Wendy Hightower, 35 and eight months pregnant, sat on the grass near a small gray and bronze headstone adorned with trinkets of family life - a snow globe from Disney World, a ceramic Easter bunny, shiny pinwheels that spin in a breeze.
As she had done almost every day for two years, Wendy talked to her daughter, Madison, an exuberant 2-year-old who had died suddenly from an E. coli infection.
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Regan Beisenherz, 18, exploring the cemetery for photos to shoot for class, noticed as Wendy laid crimson Stargazer lilies - a flower Regan loved - on the ground. She saw the tears on her face. And she felt compelled to walk over.
Wendy told her she had lost a child. That these 15 minutes on her way home were her one-on-one prayer time with Madison. That when the baby was born, she wouldn't be able to visit every day.
Regan told Wendy about her passion for photography and dancing with the Littleton High School team. They talked for about 20 minutes, then said goodbye.
But Wendy couldn't stop thinking about Regan, wondering how she spelled her name, turning the conversation over and over in her mind.
"I don't know why I felt so strong about it - I just did," Wendy says about the encounter. "I didn't have her last name. I didn't figure I'd ever see her again."
A week later, Wendy found a Ziploc bag resting on Madison's grave. Inside was a photograph of her headstone. On the back, these words: "Now, you'll be able to see her every day. Regan."
Wendy started to cry.
And so begins this story about how an act of kindness nearly 17 years ago set in motion a chain of events that spun threads of joy from sorrow. How, sometimes, something as simple as a name can mean everything. And how, maybe, just maybe, unseen forces weave a little magic when it's most needed.
* * * * *
Madison was the third child in Wendy and Dennis Hightower's family. Soon after her death in August 1997, they decided to reverse Dennis' vasectomy, performed after Madison's birth.
The doctor warned that conceiving a child would be difficult and recommended artificial insemination. Eight months passed. Nothing. But on Valentine's Day 1999, after the final insemination, Wendy was pregnant.
They knew it was a girl and had chosen Morgan as a name. Like Jordan, then 9, and Colton, 6 - and Madison - all names ending in "n," it seemed to fit.
But meeting Regan changed that.
"She really understood . . . and cared enough to come back and take that picture and write that note and leave it for me," Wendy says. "She just made a huge impression."
The name, after all, ended in "n." But more than anything, it just felt right.
So, on Oct. 7, 1999, Wendy and Dennis named their new daughter Regan and reveled in her blessing.
"She brought joy back in the family," Wendy says. "We were all heartbroken, and she brought that back."
A few weeks passed. Then a neighbor's son, Pat Lytle, a student at Highlands Ranch High School, and his girlfriend - who knew the story of the name - decided to try to track down Regan during the school's football game against Littleton High School.
They walked over to the Littleton side and asked a cheerleader if she knew a girl named Regan who was on the dance team.
"She's my best friend," the girl answered. "She's sitting right there."
The teens approached Regan.
"Do you know Wendy Hightower?" For a minute, Regan couldn't place the name. "Well, she had her baby and she named her after you."
Regan was stunned.
"What do you say to that? It was the most lovely thing that had ever happened to me."
A few days after meeting Wendy in the cemetery, Regan - unable to forget Wendy's sadness or her love and dedication to her daughter - had returned to Madison's grave with her camera.
She developed the film and printed the photograph in the school's darkroom. She wrote the note on the back and placed the picture in a Ziploc bag, in case of rain. And then she drove back to the cemetery and left it on the headstone.
A week later, she returned. The photograph was gone.
"I really just wanted her to be happy . . . to heal," Regan says. "It was really obvious she was still hurting."
After the football game, Regan visited Wendy at her home and met baby Regan. When Regan graduated later that school year, Wendy and Dennis - and little Regan - came to her graduation party. During the ensuing college years, Wendy and Regan wrote every now and then, but eventually lost touch.
Neither, however, forgot the connection. Both believed there was a reason they had met.
Maybe God had something to do with it.
In February, Wendy and Dennis, now 52 and 56, and their daughter, Regan, 16, traveled from Austin, where they'd moved in 2001, for a volleyball tournament in Denver.
Wendy and Regan Beisenherz-Rouse, now 34, married and pregnant with her first child, had found each other a few years back through Facebook. They'd messaged back and forth, but hadn't seen each other in person.
So they planned lunch at a restaurant in Littleton where the two Regans - referred to by Wendy as "little" Regan and "big" Regan - could finally meet.
Little Regan was a bit nervous, wondering if conversation would come easily. It did. "She was super-easy to talk to," little Regan says. "And super-sweet."
They peppered each other with questions. About little Regan's volleyball and school and her older brother and sister. About big Regan's baby due this month, her family, her photography business.
"She's just as wonderful as one of Wendy's children would be, relaxed and confident in her own skin," big Regan says. "She was just genuine."
They discovered both had brothers in the music field in Austin. And both of their families are from Texas.
They hugged when they left.
And as they walked out, little Regan told her mom, "If you had to name me after somebody, I'm glad you picked her."
Little Regan has no doubt that Madison had something to do with that.
"Madison is definitely the reason I'm Regan and not Morgan," she says.
She grew up understanding she had a sister in heaven. Madison was always part of the conversation and little Regan always made sure her presence was remembered.
Wendy says, "Anytime anybody would ask me how many kids I had, and I said three" - because explaining Madison's death made others uncomfortable - "she would always correct me and make sure I would include Madison."
For little Regan, it's simple: "If Madison hadn't of passed away, I most likely wouldn't be here . . . and I can't imagine what they went through losing her. But it makes me smile just thinking of her."
She also knows this: "Take nothing for granted. Tell the ones you love that you love them because you never know what will happen."
Wendy is certain the name was meant for her daughter.
"It was a good feeling, the way it happened," Wendy says. "I just remember how impactful and purposeful it felt."
Big Regan looks at Wendy and Dennis and little Regan and sees a shining example of how life should be lived, with love and compassion and hope.
She's grateful her instincts pushed her to be a part of their story: "When you come right down to it, you need to do what's in your heart."
These days, just weeks away from the birth of her first child, big Regan finds profound meaning in all that has happened - and wishes for more goodness in everyday life.
"If I could change anything," she says, "I would change people's days, just by being kind."
Like she did on a long-ago afternoon in a cemetery when a grieving mother touched her heart.
Ann Macari Healey's award-winning column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4109.
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