She looked across the courtroom and stared into his lost eyes.
Karen first smiled at Robert on the trade school bus, but at the time she would have never imagined that thirty-seven years of marriage would be dashed away in an instant, and the grand finale to their lives together would end in such tragedy.
But on July 21, 2008, on a quiet two-lane road in east Walker County, a vehicle carrying Robert and one of his co-workers was chugging unremarkably ahead, while another, heading toward its path, was barreling uncontrollably at a high rate of speed. Robert and a co-worker were traveling to Dora High School, while the passengers of the oncoming vehicle had made a series of terrible choices that led to this time and this place. Neither driver knew what was coming at them at the broad of day.
It was the middle of the afternoon when the chrome and steel of the two vehicles collided. The noise of the impact. The disruptive force. The gurgling of the cars against the muted forest. Inside the misshapen steel, one life would be immediately lost and another was in direct peril.
At the time of the accident, Robert Hendon worked in maintenance for the Walker County Board of Education and often traveled to different schools throughout the county. In the course of his work, he encountered many students and teachers, and people always came away from these encounters with smiles on their faces. Robert was a very humble man and seemed to have a way with people. He had an unassuming demeanor because he realized that life wasn’t about him.
Thirty-eight years earlier, Robert sat in the back of that trade school bus and gazed timorously at the object of his affection, a brunette beauty from Oakman named Karen. Robert was smitten with her, and his friends, well aware that the quiet Robert would never ask Karen out for a date, took it upon themselves to act. One friend in particular yelled illicitly from the back of the bus: “Kaaaarreeeeen! Robert wants to go out with you!” Robert’s face rose to a scarlet hue, but then something truly spectacular happened. Karen swung around, her brown locks glistening like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel, and replied with a glowing “Yes!”
Love came quickly. Karen admits that she’d dated before, but when she met Robert, she just knew that he was the one. She liked his smile. She liked the fact that he wasn’t like the other boys at the back of the bus. He was quiet. Cool.
“I thought, whoa!” Karen says.
Robert and Karen dated for a year before getting married. They exchanged vows on February 26, 1971 at the home of Ronnie and Pat Crump, Robert’s sister and brother-in law. A beautiful life followed.
Karen and Robert enjoyed traveling, going to flea markets and car shows and out-of-the-way places she’d find in Southern Living magazine. They rode dune buggies and motorcycles. They shared life together. And when they built a house fronting the Warrior River, they created a gathering place.
Over the years, the Hendon home became a venue for scavenger hunts, karaoke performances, weddings, weenie roasts, and Fourth of July celebrations. Friends and family loved to collect and spend time at the river. So when Robert was taken from this earth, needless to say “home” took on a much different meaning.
The afternoon of the wreck, Karen received the most dreaded phone call imaginable. At the time, she was working in the Office of Student Services at Bevill State Community College, and Glenn Snow, her husband’s co-worker who had been in the truck with Robert, called Karen’s cell phone.
“Glenn called me and said, ‘There’s been a bad wreck and Robert’s hurt, bad,’” Karen said.
Glenn was shaken and informed Karen that a helicopter was en route to pick up Robert.
“Is he going to be okay?” Karen asked.
“I think so,” Glenn replied.
Later, Karen got a phone call from Darryl Waid, Robert’s boss, who informed her that the helicopter had arrived. Darryl asked Karen if she preferred for Robert to be transported to UAB or DCH in Tuscaloosa, and Karen chose the former.
Since Karen didn’t want to drive alone, her niece picked her up and drove her to the hospital. When they arrived at UAB, Robert was in surgery and fighting for his life. “They told me that he’s critical. That he’s in really, really bad shape,” Karen said. “I never dreamed he’d die.”
The waiting room soon began to fill up with people. Friends, family, fellow church members. After what seemed like a great while, probably four or five hours, a doctor came into the waiting area and informed Karen that Robert didn’t make it.
Karen was overridden with shock. Her husband, the man that she’d loved—her life—was gone.
Days later, a service for Robert Hendon was held at Kilgore-Green funeral home, and hundreds attended to celebrate the life of the kind and humble gentleman.
After the deluge of support and prayers, Karen was left alone at the river. The night found her tossings and her pillow was watered with tears. The marital bed felt hollow, incomplete without her best friend.
Instead of turning inward and cloistering herself in agony, Karen turned to God. Her first prayer was “God, please don’t let me hate these people.” This proved to be an important step in the healing process for Karen.
Karen soon went back to work and tried to live normally. The love of friends and co-workers helped alleviate some of the anguish, but she still pined for Robert. She felt like she’d lost her identity, but the more defiant emotion was that she felt she had no one to love. “Robert was my world. I was his wife,” Karen says. “Then I’m not a wife anymore. I didn’t have a real reason to come home anymore. I felt like I didn’t have anybody to love. There’s something in giving of yourself, making a home, making happiness for somebody else, and I didn’t have that anymore.”
Several things were critical to Karen’s resurgence. First, she stayed busy. In Robert’s absence, she took over the outside duties at the house on the river. She learned yard work: how to mow the grass, use a weed-eater and an electric chainsaw—tasks that were not in Cinderella’s plans. Manipulating these ungainly machines often produced frustration, and many times she considered throwing the weed-eater in the river. But there was something in the busyness of the hard labor, in the fact that she was maintaining the property her husband had worked so hard to keep up, that gave her reason to go on.
“I’m tied to this land like Scarlett was to Tara,” Karen says.
Second, she shielded herself from the details of the accident. She didn’t want to know the names of the people involved. She didn’t want to know where the accident occurred or any of the grisly details at the scene. Somehow, she believes, by not allowing herself to go to that mental address, she was able to protect her heart from greater pain.
Karen also decided to honor Robert’s life by carrying on many of the traditions they once experienced as a couple. She still travels (her friend Sharon has taken Robert’s place) and she admits everywhere they go, she still thinks about him. She continues to host special events at the river. This year’s Halloween party had over a hundred in attendance. Karen decorated, and there was a live band. “We had a big time,” she says.
Lastly, but most importantly, she leaned on God for support. “People would say to me, ‘Oh, Karen, you’re so brave,’” Karen said. “And I’m thinking, ‘You’re not here in the middle of the night when I’m crying and begging God to help me.”
In addition to fervent prayer, Karen continued to attend church and signed up for a local bible study on Thursday nights. She dove into her Bible with such inquisitiveness and thirst that eventually its threadbare spine had to be bound together with mailing tape.
As time went on, Karen was healing but not healed. The old adage that “time heals all wounds” did not ring true. Time simply made things softer.
A couple of years went by and Karen learned that the criminal case was dispensing and that the defendant was to be sentenced to prison. Karen had chosen not to be present during the criminal proceedings, but felt that she needed to face him.
Expecting to see a monster, Karen took a seat on a cold bench in a Walker County courtroom the day of the sentencing. When the man walked in, she was startled at what she saw. “I saw him come in with his dad,” she said. “He was a nice looking guy. A clean-cut young man. They were nice looking people.”
After the judge sentenced the defendant and sat him down, Karen looked over at him. She saw that his eyes were not cold and calculated, but awash with guilt and sadness. She saw grief-stricken eyes; eyes that knew a terrible thing had been done.
Though the man would eventually be sent away, Karen, with God’s help, refused to remain locked in her own prison of unforgiveness. “Hate will destroy you,” Karen said. “I forgave him that day but I pray he has realized the destruction he has caused in so many lives and that he now uses his life in a better way.”
Looking at the big picture, Karen understands that something catastrophic has happened to her, but doesn’t want to martyr herself or set herself higher than others. “I’m not unique in this,” she said. “Women have been losing husbands since the beginning of time. And they’ve survived. Knowing this, it helped me believe I was going to make it, too.”
But Karen doesn’t just want to survive; Karen wants to live purposefully and with dignity. And although Robert is gone, Karen realizes that she has to continue in her journey. “I want to live my life the way Robert would have wanted me to,” she says.
Karen is now retired and maintains a quiet life on the edge of the river. From time to time, she’ll invite a friend over and they will float down the river in a pontoon boat. Folks have worried about her across the years, being isolated and alone at her little place at the river. They wonder why she doesn’t move closer to town. But Karen doesn’t want to move. At the river, Karen has found the peace that passes all understanding. She’s found a romantic spot to be with her God.
Now every morning when she wakes up, she looks out at the river. She’s not exactly sure why she does it, but perhaps there is solace in its unceasing current. Perhaps there is something to say about things that flow unabatedly and strong.
God’s grace is like that.
At the sentencing, Karen looked across the courtroom and stared into the lost eyes of the defendant. As the man stared back at her, he did not do so unremorsefully, but instead whispered, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Karen beheld him, and with supernatural grace and tears plunging from her eyes, mouthed softly, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Shall we gather at the river? That old Gospel hymn seems to bring special meaning to Karen’s home, and to us, because the romance between us and our Savior never dies.
At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.
Yes, we shall gather at the river.
And Robert Hendon will be waiting on us. 78