“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
The first time it happened it was a quarter, not a penny. I was on a trail I’ve walked regularly for over a decade, where I’d never found a dropped coin before, and there it was near the end of my walk. I scooped it into my hand without breaking my stride and tucked it in my pocket. Was it a sign? A message? Ever the skeptic, I decided it would only mean something if the year on it was significant in some way.
Days later, on a waning summer afternoon, I took pen, paper and a glass of wine to our patio and began to write a letter to one of my oldest friends. We’d had a long tradition of trading letters back and forth sharing everything from mundane daily anectdotes to momentous life decisions. That afternoon, I filled four pages of notebook paper (double sided) in what I acknowledged to her would be, I knew, the last letter of our lifetime of correspondence. She was in the final stages of terminal breast cancer.
Before I began writing, I picked up the quarter to check the year. I hadn’t wanted to peek before then. It was from 1982, the year my friend and I graduated from high school together. I decided that qualified as “significant” and I wrote her about it. I told her I knew it was cliché but that I’d really appreciate if she could send me a sign once in a while after she was gone and that coins might be as good a way as any. Jokingly, I told her that while I preferred quarters, pennies would be fine, too. When I visited her just before she died, the letter was on her bedside table.
I found my first penny on the day I went shopping for a dress to wear to her memorial service. Daunted by task, I wanted something that would feel vibrant and life-affirming, like the way she lived, not a somber black. But still, it needed to be appropriately formal and respectful of the occasion. With an armful dresses, the sales clerk showed me to a dressing room. Room #13. It’s silly, I know, but I am incredibly superstitious. I desperately wanted to tell the clerk that I couldn’t possibly try on dresses in #13, but I was too embarrassed to admit it.
The minute I closed the door, I saw it on the ground. I couldn’t look at it right away so I put it in a pocket of my purse separate from all my other change. I left the store that day with two dresses to choose from, both of which contained my friend’s favorite shade of blue. Once home, I turned the penny over. 1964. The year both my friend and I were born. I wondered what the odds were of randomly finding a 1964 penny these days. I smiled and cried. True to form, she had kept her promise.
It was quite a while before it happened again; in fact, it was two years, to be exact. On the day of the second anniversary of her death, my husband and I went for a long trail walk together on a new trail we’d never tried before. I decided to wear the biking jersey designed by her son for a recent fundraising ride in her memory. I didn’t care if it would look funny to wear biking gear while walking. What I wanted most was for her smiling face on the front of the jersey to greet everyone I passed on the trail. Near the end of our ten miles that day, I saw a penny. In what had now become my custom, I saved it til later before checking it. It looked old and I was hoping for 1964 again.
I am a little ashamed to admit it, but I was disappointed when I found that it was 1991. Bummer, I thought. Game over. Wait, no. She got married in 1991. Marriage is significant, right? Of course, it is. I decided the penny was meant for her husband and I wrote him about it.
Honestly, I promise do not spend all my time looking at the ground for coins. And, yes, I have considered the possibility that I will forever find a way to justify that any year on a coin I find on the street is “signficant.” That is entirely possible. No, it’s actually very probable. But just yesterday, on another trail walk back on our familiar home trail, not far from where I found the first coin before she died, I found another penny. It was so scratched and eroded, I didn’t think I’d be able to read the year, but it’s amazing what you can do with a little steel wool and determination. It took a fair amount of elbow grease before the year revealed itself. Startled, I saw it was 2012. The year she died. Even a skeptic would call that significant.
So I wonder now if she’s bringing our little coin game to a close. Perhaps this is her way of saying that she’s walked faithfully with me these last two years since her death and she thinks I am ready to continue on without needing pennies to affirm for myself that she’s always there for me. Yes, perhaps. But, in my heart, I hope that maybe she’s just planning to switch to quarters now.