Writer’s Note: Please indulge me as I again share this true story of God’s presence, love and promise during a period of earthly sadness and tragedy. Today marks the fifth anniversary that my friend Neil left us, but it also marks the day that God made it unequivocally clear that His purpose and plan for me is to write. I may not have the book completed on paper yet, but it is nestled safely in my heart. Please give me the strength and perseverance to see it to the end, Lord. And, thank you, God, for writing me into this story and for always “showing UP” when we need you most. Amen and Ehmen.
I sat back in the seat thankful, that even on a full flight, I had somehow managed to get a seat all to myself. It sure seemed as if God was looking out for me these days and especially on this day as He knew I had much to think and pray about—how, for example, I was going to get through this trip.
My dear friend, Barbie—Neil’s first cousin and Denny’s best friend—was gone, having just succumbed to lung cancer just a few short months after an out-of-the-blue diagnosis. Denny’s husband, Neil, who had also unexpectedly fallen ill about the same time as Barbie, was in the midst of battling his own recent diagnosis of a rare and incurable disease called amyloidosis.
And, Denny, my beautiful friend to who God himself introduced me was quickly slipping into a pit justifiably described as hell on earth as everything she knew and loved was being stripped away from her. The fact was, Barbie’s death and Neil’s illness were just two of several back-to-back losses that had her looking more and more like a female, modern day version of Job with each passing day.
As the stewardess stopped momentarily in front of my seat to close the overhead compartment, she gave me a sympathetic nod. My pain, obviously visible to even a stranger, quickly liquidated into a stream of tears as I closed my eyes and began to recount the five years that had led to this moment; how an anonymous, virtual game of internet Scrabble, a chance meeting on a social networking site, had led to such a deep, tangible and very real friendship, first between me and Denny and then between our family and friends; a friendship that was obviously God-ordained, God-blessed and God-planned, but still a mystery to our mere mortal minds.
What could He possibly have been thinking when he paired the two of us? From the outside, we were so different. I was a single mom with two jobs and she was a semi-retired housewife. What’s more, we lived what seemed like a world apart—she in western Canada and me in the southeastern United States.
But, on the inside, well, that’s where it all began to make sense. For there, we were practically twins—soul sisters as we later dubbed it—whose bond was quick, yet undeniably powerful and steadfast. What started as a little friendly banter on a Scrabble chat screen turned into hours of truly getting to know each other. Letter by typed letter, we talked about everything, from our childhood to our adulthood, our pain and sorrow, hopes and dreams, and, most especially, about God, who we both loved with all our might, and who continued to make it abundantly clear that He wanted to be at the helm of our lives and that our lives were meant to be intertwined. He would prove that to us over and over again, including on December 8, 2011 as I headed back to Alberta.
The story of this December day had actually started a couple of months earlier when I began searching for air-fare for a pre-Christmas visit with my friends. My plan was to fly in on Dec. 10th, which also happened to be my 50th birthday. I was struggling a bit with this milestone birthday and decided that a day of travel would be a fine distraction.
To paint the picture more completely, I had been bidding on tickets through Priceline in search of the best deal possible. For those who have never used the “Name Your Own Price” feature, one must submit a method of payment along with an offer for airfare and, if accepted, you are rewarded with a non-refundable airline ticket.
Anyhow—after two weeks and a dozen or so rejected offers —I decided to try one last time and submitted an even lower price than I had attempted before. I was both shocked and ecstatic when it was accepted at almost 40 percent less than the going ticket price! When I looked closely at my confirmation, however, I noticed something terribly wrong. The departure, it said, was 7:05 a.m. December 8, 2011. Wait. What? December 8th? That wasn’t the plan. December 10th was the dreaded birthday and the date my work vacation started. Nevertheless, God clearly had another plan, which I now realized included getting me there in time for Barbie’s funeral.
And, so, in the early morning hours of December 8, I sunk deep into my seat and tucked my earbuds tightly into my ears. Praise and worship tunes playing as soothing background music, there was time for a lot of prayers between the airport runways of Atlanta, Georgia and Edmonton, Alberta and, as the plane took off, the praying commenced.
During a short layover in Denver and before boarding the final leg of my day’s journey, I texted Denny to see how she was doing. She had been pretty emotional the night before, but was adamant that she would pick me up at the airport. I begged her to let one of our other friends do it, but, as per usual, she got the final word and would be waiting for me. Period. She didn’t reply to my text and I presumed she was probably busy with Barbie’s funeral planning.
Back on the plane, I started to get more anxious. Denny was going through so much heartache and seemed to be struggling a bit with her faith. She was finding it hard to fight anymore; her strength understandably gone. Just as the illnesses had stripped Neil and Barbie of their physical muscles, she was feeling stripped of her spiritual muscles. She still loved God. She still believed in Jesus and she still believed in heaven. In fact, those were the only things that made any sense to her at all anymore. Yet they seemed so far away and her heart continued to crumble under the weight of it all.
My mind, my heart and my emotions were swirling like a hurricane as the plane taxied down the Denver tarmac and I returned to my music, once again getting lost in my own little world of praise, worship and prayer. About halfway through the four-hour flight, “Hold My Heart” by Tenth Avenue North came on and I was immediately transported back to exactly one summer before when my previously-planned visit turned out to be a time of support as Denny’s brother, Stevie, had tragically drowned the week before.
As the song pervaded my heart on that June day, I had turned every word into a fervent prayer for my friend, pleading with God to please—just as the song beseeches—to come close and hold my friend’s heart. Suddenly, I began to feel a sense of peace followed by an inexplicable nudge to open my eyes and look out the window. When I did, I saw something that I shall never forget. Right there, on a canvas of deep blue sky and billowing clouds, were clouds in the distinctive shape of two strong hands gently cradling a heart. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and quickly reached for my camera, but when I looked back up, the image was gone. I may not have gotten the picture with my camera, but it was forever etched into my memory to be recalled many times in the days and years to come—including this day as I traveled once again to see my friends.
Leaning forward in my seat, I wondered if perchance God might give me another sign. Praise and worship lyrics dancing in my ears, I studied the clouds, but saw nothing. I looked towards the ground. Still, nothing. But, as I sat back in my seat disappointed, I soon felt another inexplicable nudge to take one more look. I pressed my forehead to the window pane and gazed at the sky. It was cloudless and there was nothing really to see when all of a sudden a streak of white shot across the blue sky. It happened so quickly, I almost gave myself whiplash attempting to see what could have possibly left this white mark in the sky. I sat back quite perplexed and more than just a little nervous. If that was left by another plane, it sure was awful close, I thought to myself.
As I continued to ponder what I had just seen, the flight attendants began preparing the cabin for landing. In less than a half an hour, I would be on the ground. My emotions shifted from anxiety to excitement as I knew I was about to see the people who had become so near and dear to me.
Having visited several times before, I had become somewhat of a pro at maneuvering through customs. I breezed through and, luggage in tow, followed my fellow travelers through the hallways leading to the lobby where Neil and Denny usually waited for me.
Walking through the doors, I looked around for Denny. Not seeing her right away, I figured she was probably hiding around the corner and laughing at me. She loved to make me look like a dork and, to be fair, I often did the same to her. I especially loved when we would make Neil laugh with our silliness.
In an effort to maintain at least a shred of my self-professed coolness, I stepped to the side and looked down at my phone. As I peered back up, I saw a couple of familiar faces walking towards me. It was Alex and Trina.
Good, I thought to myself, Denny had decided to take a break and ask for help. We exchanged hugs and I started into my story of how customs didn’t try to give me the third degree for once. As I used Neil’s name a few sentences in, I noticed Trina’s eyes filling with tears. Alex’s face grew dim and right there in the middle of the Edmonton Airport, I heard these words, “Brenda, Neil passed away this morning.”
It was as if the world came to a screeching halt and I began to hyperventilate as my sweet friends, themselves sobbing, guided me to a nearby chair. It didn’t take long after I sat down, however, that it all became clear.
The December 8th Priceline ticket I held in my trembling hands was far from a mistake. My sweet Lord had sent me there on this very day as support for my dearest friend now plunged into the darkest hour of her life.
And that streak against the sky? Well, that was undoubtedly Neil doing a fly-by and letting me know that He was indeed ok. A pilot, I could always see the passion in Neil’s eyes when he spoke of flying; how exhilarating it was for him to play high above the earth, amid the clouds and along the very threshold of Heaven—a place where he could now enjoy that same exhilaration multiplied by infinity.
As for me, every time I see a feathery white brush stroke painted in the sky, I stop and thank our awesome God for writing me into Neil and Denny’s story and for this new symbol of hope and joy; this reminder that He is oh so real and has a plan and a purpose for all of us; mine being to follow Him and to live and retell stories like this that will, hopefully, lead people to that place inside themselves where He is always patiently and lovingly waiting with whatever is needed.
Oh, and Denny, although there were many days following Barbie and Neil’s deaths in which she seemed to be in a freefall, God lovingly guided her hand to her own parachute’s ripcord and she is today living and loving life once again. She doesn’t even mind being compared to Job anymore, because just like Job, our loving Father in Heaven has fully restored her to a life full of love, blessings and a joyful, ever-healing heart.