Empty arms… Where once I held our little baby girl, my arms are now achingly heavy from the emptiness that is her absence. The days after Callie passed away were a blur of friends and family trying to do their best to comfort us. Slowly, though, the visitors trickled away, lingering at the doorway with looks of concern and a desperate hopeless feeling of wanting to do so much, but not being able to do a single thing to help us through our grief. John and I were left alone.
We wanted it that way. Well, not really. We were supposed to be busy taking care of our newborn daughter. No sleep. Smelly diapers. Baby crying. That is what we really wanted. But, of course, that is not the hand that we were dealt. Instead, we were alone… and the house was so quiet. We needed people to leave so that we could have time to think and talk and cry… cry like I really needed to. The kind of crying that scares people. And I just couldn’t do that to my family and friends. John held me as I wept and wailed, night after night after night… and he still does.
During these moments, I started to question God. Why?
I have always been a bit of a doubting Thomas. I can remember asking my preacher as a young child about where the dinosaurs fit into the creation story. It just didn’t make sense to me. And could Jesus really walk on water? The burning bush… really? C’mon! No way! My doubts grew to the point of disbelief as a teenager. I desperately wanted to believe, and I went to church every single Sunday. But, my practical mind just couldn’t wrap my mind around God. What I lacked was faith.
Very slowly, faith snuck up on me. I can’t tell you exactly where or how or when, but I started to believe, “What if?” and “I think it might be so”. Not exactly a foundation made out of stone, but it was better than no foundation at all. I think this rekindling of faith was largely due to marrying John. When we first started dating, John was… well, kind of a party boy. Not exactly the kind of person, upon first meeting him, that you would think of as a church-going, God-fearing person. But, like so many other things about him, appearances were not what they seemed. I learned that John was deep and had an unshakable faith in God that was quiet and not in-your-face and I liked that. He wasn’t “holier than thou”… he was (and is) a good person, who at the time, just liked to have a little of fun… and so did I. We both have grown up a lot since then (no more late nights at Clarendon Grill) and John has taught me a lot about faith along the way. It is one of the million reasons that I love him so much.
And then, fast-forward to our little Callie Marie. Her birth and death shook what little bit of faith I had to its core. A few weeks after Callie passed away, I was in a place of desperation. They say that experiencing a death can build one’s faith, or break it down completely. And, I was teeter-tottering somewhere on the brink of breaking down. One night, as I prayed, I laid it out there for God. I told Him that I was having trouble believing. I begged and pleaded with him for a sign. A sign that Callie was safe in heaven with Him…. that heaven existed, that He was real.
The next day was Valentine’s Day. John had planned a romantic date for us, following the tried-and-true dinner-and-a-movie formula. With our emotions still so raw, we wanted to do something simple and easy. When we were seated at our table at Maggiano’s, we were quickly greeted by a large man with a smooth, jazzy voice. He was at ease and casual and chatted with us about the movies in a friendly way. He told us of his wife and how much they had both liked the latest Denzel Washington movie. After taking our order, he walked away and John’s phone rang. It was the call we had both been dreading. The funeral home was calling to arrange the pick-up of Callie’s ashes. This is the kind of stuff no one tells you about having to deal with after someone passes away. John had trouble hearing the funeral director in the noisy restaurant, so he stepped away from the table to take the call.
Shortly after John left, the waiter came back around to top off our glasses. He looked at me and then looked back at the glass he was pouring and said, “I feel like we’ve been here together in this moment, you and I. Exactly like this moment.” The way he said it gave me goosebumps and a lump in my stomach. “Oh, like deja vu?,” I said nervously. “No, like so much more than that. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like I was meant to see you today.” And he looked up at me and smiled… a warm smile. Not creepy. I swear! I know it sounds creepy, but it wasn’t. I mumbled something like, “Oh?” and laughed it off and the waiter smiled again and walked away. I looked down at my goosebumps and tried to figure out why exactly I had been so nervous. Immediately, I thought about my prayer and wondered if it had anything to do with the waiter’s “deja vu” moment. When John came back, I quickly put the encounter to the back of my mind as John shared with me the details of his phone call with the funeral home.
We continued our dinner and tried to force our minds not to think of our little baby girl being cremated. It was a struggle to make pleasant conversation, but we managed despite the fact that I had completely lost my appetite. About ten minutes later, John’s phone rang again. It was the funeral home calling back to clarify something. He apologized and walked away again so that he could hear. Sitting alone, I must have looked so sad. I looked around the room at all the happy couples who seemed to have no troubles in the world. If they only knew what we were going through…
Once again, the waiter stopped by our table to refill my water. This time, in a soft voice, he proceeded to tell me a lot of things about his faith and the peaceful feeling that his belief in God gives him. Unprompted, unasked for. I can’t even remember everything he said because my heart was pounding so loudly… I just recall his last words being, “It’s like God is talking to me and I just have to share it.” I remember wondering why I was so nervous and realizing that it was because I actually thought he was an angel…a for real angel, messenger from God, sent down to answer my desperate prayer for a sign that He was real and that Callie was in heaven with Him. I smiled and nodded, too stunned to say anything at all. He walked away smiling and humming a little tune to himself. I watched him as he served other couples, and it sure didn’t seem like he was having this conversation with anyone else.
When John returned, this time, I filled him in on what had happened in his absence. I realize now that he probably thought I was completely crazy, but at the time, I really didn’t care. God was there in that restaurant, restoring my faith. Ok, was our waiter really an angel? I don’t know. I mean, probably not, right? People now a day just don’t see angels… And if you do see angels, you probably also see a shrink. But, what if? I am reminded of the many bible stories that involve angels and how most of them described the people that encountered them as trembling in fear. I think I know that feeling… and I’d like to think that it was more awe, than fear. I was frozen in awe that this really could be happening… that God really could answer a prayer. So, this waiter probably had a few screws loose and was probably not a real angel… but I do believe that it was no accident that he was put in our paths that day. We had changed our original dinner reservations earlier that day on a whim. This was no accident. And I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of relief and sense of peace.
When the waiter came around to give John our check, he asked if I was ok and told me that he was sorry and didn’t want to freak me out. “I just love to share God with others, “he said. I told him that I wasn’t freaked out at all (ok, maybe a little!), and that I appreciated him sharing his thoughts with me. After he left, we turned the bill over and wrote him a message that went something like this:
“Two weeks ago, we lost our baby girl. I prayed to God last night for a sign that she was safe up in heaven with Him. We do not think it was an accident that you were our waiter today. Thank you so much for sharing your message with me today. My prayer was answered thanks to you. You will forever be our Maggiano Angel.”
Sometimes, I wonder what happened when he saw that message. We left without waiting for his reaction because we didn’t really feel like talking about it. I can picture him opening it up slowly and smiling that warm smile and shaking his head at the curious ways of the Lord. Somehow, I think he wasn’t surprised… not surprised at all.
“There is, I am convinced, no picture that conveys, in all its dreadfulness, a vision of sorrow, despairing, remediless, supreme. If I could paint such a picture, the canvas would show only a woman looking down at her empty arms.”
From the book, Emma by Charlotte Bronte; referenced in the book, Empty Arms by Sherokee Ilse