25: The Visitor

25: The Visitor

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

The Visitor

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.

~Desmond Tutu

Since the day of the accident, everyone has asked me the same question: “Cheryl, how do you get out of bed every morning?” To tell you the truth, I don’t always know how. But sometimes, on my worst mornings, I think of my mysterious visitor.

She came to call three days after my two daughters’ combined funeral, as I was sitting in the brown leather chair at home in Wildwood, Missouri, staring into space.

People had been moving in and out of the house all day with flowers, food, love, and tears. My special stranger came to the door to give me a story of hope.

A week earlier, on August 15, 2013, my life and that of my family changed forever in 1.6 seconds. I know the exact time it took to rip our lives apart because I read it on the police report. It took 1.6 seconds for the convertible in which my daughters, Kathleen, seventeen, and Lauren, eighteen, were passengers, to veer off the road and go airborne before smashing into a neighbor’s back deck, blocks from home. My girls died instantly.

Hours before the accident they’d been at a friend’s wedding shower, laughing and eating frosted cupcakes, wearing party dresses. The day after, I went to the accident site with my husband, Sam, and our youngest daughter, Anna. We found long, lone strands of their hair—one golden and one chestnut—caught in the deck’s jagged wood. I took them home and saved them in a plastic bag.

I was no stranger to trauma, loss, and grief.

When I was six years old, my father went to a motel room and put a gun in his mouth and shot himself. When I was seventeen, my mother went to a motel room and overdosed on alcohol and sleeping pills. It took me years of therapy, prayer, and love of friends and family to heal, but I did. And I went on to build a beautiful, happy family of my own.

I often wondered, though, about the level of despair my parents must have felt in order to take their lives. Somewhere along the way, they must have lost hope. And now, I understood the feeling. Just how much pain can one human heart take? Surely, this time I was beyond my limit.

After the girls died, our doorbell rang non-stop with condolences from friends, acquaintances, and even strangers who’d read about the accident. Our home looked like a florist’s shop, packed wall-to-wall with carnations, daisies, and hydrangea arrangements. I let my Aunt Carol and mother-in-law, Marti, deal with it because I could barely lift a finger. Doing one load of laundry felt like running a marathon.

I didn’t want to bathe, I didn’t brush my teeth or hair, and I wore the same shorts and T-shirt for days. I didn’t put my contact lenses in — maybe I didn’t want to see too clearly the reality in front of me. And I couldn’t eat.

“It’s not that I’m not hungry,” I tried to explain, when friends urged me to eat at the funeral reception, “it’s that I can’t swallow.”

It was difficult for me to describe.

When the doorbell rang three days later, it was during a rare moment of quiet. I was slumped in my chair—surrounded by beautiful roses, staring at nothing. Our Lab, Maggie, barked and lunged for the door so I dragged myself off the chair to see who it was. Standing on our front porch was a tiny old lady, wrinkled and hunched over, with a cane in one hand and a basket of tea and cookies in the other. It was hot outside and she looked like she’d walked a long way.

“You don’t know me,” she said, “but I heard what happened . . .”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said to her, as I nudged a rambunctious Maggie inside the house and shut the door, stepping out to the woman. “I’d invite you in, but I’m afraid the dog will jump on you and knock you down.”

“Oh, no, don’t you worry,” she said, with a sweet smile, putting her basket down. “I’ll only be a moment, then I’ll be on my way. I came for two reasons. First, I came to pray with you.”

“Oh,” I said, a little surprised, “Okay . . .”

The woman took my hands in hers and we closed our eyes and bowed our heads.

“Dear God,” she prayed out loud, “I pray for this family to have strength and not to be angry at You. And I pray that this family holds onto their faith.”

She opened her eyes and gave my hands a squeeze.

“And now, the second reason. I want to share a story of hope with you. Would that be all right?”

“Sure,” I nodded. I was a bit in a daze. She was still holding my hands and now looked deeply into my eyes.

“My first memory as a child was when I was five years old,” she began, “I was sitting outside on my Mama’s lap on a hot summer afternoon just like today, when my Daddy came outside from the house and shot my Mama in the side of the head.”

“What? No . . .”

“I was covered in blood. My Daddy picked me up, took me inside, and handed me over to my sister, who was eight years old. Then in front of us, he put the gun to his own head and shot himself. After that, my sister and I were separated into different foster homes . . .”

Her sad story prompted me to tell her about my own parents. Our eyes locked and in that moment, I knew she understood exactly how I felt that afternoon.

“I tell you my story,” she said, “because . . . I stand here in front of you today a survivor of tragedy. And I know that you will survive, too. But you must hold onto your hope. Don’t give up hope. Ever.”

She searched my eyes for a moment and then nodded, satisfied with what she saw there.

“You are going to get through this,” she repeated, with certainty. “And I hope to see you again one day to have a cup of tea with you.”

At that, the old lady hugged me and left.

“Thank you!” I called out to her, as she slowly disappeared down the street. I stood on the porch for a minute, astonished to have had such an intimate moment with a complete stranger, then went inside to tell Marti and Carol about it.

“That,” said my mother-in-law, “was an angel.”

I barely remember anything about those first few days or weeks after the girls died, it’s all a blur to me. I have no recollection of who else came over to the house that day, or that week. But I will always remember my visitor who brought tea and empathy, and a story.

On mornings when I wake up and feel I can’t face the day, I think of her. This stranger’s belief in me helps me get out of bed, and keeps me away from the despair-filled motel rooms of my family’s past.

Never give up hope, she said. Despite family tragedy, my dear visitor went on to become a smiling, sweet old granny.

I hope to do the same one day.

~Cheryl Bland Oliver with Natasha Stoynoff

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