It was Friday afternoon and she had a short weekend in which she must cram grading of papers, reading challenges, dealing with family, cleaning house, etc., before it all started over again. Something had to give. She felt like a rat on a treadmill! She was burned out and needed some kind of retreat. She lugged her papers, books and laptop to the car and drove home, going over in her head all the things she needed to take care of before she could go to bed. She was exhausted just thinking about it.
When she got home, she checked the mail and found nothing but a brightly colored envelope in her mailbox. No junk mail, no circulars, nothing else. She looked at it closely. Her heart practically stopped when she recognized the handwriting of her sister, Gloria, on the envelope:
“Special surprise inside for my little sister, Sandra”
All the other items in her arms slid out and fell unnoticed onto the pavement as she began to shake. If this was Brad’s idea of a joke, it wasn’t funny! She began to fume. She ripped open the envelope and suddenly the world around her began to spin faster and faster. It felt like she was caught in a tornado but instead of dust, rooted up bushes, and farm animals swirling around her, the wind was glittering like fairy dust. When the whirlwind finally stopped she struggled to catch her breath. Her heart was pounding and she felt dizzy. She looked around and sucked in her breath.
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Florida anymore …” she murmured to herself. She didn’t know where she was! She looked around and saw beautiful, undulating meadows as far as the eye could see, weeping willows scattered here and there and in the midst of it all, a lone white clapboard cottage with a wrap-around porch, a white picket fence, geraniums growing in the black window boxes and lacy white curtains blowing in and out of the windows with each sigh of the wind. Under the eaves an orange canary was trilling a beautiful tune in its cage. With a surge of nervous anticipation, Sandra walked up to the front door and raised her hand to knock. Before her fist could meet the door it flew open and she found herself enveloped in a giant bear hug, her vision obscured by a cloud of curly, golden brown hair.
“Sandra! Sandra! Sandra!” cooed the familiar and beloved voice rocking her in strong arms. Tears burst out of Sandra’s eyes and she pushed herself back enough to take in the view. Standing there, alive, healthy and beaming was her dearly departed sister Gloria! “Welcome!” Gloria bellowed, her grin spreading from ear to ear.
“What, who, when, how-“ screamed Sandra looking her up and down over and over again, sounding like a journalist pursuing a story.
“The Master decided you deserved a weekend retreat quilting, crafting, talking and eating!” Gloria announced, her face beaming. “I have all the supplies we need, all our favorite foods but no television, no phones, and no surly students. Just the two of us! Two peas in a pod!”
“How is this possible?” Sandra demanded, allowing Gloria to pull her into the house by the hand.
“With God all things are possible!” Gloria responded with a mysterious wink, making it quite clear Sandra was going to get no further explanation. She entered the cottage and oogled at its’ cozy charm. White painted floorboards, bright area rugs, white wainscoting, cheerful yellow walls with red accessories here and there, a large quilter’s table with two chairs with a quilt already started stretched across it. There was a smaller crafter’s table with supplies spread all over it, a cheery fire in the fireplace, and a sideboard loaded with all the comfort food one could want. In the background soothing Christian worship music was playing.
“The Master thought of everything!” beamed Gloria, rubbing her hands with glee. “I’ve have been longing for this day for over a year!”
At these words, sobs bubbled up outside of Sandra and she covered her face with her hands, remembering the sorrow and grief at losing her sister and best friend in the whole world and the day of the funeral when she had had to say “goodbye”.
“Gloria-“she choked, unable to express what she was feeling. Gloria’s smile didn’t fade but her eyes became tender and understanding.
“I know it hurt to lose me, Sandra…” she said, enfolding her sister in her arms again to comfort her. “But I really am in a better place. Heaven is more lovely than I could ever express and doesn’t it make heaven seem that much more real now that you know that someone you love is there waiting for you?”
Sandra nodded feebly, unable to speak.
“We won’t be parted much longer,” Gloria said, rubbing her back tenderly, “and you will always have this time together again to look back on and find joy and hope when you need it. Now, dry your tears, sit down and let’s start! What do you want to do first?!”
With that the sister’s sat down and spent what seemed like an entire week talking, laughing, quilting, eating and just enjoying one anothers company. Sandra never saw her sister cook anything but every day and at every mealtime there was new and wonderful food all prepared, piping hot and then mysteriously cleaned up so that they could spend their time just having fun.
It all came to end too soon for Sandra and the day arrived when there was no more food prepared and all the craft projects had been completed, much to the sister’s satisfaction. It was the best time Sandra could ever remember having, completely free of responsibility, deadlines and interruptions. Just “Sandra and Gloria” time. She was sad to have it end.
“There is one more thing…well, several more things, surprises really, we have for you before you return.” Gloria said, sitting her down in a large, overstuffed cotton chintz floral chair.
“What?” asked Sandra, wondering what on earth could possibly be better than the week she had just spent with her sister? Her soul felt thoroughly refreshed but she was still apprehensive at having to leave and face the real world again. The pressure, the deadlines and the students who acted as if they were felons serving a prison sentence instead of being given the privilege of getting an education that would help prepare them for life…
“Just wait and see!” Gloria grinned, sitting down in a chair next to her, clutching Sandra’s hand to her heart with excitement. At that moment the doorbell rang, practically making Sandra jump out of her chair in fright. For an entire week there had been no noise but the sound of their chatter, laughter, music and eating. It was so abrupt it really startled her. With a grin and a wink, Gloria went to the door, and flung it open to reveal a tall, distinguished looking executive.
He was dressed in a gorgeous pin-striped business suit, was clean-shaven and had a suitcase in his hand. He walked right up to Sandra’s chair, got down on one knee, took her hand in his and in a wavering voice said just two words: “Thank you!”
Sandra was speechless and didn’t know how to respond. After him came another man, this time it was a professor of literature, then a woman in a nurse’s uniform; on and on it went until the room was filled with professionals from all walks of life of varying ages, all standing there and looking down at her with eyes brimming with tears and smiles of gratitude.
“Gloria…” Sandra said, rising to her feet, her voice shaking. “Who are all these people?”
“We have all been students of yours at one time or another or are yet to be,” explained the nurse, gesturing to all those around her.
“I don’t understand…” Sandra said, although she was beginning to get an inkling of what was happening.
“At one time, during the course of our lives as your students, (both past and yet future) you gave each one of us either an encouraging word, a helping hand, or maybe just an understanding smile that made all the difference in the course of our lives,” said the first man. “We were on a road that was leading us nowhere but the fact that you gave of yourself to us as a teacher and mentor changed everything. We have all asked for special permission to come here and tell you thank you so that you will know that your labor has not been and is not in vain.”
“Thank you Ms. Stiles!” they all chorused, gathering around her.
Sandra turned and looked at Gloria who was crying and laughing at the same time, beaming at her little sister. “Never forget, little sister, just how very proud I am of you!” Gloria said and held her close for one last long embrace.
In that moment, Sandra knew that everything was going to be better no matter what the circumstances of life might bring. She closed her eyes…ready to finally part if only for a little while.
Gloria wasn’t really gone, she was just on the other side of the veil, waiting on the day when Sandra too would join her and their reunion would be permanent. For now, it was sufficient to realize that all she did day in and day out at school, in her church and at home had a meaning and purpose much greater than she would ever be able to know this side of eternity and for now…that was enough.