68: Two Hundred Miles

68: Two Hundred Miles

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen

Two Hundred Miles

Life is a series of thousands of tiny miracles.

~Mike Greenberg

“He’s gone.” Those two small words came across the phone line loud and clear at 1:58 a.m. on May 15, 2013. Spoken by my sister Sandy’s best friend Teresa, they had the power to wake me right up. She was calling to tell me that Sandy’s husband of twenty-three years, Mark, had just passed away after a heartbreaking, six-month struggle. He was only fifty-one years old.

Tears gathered quickly in my eyes. “How’s Sandy?” I asked.

“Not great.”

Teresa tried putting Sandy on the phone, but Sandy was too upset to speak.

I hated the long distance. I wished I could pack up right then, drive the two hundred miles between our homes, and wrap my little sister in my arms. I had family and work commitments the next day, though. It would be afternoon before my husband Jeff and I could tie up loose ends and get on the road.

As I sat in my trusty rocking chair, trying to comfort myself with its steady to and fro, I knew that I wouldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I couldn’t imagine what Sandy was going through. I’m a firm believer in the claim that “God’s timing is always perfect,” and I’ve repeated that mantra often in moments of crisis or lack of clarity, but I couldn’t see His purpose in this. Mark’s fast decline and terrible suffering seemed nothing short of cruel.

A big bear of a man with a ready smile and gentle nature, Mark had been a carpenter by trade but was forced to look for other work due to the economic downturn. He still found time to do the things he loved however: playing his guitar, volunteering on a Search and Rescue team, cooking—and eating! I could still see him striding into my parents’ house with his hearty “Hi, Mom,” before heading outside to help Dad man the grill. But the one thing he loved more than life itself was Sandy—and she loved him. In all their time together, I never once saw them snip at each other. And while they had no children, the love they shared was almost child-like, pure in a way that’s refreshing in this age of on-the-run texts and meet-you-there social events. Wherever you saw Mark, you saw Sandy; wherever you spotted Sandy, you encountered Mark. They were truly soul mates and best friends.

But now my sister’s soul mate was gone.

It had all started innocently enough with back pain. Soon that pain had progressed to a point that made walking difficult for Mark, and a trip to the Emergency Room had him facing a battery of tests. Sandy called me from the hospital. “They think it’s cancer, Sis,” she whispered.

“Oh my God,” I said, shocked. “Oh honey, I’m so sorry. I’m praying for you both.”

The diagnosis was indeed cancer. Late-stage metastatic lung cancer, to be precise—particularly heart-wrenching since Mark hadn’t been a smoker—and the disease was everywhere. He had multiple tumors along his spine, which accounted for his increasing inability to walk, and more tests confirmed tumors in his brain, bone, and liver as well.

The news couldn’t have been more devastating. By the time Jeff and I saw him several short weeks later, Mark was confined to a wheelchair. I thought I had prepared myself, but his appearance left me stunned. The robust man I knew had seemingly transformed overnight. He was pale and had lost weight and most of his hair. As the months sped by, he deteriorated at an alarming rate. Each visit left me feeling helpless.

And then came Teresa’s phone call.

I was so grateful to have her there with Sandy, but I knew Mark’s death was hard on her too. She’d lost her own husband the year before, so she felt Sandy’s plight deeply. They were both young widows now, a sad bond that strengthened their friendship more. As Teresa and I continued to talk, I decided not to call my mom and tell her about Mark’s passing until morning, at our usual 6:30 time. There was nothing she could do at 2:00 a.m. anyway, and I wanted to let her rest.

But at 6:30, our phone call had barely begun when Mom left me speechless. “I already know about Mark,” she said.

I paused. “You do?”

She went on to relate a strange happening that had occurred in the middle of the night. At 3:00 a.m., alone in her villa just five minutes away from me, she was awakened by a noise, a distinct tap-tap-tapping. She didn’t know where the noise was coming from—it wasn’t coming from the wall or the glass on her window; it wasn’t someone knocking at her front door. The noise was quite persistent, yet she wasn’t afraid.

Then all of a sudden, she sat straight up in bed and had this very strong sense of Mark’s presence. She knew she wasn’t dreaming, but she just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was standing right there at the foot of her bed. And then she heard him say, clear as day: “Bye, Mom.” It was the same hearty voice she’d always known, said in the same full-of-life way. After that, she saw in her mind a single red rose. She could almost smell its sweet scent, feel its soft petals and the prick of its thorns.

“And as we all know,” she told me matter-of-factly, completing her story, “a single red rose means ‘I love you.’ I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Mark, but he took care of that for me.”

I sat enthralled. It truly was one of those goose bumps moments.

Days later, when we gathered for Mark’s memorial service, we all brought something to show. Sandy displayed Mark’s guitars. His siblings, Debbie and Mike, shared cherished family photos, while I added some jewelry boxes he’d made. Teresa and her daughter Morgan, intent on injecting humor, brought the Nerf balls they used to “pester” Mark with and the little Nerf basketball hoop my youngest sister Christie had contributed. And last but not least was Mom’s red rose, standing tall amidst it all like a lovely splash of heaven.

On May 15, 2013, at 1:37 in the morning, Mark passed over to God. But before he did, he found his own unique way of saying goodbye to Mom, of traversing those two hundred miles in a blink. I believe fully that a miracle happened that night—that they happen all around us all the time. More often than not, they are everyday occurrences, tiny nuanced incidents that we label as “strange.” They are far from strange, though. They are the ties that bind us, the arms that hold us, the love that connects us, each to the other and to the divine. We just have to be open enough to see them.

~Theresa Sanders

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