DES MOINES, IOWA - At first I was going to ask you to help me find a mystery woman with purple hair.
I was trying to track her down on behalf of Angel Mott.
But then I found her. And met her.
This may sound odd in a week in which the 31-year-old Des Moines woman is burying her own mother, but one of the people whom Mott would most like to meet right now is a complete stranger.
Mott didn’t even know the woman’s name.
All she knew is that the woman looked to be in her 30s and had short black hair streaked with purple.
And that this mystery woman was incredibly tender and compassionate with Mott when she was at her grief-stricken worst in the middle of a store aisle on the morning of Black Friday. You know the scene: Typical behavior on the High Holy American shopping day after Thanksgiving is to stampede directly to some cheap plastic thing and trample everything and everybody in the way.
But Mott was graced by a more serene fellow shopper at 6:25 a.m. in the middle of Mills Fleet Farm in Ankeny, just as she received a devastating phone call.
Mott wasn’t there on a shopping spree; she only needed a pair of dog beds for her German shepherds, especially her decrepit 12-year-old pooch, Killer, whose bones ache on her hardwood floors.
That’s when the call came in from the nursing home on the south side of Des Moines where her mom lived.
“Angel, honey,” said the nurse on the phone, “your mom passed away.”
Mott’s mom, Rose Danylchuck, was 57.
“I just kind of blacked out,” Mott said, “and I just started crying uncontrollably. And I sat down on the shelves probably for about 5 minutes and just bawled.”
The mystery woman encountered Mott and, instead of averting her gaze and breezing by, stopped and asked what was wrong.
The mystery woman sagged to the floor, held Mott and sobbed with her.
The mystery woman kept her in a tight embrace until Mott was able to regain enough composure to get back on her feet.
She even led Mott to the checkout line and asked if any shoppers had enough Christmas spirit to let the grieving woman cut in line. The lanes immediately parted to let her through.
Mott, still dazed, didn’t think to ask the mystery woman her name. She sat in her car for 20 minutes before she could even regain her senses enough to drive to the opposite side of the metro.
She fought through a panic attack to walk into the nursing home and into her mother’s room to confront the horrible scene of her mother's body crumpled in the room where the two had spent hours together.
“It was the worst sight I’ve seen in my life,” she said.
Danylchuk will be laid to rest in Des Moines Thursday.
In recent days, Mott’s gratitude for the mystery woman has been a comfort, so much that she longed to reach out and belatedly thank her.
But all she remembered was the dark hair with purple streaks. I pressed Mott for other details — distinctive shoes, a concert T-shirt, whatever — to no avail.
She did barely notice the stranger’s blond-haired sister also standing nearby.
So Mott did what all of us do these days: She turned to Facebook. She posted a paragraph for the more than 63,000 members of the “I grew up in Iowa!” public Facebook group:
“Hoping you nice people can help me find a lady. I was out shopping on Black Friday at six in the morning at Mills Fleet Farm in Ankeny. In the middle of shopping I got a phone call that my mom had passed away. I sat down on the shelf in the aisle and must've bawled for several minutes. Some nice lady with black hair (I think) and purple highlights, sat down with me and hugged me for about five minutes. She cried with me. I would just like to thank her very much. Not one person stopped to see if I was OK. But her and her sister did and I appreciate that more than they'll ever know! My mom was my best friend. I felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest. She was only 57. I'm only 31, I still need my momma!”
Mott was used to visiting her mother at least every other day. Roles had reversed in recent years so that Mott had become her mother’s caregiver and guardian.
Danylchuk was a certified nursing assistant full of humor and empathy who worked in hospice, tending to the emotionally gut-wrenching work of ushering patients through their final fragile months of life. She worked at the Kavanagh House on 56th Street in Des Moines.
She changed bedding, helped patients shower or brush their teeth, or sat with them just to hold a hand when they were scared and lonely.
Danylchuk loved her work but also found joy in the birth of her granddaughter, Mott's daughter, Kennedy. The little girl was born a couple years ago, just six months before everything changed.
“She was so, so happy to be a grandma,” Mott said. “She was ready for the next chapter of life.”
But all that changed suddenly when a blood clot in Danylchuk's head triggered massive, debilitating strokes. She was robbed of much of her eyesight and confined to a wheelchair.
According to Mott, doctors struggled to pinpoint the cause of her mother's complex, worsening condition.
The last months were horrible. Danylchuk lost the ability to speak. She quit moving. It was as if her body was contracting, withering. She couldn’t even open her hands.
Hallucinations became routine.
“She thought we were murdered next to her, lying next to her dead,” Mott said. “She thought we were being eaten by alligators.”
She thought she was drowning.
“I’m actually very thankful that she doesn’t have to suffer anymore,” Mott said. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to lose your mom.”
Mott had just put her mother in hospice a week before the death, but the staff had expected her mom to linger for half a year.
So that gives you a sense of Mott's fragile state of mind when she received that phone call in the middle of Fleet Farm, and why she was so touched by the mystery woman's kindness. And why she felt compelled to search for her.
One particular re-post of Mott's initial Facebook paragraph led to yet another re-posting, which in turn was spotted by the mystery woman’s sister, Sara Ross.
Ross wrote: “The lady she is looking for is my lovely sister Stephanie Uhlenberg. She just saw her there crying and couldn't just walk by. She had to make sure she was OK. Once she found out why she was crying her heart just went out to her. Doesn't matter if a stranger or not no one needs to be alone when receiving news like that.”
Uhlenberg, 42, is happy to pass for a 30-something. And the Ankeny woman’s dark brown hair is streaked with faded purple because she’s a die-hard Minnesota Vikings fan.
"She had these tears coming down her face," Uhlenberg remembered of that Black Friday morning.
"I sat next to (Mott) and held her. I didn't know what else to do."
Once Uhlenberg realized that Mott had been scouring social media for her, the most appropriate thing she could think to do was to grab her sister and attend Danylchuk's visitation Wednesday evening at Hamilton's Funeral Home in Des Moines.
I watched as Uhlenberg walked into the lobby — easy to spot with her purple hair and Vikings coat.
Once Mott recognized her, the two strangers-turned-friends wrapped each other in another big embrace. They shed happier tears. The family and other mourners looked on, probably feeling what I felt: It was reassuring to see such a warm, visible sign that the chance encounters and random acts of kindness we too often take for granted sometimes make a big difference.
"My heart just went out to you," Uhlenberg said to Mott. "I just wanted to know if you were going to be OK."
When Uhlenberg introduced her sister, Mott then wrapped Ross in a hug, laughing through her tears, "I barely recognize you." That's OK, Ross responded with her own laugh.
Uhlenberg was glad that she could help. She called Facebook "such a great thing and such a horrible thing at the same time."
We know all too well from our daily lives how social media can divide us. But in the best case it also stitches us together.
“That hug meant the world to me," Mott said. "It made me feel like people actually still care.”
After Uhlenberg consoled Mott that morning and ushered her out the door, she went looking for her own mother who had been shopping with her and was wandering in some far corner of the store.
She found her mom and wrapped her in a big hug.