The following story is from ten years ago this week. Anne-with-an-e was 12, Betsy was 10, and Ramona was 4.
Enjoy ... and cry ... and hold very close someone you love:
We stopped for our treats, and settled down to enjoy them. As the girls were slurping their way through Oreo and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup-laced concoctions, an elderly man approached our table.
"I just wanted to say," he said rather slowly, "that you just have some very nice girls there, and you all remind me of our family a number of years back. We had three girls, too."
I responded with something like, "Isn't that nice?" and said it was kind of him to compliment the girls. Then he went on to say, "I've got kind of a sad story, though ...."
Oh, no, I thought, who are you, and what's coming next?
"We, um," he said, looking troubled. "We lost our youngest daughter to cancer."
Oh, my. I was jolted, but managed to relay my shock and sympathy. I asked when it had happened, thinking it must've been years ago.
"Just last month," he said, tearing up. "She was 41. I was there when she died. And it just ...."
He trailed off, as tears filled his eyes. (Mine too.)
"I'm so sorry," I said feebly. I looked at Anne, who was also tearing up.
He continued. "She had the Lord as her Savior, and she told me that. She said she wasn't afraid ... so, you know, that's my consolation. But," he choked, "it just tears you up inside."
"I can't even imagine," I whispered.
The surrealness of this scene didn't occur to me at the time. Somehow it seemed perfectly right that I was sitting here, listening to this stranger who stood next to my table as he shared his grief with a family who was willing to listen.
He shook his head, as if to collect his thoughts, and said, "I just ... I really wanted to stop and say something to you, because I just saw that you look like such a nice, happy family. I saw your three girls talking and laughing, and I thought, 'Why there's Suzanne and Maureen and Ginger!' Just like my girls ...."
He shook his head again, and since I seemed unable to say anything at that point, he finished up by saying, "I just wanted to say that you all just reminded me of our family, and I could tell that you have somethin' special. You know, not everyone has that these days ... it's a rotten world, and not everyone has what you have ... and so, I just wanted to say that."
Through a few more tears, I thanked him. I told him again how sorry I was that he had lost his daughter, and that I appreciated his kindness at taking the time to stop and talk to us.
"God bless you," I said softly, feeling once again that my words were sorely inadequate.
When he left, Anne-with-an-e was crying. I comforted her, and said that although his story was a sad one, and that he missed his daughter very much, it was comforting that they had their faith (and that we have ours.) I told the girls I was glad we were there -- glad we could listen to a man who needed to talk about the daughters he loves so much. But, also, his little visit to our table was a blessing for me, I said. I was touched that he could see how much we love one another, and touched that he took the time to say it.
When we got home, I told Atticus about it -- about how it felt as if an angel had stopped to talk to us. This angel reminded me of our abundant blessings, our abundant love for one another ... of all that's really important.
Then, Atticus said, "Do you remember that last phone call we got for the Rosary Crusade? It was about a month ago. They asked us to pray for a couple who had just lost their 40-something daughter to cancer."
I had forgotten, but Atticus was right.
Though I can't know for certain, this stranger -- this "angel" -- who had felt compelled to approach an ice-cream-eating mother and her three daughters was quite possibly the man for whom I had prayed anonymously last month.
And once again, I feel awed by and unworthy of the love and mercy of such a God as we have. He intertwines our lives in ways we cannot predict, often do not see, and most certainly cannot fully comprehend on this side of heaven.
Serendipity? It's such a lovely and whimsical word for grace.