everything was out of control, but it is terrifying.”

Ashley said, “Yes, I’ve been in that place…… When the prenatal test came back positive for Down syndrome, my husband and I were shocked. Neither of us knew anything about the condition, and I was scared. Most of what I heard was a negative list of all the things Olivia would never be able to do. The information was distorted and inaccurate, but it was enough to convince my husband that he didn’t want our baby.

“He immediately starting pressuring me to terminate my pregnancy, and even after Olivia was born, he wanted to put her up for adoption. It didn’t take long until I began to hate him, and our marriage fell apart. Olivia is nine, and I haven’t seen or heard from him in almost eight years. And I hope to God I never see him again.”

After being so desperate to have a family, it was difficult for Diane to comprehend how anyone could not want their child, and she believed that the actions of Olivia’s father were indefensible. But not wanting to comment directly on Ashley’s failed marriage, Diane instead chose to make a point in a less specific way. “Unfortunately, there will always be people who only see Olivia as an individual with an intellectual challenge, but that is not the case with me. When I was sitting there shivering in the cold, your daughter was the only one who reached out to me. That was the behavior of a person who is both wise and compassionate.”

Ashley agreed. “I’ve learned so much from Olivia because she often sees things in a way that I don’t. And, over time, it’s been proven that her way is better. Her view of the world is not cluttered with judgment and misconceptions. It’s more honest and pure.”

With great warmth, Diane said, “She truly is an extraordinary little girl, and you are a good mother.” Hesitating before offering unsolicited advice, Diane said gently, “Please don’t ever take your relationship with her for granted. Believe me, it will always be the most important thing in your life.”

Ashely promised, “I will never do that. I know how blessed I am to be a mom.”

The two women sat for a time reflecting on their own past as well as that of the other person. A bond based on their shared experiences of motherhood and marriage had been quietly forged that neither one of them had expected. And that bond had solidified Ashley’s thinking about their unusual relationship.

Ever since she discovered the person across the table was not the individual she saw on the news, an idea had been formulating in her mind. However, before she discussed it with Diane, she needed to check on a couple of things.

Ashley made a suggestion. “I would like to continue our conversation. Would it be all right if I pick you up in the morning at the shelter and we came back here and talked some more? I would like for us to get better acquainted.” 

Diane could not believe the thoughtfulness of the woman who had invited a stranger into her home. “Are you sure you want to do that? You’ve already done more than enough for me.”

“Yes, please. I have a few things I’d like to talk over with you.”

Diane smiled. “Well, it appears I have a little free time on my hands. I suppose I can fit you in.”

Ashley giggled. “Great! I’ll pick you up after I drop Olivia off at school.”

“But you are a business owner. Don’t you need to work? I’ve already taken up a lot of your time.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to be increasing my staff, and that will help me catch up.”

Diane was appreciative. “You are such a good person. No one has been kind to me in a very long time.”

“Oh, believe me, I’m no saint. It’s just that I feel like we have some kind of a connection. It’s difficult to explain.”

“I know. I feel it too.”

And, indeed, what had started as an all too brief meeting in the cold had now become something that neither of them could have foreseen, something heartwarming and life-affirming, something that would soon get even better.

An hour later, Ashley dropped Diane off at the shelter and headed straight to her dad’s house. After bringing him up to date on the person she wanted to help, she asked him for a huge favor. A generous man, he was impressed by the idea and eagerly agreed to her plan.

***

The next morning, Ashley picked up Diane, and they headed to the house. Over pancakes, she was ready to present her ideas.

She poured them both another cup of coffee and sat down next to the person who had entered her life so unexpectedly. Ashley didn’t want to waste any time, so she got right to the point. “The reason I wanted to talk again, is because I’d like to get your thoughts on a couple of things.”

“Okay.” Having no idea where this was going, it didn’t matter. Diane found Ashley to be incredibly easy to talk to, and she had enjoyed the time they spent together. The only growing issue was her increasing indebtedness to someone who was so considerate.

Ashley’s expression grew serious. “Remember when I mentioned that my dad owned several properties?”

“Yes, I do.”

“What I didn’t tell you is that those properties are apartments – and he currently has one available that you could rent at an extremely reasonable rate. It’s nothing fancy, but it is well maintained. He’s a stickler for keeping up the maintenance on the units he manages.”

Diane was bewildered. “What?…… Ashley, that is an incredible offer, but I don’t have any money yet. I couldn’t pay the deposit on an apartment. Right now, I don’t even have any job prospects.”

Ashley’s face broke into a huge grin as she said, “Actually, you do have a job if you want it. A few days ago one of my long-time employees put in her notice. I’m going to have to fill that position, and I would love for you to give it a try. You would be doing a little bit of everything for us – and I’m sure you would pick it up fast. And my father is more than willing to waive the deposit, so you can move in immediately. By the way, the apartment is furnished, so you wouldn’t have any expense there either.”

For several seconds, Diane stared at Ashley as she tried to grasp what was going on. “I don’t understand why you want to do all of this for me.”

Ashley replied, “For one thing, I am fortunate enough to be in a position to do it. Through my dad, we can get you an apartment, and through my business, I can offer you a job. You’re not getting anything more than a chance to have a fresh start. The apartments are small, and the work is not glamorous, but they would be enough to help you get back on your feet. Whether you accept is, of course, completely up to you. And if for some reason it doesn’t work out, there would be no hard feelings on my part.

“But the real reason I want to offer you this chance is because you deserve it. As we both know, life is never fair, but sometimes something so awful occurs that it is a miracle that someone is able to survive it. But you did survive it, Diane. You were dealt the worst hand there is, so if there is anyone that deserves a break, it’s you.”

Diane tried to protest. “But there are so many people living on the streets whose lives are broken just like mine. I don’t deserve your kindness any more than they do. Why should I be so lucky?”

Ashley had a one-word answer. “Olivia.”

Diane could hardly believe her good fortune. “My world has been changed, by a nine-year-old child with Down syndrome.”

“It is all because of her,” Ashley replied honestly. “I hate to admit it, but when we first met, you were just another individual who was homeless to me. I see them from time to time, and I have always been able to put them out of my mind. I would just ignore them like they weren’t really a person. But my daughter refused to let me do that with you. And now, knowing what you have lived through fills me with admiration for your strength and character, and it has changed how I view others who are facing serious challenges. I laid in bed last night trying to imagine what I would have done if I had lost Olivia the way that you……” At that point, words failed her.

Diane knew what Ashley was trying to express, so she gave her opinion on why bad things appeared to occur without explanation. “I’ve always heard people claim that everything happens for a reason. Whether it’s good or bad, they’re convinced that there is some kind of meaning behind every event. But I’ve never believed that was true- and I don’t believe it now. However, that makes it difficult sometimes for a person as skeptical as me to remain positive. The randomness of our existence does not lend itself to believing, against all evidence, that things will spontaneously get better.”

Diane paused before continuing. “The point I’m trying to make is that you, and Olivia, and now your father have given me hope. And I haven’t had that in a long time. You’ve restored my faith in people. When you are living on the street being continually ignored, it becomes easier by the day to think that you don’t matter to anyone and that you are not important. You become invisible while sitting in plain sight. But your little girl spoke to me, and now all of this is the result.”

Ashley weighed her next words carefully before saying them. “Perhaps the meaning we all seek can be found in how we treat people. I mean, what would the world be like if we helped and supported each other, instead of passing judgment the way I did with you? How much better would society be if we stopped focusing exclusively on ourselves and accepted the truth that we are all the same, no matter what our circumstances…… That is an important lesson that was taught to me by my child who doctors assured me would not have a life worth living.”

That statement touched Diane. The beauty of a child with a disability having such a powerful impact had also made her reconsider how she formed opinions about people without knowing the facts. Diane asked, “Speaking of Olivia, she doesn’t know about any of this does she?”

“No. I wanted to talk to you first to see if you were interested in the job and apartment. I didn’t want to get her hopes up just in case this was not something you wanted to do.” Smiling, Ashley added, “By the way, you haven’t said one way or the other whether you like the idea. But before you make up your mind just let me put the best possible spin on it I can. My dad is a terrific landlord, and I try to be a good employer – and you will instantly have three good friends if you want them.”

Diane said, “It’s very obvious what kind of people you are – and I would love to have friends. I gratefully and humbly accept your gracious offers, with one condition. I want to keep a running account so that I can pay back every penny that you all invest in this.”

“We are not worried about the money. The return on our investment will be seeing you reclaim your life.”

“Thank you, Ashley. I really mean it. Thank you for taking a chance on me and giving me the opportunity to have a real future.”

“It is my pleasure.”

They spent another hour chatting before driving to the flower shop where Ashley gave her new friend the grand tour and introduced her to her future co-workers. Thrilled to be employed again, Diane could hardly contain her excitement. Then it was off to see her apartment.

Upon meeting Ashley’s father, Diane was pleased to find that he was just as nice a person as his daughter. Although it had already been an emotional day, when the front door was unlocked and she stepped into her new home, Diane was overjoyed.

Slowly moving from room to room, she couldn’t believe that she now had a couch, and a TV, and a bed to sleep on. She had central heat and air, and carpeting, and a shower. And when she entered the kitchen, she was shocked to discover that Ashley’s dad had fully stocked the cabinets and refrigerator with food. There was even a beautiful flower arrangement in the center of the dining table that had been placed there by someone who just happened to be a florist.

That is where Diane sat and cried tears of gratitude.

But with so much excitement, the afternoon had flown by, and Olivia would soon be getting out of school. The two women had decided that it was time to tell her about their plans, but they wanted it to be a surprise, so Ashley dropped Diane off at the house where she waited anxiously for them to return.

***

On the way home, Olivia told her mom all about her day. Ashley was thrilled that her daughter liked going to school. She loved her teachers, and, so far, the other students had accepted her and made her feel included. But it didn’t take long for the subject of Diane to come up.

Olivia worried out loud. “I hope Diane is okay. I hope she found someplace to go.”

Ashley glanced at her and said, “I’m sure she is safe and comfortable.”

The little girl started to ask another question, but she stopped talking as they drove past the Golden Oaks Discount Center. Olivia craned her neck to see the spot where they first encountered Diane, but there was no one there.

Knowing her daughter was disappointed, Ashley cheered her up by dropping a hint. “I have a surprise for you when we get home.”

Olivia’s mood instantly transformed into one of excitement. “A surprise! What is it?”

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

“Oh, boy!” Olivia pushed her red glasses up on her tiny nose and clapped her hands together.

A few minutes later they pulled into the garage.

Diane was sitting at the kitchen table waiting, but she barely resembled the person that Olivia had spoken to only days before. She had put on make-up, her hair was fixed, and she was wearing a new outfit – but not one bit of that would matter to the little girl. Diane’s appearance made no difference to Olivia the first time they met, and it would make no difference today.

Eager to see her again, Diane grew nervous when she heard them getting out of the car. Then the door from the garage to the kitchen opened and Ashley stepped in followed by her daughter. When Olivia saw Diane sitting at the table, it took a split second for her to believe it was for real.

“DIANE!! You’re here!!” Olivia screamed as she ran and threw both arms around her neck. Diane had tried to steel herself, but she could not stop the tears any more than Ashley could. For both women, this reunion meant so much.

Olivia was elated. “I can’t believe it! You are sitting at our kitchen table! You are warm and safe!”

Diane laughed through her tears. “It is so good to see you again!”

Olivia gushed, “I was afraid you were gone forever. I was worried about you.”

Ashley interjected, “Olivia asked about you all the time. She was very concerned.”

“That’s right!” Olivia hugged her one more time for good measure.

Ashley winked at Diane and said, “Olivia why don’t you sit down next to her because I want to tell you something.”

“Okay.” Olivia flew into the chair next to her friend and took hold of her hand.

“Getting to see Diane today is only part of the surprise,” her mother said.

Olivia was confused. “There’s even more?”

Her mom nodded. “The day we first met Diane, you suggested that I should have her come and work with me at the flower shop. Do you remember that?”

“Yes!”

“Well, Diane has agreed to do that. We start working together next Monday.”

Olivia squealed with delight.

“And……” Her mom added, “She is going to move into one of Grandpa’s apartments just a couple of streets away.”

Unable to contain her happiness, Olivia jumped out of her chair and started clapping again. “Oh My Gosh! Oh my Gosh! This is the best surprise ever!!”

Diane was amazed that a child could be happy about a person rather than a toy or some other material thing, but then every aspect of this situation was amazing.

Watching the exuberance of her child made Ashley feel the need for some coffee. She asked Diane if she’d like some.

“That would be nice.” Drinking coffee again on a regular basis was a simple pleasure that Diane had missed.

Just as Ashley was filling their cups, her phone rang. She answered, and after a brief conversation, she said to Diane, “Excuse me for a minute. There’s an issue at work, and I’ve got to go check something on my laptop. I’ll be right back.”

When she left the room, Diane said to Olivia, “Your mom is a wonderful person.”

Olivia had never thought about it. “She is?”

Diane smiled. “Yes, she is. There are not very many people who would help someone the way she has helped me. You are a lucky girl to have such a sweet mother, and she loves you very much. You are the most important thing in the world to her. I am so fortunate that I got to meet both of you. This is the best thing that has happened to me in a long time, and I owe it all to you.”

“To me?”

“That’s right. If the two of you had just walked past me like everyone else did, I don’t know where I would be right now. But because you stopped and talked to me, I have a roof over my head and a job. You are both very special people to me, and I just wanted to thank you.”

Olivia beamed proudly. “You are welcome, Diane!”

***

An hour later, after the excitement had died down, ever-so-slightly, Diane discreetly approached Ashley with a request. “You’ve been so kind to me, I hate to ask, but there is one last favor I need from you.”

Ashley shrugged.Sure. Anything.”

“Because the weather is better today, I would appreciate it if you would drive me somewhere. It’s not far, and we won’t be there long.”

“Okay. How about now? I can drop Olivia off at my dad’s, and he can babysit.”

“If you’re not too busy that would be great. But first I need to make a purchase.”

“All right, but where are we going? You know how nosey I am!”

Diane said, “We’re going someplace important. We just need to stop by the flower shop first.”

She could tell that Ashley wasn’t following, so Diane explained. “I want to purchase fresh flowers from the shop for my daughter’s grave, and then if you would be willing to drive me there, I will – ”

Ashley bit her lip. “My God, Diane. You don’t have to purchase the flowers from me. I would be honored to help you with an arrangement and drive you.”

Diane replied, “I appreciate that, but it’s my responsibility as her mother to do it.”

Ashely understood. “Okay. Let’s go get the flowers.”

Fifteen minutes later, they dropped Oliva off with her grandpa, stopped at the flower shop, and then they were on their way.

Thanks to Diane’s directions, they soon arrived at their destination. Peaceful Haven Memorial Park was a large cemetery covering just over 300 acres. It opened in 1913 and was the final resting place for tens of thousands of men, women, children – and babies.

When Ashley pulled in, her throat tightened, and she could feel the sweat breaking out on the palms of her hands against the steering wheel. She had driven by this place many times without ever giving it a thought, but she would never pass here again without thinking of this day.

Ashley turned the engine off, and asked, “Are you sure you’re up to this?”

Diane nodded. “Yes, I’ve got to do it. It has been tearing me up inside not to be able to visit. I’m ashamed to say, that it’s been eight months since I was last here. Recently, I scraped together enough money to buy flowers for Faith’s grave, but someone found out I had cash, and I was attacked and beaten in the middle of the night. My money and possessions were stolen.”

Turning away, Diane said, “It took weeks to recover physically, but the real toll was emotional. I had never felt so utterly useless and pathetic. First, I couldn’t protect my daughter from dying, and then I couldn’t even put flowers on her grave. That is when I gave up because I believed I had no reason to live. It was the lowest point during the time I was homeless.”

Diane turned to Ashley. “But then suddenly, out of the blue, you and Olivia walked by…… I hope that you will never know what it’s like to believe that there is not another human being on earth who cares whether you live or die. But that is the way it was until your daughter spoke to me. That’s why the last few days have seemed like nothing short of a miracle. And now because of your compassion, I get to visit my little girl.”

With no more words needing to be said, Diane opened her door and stepped out. Ashley joined her, and they gathered up the fresh-cut flowers. Quietly they walked a short distance to an area of the cemetery designated for infants and babies called The Garden of Angels.

As they walked between the neat rows of graves, Ashley’s eyes swept across the markers, focusing on the heartbreaking lifespans. One day. Ten days. One month. Three months. Six months. The death went on and on, with each grave containing a tiny life that when lost devastated an entire family.

Every marker was a brutal testament to untold human misery, and that created an inescapable sadness and sorrow that permeated the air. Ashley couldn’t help but think about all the other grief-stricken mothers and fathers who regularly visited here, all experiencing the same debilitating trauma over the loss of the precious child that had been torn from their arms.

Eventually, the disturbing walk came to an end as they reached the grave they had come to visit. Diane slowly looked around the cemetery, but for as far as she could see in every direction, it was the only one without flowers. With her entire being racked with guilt, tears began to streak down her cheeks as she whispered, “I’m sorry, Faith. Mommy is so sorry.”

Standing beside her, Ashley read the intricately carved granite headstone.

In loving memory of our beloved daughter

Faith Danielle Evanston

January 23, 2016 – May 29, 2016.

You left this life but not our hearts. You will be with us forever.

It was only a few seconds before Diane broke down in sobs. All of the pain, and humiliation of the last three years poured out, made even worse by a wave of intense shame as she stared through stinging tears at the empty metal vase.

Ashley blinked back her own tears as she put her arm around the mourning woman’s shoulders.

It was several minutes before her mind cleared and Diane recovered, but when she did, she made a solemn vow to herself that no matter what happened in the future, she would never again allow herself to be in a position where she could not afford to put flowers on her child’s grave.

After regaining her composure, Diane said softly, “The thing about losing your baby is that you not only lose them in the present but for the rest of your life – and that makes you grieve for what you know you will miss.

“The moment Faith died, the chance to see her take her first steps or hear her first words was lost forever. There will be no first day of school, or recitals, or award programs. I won’t help my daughter get ready for the Prom or proudly watch her graduate. I will not have the joy of seeing her become a young woman as she walks down the aisle at her wedding, and I will never experience the love of grandchildren…… I know that I’m being selfish, but I can’t help it. When you lose a child, you lose everything – including the future.”

Knowing there was nothing she could say that would ease the pain, Ashley stood in silence, hugging a person who she now considered to be a good friend.

Finally, Diane was ready. She took a deep breath, knelt down, and started arranging the flowers in the vase. Ashley started to kneel down to help, but then she realized that this was something Diane wanted to do herself. The flowers were not just for Faith, they symbolized so much more. It was a turning point in the life of a woman who had suffered the unspeakable. The act of placing flowers on her daughter’s grave was a new start that would, hopefully, allow the heartbroken mother to heal and move forward, even though the past would always be with her.

When the flowers were arranged to her satisfaction, Diane stood up and wiped her hands together. She faced Ashley and in a voice choked with emotion said, “Thank you for bringing me out here. You will never know how much this meant to me.”

Looking down at the lovely shades of color in the metal vase, Ashley smiled and said gently, “I’ve been a florist for a long time, but I believe, for so many different reasons, those are the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen.

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