The Kindness of Strangers
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The Kindness of Strangers

Why would someone fly across the country to help a dying woman she'd never met? Sometimes reading a tragic story moves you to tears, sometimes it spurs you to action. Heidi Haller, a single mom from Rancho Santa Margarita, California, felt compelled to do more than just cry when she read an April 2009 Ladies' Home Journal story about Dana Drouin, a 35-year-old mother of three who was dying of cancer. Instead, Haller offered her time and her help. As she tells us here, she received much more in return.

First it was the story's title that got my attention. "Remember Me" was displayed across the spread of photos showing a pretty young mother and her three adorable children looking happy yet wistful. As I learned the full details -- the mother, Dana, had terminal cancer and was determined to create memories that her 5-year-old twins and 12-year-old son could hold on to after she was gone -- I was moved to tears. Then I read a sentence that stopped me short. "Everyone fusses over you when you first get sick," Dana said, "but after a few months the novelty wears off and you're forgotten."

That line stuck in my mind the rest of the day. I couldn't stop thinking about this woman I'd never met, and the next morning I tracked down her number. Divine intervention was clearly involved. All I knew was Dana's name and the town in New Jersey where she lived, but she was listed. I picked up the phone to call, thinking she would probably find a polite way to hang up on me.

I introduced myself and asked Dana if she could use someone to help cook, clean, and take care of her and her children. The article said she often had trouble summoning the energy to write the letters she wanted to leave behind for her kids, and I told her I could help her with those, too. I explained that my own children were grown up and living on their own and that I was between jobs, so I had time to make the trip to see her. After a long pause Dana finally spoke. "You're an angel," she said. "I need that so much right now."

When I got to Dana's house, at the end of April, I found her situation was even more grim than I thought. She was too weak to do housework and the place was in serious need of a deep cleaning. Shawn, Dana's husband, had recently left her, and now she was dealing not only with cancer but also with the painful loss of her marriage. She was confined to her bed much of the time, so disciplining the children had become a significant challenge. She was also in constant pain. But for the entire month I was there Dana rarely complained. Her spirit and faith made her seem invincible.

Her twins, Aidan and Sydni, warmed to me right away. Ryan, the oldest, was the quiet one, saying little but watching everything. We had a lot of fun, but there were many times when all the little ones wanted to do was lie with Mommy in bed. Although Dana needed her rest, she never denied her kids.

Soon Dana started to get her appetite and strength back. She loved my cooking and told me she could tolerate any medication after eating one of my English muffins with strawberry jam. One time we went together to see the twins at a school play, where Dana took enough pictures to wallpaper a room. Ryan, an A student, made his mother proud by being awarded a trip to Washington, D.C., for academic achievement. On many evenings Dana and I would talk past midnight.

After a month I needed to get back to my life in California. We phoned often and Dana kept me updated about her condition. But in September, after not hearing from her for a few days, I got worried. I called Dana's mother and she told me the cancer had spread to Dana's lungs. She was too weak to take care of the children and needed surgery. Surrounded by her children's drawings in a hospital room, Dana was put on painkillers as her situation grew critical. Her mother and father were at her side, and her sisters had flown in to be with her one last time. When Shawn paid a visit, he promised to care for the kids after she was gone. Dana died peacefully on October 5, surrounded by her family. She worried about being remembered after she was gone, but she needn't have. For me and for the many people whose lives she touched, her courage, faith, and love for her children made her unforgettable.

An educational fund has been set up for Dana's children. LHJ readers who would like to make a contribution can send a check to:

Dana Drouin Children's Education Fund
c/o TD Bank
385 White Horse Pike
Atco, NJ 08004

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2010.