They came in droves.
Bright ones. Colorful ones. Muted ones.
They came from people that Gloria Henderson had never met before, and from people that she’ll likely never meet in her lifetime.
And while the pieces of her heart will never fully be put back together after learning that her 22-year-daughter, Kelly Marelich, was found murdered in a dumpster behind a Manteca strip mall last month, the cards of condolence that started pouring in have served at least as temporary tape for Henderson – a soft landing pad, she says, for the shattered pieces.
It comes with being part of the club that no parent ever wants to be a part of. The grief and the heartache that can never be communicated fully to somebody who has never felt it for themselves.
As much as Henderson wants somebody to understand, she can’t explain it.
It’s evident with the things that she’s had to do just to make it through the day. There’s a calendar taped to the back of the front door to help remind her of what she has to do. It’s not that she can’t remember what day it is from one to the next – it’s just easy to let her mind wander back to the one place that it always seems to end up when she finds herself alone.
There are tears. They come violently sometimes for just a few minutes like a brutal thunderstorm. Other times they seem to never stop. Hours and hours on end.
But then she looks at the cards. The one from somebody who made a donation to the Parkinson’s Foundation in Kelly’s name. The one from a family friend that encapsulated her favorite memory. The one from the stranger.
They don’t take away the sting and they’ll never take away the scars. But for a fleeting moment they remind Henderson of the number of people that her daughter touched in her all-too-brief life and the generosity and support of the people and the community around her.
• • •
‘There’s a lot
of love out there’
“It gives you a little bit of hope when you’re sitting there falling apart,” Henderson said of the support that Mantecans have showed her and her family. “There’s a lot of love out there, and it reminds me that she touched a lot of people’s lives and that a lot of people just genuinely care. I’m grateful for that. We’re grateful for that.”
It was a relatively normal conversation that she remembers having with her daughter the last time that they spoke – agreeing on that Saturday to meet the following day to hang out and run errands together.
When she didn’t get a phone call that night or the next day she got worried. And when hadn’t heard from her by Monday she called Kelly’s father – who she had moved in with in Fremont last summer – and asked whether she should call the police.
It had been 24 hours. She was technically a missing person.
Being a Hospice nurse, Henderson says that never watches the news – it’s too depressing – so she had absolutely no idea when she walked into the Manteca Police Department to report that her 22-year-old daughter hadn’t contacted her in nearly two days that officers had already made a grisly discovery in a dumpster in between a sporting goods store and a dental clinic on South Main Street.
She had no idea that she was literally going to be handing them the identification that they needed.
An officer responded to her house. After taking a statement the officer asked if he could have a hairbrush. Her mind started to race. It was “just in case,” he said. A pair of detectives responded the next day with a representative from the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office. Her fingerprints, which they had to reference from the DMV because she had no criminal record, had come back as a match.
It was her worst nightmare come true.
As Henderson tells the story, an oversized Tigger stuffed animal sits next to her and faces the picture of Kelly Marelich that the public would come to know on evening news broadcasts and in newspapers. A stack of actual printed pictures sat next to her on an end table, and a series of notes – some of which were read at the funeral – are laid out before her beside a book on how to deal with the grief associated with murder. The book is marked up with yellow highlights.
• • •
Kelly could be
counted on to
crack a smile
Henderson remembers her as bright — not only in her intellect but in the way that she was able to light up both the room and the people that were in it. She was vibrant, energetic and fun-loving and was always the girl that could be counted on to crack a smile.
When friends started pouring in their own remembrances, even those that had only met her once had wonderful things to say about her — that they were somehow smarter after just a brief conversation and better for having had the chance to know her.
Kelly loved French. She took four years of it at Sierra High School under the direction of Judy Avila. She hoped to one day travel to Paris — and hit New York and London while on her way there.
But if you were to ask one of her friends, she walked and composed herself like she had already been— comported like a Royal with a striking appearance and a playful-yet-elegant demeanor.
She left her mark. She made an impact.
Henderson still hasn’t come to fully understand the scope of the police investigation – Manteca Police detectives are still following all leads and haven’t released any additional information to the public – because she said she isn’t fully ready to learn anything else that would break her heart any further.
That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want justice. Her soft-spoken voice, which explains that she’s always been against the death penalty, also explains how it’s possible for her now to swing completely in the opposite direction without warning. She can go from “I forgive you” to “I don’t care what happens to you” in a split second.
• • •
She doesn’t want
her daughter to
“It’s exhausting,” Henderson said. “It takes so much out of you. But to take a young life like that – robbing this world of such a bright, shining light.
“It’s like I’m just now starting to realize it all over again.”
It has been one month and three days since Henderson lost her daughter. It has blown open a hole in her family that will never be repaired, and extended far beyond just her home near Sierra High School. Marelich’s sister, Candace, is now an only child. Her father, Steve, has to live in the empty house that Kelly had called home at the time of her death. Pictures of the two of them in the snow were among the last posts she made to Facebook before her death.
When the funeral date came, hundreds of people packed into P.L. Fry and Son to pay their respects to the young woman and her family – many of whom Henderson had never met. Some were friends of Kelly’s. Some weren’t.
And while a million people showing up wouldn’t have been enough to erase the hurt, Henderson said that it reaffirmed what she knew about her daughter and showed that the people around her – even those that she didn’t know – cared.
Just like the cards did.
“The last thing that I want is for her to be forgotten,” Henderson said. “What she stood for was beautiful. And the way that they found her – that was completely opposite of that.
“A lot of people’s lives were changed forever that day.”