Originally published July 17. 2011
Concord Monitor Viewpoints
I know there was nothing I could have done to prevent the tragedy of Cheryl Maher's death. But something in me flickered, like failure, when I heard she was the victim in a murder-suicide who had been bound, bludgeoned, stabbed and left for speculation.
I'd written about Cheryl in the past, after getting an SOS from her two summers ago.
She found me because I was the local reporter in Derry, where she lived at the time. We tried to meet at the always bustling Mary Ann's Diner on Broadway, but there was a wait for tables, so I followed Cheryl a few doors down to Anthony's Cucina, where there was no wait because there were no other customers.
"This is better, anyway," said Cheryl, like she was finally able to breathe.
In the time it took us to walk the few hundred feet, a huddle of friendly faces greeted Cheryl by name as we passed by the Friendship Center, a hole-in-the-wall meeting place for people in recovery, positioned between the two downtown diners.
Cheryl was known there as a woman who'd spent too many years retreating from life and escaping her personal pain through drugs and alcohol. She'd been down the rocky road of recovery and relapse. Over time she had discovered how the kindness of strangers who'd been down the same road had a way of helping you drop the crutch of your addiction as you learned to walk again, in hope of running one day, full tilt, toward life.
Back then, I wasn't able to solve Cheryl's dilemma.
She came to me concerned for her twin daughters who were about to enter high school. Both of them have steep learning and developmental challenges due to autism. Cheryl feared they'd be swallowed whole in the state's largest high school.
"Just read through this and you'll understand why I have to fight so hard for my girls," said Cheryl, transferring the armload of documents to me as a waitress refilled our coffee cups. I paged through the records of their school evaluations, noting between the lines a pattern of advocacy -- she frequently made waves during evaluation meetings, without apology. Cheryl wanted the best for them. She understood their differences. She saw their untapped potential.
She wanted me to write about the flaws in the educational system for kids with disabilities, and the frustration it creates for parents. She wanted me to write about how her daughters weren't getting what they really needed in the public school setting. Individual Education Plans are written to protect the system and secure special education dollars, said Cheryl; they rarely elevate the child in need of real life skills.
Her biggest roadblock was that she shared custody of her three youngest kids with their father, and as legal custodian, he did not agree with Cheryl's sense of urgency, that a move to a private school in Amherst would make a difference.
Looking back, maybe they both wanted what was best for their daughters, but in the end, it was the bitterness of their divorce -- the drama of their marriage, the soap opera of Cheryl Maher's life -- that got in the way.
I wanted to help her. I tried contacting the district's special education director that same week, but summer is a tough time to find school staffers to interview.
I never wrote the story.
Because, over coffee that day, Cheryl also told me her life story. The tidal wave of turmoil she shared with me was overwhelming. It was beyond my ability to navigate in a world of daily news deadlines. In that moment I recognized that the real story was about Cheryl, an imperfect but intriguing human being who was a victim of circumstance long before she was a victim of murder in Weare.
So yes, the news of her death last week shook me hard. Tears rose up in me like a reflex as I involuntarily imagined her unspeakable suffering.
As everything went dark in her world, I imagined how her helpless, frantic heart stopped beating, and how her last thoughts settled on the pain of leaving behind four motherless children.
But the truth is, I cried for the tragic life and death of a woman too complex for anyone to capture in a single news story. I cried knowing that all the stories written in the aftermath would never be enough to solve the puzzle of Cheryl Maher, a beautiful dreamer and broken woman on the mend; a resilient survivor who was stopped dead in her tracks just as she was finally learning to run.