Grateful for Strange Moments of Grace: Days 9-17 (30 Days of Thanks)

In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind, With tranquil restoration:—feelings, too, Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps, As have no slight or trivial influence On that best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered acts Of kindness and of love…. ~William Wordsworth, 1798

Fate, Chance, God’s Will – we all try to account for our lives somehow.  What are the chances that two raindrops, flung from the heavens, will merge on a windowpane?  Gotta be Fate.  ~Robert Brault

Have you ever been given a mesmerizing glimpse of the past? Perhaps, you had a chance encounter  in your dreams that upon waking you felt like you had experienced the hand of the Divine working through your mind and in your heart? Have you ever seen the past in someone else’s eyes?  Well, I have. Something so wonderful and unexplainable happened during my vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in September. It is still one of the strangest moments of my life. And ever since, I can’t seem to put the encounter out of my mind or figure out the meaning for why it happened.

My mother, younger sister, and I attended Saturday evening mass together at the charming and quaint Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Oak Bluffs. It was not a packed crowd that evening, so we had plenty of space in our pew. It was a beautiful night, and my mom and I were both so pleased we had made it to Confession right before the beginning of mass. It is still one of the most profound, memorable sacramental moments of my life. Nonetheless, the Confession was mild compared to what was about to transpire about halfway through mass.

As the congregation stood together in prayer, I noticed my younger sister bow her head down and let out a sigh. As I glanced her way, she opened her eyes wide and whispered, “Look over there,” jilting her head to the right.

“Do you see that man over there? Do you see him?” she asked with in a panicky voice. “He looks just like dad! Look at his profile. And his nose!”

Be still my heart, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She was right! It was our dad. It couldn’t be, truly, since he had died from small cell lung cancer eight-and-a-half years prior to our vacation. We stood with eyes transfixed on this man, this spitting image of our father. It was unreal and seeing him felt so strange.

As we continued to steal glances at this stranger, we realized that not only was the man the exact likeness of our father, but he seemed to embody all of our father’s gestures and quirky traits. He was exactly what I envisioned my father would have looked like if he could have lived beyond his fifty-seven young years and be with us on the Vineyard that very night. Tears begun to sting my eyes. It really was that profound.

It’s strangely emotional to feel such affinity for a complete stranger. For a brief moment during this incredible mass, I felt a pang of jealousy toward the woman sitting next to my father’s doppelganger. Obviously, it was his loving wife, but I did not like her sitting there next to “my father.”

It was a confusing mass. I couldn’t stop staring at this man. I studied every mark of his freckled, wrinkled face. His eyes—oh my goodness!—his eyes were the same shade of brown! The same almond shape, even! When the man turned to the left, I could see that he had the same droopy skin fold over his eye that my father had! His hairline, the largely pointed nose, the thinner lips–all of his physical traits–right down to his attire–was my dad to a tee. If this wasn’t enough, I about passed out when he rested his face in his hand with the pointer finger up near his temple—the same restful stance my father had for as long as I can remember.

When the strange man arose stiffly from the knees to make his way to the altar to receive the Eucharist, I was startled furthermore. His posture was as my father’s had been—a rather tall gait, slightly bent shoulders, longer arms than you would have expected on such a build, with a walk that seemed more like a glide as he set about on his way toward receiving the Lord in Communion.

Was I imagining all of this? Surely not, if my sister saw it, too. She was the one who first noticed the man. And my sister is lovely, but not one to spark with emotion even over strange encounters such as these.

Trying to get myself to pay attention to what was going on during mass, to prepare myself to accept Communion with reverence, to stop staring like a fool, I shook my head and willed myself to look away. I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was catch another glimpse of this stranger who took on my dad’s physical body—and to somehow meet him, touch him, even. It was clear I was having some kind of bizarre overtaking of my faculties in the presence of God and this stranger.

All of a sudden, appalling feelings of anger overtook me. Horrifying thoughts passed through my clouded mind–thoughts that convinced me my father had never died years ago. In fact, I let myself venture that what really had occurred was that my father was truly sitting in that pew in front of us, that he was attending mass, too, but ignoring his real wife and two of his children! Because instead of dying, I said to myself, my dad had actually left us all to mourn his death while he has enjoyed a leisurely life on Martha’s Vineyard for all these years gone! I was enraged!

I have no idea how I thought my dad would have pulled off this kind of illusion, but for a moment, I was convinced. Convinced! The audacity! See, there was no other explanation to the phenomenon of the man sitting ahead of us at mass, the one who looked so much like my father.

Trying to get a grip on my emotions before I stood up for Communion, I came to my senses, realizing that my ill thoughts were nothing but the result of purely wishful thinking on my part. How easy it would be to forgive my father for such betrayal if only it meant he was still alive and well and that we could embrace and talk once again. Forgiveness would be easy if only I could have my father back in the flesh.

After Communion was over, I wanted nothing more than the rest of mass to end–and swiftly.  I have never wanted or needed to rush through a mass before. But this was no ordinary mass. Once the priest gave the blessing, and after he and the altar servers made their way down the middle aisle toward the front of the church, I left my belongings where they lay in the pew and headed straight toward the familiar stranger. I needed to talk to him, ask his name, find out for myself if he knew me, too. If I didn’t take the opportunity to approach him then, it would feel to me like the entire moment never happened. And I could not take that chance.

I’m not sure if my sister and mom were beside me when I went up to the man, or if they held back in our pew to watch their crazy sister and daughter take a chance charged only by pure emotion. However, I walked right up to that strange man, and gently touched his arm if only to get his attention. When he turned to me he, of course, smiled my father’s smile with my dad’s teeth!

Being that close to the man overwhelmed me like nothing ever has. With my right hand over my heart and choking back the tears that were pouring from my eyes, I managed to say, “Excuse me sir. Uh. Hi. I’m so sorry, but I must ask you your name? It’s not John is it?”

“No, dear, it’s not,” he replied, a little confused by my asking.

“Oh, well, I have to tell you,” I continued, convinced I was staring in the eyes of my aged father, “you are the spitting image of my late father. It’s overwhelming, really” And this is when the trembling began.

“Oh, your poor thing,” said his kind wife as she placed her wrinkled hands over mine. I could not believe I was carrying on like this before a set of strangers!

“My sister, mom and I saw you a few pews in front of us and we haven’t been able to keep our eyes off of you since. We can’t get over how much you look like our dad. It’s unbelievable!” I managed to tell him through tears that were borderline deep sobs by this point. I was completely beside myself with emotion.

“Ah, thank you, thank you,” he said to me with a tear in his eye. “He must’ve been a wonderful man.”

“He was, he was,” I agreed as I wiped my tears away and managed a smile. “Thank you.”

“God bless you dear,” his wife said before they were on their way. The man looked back at me once more and smiled my father’s smile. What a gift.

Still with hand over my heart, I let the water works flow and took this chance meeting as a sign that my dad was with us in spirit on that trip. So, I wrote his name in the memorial book at the front of church before my mom, sister and I headed out to enjoy our last night on the island along with my older sister who was waiting for us outside and had her own bizarre encounter story to share.

Maybe my dad needed our prayers that night. Maybe God wanted to unite us all in a divine moment. Maybe it was purely coincidence without any deep meaning attached to it. Who knows? What I do know is that in some fateful way, we met my father once again in the face of a stranger and it was a moment filled with sadness and joy–one I hope to never forget. Strangely, it may have been the best part of the vacation.

Has fate ever touched you so deeply? When have you been overcome with emotion by a chance encounter?

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