Thursday, August 03, 2000

Love story, times two

Two people's lives mirror famous novel's plot until fate brings them and their kids together

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Melanie, holding Alison, and David, next to Cade, were married last October. Both had lost spouses to cancer.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        Two years ago this month, an article titled “Letters to Alison” appeared in The Enquirer. The first-person story by Lisa M. Griffis dealt with her best friend, Anne Kerry, who died of cancer in March 1998 at age 40. She left behind a husband and a 2-year-old daughter, Alison.

        Ms. Griffis, who was then the Enquirer's art director and now works for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, told how she had compiled a scrapbook of letters and photos from Anne's friends. The scrapbook was for Alison, who would have a keepsake of memories of her mother.

        For Enquirer readers, that would have been the end of the story. Except that a highly unlikely thing happened: When Tempo threw a dart at the phone book as part of its regular Friday feature, the dart hit David Kerry, Alison's father, and Anne's husband for 61/2 years.

        And so the story continues:
        After his wife's death, David Kerry needed a way to deal with his grief. He sought help from professionals, but found little solace.

Everyone has a story worth telling. At least, that's the theory. To test it, Tempo is throwing darts at the phone book. When a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the phone number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed. Stories appear on Fridays.
        In June 1998, he made his way to the Good Mourning support group, which is for widows and widowers, especially those still rearing children. David became a regular at the Friday gatherings.

        He was there two years ago, on Aug. 28, when he saw Melanie Campbell for the first time. Her 29-year-old husband, Jeffrey, had died of brain cancer in May, leaving behind a son, Cade, who was 3.

        For Melanie, a licensed social worker, the group was a way to reach out to people. After her husband's death, she felt she no longer fit in with her married friends. Nor did she feel comfortable around singles, or people who had divorced.

        “I very much needed to be around other people who understood and to hear other stories,” she says.

        The two dozen or so guests took turns introducing themselves. As David spoke about Anne and Alison, Melanie couldn't help but notice the similarities in their situations: They were the only ones in the group with children under age 5; their spouses had died within five weeks of each other, from cancer.

        Then the meeting took an unusual turn. Two newlyweds arrived. They had met through the support group. This night, they brought their wedding pictures, and everyone began poring over them.

        Everyone, that is, except David and Melanie. They sat alone, talking for an hour. They talked about their children, about cancer, about how difficult it was to cope. Melanie cried when David showed her the letters that Anne's friends had written to Alison.

        A friendship was born.

        They talked nightly by phone. They took their children to parks together. They rode to Good Mourning meetings together. And soon the friendship evolved into a romance.

        And yet, “There were times when we were grieving so much, there wasn't a lot we had to give to our relationship,” Melanie says. “We tried to support each other through those times. Just having someone to talk to was important.”

        They encouraged each other to grieve. On the most painful of days — a wedding anniversary, for instance — they sent cards to each other.

        Their children took note. On the one-year anniversary of Anne's death, David was sobbing in his kitchen. Alison, then 3, saw her father and tried to comfort him. “You have Melanie to look after you now,” she said.

        After Christmas 1998, David and Melanie began focusing more on their relationship, and less on the past.
        The plan was to attend a pool party that night in June 1999. But first, David wanted to take Melanie to Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point, and a One Earth Party.

        At the Serpentine Wall, he leaned over and kissed her. Then he asked her to look into the sky.

        Overhead, an airplane pulled a banner that read: “Princess Melanie be my queen.” And this: “U-R-1-4-ME,” shorthand for “you are the one for me.”

        They were married Oct. 22 last year.

        “I told David early on that I thought God brought us together, that it was part of his plan,” Melanie says.
        Even before the wedding, Alison was calling Melanie “Mommy.” David says his daughter, only 2 when Anne died, has felt her mother's absence. But she hasn't been affected quite the way Cade has.

        “He grieved his father's death,” Melanie says. “He has memories, and had a harder time, in general. He would remember his father, and cry over him not being there.”

        Cade attended sessions at Fernside Center for Grieving Children, and has made great strides. After the wedding, Cade began calling David “Daddy.”

        Both children ask lots of questions. About death. About heaven.

        David and Melanie say they have not, and will not, ignore the past. They talk to the children about Anne and Jeffrey. There is also a need now to maintain relationships with four sets of grandparents.

        Says Melanie: “It's a delicate balance. You have to make sure you're not pushing (the death of a parent) aside. But with a child, you can't focus on it all the time, or they never can move on.”

        Adds David: “Their life is such that they need to grow up just the same, whatever's happened. And so you have to concentrate on making that happen as best you can.”

        Feeling a fresh start was needed, Melanie and David sold their homes that held old memories, and the family moved to a house in Sycamore Township. Melanie, 32, now stays home with the children. David is a mechanical engineer for GE Aircraft Engines.

        The merging of families has posed its own set of challenges. Having “family nights” has helped build bonds. Each evening, after dinner, the four do something together — play games, ride bikes, visit a park.

        The children have typical sibling spats, but get along fine. Alison, 4, will attend preschool this fall. Cade, now 5, will start kindergarten, and David will help coach his soccer team.

        “Both kids are excited about the new baby,” says Melanie, who is due to give birth in three months.

        Melanie looks at a photo from the October wedding showing her and David, Cade and Alison. Alison looks a lot like Melanie, and Cade resembles David.

        “If people don't know the story, they always think she's mine, and he's his,” Melanie says.

        The real story, of course, is the joy they've found in being a family.

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