Today, I headed back to River Bend Nature Center for another field trip, this time with Ben's 3rd grade class. Unlike his 4th grade brother, who would rather I stay home on the offhanded chance I might embarrass him, Benjamin was thrilled to have me tag along. He made me feel really special, and I was looking forward to whatever the day held for us. I was not prepared for what God had in store for me.
The story that follows may not seem like much to many of you. It can probably be explained away as a coincidence, but for those of you who knew Mark, and know what RBNC meant to him these past 15 or so years, well, we all know better.
Mark loved fish. He loved to catch them, fillet them, cook and eat them. He loved teaching folks how to fish, especially kids. His profession just enabled him to get paid to do what he loved. And man, did he ever do his job well. I cannot begin to document the stories folks have shared with me, of how Mark impacted their outlooks on the environment, fishing, lakes, hunting, and getting kids connected to the outdoors. He helped RBNC put in a huge aquarium in the conservatory, and made it his personal mission to help keep it stocked with a wide variety of native fish, so that school children and other visitors could see the real deal when they looked at the tank. I'm looking forward to seeing how it's faring without my fisherman-in-shining-khaki around to fill it.
I arrive at RBNC a bit early, the kids are coming on school buses. I go inside to visit with folks, several of which I've worked with, to touch base, get a few hugs, and prepare them for the onslaught of energetic 8 & 9 year olds. I talk with the director, who was on the board with Mark those many years ago, about helping me gather information so that I can nominate him for the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Hall of Fame next year. But that's a whole 'nother blog entry.
As I'm talking, the person in charge of the butterfly conservatory and all the exhibits (Martha) comes up to me, carrying a bucket. Another field guide, who I don't recognize, is beside her. "This is Nancy--Mark's wife, Irma," Martha says. "Nancy, Irma has a story to tell you about these fish." I glance into the bucket, filled about 1/3 full of water. In the water are two bluegill, each about 6 or 7 inches in length. They are healthy, and not happy about their small surroundings.
Irma begins, "I saw you a bit earlier, but I've never met you, wasn't sure who you were. I went with Mark on a training session for Texas Master Naturalists this past spring to Gordon Lake in Iowa Park. We seined for fish with a net, and there were two small fish remaining. Mark told us that he hated to throw them back in, was there anybody there that had an aquarium?" At this point, my interest was piqued, she had my full attention.
She continued, "I had an aquarium, so he gave the fish to me. I put them in there, and they've been there all these months, growing, doing well. But they've started to become bullies, and it was time for me to get them out of my aquarium. I've been meaning to bring them up here for awhile, but just never got around to it. I don't know why I brought them here today."
My eyes filled with tears. "I know why you brought them here today. Somebody wants me to know, without a doubt, that he's nearby, watching over the boys and me. And this is Mark's own unique, fun way of doing just that. Plus, he knows the aquarium needs to be stocked. These are fish he seined for just that reason." She tells me she's sorry she made me cry. I tell her it's no biggie, I do it most everyday.
Martha cannot believe that Irma's brought the fish on the one day that I would be there. No one had any idea. No one on this side of heaven, at least. Martha urges me to come with her as she nudges the bullying bluegill into the big aquarium in the conservatory. It's almost a magical moment for me, as I watch her slowly acclimate them to the water, by introducing a bit of the tank water in the bucket. Soon, they swim out, where they will face bigger fish, and will learn their place in the pecking order of the food chain there.
And as they swim away, I am again overwhelmed with the way God is ministering to us, holding us, showing us sign after sign that we are going to be okay. I venture to say we are going to be more than okay. I have no doubt in my mind that Mark Howell was in that situation today, and anyone reading this that knows him knows that, too. Coincidence? I don't think so.
The rest of the day was good, it was a picture perfect autumn day. I shared my fish story (I can't believe that I finally have a "fish story"!) with my mom, brother, mother-in-law, and close friend. Andrew and Ben are as amazed as I was.
You'd think that would be enough for one day, but no, I have one more God thing to tell. At the school tonight, as I'm helping assemble gift baskets, I'm working with a very nice lady I don't know. She hears others ask me how I'm doing, I share a bit, and, feeling weird that I hadn't introduced myself, wait till it's just us two, and tell her that I lost my husband at the end of July. Her eyes grow wider, and she asks, "Are you Nancy? I've been praying for you. You were supposed to be my son's preschool teacher this year. Every time I go into TLC, I ask about you. I was disappointed that you weren't able to teach, but totally understand. How are you?"
It's like in that instant I found a new friend. I remember her son, he has the most gorgeous blue eyes you've ever seen. He will be a heart breaker in a few years. And she's been praying for me? I also remember, and she shares with me, that she and her husband had a stillborn child a few months back. Her grace and faith amaze me. She's pregnant again, due in June. We still cannot believe that we were working alongside each other, without knowing each other's names. Talk about two women with much in common. As she leaves for the evening, we hug, and she tells me again that she's praying for my family. I tell her I'm doing the same for hers and their unborn child.
There are no coincidences. I fully believe that God puts people and circumstances in your path for a definitive reason. There are days that I do not encounter such vivid and dramatic examples. Then there are days like today, when I feel like God pulls back the curtain on heaven just a smidgen, and lets me see how glorious it is. Mark is with us, even though we can't touch him. He made that very apparent today, in the form of two bluegill in a bucket.
And the field guide who grew those fish for him all those months, she made my day when she told me of how much she thought of him. Yep, Irma...tell me something I don't know :) That man was totally awesome. He rocked. And he was all mine. And, guess what....I have his two sons, and it's my mission to help them become totally awesome, as well. I may be a single parent, but I am not alone. Tonight I am most thankful for God and Mark showing me that with two bully bluegill at River Bend.