As she sat on a folding chair by the Conowingo Dam, watching through a pair of binoculars as eagles flew about, caught fish from the Susquehanna River, and perched on towers, Ella Jankowiak began to cry.

Ella was touched: by the birds, by their beauty, by the kindness of the stranger who’d brought her to see them.

And there, dabbing her eyes with a tissue, she could feel her husband nearby. The warm and comforting feeling — no other way to describe it, she says — when someone you love is standing close to you.

It was like her husband had said: “I told you I’d be here.”

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Ella lost her husband Marion Jankowiak — or “Jan” as people called him — around a year ago. They’d been married for almost 62 years.

Jan died six weeks after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He knew he was dying, but he didn’t want treatment or to stay at the hospital. Everyone has to die sometime, he said. He wanted to be home with his family, his dogs, his friends.

Those weeks, Ella and Jan would talk, him lying in the bed, her sitting next to him. They talked about everything. They had the time.

One day, Ella asked him: “What sign are you going to send me that you’re still around?”

“Butterflies,” he said.

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“Oh, bullshit,” she told him. “Everybody says butterflies.”

He pointed to his bald head. Eagles.

“I’ll be looking for them,” she said.

After Jan died, Ella began receiving cards in the mail with eagles on them, from people who had no idea about that conversation. A friend’s husband gave her a large eagle for her mantlepiece. In a china closet, Ella assembled a memorial — a picture of an eagle that says: “All things are possible with God,” a picture of one flying from its nest, a mug from Jan’s Air Force days with an eagle on it and his name written in gold.

“Everywhere I went, there’s eagles,” Ella said.

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Ella Jankowiak’s memoriał for her husband, Marion “Jan” Jankowiak. (Courtesy of Ella Jankowiak)

But Ella had yet to see one in person, despite living in Middle River, parts of which border the water. A few weeks ago, she found a Facebook group called the Conowingo Dam Eagles. The group has more than 24,000 members, who share pictures of the treasured raptors near the dam and advice on spotting them on the lower Susquehanna River, at the head of the Chesapeake Bay.

“There’s Jan,” she thinks when she sees those photos on social media.

Ella posted to the group in early April to express her appreciation for their beautiful images. “Every day now I get to see the majesty of eagles that heals my broken heart,” she wrote.

The response was immense. Reactions from 700 people. Comments from nearly 90, expressing support and love.

One man, Douglas Liu, offered to drive Ella to the dam so she could see the eagles for herself. He had taken up photography as a serious hobby around 13 years ago and had been visiting the dam for around seven or eight years.

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He was touched by Ella’s story, and thought: “Why not do something just to make somebody happy?”

On April 10, Douglas packed a folding chair and a pair of binoculars and picked Ella up at around 2 p.m. She was only around 10 minutes off his regular route from Clarksville. It wasn’t a big favor, Douglas said — at least he didn’t see it that way.

“It was a very small thing for me to do,” he said.

Ella was moved by his kindness. He didn’t have to do that, she thought, and was surprised that he went out of his way to help.

“Most people would not bother,” she said. “So I thought that was so gracious of him.”

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The two stayed about three hours, Douglas snapping photographs, Ella enjoying the scene through binoculars. Fish get stunned when the dam opens, Douglas said, and float up near the surface of the water. That’s when the eagles come flying down to snatch them up. Those are the moments people wait for. Douglas and Ella saw four or five of them that day.

Ella was amazed. She was just excited to be there, excited to see the eagles, to feel Jan so close.

They met in 1958. Jan had just gotten out of the Air Force and had taken a job selling cookware door to door. Ella remembers Jan looked strong, fit and tan. Jan got Ella’s number from a neighbor and asked her out.

That night, he went home and told his brother and best friend: “I just met the girl I’m going to marry.”

Two years later, they wed. They had three kids, two girls and a boy. Now, there are grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Ella Jankowiak and her husband Marion “Jan” Jankowiak. (Courtesy of Ella Jankowiak)

Jan was fun and kind, Ella said. He loved to play poker, but never with money. He was into woodworking and made little toys, like airplanes and cars, that he’d sell at craft shows alongside Ella’s calligraphy work. He helped his family in any way he could.

“He said he wasn’t going to die until the taxes were done,” Ella said. “He wanted to be sure I’d be all right.”

He could also be stubborn. His favorite song was “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, and sometimes, it was Jan’s way or the highway, she said.

Ella and Jan had an intense love, their daughter Christine Bogdan remembers. They loved each other enough to fight, she said, and would fight until a disagreement was resolved.

They wrote love letters to one another four times a year for around 40 years. Ella would always keep one in her purse. When she was so mad at Jan she could scream, when she was “ready to bop him on the head with a pan,” she’d go out to her car and read a letter. “Well, I guess I’ll forgive him,” she’d think.

Bogdan remembers how they’d support each other fully in anything either was interested in, and that they loved to take trips together. “Let’s go on an adventure,” her father would say to Ella. “Let’s drive into the country and get lost.”

Towards the end, when she felt things were coming to a close, when the nurses told her it wouldn’t be long, Ella turned on “My Way,” put her perfume on Jan’s pillow, and climbed into bed. She held him and talked to him and told him she’d be all right. She laid there until he stopped breathing.

At the viewing before Jan was cremated, they left Ella’s lipstick prints on his forehead.

Ella Jankowiak and her husband Marion “Jan” Jankowiak. (Courtesy of Ella Jankowiak)

As 5:30 p.m. approached at the Conowingo Dam, the sky was growing dark and the air a bit chilly. “Ready to go?” Douglas asked, and Ella was.

The two talked the whole way back on the car ride home. Ella heard about Douglas’ family. Douglas learned more about Ella’s life, too.

Ella feels her husband wanted her to visit the Conowingo Dam, that he sent her there. She believes that may be why she wasn’t seeing any eagles in person.

“If I’d have seen eagles locally, I would never have found that website, I would never have gotten the ride up to Conowingo, and I would never have had this wonderful story to tell,” she said.

Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance, Ella recites. She loves that song by Garth Brooks. There’s a reason things happen the way they do, she believes, and there was a reason for her visit to the dam.

Perhaps it was this: Ella told her daughter to mix her and Jan’s ashes together and to spread them somewhere after she dies, but she didn’t know where.

“Now I know,” Ella said. “I want them at Conowingo with the eagles. That’s going to be our last trip together.”