By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For Arlington's Stacey Hassler, 41, it is the lone place she can go to escape the anger over her daughter's death and the ongoing frustration she feels for the slow-moving legal system. "Out here," she says, "you don't dwell on the negatives. This garden has changed me a great deal. When you go through the loss of your child you suddenly find yourself in a world you don't understand. Everything looks the same, smells the same, tastes the same, but, really, everything is different. You feel crazy.
"I had a difficult time dealing with that until I met the people involved with this place." Now, she makes the trip to the end of Mosier Valley Road at least once a week.
On the first day of November 1999, Summer Ann Little was 20 and four-and-a-half-months pregnant with her third child when she was strangled and drowned in the bathtub of her East Arlington apartment. "For some time after my daughter's death, all I could feel was the anger. I was angry at the man who killed her, angry with the justice system that has kept postponing his trial, even angry at Summer for putting herself in a position where something like that could happen to her," Hassler says. (The trial of Nathaniel Doss, charged with the young mother's death, is scheduled for sometime in March 2002.)
"Friends kept telling me I needed to get some help," Hassler admits. "But I had no intention of spending time with some person who could never understand what I was feeling, what I was dealing with, because they'd never been through it. I was convinced there was no one else in the world who could relate to the pain I was dealing with."
After her husband, Ron, died in an automobile accident, she reluctantly attended one of the twice-monthly meetings of Stewart's support group. "That," Hassler says, "changed everything. Carolyn Barker told me about the garden and took me out to look at it. The minute I saw it, I knew I wanted a cross there for my daughter and Jacob, my unborn grandson."
Now, she says, she often brings Summer's daughters, 4-year-old Kayleigh and 2-year-old Sandra, along. "They bring little things they've made to place near 'Mommy's cross.' They talk with her and enjoy playing near the waterfall. They love it here."
The garden, then, has become a haven to young and old. Vernon and Linda Price are among those who delight in watching Hassler's grandchildren at play.
When a close friend stabbed the Prices' son to death on Mother's Day in 1999, they were suddenly distanced from their newborn grandchild. Their distraught daughter-in-law, feeling the need of support from her own family in California, chose to move there after her husband's death. The Prices understood and supported her decision but endured a new wave of sadness. "What happened," Vernon says, "not only took our son, but put us in a position of not being able to see our grandchild nearly as often as we would like."
For the Richland Hills couple, the garden became a welcome refuge. Living just a few miles from the site, they volunteered for the role of caretakers, seeing that wind-blown trash is collected and no weeds invade the area. It is in their garage that the lights for the Christmas tree and the wreaths that adorn the fence during the holiday season were carefully stored until recently put in place.
"There's a peaceful feeling here that I've experienced nowhere else," Vernon says as he walks along the brick trail that winds toward the cross that bears his son's name. "It is not a sad place, whether you're here alone or in the company of others who have lost loved ones. This is where our healing took place."
His wife agrees. "You can talk to people until you're blue in the face, trying to explain what the garden means to us, but unless you've shared a similar experience, it is an impossible task. That, I think, is why there is such a close kinship among those who have crosses here. You come here and you meet people who understand, who can share your feeling without so much as a single word being exchanged."
In October, when the man accused of their son's murder was acquitted during a trial that lasted only 11 hours over a two-day period, many of those who are regular visitors to Our Garden of Angels joined the Prices in the courtroom. "It was a difficult experience," Vernon Price says. "Sitting there, aware that three years after the crime occurred the prosecutor was unable to locate two important witnesses, listening to the judge repeatedly telling the lawyers to 'hurry things along' because he had other cases to try, and then hearing that not guilty verdict, brought back all the ugly thoughts we'd dealt with after the murder."
Then they visited the garden. "There is no violence here," Linda Price says. "This is not a place for feeling anger or hatred or pointing fingers of blame. Here, we celebrate the lives of those whose names are on the crosses. We think and talk about the good times. We laugh and joke. And in doing so, gain the strength to look ahead to another day."