56: An Owl in Winter

56: An Owl in Winter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles

An Owl in Winter

Pay attention to your dreams — God’s angels often speak directly to our hearts when we are asleep.

~Eileen Elias Freeman,

The Angels’ Little Instruction Book

Familiar faces glowed in the amber lamplight of the living room. Laden with the knowledge that it was our last, tonight’s cast party was more meaningful than the ones that came before it. The university was closing its doors to us and preparing to open them to a new group of students eager to embark on the theatre journey we had just completed.

Standing in a corner of the small kitchen, absorbing the warmth and laughter around me, I felt Joel’s embrace. The depth of our emotional connection overshadowed any pain that may have come from the unrequited nature of my love for him. Tonight he took me in his arms, wrapped me in his warmth and my tears replaced the words I couldn’t find.

“You’re my Debsie,” he whispered. “Look into these eyes. One day you will look into them when they’re old.”

Fate brought us together again twice in the years that followed. First for Joel’s wedding and the second and final time for a brief lunch back in our old college town. He slid into the booth across from me, reached into his pocket and brought out a small box.

“This is for you, Debsie.”

It was a rubber stamp with a picture of a tiny white kitten on its wooden top. The gift was sweet and thoughtful, the gesture laden with meaning.

The following year, Joel moved to Japan, where he would spend the next five years teaching English. We wrote regularly. His letters were filled with the new experiences of a foreign land and a different culture, while mine detailed the continued pursuit of our mutual passion for the theatre and my equally fervent dream of becoming a writer. I would come to realize, many years later, the blessings of the pre-computer age, without which, I would never have had the cherished handwritten cards and letters he sent me.

In early 1995 I received what would be my last letter from Joel. It lacked the usual playful, upbeat quality of the others as he told me of his impending divorce and plans to leave Japan. After that we lost touch and I never heard from him again.

Despite the passage of time and a multitude of life events and milestones, Joel remained a palpable presence in my life. And time, as it is sometimes known to do, shifted in my consciousness to erase all the years that separated us.

By May of 2013, technology replaced the pen and Facebook brought the past and the present together in a startling collage of old and new. Searching for Joel’s page, I looked for his name among those of the old group, but he was clearly, jarringly, not there. Frustrated with my failed attempts to find him, I climbed into bed and slipped into a dream that would change me forever. In it, I was reading a newspaper, its ink staining my fingers, when someone gently told me that Joel had passed away. In an instant I realized that I was reading Joel’s obituary. The cause of death was unclear but there was no mistaking the words in front of me.

When I woke, a calm, melancholy knowing settled over me, a sense that something other than a dream had just occurred. The following day I tentatively typed Joel’s name into a search engine and hit send. What I saw next knocked the breath out of me. There, on my computer screen, in crisp black print, was the obituary I had been reading in my dream the night before. Joel had died of complications from surgery.

Still reeling, my feelings of loss and grief were almost immediately buffered by a strong sense of his nearness, a presence in my consciousness that was somehow more concrete than it had been during our years apart. My writing was infused with his love and support as I completed a picture book manuscript called, Owls Can’t Sing. Preparing to approach an agent, I talked to Joel and asked for his blessing. “Please send me a sign in the form of an owl,” I prayed and knew that if he could, Joel would send me an owl — a picture, a word, a trinket.

Two weeks later on a crisp February afternoon, I sat in my suburban New York living room writing a query letter, when a tapping on glass drew my attention to the French doors. There, in the bright winter light, I found myself looking into the large, round eyes of an owl. And Joel’s words came back to me. “Look into these eyes. One day you will look into them when they’re old.” Maybe this was his way of keeping that promise.

~Deborah L. Staunton

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