Michael and I gazed through the glass counter at Griner’s Jewelry looking for a ring to give to our granddaughter, Jennifer, on her 13th birthday. Michael, my husband of nearly 47 years, had an eye for jewelry. Through our years of marriage, he had picked out every piece of jewelry I wore.
I knew he would know just the right ring for our granddaughter when he saw it. “I think I’d like to see that one over there,” he said, pointing to a simple and delicate light blue sapphire.
With the decision about our granddaughter’s ring made, unbeknown to me, an expensive opal ring caught Michael’s eye. Later that day he asked me if he’d ever bought an opal for me. I reminded him that he had purchased a floating opal that I wore as a necklace.
“No, I mean a real opal,” he said. “No, I don’t believe you have,” I replied. Even though Christmas was near, I didn’t give the reason for his question much thought.
My husband was a well-respected radiologist in Moultrie, Ga., a community of 20,000. He retired in 2001 and devoted himself to caring for me after I underwent major surgery with several extended stays in the hospital.
Having a physician as a husband greatly contributed to my recovery. I depended upon him for encouragement and medical advice. I trusted him implicitly. As I began to heal and recover from a near life-ending illness, Michael began to accept short-term work assignments in hospitals out of town. “People need me to work and I need to work,” he said. We agreed that semi-retirement seemed a better option for a man so gifted and passionate about his work.
Michael took short-term assignments in hospitals around the state. Neither of us liked the fact that these jobs took him out of town for a week or two at a time. He talked with his friends at Radiology Associates and negotiated a part-time position back at Colquitt Regional Medical Center, where he had worked for 25 years. He was excited about being back in his old position on a part-time basis. His work was to have begun in January of 2003, but he never got the opportunity.
On a stormy Friday night, Dec. 13, 2002, Michael was returning home after spending the week working at the hospital in Sandersville, Ga. He was driving near Dublin, Ga., when his car left the road and traveled some 200 feet before breaking apart in the woods.
The coroner suspects the accident was caused by a massive heart attack. Death likely resulted from a combination of heart failure and the violent trauma sustained from the accident. He was not found until the next morning when a hunter noticed the sun reflecting off the wrecked car deep in the woods.
Family and friends surrounded me and my two daughters and their families over the next several days as we tried to cope with our deep grief in the midst of a season that is supposed to be filled with joy.
Following the funeral, I returned to my beautifully decorated home. Memories of our years together sang out from every room. Though all the decorations shouted “Joy to the World,” for me, Christmas was over. I wondered if Christmas could ever come again.
A few days before Christmas, my brother-in-law Al came over to my home. Looking at our tree, he asked me if I had found a Christmas gift from Michael under it. “No,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he continued, “but Darrell Griner from Griner’s Jewelry called and said that Dr. Whittle had purchased a gorgeous, very expensive opal ring several weeks ago as a Christmas gift for you.”
I was stunned. Al wanted me to look for the ring in the house but I knew it wouldn’t be there. Whenever Michael bought me a Christmas gift, he kept it with him until Christmas Day. Still, there might be a chance that he had broken with tradition. With my trusted friend Mary by my side, we began a frantic search.
That ring was the last thing Michael purchased for me. To have it would be another reminder of the deep love we shared. Every day we looked for the ring. I looked in every possible nook and cranny of our home, all to no avail. Christmas Day came. At least it was Christmas on the calendar, but there was little Christmas joy in my heart. Not finding the ring added grief on top of grief.
My family felt I had become obsessed with finding the ring. Maybe I had. They tried to get me to accept that it would never be found. But to have that ring, the last gift my husband ever bought for me, would at least shine a little light on the darkest Christmas of my life.
Intent on helping, my son-in-law David and his children traveled to the crash site. They took a metal detector and some rakes and worked 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 my husband’s watch–an omen perhaps, as if an angel had 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 our agent, Vicki. He explained to her that I was convinced the ring was still in the wrecked car. Though the car had been thoroughly searched, she got permission from her boss to phone the salvage yard in Atlanta for help.
At first, the people there didn’t want to search the car but she was persistent. She placed herself in my shoes. She said 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 if he could come to Atlanta. The crushed car had been located and she had arranged for a forklift to pull it from the salvage pile.
Only a small area of the trunk had not been searched. They cut an opening in the crushed compartment and found it filled with rain water from the storm the night of the accident. The salvage yard worker reached in and pulled out a multipurpose tool from the crushed compartment. Michael always liked to be prepared.
The man reached in again and pulled out a bag filled with water. The cardboard box inside the bag was soaked. It contained another box, a velvet jewelry box! He opened it. The inside was completely dry.
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 me. He said, “Momma, I’m driving home from Atlanta and I have your Christmas present.” I said, “Honey, Christmas is over.” He said, “Not for you, Momma. I’m coming home and I have your ring!” Tears welled up in my eyes. I was overcome with joy!
When David arrived in Moultrie he hugged me and gave me the velvet box. I opened it slowly. The opal ring was stunningly beautiful. I took it out and nervously placed it on my finger. It was my “miracle gift.” Christmas had come after all.
As Christmas nears again I will have grief mixed with joy. I have moved to a smaller home that is more manageable. This will be my first Christmas in a home that has no memories of Christmas with Michael. But the nooks and crannies of my heart are filled with joyful memories of the years we shared together.
I have worked hard not to become stuck in my grief. It would be easy to do. But in working with my grief counselor, I have also learned I have to look forward to the next chapter in life. I never thought I’d face the future without Michael. I always thought I would die first.
Thoughts about Michael are never very far away. Just as the manger and the cross are constant reminders of the love our God has for us all, every time I look at the opal ring, I am reminded of my husband’s love for me.
I realize that marriage isn’t for an eternity, but love is forever–true love–whether it’s love for a spouse or child or the love God has for each of us. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor 13:13 (NIV)
Love is what makes Christmas possible, especially a Christmas marked by grief and sadness. Love is the reason I can look forward to the next chapter in life, even though my partner isn’t here to journey with me. Life on earth doesn’t last forever but true love never fades away. As I wear the miracle ring, I am reminded that as long as there is love, all is not lost.
This story, as told to Michael Helms, appeared in the Moultrie Observer. Helms, a regular columnist for EthicsDaily.com, is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga.