Sometimes life is just plain strange.
And tragic. And wonderful.
Otherwise, how can you explain why a stained-glass window in a church forged a bond between two Mercedians who faced their worse loss -- death in their families -- and found a rainbow inside each other?
The stained-glass window bends the light into reverent prisms in Atwater's Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
The two people who made most of the window are Resse Bigelow, 47, founder and owner of Resse's Riginal Stained Glass, and Marty Heiss, 78, a retired Air Force noncommissioned officer.
Marty's wife, Georgia Ann, died in 2008 at 69. He wanted a memorial for her. The church was starting a construction project that included a stained-glass window. He cashed in an insurance policy and gave the money to the church. Other donors followed.
Resse, a native North Carolinian who started working with glass at 18 when she moved here, got the commission.
"I wanted to be part of it," Marty recalls, so he joined her free noncredit class through Merced College.
"He was very lonely," she says. "I had a need to help seniors and old people -- to give them a purpose, a place to come and feel needed and appreciated."
As the window took shape, section by section, because they could not stop for death, he unkindly stopped for them. Her father, Robert Pittman, had moved from North Carolina last July to live with her. On Oct. 13, he died. Seven months after his wife died, Marty's daughter Karri died at 51.
The stained-glass window became their focus, their shelter, their light in the dark.
She was mostly self-taught at the tough task of molding glass, color, steel, zinc, copper, lead, putty, solder and sweat into a form that reflects and channels light.
At first, after her dad died, she wanted to give up. "I can't do it," she said. "Yes, you can," he said.
They got back to work.
His first creation in her class had been an American Indian dream-catcher. Then, for his motor home, a jumping fish. (His business card, which still carries Annie Heiss' name, reads "No commitments! No schedules! Camping and fishing is our game! We're retired!!!"
Now he had a commitment. And a schedule.
For eight months, three days or nights a week, they worked on the window, across five banquet tables in her shop. Besides her Merced College classes, in 13 years she'd also acquired a clientele. One man in Reedley, for example, is paying her to decorate his swimming pool with a glass mosaic of a mermaid, shark, footprints and a sun dial.
But the Holy Cross window occupied her time -- and her mind. And Marty "filled the void." As they measured, cut, grinded, glazed and shaped the glass, "Marty was behind me," she says.
Her students helped: "It brought us together and saved the shop. They weren't going to let us sink." From Chowchilla, Mariposa and Los Banos they came.
Like every educational institution in the state, Merced College had to cut back. Her classes dwindled. The Great Recession discouraged paying customers. Her income since November fell by half.
Resse and Marty soldered on. They worked side by side.
They grew close enough to finish each other's sentences, to fuse big and small pieces of colored glass, to become foster father and daughter.
The circles were hard to get just right. It was a messy job. They had to be aligned. She started, as always, with a design, a pattern. Then she had to use her hands, whose fingers flex with muscles, to force the design from her imagination into the glass.