They say angels are all around us. Most of the time they don’t show themselves. But sometimes they take a human form, usually without the wings.
There is no doubt in my mind I had a very special angel make her way into my life at a very vulnerable time in my life — Mary Lee Hendrickson Sampson, more affectionately known as Sonni. She earned her spot in heaven four years ago and, like my wife before her, is missed every day.
Sonni was a neighbor, a fellow writer, and a friend. She was also a widow, losing her husband about a year or so before I lost Karen. The four of us were casual neighborhood friends. We might see each other working in the yard and stop for a conversation, but we typically swam in different pools. Karen and I were on a long weekend when we heard about Scott’s death, and Sonni was at Wildwood when Karen died. All we did was exchange sympathy cards.
In retrospect it’s always amazing to see the hand of God present in our lives. After Karen died, I had this grand idea of writing a memory book of our life together for the kids. I envisioned a little book chronicling our life together from first meeting to final days and encompassing each of the many stops — and memories — along the way. What I thought would be a week or two exercise swelled into a bittersweet six month project complete with vintage photos as witness to the experiences. And, as all writers know — although we don’t like to admit it — the written word is only as good as an editor’s pen.
Enter Mary Lee Hendrickson Sampson. I asked her to proofread and edit the manuscript — 40 Years of Memories … In the Blink of an Eye — to make sure the i’s were dotted and the t’s crossed, and it made some sense as it flowed. She agreed.
As payment, I promised her dinner out. She chose McDonald’s. We were sitting at the corner table talking about the project when she suddenly got up and right in the middle of McDonald’s gave me my first real Sonni hug. It came from her soul … as it always did for all she came into contact with. Then she gave me the manuscript … and I never saw so much red ink in all my life!
It was all good. A couple of misspellings. A couple of phrases out of syntax. Questions about who was who, what was going on, when it happened, where we were, and why it was important to the story.
In that corner of McDonald’s I saw Sonni sprout virtual wings. Our relationship changed from casual to close friends. She decided, as a seasoned widow, she was going to take me under her wing to try and help me avoid the traps of widowhood. She was the salve that helped heal a broken heart — not repair it, not fill it, not replace it. I like to think we were helping each other get through the days of widow- and widower-hood. But deep down I knew I was the beneficiary in the relationship. We talked just about every day — if not directly, then certainly by phone or through messaging and e-mail. I knew when something was troubling her. She knew when I got into my “moods.” We had so many memories packed into a relatively short time.
When I took her for her pre-surgery doctor’s appointment visit about a week before she died, she told everyone she saw she didn’t want an x-ray. All day she fretted about the x-ray — it’s going to give me breast cancer … I’ve had too many … Why can’t they look at my last x-ray — until she was told no x-ray, no surgery. In the waiting room she continued to worry about the x-ray and was sharing her anxiety with me … within earshot of two women waiting for their husbands to return from PET scans. Next thing I knew the four of us — okay, mostly the three women — were engaged in a conversation about anxiety, x-rays, and their spouses’ conditions. Sonni went in for the x-ray — only about two minutes — and returned a little relieved and continued with her conversations. One of the husbands returned from his test and before we left we all were laughing and joking. And we had to participate in a group and individual hug.
That was Sonni. She believed in the therapeutic magic of a hug.
I’ve wondered during this pandemic how the diminutive Miss Sonni n would have reacted. I know she would have been very cautious and probably would have masked, railing at those who either didn’t wear them correctly or not at all — all with love. But I don’t think she would have given up on her hugs. Her hugs were real. Her hugs were therapeutic. Her hugs was a touch from God.
As I tried to move on after Karen died and took my trips to Maine, Sonni would always challenge my motives. Why did I choose Maine? And invariably it would all come back to Karen. It’s what she wanted. It’s what she would have loved. And she would just say, “Uh huh.” No wagging finger. No extended conversation. Just a simple “Uh huh.”
When I told her about the mill apartment in Maine, she asked the same question. This time, however, I gushed about the view, the high ceilings, the old wooden beams, a brand new kitchen with all the necessary equipment and no maintenance inside or out. In short, I told her it was what I was looking for. In fact, I don’t remember mentioning Karen once.
We were again discussing the move on the way back from her surgery. She grabbed my hand, squeezed it and said, “My job is done.” Two days later she suffered an overnight stroke and four years tomorrow (Oct. 9) she left this world a little brighter.
In so many ways, Sonni and Karen were cut from the same cloth. They were both strong-willed, independent, organized — yet so very fragile and too stubborn to ask for help. Often those traits got in the way of them enjoying life. They both could come up with a thousand excuses why not to go out, to go on that trip, to just stop for a minute to smell the roses. But they were always there for you when you needed them.
As I was driving and mentally preparing her eulogy, the sky was cloudy, except for two beams of sunshine. I envisioned in my mind’s eye Sonni with her Diet Pepsi and Karen with her water turned into exquisite wine toasting each other on celestial lounge chairs. I can see them laughing at the foolish things I say and do without their physical sphere of influence. I see them taking turns proverbially whacking me in the back of the head when I REALLY do or say something foolish. I really miss them — both of them — every day.
Yes, God sends people into our lives. There is no doubt in my mind, God placed Sonni in my world.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder. — E.B.White
A bittersweet story, Joe. I love your image of Karen and Sonni tag-teaming to watch over you now. Indeed, God sends people into our lives; some of them ARE wonders of heavenly influence.
Thank you. Remembering those two rocks are always bittersweet … but I always have the memories.