It shouldn’t have been a surprise because this is what God does. He takes something ordinary and makes it holy. You know, ordinary people like a girl named Mary. Ordinary things like wine. Bread. Fish. Stormy seas. He thrives in stormy seas.
And now, ice cream. It turns out He thrives there, too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was the day after a very difficult and bare bones Christmas. There were few presents. Holiday dinner consisted of previously frozen appetizers. The house was quiet. Somber. And there were two points of focus: Jesus. And attempting to manage the excruciating pain that wouldn’t bow to even the biggest doses of morphine I gave my father.
Most everything about this time was brutal. There had been weeks in the hospital. Impossible decisions about care after my dad's discharge. Coming within inches of transporting him to North Carolina to be with me, a trip that, in hindsight, would surely have killed him. Miraculously finding a way to bring him home, where he wanted to be. Challenging family dynamics.
Now my father lay unconscious in a hospice home bed that had miraculously become available just when we desperately needed it. He lay in a deep, far-away sleep thanks to powerhouse medicines that spared him from agonizing pain. My husband and sons walked into his room to say goodbye as they prepared to go home to North Carolina. We all knew they probably wouldn't be able to come back during the remaining weeks of my father's life. The finality was heavy.
“His sense of hearing will be the last to go,” the hospice doctor had told us. “Talk to him. Even if he doesn’t respond, he hears you.”
So they stood next to his bed and kissed and hugged him and held his limp hand. They told him they loved him. My husband fought tears and vowed he would take care of all of us. My mom and I took our turn and promised to return to him the next morning after my guys departed. Then we left to spend the night together before we would be apart again, as we had been during the prior weeks.
On the drive to my parents’ home, we sat in the silent wake of goodbye. Sadness choked in our throats, making it hard to talk. I wondered if it was too much for my boys who were just thirteen and eight, young witnesses to the winding down of a life.
“Guys, let’s go do something fun for Papa. Something he’d like,” I said, attempting a smile. “Let’s stop for ice cream.”
We pulled into our usual place just a couple miles from my parents’ house. The pink and blue Baskin Robbins sign was illuminated just like so many other nights my dad and I had stopped here. Ice cream was always our thing. From the time I was a little girl, the two of us sneaked out for a cone, laughing and talking along the way. Then, as a teenager working at Dairy Queen, I carried home frozen creations I had concocted just for him. And in my adulthood, the tradition of going for a cone continued with every visit. We eventually welcomed my boys into our sweet little circle.
On this night, after everyone else had ordered, I asked the familiar woman who owned the ice cream shop for my usual, peanut butter and chocolate. It was still my favorite twenty-six years after I had discovered it. She smiled and asked about my dad as she handed me the single scoop.
“He’s not so good. We moved him into hospice today.”
“Oh, no,” she said, her smile quickly fading. “Tell him I’m thinking about him.”
I fought to hold the emotion, nodded, and glanced down at the ice cream. The color was wrong.
“Sorry,” I said to the owner, extending the ice cream toward her. “This isn’t peanut butter and chocolate.”
“They just changed the formula,” she replied. That’s why it looks different.”
“Peanut butter and chocolate? Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. We just got it in.”
I took a bite. And then another just to be sure. The flavor was wrong. Everything felt wrong. My eyes filled.
“Oh, honey I’m sorry,” the owner said. “How about a different flavor?”
“It’s not the ice cream.” I barely got the words out. “It’s my dad.”
I retreated out the door and dropped the cone into the trash can. My husband quickly followed me.
“Hey, are you okay?” he asked, bewildered by my reaction.
“It’s a sign. I know it.” I turned to look at him. “For twenty-six years this flavor has been the same. It has never changed. Ever. And now, on this night it’s suddenly different.” He looked at me, unsure what to make of this. “Andy, I think this is a sign from God, preparing me. I think it’s the end of an era.”
“Trace, it’s an emotional night and I think you’re reading too much into it. It's just ice cream.”
Six hours later the phone rang, waking me from a fitful sleep. My father was dead.
But God wasn't finished writing this story yet.
For many months I didn’t have the mental steel to set foot into Baskin Robbins. I didn’t even have the desire. But finally, more than a year after my father passed from life to Life, the sharp edges of loss eased enough for me to venture in for old times sake, this time in North Carolina. I browsed the tubs of ice cream and noticed peanut butter and chocolate. I squinted down at it trying to make sense of what I saw in the big round tub. It looked like the original version that I had loved before the night my father died.
“Could I please get one scoop of peanut butter and chocolate?” I asked. Guarded about how my old favorite would taste, I walked out before trying it, wanting this uncertain moment to myself. I climbed into my SUV, closed the door and took a small, tentative bite from the brown creamy ball. Doubting my taste buds, I tried it again. And again it tasted right, the same as it had for nearly three decades. I drove home talking to God, trying to understand something that felt much bigger than me, more than a human mind alone can hold.
Days later, I called Baskin Robins' headquarters and asked to speak to a flavor specialist. Several connections later, I reached the right person.
"Could you tell me when you changed peanut butter and chocolate back to its original recipe?"
“Original recipe?” the man on the other end asked.
“Yeah. The recipe changed about a year ago and now it’s back to the way it had been before that.”
“Ma’am, I’ve worked here for many years and we’ve never changed the formula for peanut butter and chocolate. It’s been the same since it was created.”
I couldn’t speak.
The reporter in me sat for a long while trying to make sense of it. If the owner hadn’t served me on that fateful night, my logical mind would have argued that my message was simply a case of mistaken identity. But it was the owner. And I believe it was a Divine message, God’s reassurance that He was with me in the darkness, that He would prepare me and He would see me through the deepest loss I had known.
I am certain this message, these signs of God’s presence, weren’t just for my benefit. They were intended for you, too, Heavenly reminders that God speaks to us in ways we are able to hear. And He walks with us, using ordinary people and ordinary things, even ice cream, to remind us of His extraordinary and unfailing presence.
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