A handcrafted wooden cross now rests on the mantel in the house where Lauren Giddings grew up.
The cross, small enough to grip, is a “clinging” cross.
It is made to clutch, to squeeze for comfort, for ballast in turbulent times -- times that have barely begun to set in for Lauren’s mother, Karen.
The cross was a gift, mailed from a woman in Georgia. It arrived at the Giddings home in Maryland in July, in the days after Lauren was murdered, killed at age 27, her body reduced to pieces, many of them still missing.
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Karen Giddings doesn’t know the woman who sent the cross, but the woman’s name is Peggy Edwards. She’s from Macon.
The two women share that I-know-your-trouble bond of personal tragedy.
Edwards’ 38-year-old daughter, Angie, died in a car crash here this year.
After reading about the circumstances of Lauren’s late-June slaying, Edwards sent Karen Giddings a cross just like hers.
Edwards has endured Mother’s Day, family birthdays and the many now-lost moments that she and her daughter would no doubt have shared thanks in part to that precious, polished cross.
“When you hold it ... it fits right between your fingers,” Edwards said the other day.
Along with the cross, Edwards mailed a note.
In it, Edwards mentioned the cross, and wrote how it “helped me so because it is something tangible to hold on to and remind us that it is in the darkest hours that God draws near.”
* * *
Since July, the Giddings family has received more than 1,000 notes and cards, many from people they have never met.
A number of them have come from Middle Georgia, where Lauren had moved from Maryland in the middle of 2008 to begin law school at Mercer University. Lauren adored the place. Her snug, two-bedroom apartment in the heart of one of the city’s most venerable and picturesque neighborhoods was maybe 100 yards from the front doors of the school.
Now Stephen McDaniel, her next-door neighbor and 2011 graduating classmate, is in jail, charged with killing her. Her body had been dismembered, apparently disposed of in the cruelest of ways. Her torso, stuffed in trash bags, turned up in a garbage can outside her Georgia Avenue apartment June 30. Hours later, her 25-year-old neighbor became a suspect.
“We were shown the worst form of evil,” Kaitlyn Wheeler, Lauren’s 24-year-old sister, said recently. “But then (we) came back home, and we’ve been shown the most humanity. So many people have reached out to us. So many are willing to give us the shirts off their back. It evens it out. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Karen Giddings doesn’t know when the full-on grief will kick in.
Nearly three months have passed since her Lauren was stolen. For Karen Giddings, the future is just about impossible to fathom.
“There’s a saying that the Lord never gives you more than you can handle, and I’m praying that maybe it’s just a gradual thing,” she said by phone. “Every week, it seems to get worse and worse and worse. Sometimes I’m afraid that all of a sudden it’s just gonna hit me like a Mack truck and I won’t be able to function or get out of bed. But I think that I’m just getting this in doses. As it becomes more real, it becomes more painful.”
As the investigation into her firstborn daughter’s death has worn on, and as river and park and landfill searches for Lauren’s remains have turned up nothing, Karen Giddings has tried to shield herself from the most stinging aspects of the crime.
“It’s hard enough to have lost her, but then to hear some of the gross details ... you start to read into things,” she said.
Karen Giddings, who is 50 and the mother of two other daughters, admits that it’s not realistic for her to believe she can shelter herself from the dreadful truths forever.
“I just have to take it a little bit at a time or it’ll drive me crazy,” she said.
To cope, she prays and goes running, an activity she and Lauren were fond of.
Karen Giddings recently participated in a triathlon, one she’d signed up for prior to Lauren’s death and one that Lauren had planned to enter with her.
“I just thought this is what she would’ve wanted me to do,” Giddings said, later recalling the early summer days she spent in Macon soon after Lauren’s death, days when she’d stride out alone on runs through the campus.
“As hot as it is down there, I felt so strong,” she said. “I kept looking behind me because I thought I was hearing footsteps. Leaves were rustling and there wasn’t a leaf on the ground.”
Even now when she runs, she feels Lauren’s presence in every step.
* * *
Though it was an all-day drive from their Maryland hometown northeast of Washington, D.C., Macon was the place where the already close Giddingses would gather during Lauren’s law school days to share in times that would become dear memories.
One of those trips stands out.
Bill and Karen Giddings rode down in February 2009 on the spur of the moment with Lauren’s youngest sister, Sarah, now a freshman in college, in tow.
Butterbean, Lauren’s beloved Pekingese-poodle mix, had just been hit by a car. The dog’s injuries were life-threatening, and Lauren’s folks wanted to be there for their daughter even though Karen, diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in late 2008, was in the midst of chemotherapy.
During their Macon visit, Karen’s hair began falling out. So one day in the living room of Lauren’s Georgia Avenue apartment, Bill, using his electric beard trimmer, shaved his wife’s head.
“They had a very precious moment in that apartment,” Kaitlyn Wheeler, the middle Giddings daughter, recalled last week.
“We had been worried about losing Butterbean and my mom, and now it’s Lauren that’s gone.”
* * *
Condolence cards and notes arrive almost daily at the Giddings home and at their church.
“At first, of course, we all wanted to read them together, and we went one at a time,” Wheeler said.
Now, what with the overwhelming outpouring, at least one family member reads each correspondence. They have must-read piles of favorites on tables, chairs and on their fireplace, which is reserved for the prettiest cards.
There have also been monetary gifts, cash and checks amounting to roughly $10,000, some of it to cover the family’s expenses in the wake of Lauren’s death.
The Giddingses plan to make a donation in Lauren’s name to the Special Olympics in honor of her 4-year-old nephew and godson, Ory, who was born with Down syndrome.
Lauren’s aunt, Debbie Docal, is Ory’s mother.
Docal, 47, is Karen Giddings’ sister.
“I know that Lauren is doing good work where she is now, but it breaks my heart that my sister has had to sacrifice her daughter like this,” Docal said. “We want to keep Lauren’s memory alive as long as possible.”
Docal has seen the agony of the recent weeks take its toll on her big sister.
“We all have our moments when it hits us that this is real,” Docal said. “Those are the dark moments when reality starts to set in.”
Docal was awed by Karen’s spirit and can-do attitude when she battled cancer. Karen’s diagnosis in October 2008 had come the day after she ran Washington’s Marine Corps Marathon, a run she finished in 5 hours, 48 minutes.
“Lauren gets a lot of her love of life from her mom. Karen loves life,” Docal said. “We always joke that Karen never lets any grass grow under her feet. She’s always doing something, always on the move.”
Karen volunteers as a religious educator after school at a private high school near her family’s Catholic church, St. Mary of the Mills.
“Karen is an inspiration because she has handled herself with such grace and such dignity,” Docal said. “She’s experienced the absolute worst nightmare a mother could ever go through. It’s everybody’s worst nightmare, and you never would ever in your wildest dreams think it would ever happen to you.
“She hasn’t acted hateful. She hasn’t acted angry even though you’re darn right she’s angry. She has been trying to keep her faith and to go on and live life.”
That said, Docal added, “She’s devastated.”
“You cannot even imagine the pain that this woman is going through. It’s never-ending,” Docal said. “It seems like once a week there’s a new horror.”
* * *
The cap and gown from Lauren’s May graduation from law school hangs in the Giddings family’s living room alongside her sister Kaitlyn’s wedding dress.
A portrait of Lauren sits on the fireplace.
On the coffee table is a picture book, a gift, about the history of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, where Lauren worshipped.
“My house is somewhat chaotic because I can’t bring myself to put her things away,” Karen Giddings said. “This whole ordeal is still just so surreal. ... I just have to take it a little bit at a time or it’ll drive me crazy.”
She thinks the embrace of friends and relatives and, to an extent, even strangers has served to delay her grieving.
“With everybody sending out prayers,” she said, “it’s almost like we’ve been protected in this bubble of ... love.”
She said, “This may sound odd to say, but in some ways as much as I dread a long, drawn-out trial, in some way, in some weird way, it’s something that keeps Lauren alive.”
* * *
Peggy Edwards was on vacation when Lauren Giddings was killed.
When she returned to Macon and learned of the disturbing nature of Lauren’s death, she felt sorry for the slain woman’s kin, her mother especially.
“I know what a terrible thing it is to lose a daughter,” Edwards, 65, said.
Edwards’ daughter, Angie Edwards Haver, died in a January car wreck. Her car ran off Tucker Road and smashed into a tree.
Not long after, some of Edwards’ friends gave her a clinging cross.
It is the first thing she reaches for each morning.
“It helps you to know that you’re not alone,” she said.
Edwards didn’t find out until last week, when a reporter called her, that Karen Giddings had received the cross she’d mailed.
Hearing the gift was most appreciated, Edwards said, “makes me feel good.”
* * *
Karen Giddings has a keepsake of her own: Lauren’s bookmark.
The bookmark is a prayer card.
Lauren had tucked it between the pages of the philosophical novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which Lauren was in the middle of reading at the time of her death.
There Lauren had been, cramming for the Georgia bar exam, still finding time for a story that, among other things, according to one synopsis, “explores the artistic and intellectual life of Czech society.”
But that was Lauren, always striving, reaching.
She was a political-science major as an undergraduate at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. She’d considered medical school. She’d studied abroad in Bulgaria and played softball on that country’s national team.
Her musical tastes ranged from country to bluegrass to Steely Dan.
She so favored her mother that sometimes on first glance upon entering a room, her youngest sister, Sarah, would call her Mom by mistake.
“What gives me a lot of hope and faith is thinking back on Lauren’s life,” Karen Giddings said.
“We hope that we raise our kids well and set a good example for them, but some of the things she did, she really stepped out on her own, out of her own comfort zone. I think in a way that was God preparing her for a shorter life. ... She did live life to the fullest.”