Sometimes, early in our marriage, for no reason at all, my husband would stop at a flower shop and buy me a dozen roses.
“A whole dozen!” I’d say, overwhelmed and aghast. “Oh, Dave, they’re too expensive. We can’t afford this.”
For a while he didn’t hear me. If he saw twelve roses, he’d buy them all. To the Italian romantic, more was better. But finally, my Scotch-Irish nature got through to him. “Oh, Dave, they’re so wonderful–but I just can’t appreciate more than one at a time.”
Soon he was coming home and handing me a single rose. “For you,” he’d say as he planted a kiss on my lips. Eventually, he settled on one rose in particular, an unusual lavender rose that I always gushed over. A sweet, powerful fragrance wafted from its delicate petals.
The longer we were married, the more often he stopped at the florist–for a rose. Or sometimes he bought three, which we both justified by saying that each represented one of our three children.
Ours was a marriage that got better with age–and after being tested by some dark days. In March 1973, Dave, the 37-year-old athletic director and all-purpose coach at Clear Fork High School, suffered his first major heart attack.
When he went back to school in September, he still had a teaching job, but someone had decided to relieve him of his coaching responsibilities.
Over the next twenty-one years, I lost track of how many times I drove him to the emergency room at Mansfield General in Mansfield, Ohio.
In addition to numerous heart catheterizations, he had open heart surgery, and eventually they put in a pacemaker. But doctors never really did control the angina attacks, with pain that split through his chest as if it were torn open with a knife.
And for several years right before his doctor prescribed retirement from teaching at age 48, Dave lost control of his emotional pain.
Dave’s physical stamina had been the core of his identity–as a football player, as a lifeguard honored for saving a child’s life, as the 18-year-old “hero” who pushed his buddy out of a fiery gas explosion, as an athletic coach. And as that physical stamina slipped, he dulled the pain with drink.
This was not the Dave I knew and loved, but a moody, argumentative, unpredictable stranger. At night I would cry myself to sleep, silently praying, God, where are You? What’s happening to us? Please make it better.
But, of course, Dave had to make his own decision to “make it better.” And with great courage, he admitted himself to a local alcohol treatment center.
He walked out of that hospital a changed man. Just one bit of evidence: That first night home he sat on our bed and said, “Honey, from now on I’d like for us to join hands and pray together at bedtime.”
Pray together! This would be a new venture, but I was willing, even eager. And that night I prayed, “Lord, thank You for giving Dave back– now better than ever.”
Walking with new inner strength, Dave was able to face his early retirement.With time on his hands, he turned his talents toward serving others. He looked after his ailing mother. He was treasurer of the board of a local hospital.
But often his acts of mercy were of the random variety. He would drive someone to medical treatments or the airport. We frequently visited a former student who’d been shot and paralyzed on the job as a policeman. He liked to send anonymous cashier’s checks to people in hard straits.
He was the Good Samaritan type who would stop if he saw a car accident. The first-aid kit in our car trunk was as much for strangers as for ourselves.
About the only limit to his generous nature was an agreement we had: We did not pick up hitchhikers. No way. Too dangerous. You never knew who might force you to do what.
There was a second fresh aspect to Dave’s retirement years. Always aware of the precarious nature of his health, we valued every minute we had together. When weather permitted, this meant spending the afternoon at Sun Valley pool, open to members and their guests.
We also attended a weekly Bible study, and that’s where a friend pointed out Psalm 27:14 (KJV): “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.”
“I felt as if this verse was for you, Dave,” she said. Dave and I latched onto the verse, though the two of us saw slightly different meanings in its promise. We both agreed that “strengthen” meant “heal.” I was sure God meant to repair Dave’s physical heart.
Dave, on the other hand, sat me down on the couch one day and said, “Sandy, you know that this heart ailment is someday going to be for keeps. Listen, I want you to remember that when I go to heaven, I’ll receive the ultimate healing–no more pain! Please promise me you’ll remember that and try to be happy for me.”
Don’t say it. Don’t say it! That afternoon I cried and clung to his chest, wishing he hadn’t admitted what I didn’t want to hear. No. God was going to heal his heart. Heal his heart. Soon. Very soon.
On September 1, 1993, about noon, Dave and I headed for Sun Valley pool. This day we had broken our usual routine in that we’d taken two cars. When we left the pool about 3, I turned left and drove directly home; he turned right, toward Mansfield, intending to drop in briefly at his sister’s.
I’d been home for about an hour when Dave pulled his Oldsmobile into the garage. As he walked into the family room, I knew something was wrong. His “Hi, hon” was always followed by a kiss or a hug. But he just stood near the door, no smile, no warmth.
Oh no, not again, his heart, I thought. “What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”
“No, that’s not it at all,” he said as he sat on the couch. “I just had the strangest thing happen. On my way to Margaret’s, I saw this hitchhiker.A well-dressed black man.”
“You didn’t pick him up, did you?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Dave, you know our agreement about picking up strangers. It’s just too dangerous.”
“I know,” he said apologetically. “But twice something told me to pick him up. It was important. I just had to. How often have you seen a black man with blue eyes? This guy had intense blue eyes.”
Dave obviously needed to talk and I let him.
“I asked him where he needed to go. He said, ‘Just drive for a while, and I’ll tell you when to let me off. Normally, I wouldn’t be out today, but my boss has a special job for me to do.’ After a mile or two of comfortable silence, the guy said, ‘You know St. Stephen?’ Then I thought I’d picked up some kook.
“I answered, ‘No, I don’t think so.’
“The guy insisted, ‘Oh yes, you do know St. Stephen.’
“I decided this was no one to disagree with, so I played along, ‘Well, maybe I do know him.’
“When we got near the corner of Cook Road and Main Street, he said that’s where he wanted to get out. I offered to take him farther, but he said no. So I stopped the car, and the guy reached over and squeezed my hand. He looked me straight in the eye. You’ve never seen such beautiful blue eyes.
He said, ‘Very soon something wonderful is going to happen to you.’
“That was weird enough, but I know I didn’t hear the car door slam when he got out. And when I looked in the rearview mirror and around to the right and left of the car, he wasn’t there.
“So what do you make of all that?” he asked, still utterly bemused.
It didn’t make any sense at all unless…
“Dave, I think you’ve seen an angel.”
He looked startled. “Think so?” He thought a minute and said, “I don’t know much about St. Stephen. Do you?” Having attended weekly Bible studies for years, we both felt somewhat biblically literate. But for Stephen, we drew a blank.
“I think I’ll call Mary Jo,” Dave said. “She’ll know.”
Our neighbor Mary Jo was a devout Catholic. Dave figured she would be familiar with anyone in the “saint” category. I listened again as Dave told Mary Jo his story. I couldn’t hear what she said, but suddenly Dave’s eyes got real big. He turned toward me and said, “I can’t believe it. That’s what my wife just said.”
I burst out laughing. Mary Jo’s analysis confirmed mine; she thought he’d seen an angel. Mary Jo knew that Stephen was a New Testament martyr, stoned to death. “I’ll dig up some more information about him and get back to you,” she said.
That night at a meeting, I told three friends the story. Each wondered aloud what “wonderful” future Dave had in store. For two or three days, the angel and his message occupied our thoughts. Dave was pensive, reflective, in outer space, as a kid might say. What wonder might this be?
Then over Labor Day weekend, we went to a picnic at the home of friends we’d known since college days. We were further distracted with earthly matters when Dave had to spend a night in the hospital for observation of chest pain they said wasn’t heart related.
The hitchhiker faded from the picture, at least in my mind. Mary Jo didn’t call with additional information. I didn’t look up the Bible story. St. Stephen might as well have never entered our lives.
But on Friday morning, September 10, the racking chest pain once again sent us to the hospital. By one o’clock we were in the emergency room. Doctors and nurses hovered over Dave. He was begging for relief and perspiring like a saturated sponge. His hand clutched at his chest as if he were trying to pull out the pain.
Though the sight was intolerable to me, we’d been here before. I’d repeatedly heard the doctor say the same words: “Sandy, things don’t look good. You’d better have your children come.”
I called my children, and then for a long time–too long–Dave and I were left alone. I rubbed his back, held his hand. To try to focus my mind on God and not on the horror of Dave grasping at his chest, I pulled from my purse a devotional booklet and started to read.
At one point, after nurses had come back in, David gave a desperate prayer: “God, how many times do I have to go through this?”
I just held on to his hand, until he soon yelled out and lurched onto his side. Immediately, someone grabbed my shoulders and ushered me away from the bed as buzzers went off and the curtains closed.
Dave had come around so many times in the past, I couldn’t believe the doctor’s five-o’clock words: “Sandy, there was nothing we could do. Dave’s gone.”
“I want to go too,” I blurted. Without him at my side, I didn’t want to stick around even one hour. But I did. I lingered one hour. Two hours. One day. Two days. I greeted more than five hundred people at the funeral parlor, many of them Dave’s former students, each sharing a heartening “Mr. Letizia” story.
The day after the funeral, our neighbor Mary Jo came over to visit. Sitting next to me on the living room couch, she listened as I therapeutically rehashed the events of the past week.
I had a long list of what-ifs. “What if the doctors had paid more attention? What if I had pleaded with God to spare Dave’s life instead of sitting there reading a devotional? What if we’d gone to the heart specialist in Columbus earlier in the week?”
Mary Jo interrupted and reminded me of her phone conversation with Dave two weeks earlier. “Don’t you see?” she said. “The angel was trying to tell Dave that he would soon be going to heaven.”
The hitchhiker. An angel. Very soon something wonderful is going to happen.
It took another week for the words to sink in. At our next meeting, my women’s Bible study group gathered around my grief. Before we looked at our assigned Scripture, I told them about the hitchhiker, about his message and the mystery of St. Stephen.
As we went around the room, taking turns reading portions of the story of Stephen, God removed the blinders from my eyes. In the first days of the Christian church, Stephen was one of seven men chosen for the particular task of helping the needy, especially the widows.
He was the first Christian martyr, and minutes before his death, Stephen turned his face toward the sky and said, “Look…I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56 NIV).
Jesus stood to welcome Servant Dave into heaven just as Jesus had welcomed Servant Stephen. The thought sent goose bumps down my arms.
When I connected the hitchhiker’s prophetic words of “something wonderful” with St. Stephen’s heavenly vision, my haunting what-ifs washed away with a torrent of tears.
Though only fifty-eight years old, Dave had died in God’s good timing.
I tried to hold on to the angel’s message and also to Dave’s own warning to me, which now was a comfort: “I want you to remember that when I go to heaven, I’ll receive the ultimate healing–no more pain! Please promise me you’ll remember that and try to be happy for me.”
No matter what scriptural or personal assurances you rely on, there’s only one way to face the death of a beloved spouse of thirty-six years: one day at a time.
Every morning I awoke and repeated a prayer, begging God for another measure of joy, some small grace that would heal a bit–as the Scottish would say–of my breaking heart. Some daily grace got me through the autumn and winter.
And soon I was well through the spring–and dreading the dawn of June 1, our wedding anniversary.
One morning late in May, my friend Joan called. Did I want to join her and another friend, JoAnne, on a spur-of-the-moment drive to the Kingwood mansion and gardens in Mansfield?
Why not? The sky was sunny, a perfect day; getting out would be good for me. I’d meet them at the rose gardens, heavy with their first burst of brilliant blossoms.
“Look at this one. And this one!” We’d lean down to smell a red, then a pink or yellow or white variety, each seeming more fragrant and carefully crafted than the last. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly spotted a lavender blossom that drew me away from my friends and down a solitary path.
As I savored the velvet petals and the sweet aroma, I retreated into a private world: At home one day when Dave walked in, saying, “Hi, hon, I’m home. Here, I bought you one of your favorite lavender roses. For you!”
I wished back the tender moments of my marriage and then glanced at the identifying marker. What was the rose named? Angel Face.
As healing tears again washed over my cheeks, I looked up into the cloudless sky. “O Lord, thank You for this lavish measure of joy. And Dave–thank you, honey, for the roses. All of them–even these.”
When I had composed myself, I told my friends about Dave’s Angel Face roses. The garden grief turned to laughter as we walked to our cars. “God and Dave make quite a team,” said Joan.
I finished the thought: “Working together to deliver joy. To the widows–like St. Stephen. And through the face of angel roses.”
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