It tumbled unexpectedly from an envelope sent to our household by my sister-in-law in Pennsylvania.
It was a slightly faded color snapshot she'd taken of my eldest three children in the summer of 1977.
I'd never seen it before, and its arrival caught me by surprise. It was like finding a loose diamond in an underwear and socks drawer.
The kids in the photograph sat before a flowerbed in the front yard of our Costa Mesa home. My father and I built that planter with enthusiasm and badly chafed fingers. It wasn't the most elegant planter you'll ever see but it was utilitarian.
Dad and the planter have been gone for many years now.
I sat at my desk absorbing the already priceless photo image.
There was 10-year-old Jimmy seated to the left; Jade, at 20 months, happily sitting in the middle; and Jennifer, age 6, on the right. They were captured by an offhanded shutter-click 41 years ago, squinting into the afternoon sunshine.
Our fourth child, Melissa, wasn't in the picture. She'd yet to grace us with her winsome presence. Melissa wouldn't be here for 14 months.
Melissa today has two children, Selah, 12, and Judah, 5.
How our world has changed in the years since the picture was composed. As I continue studying it, I struggle to suppress a creeping melancholia.
"Ah me! Roll them back you ruthless harvester of the years," wrote J.W. Schultz in his classic 1907 autobiography about years spent with the Blackfoot Tribe. "Give back to me (my bride) and my youth. Return to us our lodge and the wide, brown, buffalo plains."
Please, one more taste of life's unappreciated perfections.
Yearnings for the past occur with greater frequency, I've found, as one ages. Sadly, the clock cannot be turned back.
My son, Jimmy, passed away 15 years after that 1977 photo. What I wouldn't give to have 15 minutes of those 15 years back. An embrace. A kiss on the cheek. A whispered truth.
Jimmy died in 1993, a victim of a traffic accident. He was 25. Things in life seldom go as planned. Jimmy's death was tragic and impossible for me to fully process.
"It is not hard for the Lord to turn night into day," famous 19th century theologian, Charles Spurgeon, said. "He that sends the clouds can as easily clear the skies. Let us be of good cheer. It is better farther along. Let us sing Hallelujah by anticipation."
But anticipating Hallelujah can be problematic, and I've not been issued a hall pass guaranteeing a pain-free journey. Life's a slog.
A friend recently inquired: "Do you ever get over the loss of a child?" No, never. But, going through grief's successive stages can make it bearable. God can mend the broken heart.
I look at Jimmy in the just surfaced — and now irreplaceable! — 1977 photo. The towheaded youngster steals my heart as he poses protectively next to his baby sister.
Had Jimmy survived he would this month (April) be celebrating his 50th birthday. Instead, during this selfsame month we remember the 25th anniversary of his passing.
On the right side of the photo we see Jennifer (we've called her Jenn since junior high) with her arm protectively around baby sister's shoulders. Jenn's a 6-year-old "Big Sis."
Today, Jenn and her husband, Alex, have two girls, Bella, 9, and Lexi, 6.
Jenn is wise and strong. She's a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, caregiver and executive. She possesses innumerable gifts.
Lastly, in the center of the photo, is Baby Jade, not yet 2. Her smile is sweet — even precocious — as she sits contentedly between her sibs.
Today Jade and her husband, John, are parents to: Ethan, 18, Emma, 16, Ellarie, 14, and Eva, 12.
Like Jenn, Jade is a mother, wife, daughter and sister. She's also a schoolteacher, nurse and soccer mom. Contemplative and scholarly, she regularly counsels her parents about life.
Where'd the time go?
"We are children of eternity, not of time," writes Christian author Malcolm Muggeridge. Thank God.
One's entire lifetime is a flickering ember. If we're wise, we remind ourselves often to take nothing for granted.
And, with renewed hope, we sing Hallelujah.