faith, hope, kindness, miracle

Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind

In 1972 Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a noted astronomer and famous ufologist developed a measurement scale for alien encounters. When a UFO is sighted, it’s called an encounter of the first kind. When evidence is collected, it’s known as an encounter of the second kind. When contact is made with extraterrestrials, it is the third kind. The next level, abduction, is the fourth kind.

Aliens aside, these past few days I’ve been contemplating encounters of a different sort, a fifth kind; encounters between humans on this planet. Random strangers. Though, not so random, if you believe, as I do, that God delights in orchestrating many of these meetings.

We’ve likely all experienced something similar; an encounter that has stayed with us, whether it was an act of kindness forty years ago, an unexpected hug in a hallway last year, or the discovery of a kindred spirit just yesterday.

Six years ago, I wrote about this very topic in my No Such Thing As a Random Stranger blog posting. At that time I asked “What if we treated every day as the momentous event that it truly is? If we allowed that the strangers we meet each day might be the friends of tomorrow? What if we are all presented with ‘random strangers,’ ‘random encounters,’ and ‘random moments’ that are not so random?  I believe we all are given those opportunities to make a friend, help someone, be helped, to hug, to be hugged, to say ‘God bless you,’ and mean it. It is a personal relationship with God that allows us to recognize those moments for what they are.”

“Never met a stranger,” is a commonly-used phrase to describe someone whose personality is outgoing, friendly, and with an ability (and desire) to talk to anyone. My husband David was such a person. In fact, I’m ashamed to admit now that it used to embarrass me when he’d stop to talk to a stranger. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now that I’m the one who embarrasses my children by doing the same. I’m a different person than I was then; talking to strangers, reaching out to others, and glad for the change in me. My mother was also one who “never met a stranger,” which accounts for the names and addresses of several “strangers” in her old address book.

Apparently, Lyn was a man she met on the bus on a trip to Colorado to visit my younger sister. I’d love to know what intrigued her about this man enough that she requested his address. Did she notice his long hair? A tattoo? Was he carrying a guitar case? Drawing in a sketchbook? Was she the only person on that bus to truly see him? To talk to him?

What happens when we treat every day as the momentous event that it truly is? I can tell you what happened to me in the last ten years, since I look at every encounter differently, knowing the strangers I meet are not always random.

A few days ago, I had my hair done at the local beauty school. I save a lot of money there and am confident because of what I’ve observed about one of the instructors who oversees the students. Not only is Diana talented, she is lovely, glowing. That’s what I see in people who are in the right profession. Their eyes brighten when they talk about their work, their voices become animated. Their whole face lights up. I watched for this in the young student when she informed me she planned on opening up her own salon in Bellevue after graduation. I saw it in her face and heard it in her voice when she told me she’s known since she was a freshman in high school what she’s wanted to do.

While normally I crave silence while my hair is cut and dyed, when I pulled out a clipboard and started to write, young Paige settled into the chair next to me and asked what I was working on. Before long, my clipboard was forgotten and we were leaning in close to each other, deep in animated conversation about creativity, the topic of my upcoming book. I became certain there was something she was supposed to hear, that our unexpected encounter was not random. At the same time, I was struck by how differently I would have responded to her questions just ten years ago, if I’d have even bothered to respond beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers.

Time passed quickly as I enjoyed our conversation, and soon the instructor interrupted to check my hair. Diana’s fingers move fast. She has a magic touch, a skill that comes with talent and practice, but it’s the look on her face and her casual banter while she works that makes it obvious she truly loves her job. Perhaps her comments to the student are intentional, to boost the customer’s ego. I assume the young woman can learn more than simple hairstyling from her instructor’s methods.

“Her hair is fine like ours, but has wonderful body to it. It’s so easy to work with. Look how beautiful it is,” Dianna says to Paige as she deftly scrunches whipped mousse into my hair. “Look what happens when we use this product that boosts her natural curl,” she continues. I stare into the mirror, transfixed. Transformed.

Tired, stressed, and overwhelmed when I arrived, I feel lighter, happier, maybe even beautiful. I needed this. One student. One instructor. One haircut. An encounter others might deem meaningless feels otherworldly to me. Whether I was to observe someone else come alive with their passion, pass on some words of wisdom to a young person, or realize just how much I have changed, there is a meaning to this meeting, an encounter that stays with me some four days later.

Then, there’s yesterday afternoon. I have a recurring dream; a nightmare where I spit a mouth full of teeth into my cupped hand. All my teeth. I shudder every time I have this dream. I’ve given birth to eight children, undergone three caesareans, a knee surgery, gallbladder removal and hernia repair, but when it comes to teeth, I get dizzy and feel faint when I need dental work done. Imagine my horror, then, when eating yesterday, to feel something come loose, and yes, live my nightmare by spitting out a tooth, a crown, or something like it, right into my palm.  That I didn’t immediately identify it as a crown come loose, nor could I bear to look into the mirror to study the area from which it came, demonstrates just how bad this phobia is. The dentist on call must have heard the panic in my voice. He agreed to meet me at the office. My anxiety was fueled by the one-hour drive. While I was fairly certain it was a crown, what if it was a broken tooth? I’d broken a tooth before and have an empty space in my mouth to prove it. What if my teeth fell out, one by one, until I was toothless? How would I do public speaking without teeth?

Entering through the side door, I noticed an older gentleman seated outside of the room where the dentist was leaning over a woman laying back in the chair.

“Are you the lady with the missing crown?” the man asked. “You’re not the only one needing dental work this weekend. I’m waiting for my wife.”

I noted the obvious concern on his face, and my heart went out to him. For a brief moment, I forgot about myself and the teeth that were surely falling out of my head, one by one.

In the next instant, I felt a deep pang of sadness. This is what it is to have a partner in life. Whatever you go through, you are not alone. They are with you. David would have talked me down from the anxiety, would have driven me to the dentist office, sat there waiting. Worried about me, like this man with his wife. I had that once. Secondary loss, having lost that partner, hit me hard.

The man indicated I should sit down. When I obliged, he asked to see my crown. Confused by a stranger who was not the dentist asking to view something that came out of my mouth, I made a feeble joke. “You make me sound like royalty, wanting to see my crown.”

He introduced himself then, a retired dentist. Pulling his chair close to me, he studied the little plastic bag I pulled out of my purse. “Yes, that’s a crown. It looks good. This should be an easy fix,” he assured me, patting my arm. My heart stopped racing. I relaxed. I suddenly knew; this was no random encounter. A retired dentist waiting for his wife at the exact moment I arrived? His kind eyes, reassuring voice, the pat on my arm. This moment, this encounter meant something. It reminded me that although I might not have my partner anymore, there are a lot of good people in the world, people that care about others. Who don’t laugh at another person’s anxiety. A dentist who takes time out of his weekend to care for a patient, even when it isn’t a dental emergency. He could have told me I’d have to wait until Monday. I’ve had dentists who have done just that. A man, worried about his wife, taking the time to reassure a stranger. These were good people.

Within minutes, the dentist had reattached my crown. I stood to leave. “I hope your wife is okay,” I said, turning around to face the man. His wife sat up in the chair.

“She will be,” the dentist reassured all three of us.

What happens when we treat each day like the miracle it is, each encounter with a stranger like the miracle it might be?


Which way will you live your life?


death, faith, Jacob

Can You See Me?

I’d felt numb for two days. I wondered where God was on Sunday when Jacob was crying out in pain. I did not feel Him when my daughter called the next morning to tell me Jacob had gone Home sometime during the night. Instead, I felt an uncomfortable sort of relief; Jacob was no longer suffering, the long ordeal of caregiving had ended for my daughter.  I looked for a sign, anything that would tell me God was there in all of this. I did not pick up a pen and write words of thanksgiving as I had the morning after my husband’s death. My Bible lay unopened on the end table. I reached for it once, then pulled my hand back.

My heart felt heavy, leaden even, all day Monday and most of Tuesday. I went with my daughter and son-in-law to the funeral home to make plans for a wake, and then to the church to plan a funeral. All the while, I was reminded of the plans so recently made for the husband I had lost. My beloved, my beloved, I need you! I did not know if it was my husband or my Father I called out for. I wanted some sign that God was with me, that David was nearby. Instead, I just felt empty. Spent. How much grief can one heart bear? In the space of three years I have lost my mother, my husband, and now my grandson.

When the priest asked us to tell him about Jacob, we paused for a moment, looking at each other; Elizabeth~ the mother, clutching her infant daughter, Ben~the father, wanting desperately to be somewhere else, anywhere other than planning the funeral of his cherished son, and me~ the grandmother. Where do we start? How do you describe such a child? Elizabeth had delayed the obituary because of such a dilemma: how could she encompass the short life of a little boy who had done so much with mere words?

Without further adieu, I began lauding the praises of the little boy who touched so many lives. A boy who, while he lay dying on a couch, heard his mother say that her back hurt, so reached his thin arm out from under the blankets to rub it. How do you describe a little boy like that? The little boy who won prizes during his hospital stays and saved them for his siblings, who didn’t eat the cupcakes he made because he wanted to share them with his big sister and little brother. The child who worried about his mother having to spend her birthday in the hospital with him, even though he’d spent his own birthdays there. Jacob, who collected toys to share at the hospital in between his own treatments. Jacob, who loved babies and animals and gardening. How do you sum up the life of a little boy who barely said a word but whose eyes and smile could brighten up a room? Tears came to my eyes as I told the priest these things, because I suddenly couldn’t imagine a world without Jacob in it. “There is a page on Facebook we have used to update others on Jacob’s fight with cancer,” I mentioned. “Around Christmas of 2010, there was 700 people viewing his status. He has over 4000 followers and they share his status. When his health took a downturn I noted 16,000 viewers one day, 22,000 another.” The priest’s eyes widened.

“The morning he died, 41,000 people viewed his status.”  A tiny spark of something lit up in my heart as I said those words.  *that status changed to 46,192 as of this writing*

Where are you God? I wondered as reality set in and I realized I would never again look into Jacob’s beautiful brown eyes, never hear his delighted giggle, at least not on this earth.  Tueaday afternoon I was interviewed by both a newspaper and a television reporter, both who had met Jacob and were working on stories about his death. The tiny spark became a small flame. A friend messaged me on Facebook, telling me about some magazines she’d picked up at the library: “yesterday I picked up some used magazines at the library to read…this morning I was putting a couple of them in my bag to bring to work….and a slip of paper fell out…it was a receipt from the library with the due date on it…..the name was David Kenyon… I said a prayer for you on the way to work…..ironic how God uses a small piece of paper to bring you to the mind of others.”  I shrugged at the coincidence, even though I realized David had rarely used his own library card to check anything out, and obviously hadn’t checked anything out for over 17 months. I thought to ask the title of the magazine. Wild Bird.

Wild Bird, I marveled. It seemed appropriate. Before his death, David would tell me I was “flying, soaring.” Jacob had earned his own wings.

Still, I went to bed a little angry with God.

I had a dream Tuesday night.

In my dream, a healthy Jacob was climbing up into my lap. He was tall, with a full head of hair. I could feel the heaviness of his body. He turned in my lap and I felt the insistent push of feet and legs against my arm as he attempted to be cradled in my arms. Like an infant. In my dream, I looked at my daughter Elizabeth to see if it was all right that I cradle her son, this big boy, like a baby, and she nodded. Then I woke up, crying, but knowing that I had been gifted with the clear message that Jacob was now strong and healthy, cradled in His Heavenly Father’s arms.

Yesterday afternoon at the funeral home we greeted friends, family, and even strangers who had been touched by a small boy’s life. Grandmothers hugged me tight as we cried together. Mothers who had lost their own child hugged my daughter to them in a loving embrace that said I intimately know your pain. Two women who represented a group of online friends that have supported my daughter for two and a half years flew out on airplanes to be there. The man responsible for bringing Jacob and the Star Wars actor together came to pay his respects to a small boy with a big smile. His friend (and now ours) who was also part of that memorable day, came. A young boy, the friend that God gifted our Jacob with his last summer on earth, arrived with his mother and cried tears of pure anguish over his little friend. “You are so brave,” I tell him. “This is difficult for adults, and here you are. Jacob loved you so much.” I do not tell him that at least two adults could not manage to approach the coffin. They staggered away, crying and apologizing. I hope this young man remembers that his friendship made a difference in Jacob’s life. In our lives. I sense the presence of something holy, something beyond our understanding, in that funeral home room where the body of a little boy lies in a casket. Online condolences continue to be posted on the funeral home page; from Alabama, Georgia, Wisconsin…All over the world. One little boy. One short life. And thousands of people changed.

Thousands of people.

I see you, Lord. I see you.


Life isn’t fair

Life isn’t fair.  We’ve been taught that since we were kids, and the point has been reiterated numerous times throughout our growing years; during sibling fights when brother Billy got something we’d wanted or when we were sure our piece of cake was much, much smaller than the other nine that were doled out to our siblings. As adults, the point was brought home on a daily basis; when someone with 14 items went ahead of us in the “10 items or less” line, when jobs went to someone less qualified, or in the parking lot as we watched the car coming from the opposite direction zoom right in front of us and take the space we’d been patiently waiting for.

As parents, we shrug away our children’s laments that “It isn’t fair.” even as we silently agree with them.

Life isn’t fair.

A sister who is the kindest, gentlest soul and the most loving of mothers, should not have to suffer daily from a rare illness, nor see her children deal with the same disease.

A strong, manly brother-in-law who has avoided all doctors like the plague should not have to be brought to his knees by abdominal pain and end up staying in the hospital for over two weeks with pancreatitis.

A man who fought for his life during a bout with cancer shouldn’t have to fight for his job later.

But there it is; proof that life isn’t fair.

As Christians we comfort ourselves with the platitude that good can come from bad, that there is meaning behind the madness of life.

And occasionally, our eyes are opened in wonder to a great and wonderous plan.

The sister becomes a shining light in the family that watches her deal with her illness with grace and forbearance.

The couple who went through cancer together discovers a revitalized and rewarding relationship unlike any they have ever imagined.

Other times we look askance at a God that would allow bad things to happen.

Why Me?  Why now? we wonder.

“Why not you? Why not now?” comes the answer.

Why can’t I have the good job, the lottery win, the money, the fame?

And sometimes we get it, and we greedily lap up the winnings, the money, the fame.

And want more.

“But I want it!” our child wails in the aisle of the grocery store.

We dismissively reply,“I want a million dollars, but I don’t get it.”

Another day their dad surprise them with a candy bar on their pillow, their mom hides a pretty notebook in their sock drawer, or we give them a gift for no other reason than that we love them.

So it is with Our Father, who gives us unexpected gifts in the form of blossoming relationship, a healthy child after a night of illness, or an honor bestowed upon us for our hard work.

Life isn’t fair.

But it is truly wonderful.