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Hope Folded In

A mother coping with grief at the loss of her son takes solace in a simple message of comfort and hope.

The long, lonely notes of “taps” quivered in the air as the honor guard began its procession at the funeral of my son, Paul.

A master sergeant in the Air Force, Paul had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer three days earlier. He was 43. I squeezed my eyes shut because I knew once the tears started, I would not be able to stop them. And who would dry them now? After all, it had been Paul who wiped away my tears when I was going through what I thought would be the worst heartbreak of my life.

We’d gone to Nags Head, North Carolina, for vacation that summer more than 30 years ago. It was just my husband and Paul and I, because our elder son, Mark, had joined the Coast Guard earlier that year. I’d been looking forward to the week on the beach as a chance for us to have some family time before 13-year-old Paul got too grown up. Besides, my husband had been distant lately, working long hours. I’d always been able to smooth over the rough patches during our 20-year marriage, but now no matter how hard I tried, he never seemed happy with me.

Our first night on the island, we stopped to pick up some groceries. As the shop owner rang up our purchases, I noticed a display of rings near the register. A distinctive carved shell in a sterling silver setting caught my eye. Only two dollars. I slid the ring onto my finger and it fit perfectly. I held it out to my husband. “I love this ring, Joe. Could we buy it?” He said no. I could tell he was in one of his moods, and I didn’t want to argue with him. But I couldn’t keep from crying. For some strange reason I really wanted that cheap souvenir ring. In fact, I couldn’t remember wanting something so much in a long time. I went out and waited in the car, looking into the side mirror at the tears trailing down my face. We barely spoke the rest of the evening.

That night there was a storm. I lay awake listening to the wind whip through the tall beach grass and the waves tussle with the rain. My husband lay beside me, yet felt farther away from me than the other side of the ocean. I ran my finger over the smooth gold of my wedding band, but it was the two-dollar ring in the store that I was thinking of when I finally fell asleep.

In the morning, I awoke to find my husband staring up at the ceiling. “It’s over, Susan,” he said deliberately, without turning his head to look at me. “As soon as we get back home, I’m leaving.”

He said he was in love with someone else—a secretary from work. I couldn’t bear to hear anymore. It was just now dawn and drizzling, but going outside was the only escape. I fled our rental condo and walked down the beach, empty-handed and alone. No boats. No people. No footprints. No birds even. The storm had moved on, but a thin mist skulked along the shoreline and the ocean still bristled, occasionally spilling cool water over my bare feet.

Prayer overtook me as I walked, a steady, silent upswell of longing—for help, for comfort, for hope. I was too stunned to feel angry or even betrayed yet, to think of wasted years or wasted feelings. My only thought was that I was on my own now. I’d never had a job except for selling cosmetics door-to-door. How would I take care of my son? How would I explain to him that Daddy was leaving us? Dawn was piercing through the fog and leaving me no place to hide from my aloneness. The future stretched ahead like the shore, long and desolate.

Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed something floating in the water at the edge of the shoreline. I picked it up. It took me a moment to make out what it was. Money. Almost black with dampness and tightly folded into an odd triangular shape, but money nonetheless. Carefully, I opened up the tiny three-cornered packet. What I found made me gasp. Two one-dollar bills.

I looked up and down the beach. In each direction as far as I could see, nothing stirred but the tide and the grass swaying in the breeze. I looked up at the clouds in the sky. Suddenly I felt like the only person on earth, like God had just reached out and given me this gift with his own loving hands.

Holding the money tight, I kept walking down the shore, watching my feet imprint the damp sand. At the end of the beach I came to the store where I had seen the ring. The shop owner was just turning the sign from Closed to Open. I went in, picked up the ring and wordlessly held out the sodden bills. The owner hesitated, then saw my face. He took the money and nodded. I put on the ring and started back up the shore. I passed a couple taking a morning stroll along the beach on my way back to the condo. Life was going on. I would go on with it.

My husband was out when I got back. Paul had already heard what had happened and hugged me tight. “Are you okay?” he said. I showed him the ring, told him about the money I had found. Neither of us could explain where the bills had come from or why they were so unusually folded. But the shell ring stayed on my finger, even after my wedding band eventually came off. I got a teaching job, and Paul and I learned to rely on each other. He gave me a reason to wake up each morning, made me laugh when I felt like crying.

I couldn’t get enough pictures of him the first time he put on an Air Force uniform, his blond hair peeking out from under the pointed cap, his blue eyes set off by the crisp blue fabric. He went off to see the world and got me wanting to see it too. My first of dozens of trips abroad was to visit him in Greece. During the Gulf War I prayed that God would be with Paul on the desert sands of Saudi Arabia and Qatar just as he’d been with me on the cool shores of Nags Head. Eventually Paul married and gave me two grandchildren, and I watched him become as tender and caring a father as he was a son.

Then came the phone call in fall 2000. Paul had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only two months to live. “Pray for me, Mama,” he said. My hope grew as two months became four, then eight, but on November 23, 2001, I held my son’s hand as he took his final breath. This ending was far more shocking, more final than that of my marriage. This time there was no escape. Grief was my only companion.

I’d closed my eyes but could not shut out the plaintive cry of “Taps” at Paul’s funeral. I’d survived a broken heart, but this time it felt shattered. I lost my marriage, Lord. Now my son. Why have you left me alone?

The approaching footsteps of the honor guard made me open my eyes. They stopped before me—Paul’s friends and comrades—dressed in the same uniform that Paul had always looked so handsome in. Stretched between them was a large American flag. Slowly, meticulously, they began to fold it. The bugler had stopped playing but a drummer still beat a steady rhythm as they worked. One final fold and then…a perfect triangle, the ends tucked together in the middle.

I caught my breath. It was in the same exact shape of the two folded dollar bills washed up on the beach more than 30 years earlier. Gazing at it, I felt swept up in something more eternal and unknowable than the ocean. This small, delicate sign was a comfort beyond words, beyond touch, beyond time. God had healed my broken heart with two cool, damp dollar bills, with the soft cloth of a flag, and with a love that went deeper than any heartache.

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