I often reminisce about conversations that Ralf and I shared. That was one of my favorite things about our relationship – the way we could chat for hours on end about virtually anything – ranging from silly and irrelevant to profoundly deep. Memories of those heart-to-heart exchanges are a great source of comfort and peace for me now. We spoke about death numerous times, perhaps because of the nature of his career, or maybe because somewhere deep inside, our subconscious minds knew that we needed to. We always agreed that we would want the person left behind to continue living a happy and full life.
We were both huge fans of Robin Williams. We loved his movies and owned a copy of one of his HBO standup comedy specials, which we would pop into the DVD player whenever we wanted a guaranteed good laugh. We even got to see him live at the Hardrock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida a few years before our wedding. There is one Robin Williams experience that sticks out above all the rest, though. I’ll never forget the night we watched What Dreams May Come. To simplify a very complex screenplay, it’s the story of a man who travels through different realms of the afterlife to reach his deceased wife. After watching that movie together, Ralf and I promised that if there were in fact a way to communicate after death, that we would somehow find a way to do so – and I truly believe that he does.
Whenever I’m feeling particularly down, Ralf finds a way to reach me. It’s usually something subtle, like a song that comes on the radio at the very moment that I need it to, hearing from someone I haven’t spoken to in ages, or having a stranger reach out to me to tell me how Ralf touched his or her life. There have been other signs since Ralf’s death, though, that have been blatant and undeniable. Even members of both our families who consider themselves to be agnostic, or even atheist, have admitted that some occurrences have defied any logical reasoning. These are the ones that stick out the most…
A Numbers Guy, Through and Through
I was very blessed to have my mom care for Mason while he was an infant and I had to return to work. I would spend my lunch hour with him as often as I could. One day, after enjoying a mid-day visit with my little man, my phone started ringing as I turned the corner into the parking lot of the clinic. I had my phone connected to the Bluetooth system, so it took a moment before a name registered on the screen. I remember freezing when it finally appeared.
“Incoming call from Ralf Garcia.”
At this point, both my mind and my heart were racing. My immediate thought was that maybe Ralf’s phone number had finally been reassigned to a new Sprint subscriber. But even so, why would that person dial my number? Then I realized the phone number that was appearing right under his name was slightly different from his – the area code and first two digits were off, but the last five were identical. Then I said to myself, “Maybe it’s a glitch in the Bluetooth and it’s registering as Ralf because the phone number is so similar. Someone probably just has the wrong number.”
I pressed the answer button and heard nothing but static noise.
The line went dead.
I tried calling back three times, only to encounter an automated voice stating that it was not currently a working number, urging me to hang up and try again. And when I manually dialed Ralf’s number, I heard the same message.
There was another occasion involving his phone number. I went to visit Ralf’s gravesite on his birthday with my parents. On the way there, we stopped at a flower shop to pick up a nice arrangement. I stepped outside for some fresh air while my father made small talk with the florist and wrapped up the transaction. My mom could tell that I was feeling anxious, so she joined me. We were talking about something – I can’t recall exactly what right now – when suddenly her voice faded into background noise and my jaw dropped.
“Oh my God, no way!” I gasped in disbelief.
“What is it?” she asked in a concerned way that only a mother can.
“Look at the store’s phone number on that sign,” I responded.
We hadn’t noticed it until then because it was awkwardly placed on the side of a refrigerator they kept out front. Their phone number was almost exactly the same as Ralf’s, with only the last digit being different. I’m not quite as good as Ralf was at calculating statistical probability (he had a degree in mathematics), but I’m guessing those chances were pretty slim.
Tattoos and Nicknames
Not long before I met Vinnie on Facebook through a support group for widows and widowers, I had posted a picture on Instagram of a quote I’d come across and really liked. At the time, I had no idea that it originated from the story of Winnie the Pooh. When Vinnie and I started talking, exchanging stories, and getting to know each other via Facebook Messenger, he asked me if I had any tattoos. I told him I didn’t, and then he shared a picture of his with me. Beautifully written across his forearm were the same words that had caught my attention just days earlier, as if alerting me of something significant that was to come.
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
After Vinnie and I had already met in person and our relationship was blossoming, I was invited to have dinner with some friends. Max and Ralf had become best buddies through work, and Max was actually the person who spent the most time with Ralf during his final months because they were studying for the Lieutenant’s exam together. I had become very close with his wife, Melissa, after losing Ralf because she was there for me when I needed her most.
That night, like so many before, we shared food, beer, and great conversation – just with a piece of our quartet missing. We started reminiscing, exchanging funny Ralf anecdotes. Somehow, the conversation led to Max recounting some of their studying shenanigans. When he got to this part, I remember making eye contact with Melissa, who already knew about Vinnie, as we both tried to subdue our reactions.
The story goes like this:
Among the many books that they had to review for the exam, there were two authors who penned a lot of the material. One’s last name was Salka, or something similar, and the other’s name was Vincent Dunn. Apparently their pictures appeared somewhere in the text and through their endless hours of studying and delirium, Ralf and Max each took on one of these authors’ personas. Ralf would call Max “Salka” because he had a more rugged appearance like him, while Max would tease Ralf by saying he had a “pretty boy look” similar to Vincent Dunn.
And what did Max nickname Ralf?
They had a running joke whenever they were quizzing each other on proper protocol in different scenarios. When one would stump the other, he would say, “Come on, man! WWVD – What would Vinnie do?” They even jokingly used it as a hashtag.
An Unexplained Welcome Gift
Mason and I joined Ralf’s aunt, cousin, and grandmother in Disney World this past weekend while Vinnie was out of town working. They arrived in Orlando on Friday afternoon and we met them at Animal Kingdom on Saturday morning. We had a wonderful time seeing all the different animals and enjoying the rides. On Saturday evening, we headed back to the hotel for some dinner. We would be staying in a different room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge than the one they had the night before, because Ralf’s aunt requested one that would be more handicap accessible for Ralf’s grandmother.
As soon as we walked through the door, we all commented on how nice the suite was and noticed that someone had left three complimentary stuffed animals on the couch. We agreed that it was a nice touch. Then we quickly made our way out to the balcony in hopes of seeing more animals, since we’d heard they tend to be more active at dusk. Mason squealed in excitement at the sight of a giraffe.
I stepped back inside to head to the bathroom, and something on the couch caught my attention that, for some reason, none of us had noticed before. Resting just to the left of the stuffed lion was a beautiful painting of Mickey holding hands with a firefighter.
I froze, completely speechless. And as Maria and Caro trailed in behind me, so did they.
“Maria, did you do this? Did you mention our story to anyone?”
Nearly in tears, as was I, she promised me that she had not. I quickly texted Ralf’s parents to see if by chance they were responsible – of course, they weren’t. I even called the front desk the next morning, explained the significance of the gift to our family, and nobody could explain why we’d received it. We are still waiting on a call back from Guest Relations.
Could all of these examples be nothing more than very lucky coincidences? Someone could definitely argue that point. But I choose to believe that they are much more than that. I choose to believe that they result from the power of a great love that exists beyond the parameters of space or time. If I’m wrong and in the end there is nothing more to death than “lights out” I won’t know the difference anyway, right?
So why not believe?
I absolutely do.
While visiting Vinnie’s parents in Buffalo a few months ago, I discovered this mug in their cabinet as I was about to prepare myself a morning cup of coffee. Vinnie recognized the picture when I pointed it out to him. He’d completely forgotten that his mom (a huge Disney fanatic) owned a mug with the same image that mysteriously appeared in our hotel room last year. I immediately snapped a photo of it and sent it to Ralf’s aunt, Maria. She couldn’t believe it either. She also made an interesting point. She said that maybe that mug, although unbeknownst to anyone for quite some time, was a sign of what was to come: a Disney loving family crossing paths with a firefighter family. What an awesome thought!
I also asked Maria if she ever heard back from Guest Relations. Nobody was ever able to tell her exactly how that picture ended up in our hotel room. And, she was told that there was nobody in that department by the name I’d been given from the front desk. We may never know if it was an anonymous gift (perhaps someone who recognized us and knew our story?) or just some crazy coincidence (maybe it was simply a gift intended as an apology for the previous room not being handicap accessible and it just happened to have a fireman in it?)…
It doesn’t really matter, though, because wherever and whoever it came from, the inspiration to give it came from somewhere – perhaps from a source beyond what our human minds can imagine.