A Love that Never Died

Thanksgiving is about love—love of God, family, country, and for some, just love of food. I’m thankful for much, but especially for family, particularly my Aunt Jeanette, above with her grandson, Rod McCoy. By the grace of God, she is still with us, miraculously. Hope you enjoy this story I chose for Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! kcs

She had searched under her bed, through her closet, behind the dresser, and throughout her bathroom. Nothing. Maybe she was wrong; maybe she hadn’t smelled something burning after all. Things had started to change as she aged, her 84 year old brain worked fairly well, but maybe her sniffer wasn’t quite up to par. Still, my Aunt Jeanette checked the room several times that balmy June morning in 2010.

My brain doesn’t work as well as my Aunt Jeanette’s, and even if it did, I couldn’t remember back to when Jeanette met her future husband, Paul McCoy. Or even back to 1949, when diapers were my underwear of choice.

Back then, I was the first grandchild to debut. As such, my aunts, uncles, and parents often sat me in their midst where I mesmerized them with baby gibberish as I tried to eat my toes or yank on one of my fourteen hair strands. They would make faces and ridiculous goo-goo sounds as they coaxed me to their laps. Like other oft-told stories from my childhood, this one seems like a memory, but I was much too young to remember.

Paul McCoy wasn’t my blood uncle, but I didn’t understand what that meant until I was too old to care. By then, blood, coca cola, or whiskey couldn’t have kept me from my fun-loving uncle. He was a big man, tall, with brute strength, always teasing or pranking, scrubbing your head with his knuckles, and telling you the latest and best of the dozen or so jokes he’d just learned. He was always happy to see every person who walked through his front door.

Jeanette feigned exasperation at Paul’s jokes and stories, but exposed her affection by repeating them often. They were quite the pair; Paul was an early bird, Jeanette was a night owl. She’d often cajole her nocturnal kin to drive around our small town, looking for neither mischief nor mayhem in the early hours, just laughter and crazy fun. I’ve made that circuit with Jeanette, my mother, and Jeanette’s daughter, Cheryl, more times than I can say.

The years passed; Jeanette and Paul grew older and we children grew up. In 1997, Paul succumbed to diabetes and passed into heaven. Jeanette’s friskiness was understandably curtailed. Her heart and humor were forever intertwined with her husband, and his death, she often stated, was the worst thing that ever happened to her.

Make no mistake, the myriad surgeries and ailments she had suffered were major calamities in their own right—hip replacement, knee replacement, even breast cancer. All told, nine operations. And although she was grateful for the years she’d survived since Paul’s death, not having her best friend and soul mate to share it with still brought tears to her eyes.

And that morning in 2010, she was acutely aware that there was no one to confirm or deny the burning smell that may or may not have been. And, so, she went about her day, making the trek from her bedroom to the kitchen, and passing, as she always did, the photograph of the man she couldn’t remember not loving, which hung prominently on the living room wall.

In the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians, the eloquent St. Paul writes: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” Jeanette knew the quote, but her husband was gone, and in her twilight years, when her senses weren’t what they once were, when her confidence waned, she needed him more than ever.

That evening in 2010, around eight o’clock, Jeanette did something uncommon; she fell asleep on the family room sofa. It was early for her, but it had been a long, busy Friday—cleaning day—and she’d worked harder than usual. Fatigue swept over her, driving her into a deep slumber.

How long did she sleep? She couldn’t quite say, but something in her subconscious was nudging her to awaken. A noise . . . buzzing. What? Finally, groggily, she realized the phone was ringing and reached to pick it up.

“Hello.”

“Grandma, I knocked and knocked and you didn’t answer,” said the voice on the other end. “I’m outside.”

Jeanette quickly arose and opened the door to her grandson, Rod.

“I have the keys to Chad’s truck,” he said, referring to his cousin, another of Jeanette’s grandsons, and laid the keys on the kitchen table next to her purse. It was an odd time for him to come by. Odd that he had Chad’s keys.

She shook off her sleepiness and walked outside to say goodbye, where they chatted, as they often did.

Just minutes had passed when Rod glanced up, startled. “Grandma, look!” he said, pointing to the left side of the house.

She turned to see an alarming gray haze rising like a storm cloud from the living room. They rushed inside to find every crevice of her one-story home filled with smoke.

“My purse!” Jeanette, near hysterics, covered her mouth. “I have to get my purse.”

Rod jockeyed to move from the hallway into the kitchen, but the dense fog blocked his vision and choked him. He retreated. “Can’t do it,” he said, and led his grandmother outside. It was not only an impossible feat, but surprising, given the short time they’d been outside.

When the fire truck arrived, a fireman retrieved her purse, but the house was a loss.

It seemed a blur, this finite period of time that had assaulted and then plundered her. That had brought her from a groggy awakening to now standing in the dark with flashing red lights and puddles of water and meandering hoses. Without a fresh set of clothes or a place to sleep. Without a safe harbor. Tears covered her cheeks. Except for Paul’s death, nothing had ever compared to this.

The next day she and her children made their way through the charred remains of a life well lived, now mounds of soot and ash. The furniture, pictures, clothing, books, shoes, linens, eye glasses, and vast array of Christmas ornaments—everything was ruined. Glass shards littered the sooty floor beneath the blackened lop-sided picture frame that had held Paul’s photograph, now missing from the frame. Once again, Jeanette couldn’t contain her tears.

Her daughter, Cheryl, noticed what must have looked like the tip of an angel wing peeking through the midst of the dismal gray floor residue. She bent down to investigate and pulled the whiteness up and out of the ashes like the Phoenix arising. After blowing the soot off, she gasped, “This is impossible!” Then she turned the photograph so her mother could see the familiar head shot of her husband Paul.

They were speechless. (The second miracle of that day!)

Though her home and her valuables had burned, Jeanette understood—the love that burned in her heart lived forever. Forever. And it had just been confirmed, miraculously, unbelievably. As she stared at the perfectly intact photograph, she knew it was a gift. Paul McCoy, by God’s Grace, had made an appearance on the second worst day of her life, an appearance she desperately needed. Love had reached out of heaven and shown its face, healing some of the heartbreak.

The Psalmist writes, “For He will give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.” And so He had. From Rod waking her unexpectedly from what could have been, to Paul’s coveted picture escaping the blaze. Miracles existed in her world.

One day she’d be reunited with the man she loved, because love, as St. Paul promised, never fails. And Paul and Jeanette’s love surely never died. xxx

Below left is the recovered picture of Paul. Right, is a rare picture of them dancing. Today, Jeanette is 89. She has survived the odds, many of her friends, her seven siblings, and her husband. She still lives alone, cleans her own house, and goes to every home basketball game her high school alma mater plays.

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The Gift

New York City was like a drug and I was a junkie.

In the late 1960’s, I left the mountains and valleys of West Virginia for the sprawl and vigor of New York City. The air is different there. It stimulates your senses and you’re always in motion. The City is like a drug and I was a junkie.

Even before New York, and really for most of my life, I felt different. As a child I was terrified of the dark, fearing the demons that lined my room when the lights went out, creepy eyes always watching. I begged to sleep with Mom and Dad.

It sounds bizarre—demons. Well, that’s what I call them now. I’m not sure what I thought they were then. But there was something—I believe that. They weren’t in my head. And neither was the small angel who sat in the room’s lone chair.

Mostly, I was normal growing up, but sometimes I knew things there was no possible way I could know. It happened rarely, but it happened enough that I noticed. However, when I went to New York, that city air hit my brain and triggered something.

Strange things began to happen. For starters, New Yorkers don’t notice much, but they noticed me—on the street, in elevators, on buses—they spoke, stopped me, or struck up a conversation—invited me to dinner, to parties, to become famous. Sometimes it was a pure con brought on by my naiveté, but mostly it was just natives, curious about one of the city’s imports. Regardless, I felt like a yellow pointer sign flashed over my head, like a mountaineer hippie version of Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl.”

My first New York address was the Phoebe Warren Hotel for Girls on East 68th Street. The Phoebe, as we called it, was a foreboding brownstone sitting amidst other better kept brownstones and high-brow embassies on a swanky limousine-lined, litter-free street, a half block from Central Park.

I met a few residents, including Christina, my future roommate, and now lifelong friend, a beautiful native with a great laugh who was constantly steering me from psychos, weirdos, and con artists. A demanding task, since they also saw my flashing yellow sign.

That revelatory ‘knowing’, energy, whatever it was—the lukewarm phenomenon that had ‘shown’ me things in my past—was now set on “go,” and because of it, occasionally I’d tell fortunes. One afternoon a woman I’d seen in The Phoebe’s dining room grabbed my arm in the tiny hotel elevator. She eyed me like someone who had latched onto the Holy Grail.

“You know something,” she said to me, her voice shaky. “You have to tell me! Please. Tell me now.”

I was alone and startled, but naïve woman/child that I was, I went to her room. Why? Well, I did sense something.

When we got there, I asked for a deck of cards. I didn’t really need them; mostly they were a prop, a way to share my ‘gift’ that people could understand.

After flipping through the cards, I unveiled a strange saga: two men were following a younger man they intended to harm. And the younger man needed to contact her. I don’t remember the details—they went on and on—however, I do remember her tears. You see, I confirmed her fears; the young man was her son. This happened at least twice at The Phoebe.

Religion wasn’t something I embraced at this life juncture, but I still prayed. And I believed. Mostly, I believed I had a terrifying gift from the dark side, and I prayed God would take it away.

One night, Christina and I went out to dinner. After we’d returned and gone to our rooms, she ran to my room because a large black bird had flown through her window and into her mirror. Not long after, she and I moved into an apartment on East 74th Street.

Months had passed without much ‘psychic’ nonsense when out of the blue I told Christina my ex-boyfriend was going to call. We hadn’t been in touch in over a year, maybe two. Unbelievably, he phoned that very night. She answered, and after he told her who he was, she screamed, “Karyn, you freak me out!” and handed me the receiver.

“What was that all about?” he asked when I answered.

“I told her you were going to call,” I said.

“How did you know that?” he sounded incredulous. “I didn’t even know it.” My life was about to take a huge turn.

The next few months were hectic. I was enduring the strain of a new job and a renewed long distance relationship with my ex. The first of November seemed to come early and was much too cold. I was out window shopping, on the way to an afternoon matinee with three friends. Suddenly, an attack of anxiety, complete with heart palpitations, swept over me. I spun around, reversing directions, like a drug addict sniffing out a fix. “I have to get back to the apartment!” I yelled back to my startled friends. They chased after me as my feet clapped the pavement. “What’s going on?” my friend Bobby asked as he hustled alongside me.

“I’m not sure.” I kept moving. “But something awful has happened and I have to get home.”

Bobby motioned for the others to follow and they were all there when I opened my apartment door to a ringing telephone.

It was my ex, who was now my boyfriend, and he was visiting in our hometown. “Karyn,” he spoke softly into the receiver, “your Dad died early this morning. Your Mom’s at the hospital. They think he had a heart attack.”

Just like that. Cullen Cantees, my 47 year old father was dead.

I had come to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and, truthfully, to escape my father’s watchful eyes. The irony didn’t hit me for years: Dad died when I was living in the one place I felt hidden from his control. To further the irony, I immediately moved home. Five months later, I married my ex, who is, once again, my ex.

Thankfully, while I was in New York, I had a heavenly Father who sent both heavenly and earthly angels—friends like Christina and Bobby—who steered me. And though I wasn’t religious, two things I believed: Satan and evil existed as surely as God and good. And in the 1960’s of my youth, evil was often lurking. Today I believe the prayers of my family and my own simple prayers sustained me.

One of those prayers, the appeal I made from fright, I still sometimes ponder: “God, please take this psychic power, this “knowing,” whatever it is, away from me.” It was a prayer that for the most part was answered. At least for a time.

My ‘gift’ prepared me for certain events during this brief two-year, New York stint, and probably saved my life at least once (stay tuned). Yet knowing the unknown was frightening. Here’s what I’ve come to believe: For whatever reason, God gave me a prophetic gift, which, in my youth, I abused with cards and fortune tellers, not knowing what it was or how to use it.

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The left side view from our hotel room overlooking Central Park two years ago. The above, main photo is the right side view, the gorgeous NYC skyline, looking more like a painting than a photo.

Still, God was faithful! Because, while my “gift” was sidelined, it wasn’t eliminated. Today, I sometimes know things I have no way of knowing, other than the divine. It’s rare, but when it happens, I am reassured of His unending grace. And I am reminded that when darkness falls, the wondrous light of Christ is always shining.

The orchestra pit at Phantom of the Opera. Part of my dowry when Alan and I married was a yearly trip to NYC. It doesn't always happen anymore.

Orchestra pit, Phantom of the Opera. My marriage dowry *giggle* included yearly trips to NYC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.