A Heart-Shaped Sign of a Champion

A Heart-Shaped Sign of a Champion

He was the love of her life. How could she go on without him?

The driftwood heart Nancy found at the lake where she and Jim vacationed

I held my nine-year-old granddaughter’s hand at the lake’s edge, waves lapping the sand near our feet as we walked along the beach. A surge rushed in. Lauren jumped and giggled. Then she looked up at me. “Grandma, you’re crying,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Lauren, I have to cry,” I said. “I miss your grandpa so much.”

A year ago, Jim was holding my hand on this beach. We came here to Crooked Lake in northern Michigan for a family vacation every summer since our three sons were young. We loved taking walks to where the shoreline jutted out into the water, a place we called “The Point.”

I could picture Jim throwing a football with the boys, grilling burgers, playing with our grandkids. But Jim had died two months before. Even being here with my sons and their families, I felt so alone.

Lauren squeezed my hand tighter. “Maybe we’ll find a heart,” she said.

A heart. Why did I even tell her that story? Shortly after Jim’s funeral, I told Lauren about a grieving widow who found a heart-shaped rock on the beach where she and her husband had vacationed.

Jim and I loved that story of God’s comfort, printed in Guideposts years ago. For a while, I hoped I’d get my own sign from above. But nothing came.

Nancy and Jim during his playing daysHow could someone like Jim be gone in just a matter of months? We’d started dating our sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, where Jim was an All-American receiver.

He was on the cover of Time magazine at the age of 19 as one of the country’s top college football players, and helped lead the Fighting Irish to a national title in 1966. Six foot four and 200 pounds, he was intimidating on the gridiron, but a total sweetheart off of it.

We married just before graduation. Jim had a brief career in the pros for the L.A. Rams and Chicago Bears before starting a successful insurance agency in Chicago. He coached our boys’ sports teams. We built a happy life together.

Then, so quickly, it ended. Fourth of July, Jim began slurring his words and his mouth drooped to one side. Convinced he was having a stroke, we headed to the hospital. Doctors found a brain tumor—stage 4 glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer.

For nine months my family and I watched Jim bravely battle cancer like the opponents he’d faced on the football field. And while his physical strength faded, he drew on the spiritual strength of his faith.

He’d been so courageous going through treatments. I needed to be brave now in his absence, but it was so hard, especially here where we’d happily vacationed for so many years.

Lauren and I finally reached The Point. She splashed through the shallow water, then glanced at the wet shoreline.

“Grandma!” she shouted. “Does that look like a heart?” Black specks had settled on the wet sand. Lauren traced them with a stick. Sure enough, they formed a heart, about 10 inches across. The water surged. “Oh, no!” Lauren cried. The heart was wiped out.

“It’s okay,” I sighed. “It’ll be our special memory. Just for us.”

Why, Lord , I asked silently, do you feel so far away from my own heart?

After lunch, I walked back to the lake alone. I waded into the water. Was it really a heart? It was there and gone so fast.

My foot came down on something hard and smooth. I crouched and scooped it up. It was too light to be a rock. I wiped away the sand and gasped. It was a small, thick piece of driftwood, worn smooth by the waves. A perfect heart. I held it tight in my hand.

Just before sundown, my youngest son, Todd, shouted from the beach. “Mom, come outside. You’ve got to see this!” He pointed up. A wispy cloud hung by itself in the sky, an outline of a heart—with a heart-shaped patch of blue in the center.

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