Candy Scarbrough says she felt the "Lord winked" at her to make her late son's birthday a little bit easier this year. That blessing came in the form of a scruffy, well-loved Elmo doll.
In 2005, Scarbrough's son Tucker was born with heart defects. After numerous complications and a stroke, he passed away in 2009 when he was 3 years old. Before his passing, Tucker lost his beloved toy Elmo, or what he lovingly referred to as "Melmo."
Fast forward to this year, when on the cusp of what would be his 14th birthday, Scarbrough and her family reconnected with "Melmo" after a series of events she calls "divine orchestration."
"We started him out on 'Elmo's World' before he could even walk," Scarbrough, a lactation consultant from Knoxville, Tennessee, told TODAY. "He carried him around everywhere. He was a comfort toy to him."
Elmo accompanied Tucker to doctors' visits and hospital stays, comforting him as his "traveling buddy" through three corrective heart surgeries.
When Elmo went missing, Scarbrough struggled to replace the toy. "His Elmo was super old and scruffy and had distinct matted fur," she explained. "All the newer Elmos were all silky and they talked. You couldn't just find an old plush Elmo like that." (She did eventually find a suitable replacement on eBay, but in the no-Elmo gap little Tucker "made his affect known.")
Then, more than a decade after losing "Melmo," Scarbrough has found him again.
Scarbrough's Facebook friend Megan Flanagan, a former J.C. Penney portrait studio photographer, recognized the location and Elmo doll in a photo Scarbrough posted on the social media platform. The two had known each other for years, in a mostly professional capacity, but Flanagan never knew the Elmo doll meant so much to both of them.
"That's not something I go around talking about," Scarbrough explained. "She had no idea until she saw my post on Facebook where I made the offhanded comment that he loved his Elmo. And I really don't even know why I said it."
It turns out that Flanagan not only worked in the studio when the Elmo doll was lost, but she kept it to make other kids smile during photographs — and even brought it home when she stopped working there. In a twist of fate, she was able to reach out to Scarbrough and return the doll to its rightful owner.
"I got him back from Megan the day before what would've been Tucker's 14th birthday," Scarbrough said. "That in itself is such a powerful message. Because losing a child never gets better. There's no way to make it easier."
To get Elmo back in her life felt like getting a piece of her son back. "It kind of took the sting out of the birthday a little bit," she continued, "to make us focus on a part of Tucker's life and something he loved so much. In a way I got a piece of him back, something tangible that he held and that was a part of him in so many ways."
Elmo now lives with Tucker's other toys, including many "Toy Story" dolls.
"I can't say how much it means to me that... 10 years later people don't just remember that I have a child that passed away," Scarbrough said of the viral attention. "People are remembering something significant about his life. To know that his life is bringing joy to people 10 years later, that just thrills me."