Fantastic Friday: No Gingerbread Dog

The anniversary of the passing of a loved one is never easy. But sometimes little signs are there to help us cope.

I’ve been rereading (and teaching) The Grapes of Wrath, and one of my favorite characters is the preacher Jim Casy. He quits preaching and goes off on his own to examine meaning in life. He ultimately has an epiphany: he “foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul.” Sometimes things happen, little signs, little coincidences, that make me believe we truly are all connected, and that there is something holy and wholesome about that connectedness, perhaps even in a way that death cannot sever.

Years ago, only a few days after the passing of my father-in-law, I headed to work for two days just to see what the substitute had done (or not done), to grade a few papers, touch base with my students, and leave substitute lesson plans for the days surrounding the funeral.

The strange SUV. I took a picture so I could prove to myself later that I wasn’t imagining it.

As I put my car in park, a strange SUV pulled in—not into a parking spot, but into the bus loop. I often sit in my car for a few minutes before work, and in nearly a decade of doing so, I had not ever seen a car pull into that bus loop. Not only that, but the SUV was startlingly familiar to the SUV my father-in-law drove. And the man in it, who I saw only in silhouette, was wearing a hat similar to one worn by, and had the same build as, my father-in-law. I paused, staring. The man wasn’t doing anything. He was literally just sitting. I didn’t have any fears of nefarious intent, but I wondered why he was there. He wasn’t sipping coffee. Wasn’t looking at his phone. Was just sitting.

Something told me I should wait outside until the SUV left. I did, for a few minutes, but the SUV was not leaving. Still, a wordless voice insisted that I stay and watch that SUV. I reminded myself to be rational—that the reason I was in school that day was to get grading and planning done so I could be completely present and focused for my family in the days surrounding the funeral. So I ignored the voice screaming at me to stay in my car and went into the school building.

Not five minutes later, the school went on lockdown for a suspected shooter. It turned out to be nothing—just something that looked strange on a security camera but was not actually a shooter or a gun. But that didn’t stop the police from entering our school, keeping us on lockdown for hours, and keeping us in a state of limbo during which we thought there was a shooter.

I had gotten there early, and there were only a few teachers and students in the building. I spent the morning on the floor, frantically searching social media and texting to find out from fellow teachers “on the outside” just what was happening in our building, as during lock-down there is no communication over the loudspeaker. It was stressful: I found myself thinking of my husband, and what he would do if he had to mourn a father and a wife in the same week.

The man in the SUV, I am convinced, was an angel in the etymological sense—a messenger sent by a benevolent power to prevent me from getting stuck in the building and spending hours in a state of stress. And he took the shape of my father-in-law.

(I should have listened ? )

This year, something similar happened that I didn’t put together until today. At my kids’ school, back in October, parents were able to sign up for their kids to make a holiday-themed stuffed animal for some date in December that I didn’t take note of. There were originally three choices: gingerbread dog, moose, or reindeer.

(I promise this is relevant—bear with me!)

My daughter really wanted to make the gingerbread dog, and she decided that her younger brother (too young to really make his own choice) should make a different one than her. She suggested moose, but I thought he might prefer the reindeer—perhaps my own personal bias.

We signed up and thought nothing of it—until we got an announcement that the gingerbread dog was no longer available, and another animal had been added in its place. My daughter decided of the three new choices, she preferred the reindeer, and to avoid having the same toy as her brother, she suggested we order the moose for her brother.

In the grand scheme of my life, this was no big deal, though I remember my husband and I being faintly annoyed and saddened that our daughter’s first choice had been offered, then taken away.

I also didn’t take note of the date, December 6, normally a day shadowed with sorrow, as the day they would get to create their new holiday friends. Today, I received a photo of my son at school enjoying his new toy, which he made today, on the anniversary of his grandfather’s passing. It wasn’t until then that it hit me.

The mix-up in stuffed animals was all part of a larger plan.

Between October and now, my son has fallen in love with the children’s book “If You Give a Moose a Muffin.” He will read it with us over and over again, and it’s the thing that calms him right before bed. He is too young to truly communicate preferences, but fate stepped in and made sure he got his favorite choice, even when I was not aware.

My son and his new stuffy moose.

So now, on the anniversary of his grandfather’s passing, he has a stuffed animal that perfectly matches his favorite book. I can’t help but think that someone is up there smiling, someone who shares a small piece of “a great big soul,” at the joy afforded to his tiny grandson.

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