If you want a song that’ll put you in a melancholy mood, listen to Mavis Staples sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” on the album Johnny Cash released just before he died. Mavis Staples sang that song years ago at the Grand Ole Opry with Johnny and his wife June. There’s no doubt that song took on a deeper meaning for Johnny Cash after his wife’s death. It would be no surprise if her death had a lot to do with that song being on his last album.
This Christmas, as with every Christmas, many families experience the pain of the broken circle as someone dearly loved is no longer present due to their death. The season’s colors may be red and green, but many will have their soul dressed in black as they experience their first Christmas without their father, mother, spouse, child, brother, sister or friend.
For Janet Whittle, this will be her second Christmas without her husband of nearly 47 years, Dr. Michael Whittle. Dr. Whittle, a radiologist, retired in 2001 and devoted himself to caring for Janet, who had undergone major surgery with several extended stays in the hospital. But as Janet healed, Michael began to accept short-term work assignments in hospitals out of town.
Neither of them liked the traveling that was involved in his part-time work so Michael had accepted an offer to begin part-time work again at Colquitt Regional Medical Center with his friends at Radiology Associates. But he never got that opportunity.
On a stormy Friday night, Dec. 13, 2002, Dr. Whittle was traveling near Dublin, Ga., when his car left the road and traveled some 200 feet before breaking apart in the woods. The coroner suspects he died instantly from the crash, but it was not until the next morning that his car was discovered by a hunter who saw the early morning sun reflecting off the wrecked car.
Family and friends surrounded Janet, her two daughters and their families over the next several days trying to help them cope with their deep grief in the midst of a season that is supposed to be filled with joy.
A few days before Christmas, Janet’s brother-in-law, Al Gregory, went to Janet’s house. He wanted to know if Janet had found a Christmas gift from Dr. Whittle under the tree. He said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but Darrell Griner (Griner’s Jewelry Company) called and said that Dr. Whittle had bought Mrs. Whittle a gorgeous, very expensive ring.” Al wanted Janet to look for the ring in the house. Janet told Al that the ring wouldn’t be in the house because Michael always kept any gift he bought her with him until Christmas.
Although Janet was emphatic that Michael wouldn’t have left the ring in the house, she was hopeful that she was wrong. Every day they looked for the ring. Christmas came and then passed. There was no ring. Janet was obsessed with finding the ring. It was the last gift that Michael bought her before he died. To have it would at least shine a little light on the darkest Christmas of her life.
Intent on helping, Janet’s son-in-law David and his children traveled to the crash site. They took a metal detector and some rakes and worked the crash site for an entire day. They didn’t find the ring. But as they were leaving, hundreds of feet from where the car had landed, David looked up. Hanging on a tree limb was Dr. Whittle’s watch–an omen perhaps, as if an angel placed it there to say, “It’s not time to give up.”
David didn’t give up. He called the insurance company and talked to Vicki Kirkland. He explained that Mrs. Whittle was convinced the ring was still in the car. Vicki got permission from her boss to phone the salvage yard in Atlanta. At first the people at the salvage yard didn’t want to search the car, but Vicki was persistent. She placed herself in Janet’s shoes. If this had happened to her, she would want someone working on her behalf, trying everything possible to find that ring.
Almost two weeks after Christmas, Vicki called David and asked him if he could come to Atlanta. She had arranged for a forklift to pull Dr. Whittle’s car from the salvage pile.
The car was pulled from the pile and the crushed compartment of the trunk was pried open. It was filled with rain water from the storm the night of the accident. A man reached in and pulled out a multipurpose tool from the crushed compartment. He reached in again and pulled out a bag filled with water. The cardboard box inside was soaked but it contained another box, a velvet jewelry box. He opened it. Inside was the gorgeous, one of a kind, opal ring, studded with diamonds.
David phoned his wife, Kathryn, to tell her the good news. He then phoned his mother-in-law. He said, “Momma, I’m driving home from Atlanta and I have your Christmas present.” Janet said, “Honey, Christmas is over.” He said, “Not for you, Momma. I’m coming home and I have your ring!” Janet was overcome with joy. Tears flowed. The ring was her “miracle gift.” Christmas came after all.
The one-year anniversary of Dr. Whittle’s death is upon us and Christmas is not far away. It will be another difficult Christmas for Janet and her family. But Janet knows that she cannot become stuck in her grief. Life goes on. Already she’s had to make many, many decisions that were usually made by Michael or made by the two of them. Her biggest decision had been to sell her home and to purchase a smaller one. Before she moves she wants to have one last Christmas in her home with her family.
“It’s O.K. to grieve,” Janet says, “but you have to look forward to something else. You have to look forward to the future.” In making plans for the future, she’s felt God’s hand of guidance upon her.
To those who are grieving during this Christmas season, Janet’s advice is simple but solid: “Don’t turn loose of God. Don’t turn away from your church. Don’t turn away from your friends. They are all there and they want to help.”
It addition to all of these, Janet will not turn loose of her beautiful ring, which helps her feel connected to her husband. A ring is a powerful symbol of commitment and love. Its circular dimension symbolizes eternity. Though marriage doesn’t last for an eternity, love does. Though Michael has died, his love for Janet and Janet’s love for him will live forever.
The Whittle family will gather at their home one last time this Christmas. Michael’s absence will be a painful reminder that the circle of their family has been broken. But the Whittle family has a faith which teaches that one day the circle will be unbroken, “by and by Lord, by and by”–a reference to the day when believers in the Lord Jesus will join other believers who have gone before us into heaven, a place where there is no pain, no sorrow, and no death.
When Janet looks at her ring, it will remind her of the love of her husband, but it will also remind her of God’s eternal love and the promises that have been made for our future. Indeed, Janet does have something to look forward to, both in this life and in the one to come!
Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. A version of this column appears in The Moultrie Observer.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.