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The psalmist wrote, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, NKJV).

Stella Thorpe had known that Dave wouldn’t live to see Christmas. Her world had shattered when the doctors diagnosed her husband’s terminal cancer the previous January. But through the ensuing months Dave had managed to put his affairs in order and show her everything she needed to know about managing the house—everything except how to live without him. Now the loneliness weighed upon her, stealing her energy, her ability to find joy in life, even in Christmas.

She had turned down an invitation to spend the holiday with old friends in Florida. Somehow that had seemed worse than staying home alone. But now she was beginning to wonder. There had never been a winter like this. Stella watched from the haven of her armchair as gusts of snow whipped themselves into a frenzy. The houses across the street were all but obliterated by the fury of wind blown flakes.

The storm only seemed to deepen her depression. “Oh, Dave, I miss you so!” The sound of her own voice echoed hollowly in the room.

She was surprised by the slap of envelopes on the floor as the letter carrier dropped the day’s mail through the door slot. With a wince of pain, she bent to retrieve them. Moving to the living room, she sat on the piano bench and opened them. They were mostly Christmas cards, and she smiled at the traditional scenes and the loving messages inside.

Her arthritic fingers arranged the cards carefully among the others clustered on the piano top. In her entire house, they were the only seasonal decoration. Christmas was only days away, but she just didn’t have the heart to put up a tree or bring out the stable that Dave had built. Suddenly engulfed by the finality of her aloneness, Stella buried her lined face in her hands. She lowered her elbows onto the piano keys, creating an abrasive discord, and let the tears come.

The ring of the doorbell startled her. Who could be calling on such a stormy afternoon? The doorbell sounded a second time. Wiping her eyes, she pulled herself off the bench to answer it.

She opened the wooden door and stared through the storm door with consternation. On her front porch, buffeted by waves of wind and snow, stood a young man, his hatless head barely visible above the large carton in his arms. Stella opened the door slightly, and he stepped sideways to sneak into the space.

“Mrs. Thorpe?”

Stella nodded.

“I have a package for you.”

Curiosity won over caution. She pushed the door open and he entered, bringing with him the frozen breath of the storm. Smiling, he carefully placed his burden on the floor, then handed her the envelope that protruded from an inner jacket pocket.

Suddenly, a muffled yelp came from the box. Stella jumped. The man laughed and bent to straighten the cardboard flaps wide enough for her to peek inside.

It was a dog! A golden Labrador retriever puppy, to be exact. As the young man lifted its squirming body up into his arms, he explained, “This is for you, ma’am. He’s six weeks old and completely housebroken.” The young pup wiggled at being released from captivity and thrust kisses in the direction of the young man’s face. “We were supposed to deliver him on Christmas Eve,” he continued with some difficulty, trying to raise his chin out of reach of the dog’s tongue, “but the staff at the kennels starts their holidays tomorrow. Hope you don’t mind an early present.”

Shock had stolen Stella’s ability to think clearly. Unable to form coherent sentences, she stammered, “But . . . I don’t . . . I mean . . . who . . .?”

The young fellow set the animal down on the doormat between them and then reached out a finger to tap the envelope in her fingers. “The letter pretty much explains everything. The dog was bought last July while his mother was still pregnant. It was meant to be a Christmas gift. I have some other things in the car. I’ll get them.”

Before she could protest, the young man disappeared back into the snowstorm. He returned carrying another big box with a leash, dog food, and a book entitled Caring for Your Labrador Retriever. All this time the puppy had sat quietly at her feet, panting happily as its brown eyes watched her.

The stranger turned to go, but Stella blurted the words before he could get out the door, “But who . . . who bought it?”

The young man paused in the open doorway. The wind almost snatched away his reply: “Your husband, ma’am.”

And then he was gone.

It was all in the letter. Forgetting the puppy entirely at the sight of the familiar handwriting, Stella moved like a sleepwalker toward her armchair by the window. She didn’t notice that the little dog had followed her. Through tear-filled eyes she read her husband’s words. He had written it three weeks before his death and had left it with the kennel owners to be delivered with the puppy. It was his last gift to her.

Dear Stella,

Of all the letters I’ve written you, this has to be the hardest. How do I put into words all the things I feel for you? Sometimes I wish you could be me—live inside my head and heart, just for a day. Then you’d know how much I love you. You’ve been the best wife a man could ask for, my lover and my best friend. I know how hard this cancer has been on you. I don’t know where you get the strength to take care of me like you do, never complaining. The time may come when I’ll have to move to the hospital, but it’s been wonderful to stay here in our home with you for this long.

You’re a strong woman, Stella. I know if you’re reading this letter it means I’m gone. But it won’t be forever. You’ll be joining me someday. We both believe that! I know you’ll be lonely, so I’m sending you this pup to keep you company. His mother reminded me of the dog we had when I was a kid—Daisy Mae. She was a wonderful companion, as I hope this little fellow will be for you.

Love, Dave

Remembering the puppy for the first time, Stella was surprised to find him patiently looking at her. His small, panting mouth resembled a comic smile. She put the pages aside and reached for the bundle of golden fur. She expected him to be heavy, but he weighed no more than a sofa pillow. And he was so soft and warm! She cradled him in her arms. He licked her jaw, then snuggled into the hollow of her neck. The tears began again at this exchange of affection, and the dog endured her crying without moving.

Finally, Stella lowered him to her lap, where he regarded her solemnly. She wiped vaguely at her wet cheeks, then mustered a smile.

“Well, little guy, I guess it’s you and me.” His pink tongue panted in agreement. Stella’s smile broadened, and her gaze shifted sideways toward the window. Dusk had fallen, and the storm seemed to have spent the worst of its fury. Through fluffy flakes that were now drifting down at a gentler pace, she saw the cheery Christmas lights that edged the roof lines of her neighbors’ homes. The strains of “Joy to the World” wafted in from somewhere out in the storm.

Suddenly Stella felt the most amazing sensation of peace wash over her. It was like being folded in a loving embrace. Her heart beat painfully, but it was with joy and wonder, not grief or loneliness.

Rising from her chair, she spoke to the little dog. Its ears perked up at the sound of her voice. “You know, fella, I have a box in the basement that I think you’d like. There’s a tree in it and some decorations and lights that will impress you like crazy. And I think I can find that old stable down there too. What do you say we go hunt it up?”

The puppy barked happily in agreement, as if he understood every word.

Cathy Miller writes for contemporary popular and inspirational magazines from her home in Sudbury, Ontario. Adapted by permission of the author and Joe Wheeler, the editor and compiler, from the book Owney, the Post Office Dog and Other Great Stories.

Delayed Delivery

by Cathy Miller
From the December 2006 Signs