Ray Duckler: Witnessing a mother’s sorrow at a very private moment
The car rolled downhill on the narrow cemetery road in Concord, an innocuous part of a peaceful landscape.
Debbie Sargent had no reason to think someone, a Jehovah’s Witness, had targeted her on a visit to see her daughter, Jen Ahern, who died four years ago Thursday.
No doubt someone else coming to grieve, Sargent assumed.
She assumed wrong. The person, a woman, had come to spread her message, so Sargent came to me, choosing to spread her own message.
Her story made me mad.
Last month, Sargent drove to Ahern’s grave. She had no time to leave her car before the woman, with an elderly man in the passenger seat, pulled up alongside.
“This lady asked if I had a relative here,” Sargent said yesterday, back at Calvary Cemetery on a sizzling morning. “I said, ‘Yes, and you?’ and she said, ‘No, but I’d like to give you this brochure.’ She passed it out through the window. She wanted to know if I’m
interested in hearing about her view on death. Where’s the common sense?”
Sargent stayed cool, even after she says the woman repeated five times that “Jehovah wouldn’t lie.”
Steamed later, though, Sargent called cemetery administrator Jill McDaniel, who called the police and was told they could do nothing without a written policy on the books.
Sitting in her office on the cemetery grounds yesterday, McDaniel said she received several complaints about the same matter last year and two more this year. Now, finally, a “no solicitation” policy will be added to the cemetery manual, the first change in 34 years, said Chris Jacques, the Parks and Recreation Department superintendent.
The city council will vote on the regulation in October, once the city’s legal department has reviewed it. “Because of complaints we’ve had regarding this issue, we want to start monitoring or try to stop that stuff from happening,” Jacques said.
We’ve all heard the unexpected knock and opened the front door to find someone smiling, literature in hand, mission in mind.
This is different, though. As McDaniel said, “You can choose not to answer your door. You can’t do that here.”
Two messages seeking comment from the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses on East Side Drive went unanswered yesterday. But Sargent said that Scott Fernandez, an elder at the hall, was “receptive” to her concern, and “apologized for the insensitivity.”
“He wondered if the person who did this was new,” Sargent said.
That, of course, hardly matters. Sargent had driven from her home in Epsom, never anticipating such an intrusion while visiting her daughter.
Ahern was 37 when she died from lifelong kidney problems that slowed her physically but never touched her spirit.
Dialyses, kidney transplants and trips to Boston hospitals were common. Ahern, a 1991 Concord High graduate, had more than 40 procedures to filter out contaminated blood. Tubes crisscrossed her body like a Los Angeles freeway system.
None of that stopped Ahern from living big before she died in her sleep on Aug. 7, 2010. Always weak, it was Ahern’s idea to shop with her mother at that giant mall in Minnesota, her idea to go turkey hunting with her father, her idea to ride a Harley-Davidson everywhere with her family.
And none of that stopped Ahern from helping others while she was dying. She won the American Red Cross Good Citizen of the Year Award shortly after her death.
Ahern couldn’t give her own blood, but she was responsible for the donation of 600 pints from others, becoming the face of blood drives in and around Concord.
She’s buried in the back of Calvary Cemetery, a lone grave behind closely grouped rows of headstones that stretch out toward North Main Street.
In the fall, Sargent brings fall stuff, like pumpkins and scarecrows, in winter a Santa Claus, a snowman and battery-powered candles, which she turns on at 1 a.m. on Christmas Day, after Midnight Mass.
There are geraniums at the site now, along with solar lights that give off a soft glow at night, butterflies, angels with wings and frogs.
Each spring on Ahern’s birthday, Sargent brings a strawberry Coolatta from Dunkin’ Donuts, her daughter’s favorite drink, and sets it on her headstone.
“I drink my coffee,” Sargent said. “We chat.”
She visits four, maybe five times a week. She notices the clouds, looking for angelic shapes that will symbolize her daughter’s heart, and she sees grass matted down in front of the grave, perhaps a sign of Ahern’s energetic spirit.
Once, Sargent noticed a hawk on a nearby roof, reminding her of a story that a teacher had told Ahern, a story about a hawk, a story Ahern loved.
“It was such a private moment,” Sargent said. “It’s such a private place.”