He didn’t know me, but he knew where I was going.
“Because she gets quite a few visitors,” said Charles Smith, the grounds foreman at United Hebrew Cemetery. “She’s cheering away in heaven. She’s a Blues fan.”
The little girl’s gravestone was gray, but decorated with coated colors, such orange and green and blue and yellow. Someone had scattered confetti hearts. Placed above her name — Arianna Rose Dougan — was a pink tiara.
“I can remember when we buried her,” said Smith, who has worked here for 33 years. “We usually put earth to cover the vault. They put glitter on each shovel with dirt, so when you threw the dirt, you could see glitter flying in the sky.”
Ari died on November 11, 2017. She was 11. But the impact she made on the Blues community is everlasting. The effervescent Ari famously befriended the star Vladimir Tarasenko, and while she battled neuroblastoma cancer, she also became a regular at the rink.
Inspiration was reciprocal. She even took a trip with the team, wearing her colorful coat and a thin NG tube, connected to her nose and covered with sparkling nail polish. She was impossibly positive. She was on the game broadcasts, in the newspaper. She was everywhere, then she was gone.
“This Stanley Cup win has refreshed everyone’s mind about her, which is so amazing,” said her mother, Lori Zucker, a St. Louis native. “People send me messages, talking about how she inspired them or she made it happen (for the Blues) or she’s dancing in heaven. I mean, it just blows you away. . . . She’s in everybody’s heart, which is so great. And I think that’s so fabulous. And all I want, though, is her to be back. She would’ve loved every single moment of all of this. We have to love it for her.”
At a coffee shop this week, Lori wore a navy Blues hat. On one side was the silver Stanley Cup logo, and on the other was her daughter’s name, stitched in pink. She and her husband, Shawn Dougan, were into the Blues’ storybook run. Who wasn’t? But Lori called it “bittersweet.” It’s hard to think of the Blues and not think of Ari, which means some happy memories but also the saddest.
The night the Blues beat San Jose to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, Lori received a text message at 2:40 a.m. It was from Tarasenko.
He wrote: “She is in my heart.”
“And he will always, always, always be in my heart,” Lori said. “And (his wife) Yana is a beautiful soul, as well. . . . Ari, she had that effect on people. When she and Vladi first met (at a Hockey Fights Cancer event), it’s like a minute into the meeting, and they were best friends forever. As much as, you know, a 20-something guy can have (a friendship) with a 9-year-old girl. But they just connected. And she took his big hand and her little tiny hand and they went off walking, and it was just the sweetest thing. I have this picture from the day they met. He was just looking at her. She was just beaming — and you could see already she had taken a little piece of his heart.”
The Tarasenkos had a baby during the Stanley Cup Final. Yana posted numerous photos to Instagram: Vladi, in hospital scrubs, holding the newborn boy; Vladi, in his No. 91 jersey, holding the Stanley Cup; Vladi kissing Yana in their home; Vladi kissing Yana on Market Street during the parade; Vladi, sprawled on a couch, cradling the Cup in one arm, the baby in the other.
“And it was just Father’s Day!” Lori said. “You think about how incredibly blessed as children they are to have parents with giant hearts.”
That is heartbreaking to hear from another parent with a giant heart.
Lori and Shawn Dougan are the parents of Liam, 17, and Aidan, 15. Ari would’ve turned 13 on February 20.
“It’s really hard — every holiday, every birthday, everything is really hard,” Lori said. “For me, it’s about the time passing. Every day is hard, but on those special days, it’s like you see time passing more. Because it’s been a year, or it’s another Mother’s Day, you know, without her. Time passes, and she’s still not here.”
For many who lose loved ones, the cruel pain later becomes a piercing, fierce fear that the memories might fade. Ari’s mother is proactive. She created a foundation to preserve Ari’s seemingly bedazzled pizzazz. It’s called Spread Ari’s Light.
For instance, Ari loved to dance like nobody was watching, even when everybody was watching — and even if she was attached to an IV pole. So they’ve raised money to hire therapists to teach dance therapy classes St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
While in Texas for cancer treatment, Ari attended a bread-making party. She loved those loafs, all doughy and fluffy. She told her mom, “I want to do this for my Bat Mitzvah!” So last February, at Congregation Shaare Emeth, 270 women gathered to bake challah bread, which was donated to a local food pantry.
And recently there was a tea party. Young girls battling cancer dressed up fancy — some in Ari’s actual fancy dresses — “and they had hair and makeup done,” Lori said, “for those who wanted it and those who had hair.”
But for all the events, sometimes Ari’s light is spread beautifully organically, just by looking at photos of her glistening smile or sharing stories. Such as the time they went to the Cardinals game, and something happened to a different girl’s shoes, so Ari just gave the girl the shoes off her feet. Or when Ari would skip that one page in the “Fancy Nancy” book, when the woman slipped and fell, because “she just didn’t want bad things to happen,” Lori said.
“That’s the epitome of what Ari was, because she just skipped over the bad things in her whole life,” she said. “She was diagnosed with cancer at 3. She battled cancer, was in and out of the hospital. She had bad things happening to her all the time. But she never saw them that way.”
Lori even sees Ari’s light spread to Laila. They never met, but Ari Dougan and Laila Anderson were kindred spirits, two special girls who touched the hearts and stirred the souls of the Stanley Cup champs. Laila, 11, battles HLH, a rare condition that attacks the immune system, but her doctors allowed her to attend Blues playoff games, including the historic Game 7 win in Boston.
“The Blues are spreading Ari’s light by doing great things for other people,” Lori said.
When I first shook Lori’s hand at the coffee shop, I noticed her tattoo. It was on the inside part of her right wrist. Turns out, it was Arianna’s own signature, copied from the front of an old folder. The “i” is dotted with a heart.
“I never consider myself to be a tattoo person,” Lori said. “But I saw some late night show and somebody said, ‘Oh, I don’t have any tattoos. I’ve never had anything that I knew I wanted to have for the rest of my life.’ And this was right after Ari passed away. And this light bulb went off. I was like — I have something I want to hold onto for the rest of my life.”