Magnetic Partners

What pulled you together maybe pulling you apart.

Getting Our Priorities Straight for the Holidays: A Miracle at the Mall

It can happen to you.

I don't cry very often, but I'll admit that I did—for a few days—after my youngest daughter left for college. I was very close to both my girls as they were growing up and although I was happy to see them spread their wings I missed them terribly when they did; I still can't go into our vacation house and see their empty bunk beds. Now that it's the holiday season I think of them often and admittedly concoct ways in which I can spend more time with them. My youngest is currently studying abroad, but her older sister, Jen, 24, is within an hour's drive. Still, I don't actually excite Jen like I used. The value of a trip to the zoo or to some toy store has depreciated; but I can usually get her to hang with me if I promise her food or a shopping spree—preferably both. So, with Black Friday coming I saw my opportunity to lure her away from her boyfrend for a couple days. 

Jen came down for the weekend and after a brief lunch we hit the mall stores with ferocity and passion. Well, Jen was ferocious and passionate—I played the supportive sidekick: "OMG I can't believe that blouse is up for sale either." Oh brother! If my old jock buddies could see me now. After several hours of shopping Jen mercifully terminated the spree and we went for dinner. If you want to know if your gym membership is paying off...shop on Black Friday. I'm proud to say that after the deluge it appeared that Jen was more exhausted than I was; but little did we know we would need much more energy to get through the rest of the night. Like a scene from the movie, The Out of Towners, disaster was to follow. It all started when I took the cash out of my wallet and left the wallet in the trunk of my car. After paying for our dinner we drove home only for me to find that my wallet was missing from the car trunk. We called the restaurant but they told us that they had a policy of not disturbing munching customers and that they would check our booth only after the current customers had finished their meal. This outraged my daughter and so we both decided to drive back to the restaurant and see if we could put a little pressure on the manager to expedite matters. Bottom line: We were told to have a seat and to wait for the current patrons to finish eating. While we were waiting I had a thought that I shared with Jen: "Suppose when I got my coat out of the car trunk I flipped the wallet onto the parking lot pavement." Jen cringed and said: "Dad, if you did that then your wallet is long gone. There are ten million people in this mall and probably 6 million are teenagers who will never return a wallet. We better get to a phone and cancel all your credit cards." I agreed, but recommended that we first check the parking lot. It was pretty dark by then but with cell phone lights in hand, Jen and I proceeded in vain to look under several cars in the vicinity that I had originally parked. We then drove to my office and spent the next hour or so canceling credit cards and dialing emergency bank numbers for support.

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Jen looked as if she'd just run a marathon and swam the English Channel. To put it mildly: She was stressed. I, on the other hand, was weirdly contented. But wait...things got even stranger. Sometime around 11 P.M. I decided to check my office voicemail. Sure enough, a man left a message saying that he had found my wallet in the mall parking lot. He asked me to call him back but I couldn't make out the first digit of his number. Panicking, Jen listened to the message about 17 times but neither of us could decipher it. It was her idea to try a multitude of combinations finally hitting the right number around midnight. The man answered and said that he found the wallet and drove it directly to my home. Unfortunately, it was my old home and the neighbors told him that we had recently moved and they didn't know our whereabouts. Jen thought that was weird; she became frightened. "Dad," she said, "who would go so much out of their way for a stranger? He probably wants to kill you or rob you." I was pretty mellow. "Rob me of what," I said, "he already has my wallet." The mysterious man said that he would meet me at the same mall the following day around 4 P.M. to return my wallet. Jen asked me if my life insurance was paid up and if she was one of the beneficiaries. I assured her that she was and I went on to have a good night's sleep. The next day Jen left in an angry huff, but not because of me. To add fuel to the fire (no pun intended) the hot water at home wasn't working and she couldn't wash her hair. To Jen, it was the exclamation point on one of the weirdest and most exhausting weekends she ever experienced. I was still feeling pretty good. But wait...there's more.

Following work the next day I received a call from a woman claiming to be the mysterious man's mother. The woman said that her son was called away on a mission and that his younger brother would return my wallet. I was finally becoming suspicious: mission...what kind of mission? But what choice did I have? About an hour later the woman called again and said that she was having a holiday party at her home and could I please stop over and pick up my wallet. By this time Jen was absolutely certain that I was about to walk into a booby trap. Maybe so, but I needed my wallet. Before I left for the woman's house something told me to go to the local bakery and buy this family some cookies; I also put some cash in a card. I thought: "How could you kill someone who just bought you a bunch of cookies?

When I reached the woman's home she was outside waiting to greet me. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she was very sweet and that all Jen's fears were unfounded. The woman told me that the mystery man—her oldest son—was a Navy Seal who insisted that the honorable thing to do was to return my wallet directly to me—even though it took him well out of his way. Was this really happening? Was I a player in one of those holiday miracle movie favorites? After recovering from my holiday trance, the woman and I hugged and parted. I couldn't wait to get home to tell Jen what had truly transpired. Jen was shocked: "Dad," she said, "you've got to be the luckiest guy in the world. What are the odds of losing your wallet—on Black Friday—in the middle of the night—in a massive parking lot loaded with cars—and having a Navy Seal find it? "Yeah," I responded, "that was pretty amazing; I hope God protects this man and his family. But you know kid, wallet or no wallet, it was hands down one of the best weekends I've had in a long time...because you were with me." And that's why I wasn't stressed that calamitous evening. Maybe the Seal and I both had our priorities straight that night.

Stephen J. Betchen, D.S.W., is the author of the book Magnetic Partners.

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