SWANTON, Ohio - The lottery ticket was stashed among the documents, bills, receipts, medical records and other papers atop the bedroom dresser that served as her husband's desk during the last months of his life.
When lung cancer claimed Mike Bernath in October, 2006, Mary Ann Bernath gave the ticket little heed. She had a husband to bury. Children and grandchildren to console. And, she needed time to grieve.
Some weeks later, while sorting through Mike's stuff, Mary Ann stumbled upon the ticket. She briefly considered where to keep it safe, as Mike had told her to do, and finally settled on what in her mind was the most logical place - the Bible she kept on the nightstand next to her bed.
There it remained for 2 1/2 years.
Mike, who counted NASCAR and the lottery among his lifelong passions, had bought the ticket in January, 2006. It was of the instant, scratch-off variety. Instantly, he won $2,000. More important, since it was a $200 Million Cash Spectacular game, Mike qualified for a drawing among scratch-off winners, with $1 million at stake. Extreme patience would be required: Mike found out the drawing would not take place for up to three years, until the first phase of the game was complete.
The news became problematic in May, 2006, when a nagging cough turned into a worst-case scenario. Mike was given six months to a year to live.
That, of course, was not the way things were supposed to work. It never is. Up until that point, the Bernaths had lived a normal, relatively uneventful life - which, in retrospect, was a good thing.
Evergreen High School graduates, five years apart, Mike and Mary Ann married in 1977 after a one-year courtship. Mike first worked at Champion Spark Slug. When the plant closed, he reschooled and joined Howard's Hardware and Plumbing in Sylvania. Mary Ann became a hairdresser in Swanton, where she still works today. They had two children, Ryan, now 30, and Jessica, 27, bought a small country ranch house with some acreage in western Lucas County, and went about their lives as most middle class families would. If things got tight, Mike worked side jobs to make ends meet. In his free time, he golfed, played poker and followed the stock car races. In addition to her job, Mary Ann took care of the house. In later years, after the children were grown, they took summer trips to North Carolina, where they would take in a NASCAR race or two. Mary Ann hated the races, but loved the state. She imagined more traveling, especially to North Carolina, in their retirement years.
That was not to be.
In describing her marriage to Mike, Mary Ann said, frankly: "We had our ups and downs. But it was mostly good."
After he was diagnosed, Mike endured chemotherapy and radiation treatments. They helped get him through most of the summer. He tried to keep working, but that became more difficult. In July, friends held a fundraiser for Mike and his family, something the Bernaths initially were reluctant to embrace.
Mary Ann explained: "We felt a little foolish about it, but our friends said they wanted to do this for us. It was humbling. I told Mike: 'A lot of people die, and they have a big funeral. But they're not there to see it.' He got to see how many people cared about him. It was packed. It really touched him."
Mary Ann took Mike to the hospital for the last time on October 1, their 29th anniversary. He died on October 29. He was 55. His father, Fred Bernath, also succumbed at 55 to cancer, almost 30 years to the day that Mike died.
In the subsequent months, Mary Ann struggled with not only the loss of her husband but long-standing issues with her neighbors and money worries related to herself and her family. Ryan and his partner, Maggie Burnard - parents of her grandchildren, Tyson, 5, and Alex, 3 - were planning a wedding and she wanted, somehow, to help. Jessica, her daughter, was piling up loans as she worked toward a doctorate in audiology. She wanted to help her, too.
Meanwhile, secured in the Bible was the lottery ticket Mike had left behind. They had talked about it before he died.
"He [always] told me he was going to win [one day]," Mary Ann said. "I really felt it would be bittersweet to win after he died. I thought it would be sad, because he always played."
Mary Ann had no such premonition of winning. She and Ryan, who also was skeptical, discussed other options for Mary Ann to leave the neighborhood and solve her money woes. "We said: 'What are the odds of winning?' We're going to have to find another way.'"
Last year, lottery officials told Mary Ann the drawing would be in September. When she didn't hear anything, she assumed she had lost. Then, in late March, she was informed by mail that the drawing would be held in seven to 10 days.
On April Fools Day, while cutting hair, Mary Ann received a phone call from Allison Turner of the Ohio Lottery Commission. She had won $1 million, she was told. Initially, she thought it was an April 1st prank. Then, she realized Turner's name was on the letter she had received.
"I was pretty hysterical," Mary Ann recalled. "A co-worker thought someone had died. I actually had to write on a piece of paper that I had won the lottery because I couldn't even talk."
Rather than call her children, she sent them balloons with a note that read: "A gift from Dad. We won."
Word of Mary Ann's lottery win spread quickly. Given the circumstances and the Bernaths' many friends, it was a popular triumph, underscored by the many cards and letters Mary Ann received.
"The best part was people were talking about Mike again," she said.
Life finally has returned to normal in the Bernath home. Mary Ann, 52, says she will continue working. After all, a million dollar lottery winner really isn't a millionaire. Opting for the cash option, Mary Ann will receive $345,000 after taxes sometime this month. Still, she says she can now move out of the neighborhood and help her family. And for that unimaginable relief, she thanks her husband. And someone else.
"I was kind of feeling trapped and hoping for a way out," she said. "I think Mike tried to make it happen; he was trying to help us, and he did. Not that I don't discount that God helped me, too. I prayed a lot."
Her sister, Sharon Gillespie of Lyons, concurs: "I think it is a gift from beyond, and it came at a perfect time."
Reported by George J. Tanber firstname.lastname@example.org