It’s long been noted and noticed that when one is in the depths of despair whether due to illness, death of beloved, brokenness of a family member, or another of the many available hells on earth, you just never know who will “show up.” I put that in quotes because it isn’t always a physical showing up, (though that in and of itself counts in a huge way,) but in other ways. The irony is that the ones who you normally feel closest to and most dependent on, are not necessarily the ones who will stand by you, walk on the hot coals with you, cry with you, and offer you love from the depths of their hearts. Instead, those lifesaving measures can end up coming from the most unlikely people in your life.
Having had my eldest son arrested, my first grandchild born without his dad, my only sister die, my sister in law at the brink of death, and my car blow up leaving me car-less within a time span of a tad over two months has left me in a heap with many days feeling like eternity. But, the angels in my midst have been the ones who have often gotten me through one more day with the hopes of standing up to face the next one.
In the complete and total chaos that ensued on the day of the arrest, which will forever be the marker of “before or after,” I did call my friend who has been there for me so many times over the last 23 years. We sort of have this pact that when she or one of her beloveds is in the hospital, I show up to sit by her side and she does the same for me. This time there was no hospital but rather hysteria at the kitchen table and she was there sturdy and compassionate to all of us. She has remained there for me mostly as my phone friend for these past almost five months. I cannot imagine how much of a burden it must have been when I just wept on the phone without putting many words together, but she remained steady and most importantly, “there” as she always seems to be.
My other really good friend who has also shared religion, faith, soul searching, and high-school-teen-raising has been there day and night throughout. When it was time to host the Blessingway for my pregnant daughter-in-law less than a month after the arrest, I knew I could not do it. These two friends took over and made it happen with me just a weeping willow. And recently, they read the same article with me about grieving and depression and invited me over allowing me to cry and grieve and be completely miserable with no pressure to be otherwise. She also listened to every stage of my sister’s illness journeying to the end as she had gone through this with both of her parents a few years back. She allowed me to rant and rave and she never judged me. She’s made food and gifts, yoga videos and poems and admitted that there are in fact “no words.” These two have been my very dear friends all along, so I am ever grateful that they have stuck around through my free fall and remain present.
There was the infamous day when I decided to leave my sister for a few hours to drive to Raleigh, see a client and come back. It turned into the day that never ended, though it did, in all the worst ways. My beloved mini van blew up on the interstate on the way in and I stood in a ditch that freezing morning waiting over an hour for AAA to rescue me. They finally towed my car and me to the repair shop near my office where I was two hours late to meet with said client. When I took a breath and sat down to work with this mama and baby my phone rang relentlessly. It was my niece and my husband saying that my sister had had a stroke, was unconscious and was on her way to Hospice Center. I needed to get back immediately, but I was two hours away and I had no car!! I called my nearest friend and colleague and she arrived within minutes gathering my helter-skelter self into her car as she proceeded to drive for the two hours straight from hell. She says she’ll never forget it and I of course have trouble remembering it, except I know I was absolutely frantic to get to my sister and I made calls to each of my sons sobbing in between unintelligible panic. My friend had converted to Judaism a few years ago but I asked her, “Do you remember the Lord’s prayer?” She nodded that she did and I asked her to pray aloud with me. She did. The divine was in our presence but she was an angel at the wheel who somehow got me back to my sister six hours before she died. I might mention too, that just a month before, this same angel pretended that she had a reason she needed to be in Wilmington, NC on Christmas Eve. The truth behind this was that she actually drove the four hours round trip, brought my sister back to my condo as we readied to leave for Christmas Eve service! I got to have Alice at my side, to pray, to sing Christmas hymns, to weep through Silent Night together, to receive Communion with her at the altar rail, to have dinner together, to exchange gifts and to sleep in my bed together for the last Christmas eve ever. This was an angel in my life that made it all possible and I will remain forever grateful to her for her completely selfless acts of generosity.
For many weeks and months I found that I could not speak I was too depressed and too scared. I wanted mostly not to be here any longer for fear of feeling any further pain. My sister-in-law and I have not really ever gotten all that close either due to geographical distance or just our lack of similarities. Our deep love for the man who is her brother and my husband is our strong bond. We’ve grown closer in recent years. But, on the day that I was at my lowest, she called and I pulled over and parked letting it all come out on the phone with her. She cried so hard and begged from deep in her heart, making me understand that if I was no longer here she would likely lose her brother as well and she would not be able to survive that. I listened and I found her very convincing. She was the angel that day and I will never forget it. She cares about all of us and loves us. I can tell.
My inability to speak for so long made it very hard on many friends who called all the time and I regret that. I just was unable to put words together without sobbing through them. It is still difficult. I mostly just waited for the 15 minute call from my son each morning and would speak and listen intently then, savoring every single word he offered and each breath I heard him take, holding back my tears until the call ended. I know that there are so many who care deeply, but I still find it somewhat hard to be with anyone and frankly look forward to my slippers and robe most of all each day when and if, I get through seeing clients in my office. My good friend and colleague was one I felt remiss about. We used to talk almost every morning while trying to get our high school sons through one day after another when all they wanted most in the world was to not be in school, but we saw it otherwise. We shared the same profession, sisters with a similar disease, and a lot of the same angst, so while I missed her, I just couldn’t talk about those things anymore. Seeing clients has worked for me. It is one of the only things in my life that is the same as before losing my sister and my son. It looks the same and my practice is the same. I craved familiarity when there was none.
When Alice died at the end of January, I got some beautiful notes and cards. Despite death being no surprise after years of battling cancer, I was no less devastated by her loss and find that I continue to struggle with this loss more than I could have imagined. I feel a terrible, wrenching loneliness on many days. I miss calling her every morning and every night because in the past few years she ALWAYS sounded happy to hear me. She REALLY cared about my son/her nephew. She told me I looked pretty sometimes and sent me an email of admiration and apology for past hurts, requesting that I not respond but just take it in. We shared a past that no one else will ever know or understand. I think (or at least I hope) that she knew the awe I had for the way she handled her illness and true love I had for her. Her positivity and determination left me in the dust. No one can substitute for her and it makes me sad every day. Replaying her voice mails is wrenching but I do it just to hear her ever cheerful voice. And yet, when my two-year-old son died over 20 years ago, she was not the most comforting. She wanted me to be “better” as soon as possible. She wanted to have me back to being me. I would never be me again and so she didn’t know what to do with that. So she kept trying to distract me, which was impossible. I told her many times how hurt I was when she wouldn’t acknowledge my son’s birthday or anniversary of his death. She just couldn’t do it. Over the years I came to accept and understand that better.
During that time, my priest and friend was a loving support especially for my kids. Compassionate Friends was a Godsend for sure. Our church community was there for us always. But out of the blue, my friend who I had known all my life sent part of the inheritance she got from the death of her father to build a memorial garden at the church where my son’s baby ashes were interred! This was a loving gesture of a lifetime that I will never forget. She was an angel in my midst and remains so always. She said to me at the time, “it is not easy to call you. I dread it actually. But, I call you anyway because I love you.” That too.
And then there’s the friend I have known since I was 16. Together we have been through so much including the months when her mother took in “teenage me’ and we shared a room. There has been heartache over imaginary romances, broken homes, premature births, cancer battles, son nightmares, a beloved special needs child, sibling frustrations, deaths of parents, and death of a child. When she tells me I can call at any time day or night and she’ll be there, she means it. I took her up on it one night when sleep was just not happening. She has listened and prayed and brainstormed and just plain let me cry. She’s been in my life forever and I hope I have been there for her one iota as much as she has been there for me. I remember one morning when I called her in the midst of a round of chemo and she said, “How did you know to call me just now at this moment when I have completely lost my way?” It was an angel nudge. So maybe I have been there for her a time or two. Her love always keeps me going.
I have a friend who is also a priest, a therapist, and a lawyer. It doesn’t get better than that and sheis also a stellar person with a deep heart. When disaster struck, I called her in a panic and I was too hysterical to be understood so she calmly asked to speak to my husband who was able to explain to her what was happening. She has helped with so much including lawyer selection, spiritual guidance and most of all, she visits my son regularly which he cherishes. She does this on a rotating basis with three other angelic clergy members each of which is walking the talk and truly following the path of Jesus in offering their hearts and time. Angels for sure.
And speaking of unseen angels, when my sister died my nieces and I were unsure where to hold her memorial service. I had happened to attend a Sunday service at a random Episcopal church (my sister was Catholic) a couple weeks prior. My sister’s Catholic church had become too difficult and inflexible and so despite knowing no one at the Episcopal Church, I called the rector. This woman showed up, gave us every option, arranged everything including an incredible reception and banquet after a beautiful service and Eucharist where she emphasized, “All are welcome at God’s table.” She was definitely an angel with huge protective wings when we needed nothing less.
But then, a dove came flying into my path a few weeks ago. I have this old friend who I have known since 1990-something. We actually found each other in the Memorial Garden when one of her premature twins had died and she’d been sent by a chaplain to take a look and see if she liked it. “Liked” being the operative word, which of course has no place in this situation. However, she did choose to inter her daughter’s ashes next to my son’s and of course we became intense friends and soul mates for many years. We regularly planned women’s retreats together but we had a falling out over one of them and our friendship could never glue the shards back together though we tried once. I missed her and her kids so terribly that I grieved for years but eventually gave up and moved on, never really having understood why this had to be like this. And so there it was, a Facebook message saying she wanted to meet with me for coffee. I felt really anxious since I was mostly scared of everyone now, but she seemed like this needed to happen as soon as possible. Ironically, I was headed to the doctor to discuss my high blood pressure, which of course was that much higher in the midst of this anxiety. I had lunch with a very dear friend who has also been hugely supportive and patient with me not answering most phone calls and messages. (Actually on the first day I was trying to head to the office that friend called and when I told her in a whisper of a voice that I just couldn’t do it, she said, “Take a breath and think of what the women in the Holocaust had to do and then you can do it.” She was right.) Anyway, I got to Panera for coffee all trembling and sat down wondering. My old friend was lovely and said she’d been thinking of me all the time, praying and shedding tears imagining my family’s struggles. I wasn’t planning to talk and then, I couldn’t stop and I imagine she thought I’d lost my mind. I have. But, then this long lost friend out of my hemisphere for so long, handed me a book about suffering and said that when she heard of it, she felt it would help. It is a gem and I savor every word. The author begins by saying that there are many hells on this earth, which has been my mantra. And so, when I left and got into my car, I knew for a fact that this had been an angel sent to me sharing, “More Beautiful Than Before” by Rabbi Steve Leder.
In March it was time for me to attend the professional conference I look forward to each year. It came up a bit too soon for me this year because I felt I was not ready to be in the company of 300 colleagues just yet. But it was paid for and non-refundable so I forced myself to go. This one sweet woman is dear to me each year but this year she was especially loving and warm, offering me anything I might need including trips to Whole Foods or Trader Joes if I needed any vegan items. I declined but was deeply moved by her empathy and caring. And then, the other angel there, was so loving and warm offering me tenderness and understanding and more than that, she had chosen a beautiful necklace for me that depicted my sister and me saying “Side by Side” and on the other “Deeply Loved.” These are two serious angels in my life that I have given nothing to and yet, give to me in the most meaningful ways.
My husband and my sons are always my angels. They never give up on me and never condemn me even when they are sick of my suffering. I am aware that at least one of them thinks of me as too dramatic and another finds me too emotional so he shuts down even more around me. But, a tight hug from any one of them can get me through the day and on many of those days they are the ONLY ones I can talk to. I have many loving friends near and far and my friend back in New York is a forever angel, always showing up for me through one crisis after another, having attended both the birth and the death of my son and always caring about all of us. She and I also share the death of a son, which is our common heartbreak. I always love and miss her as she has been an angel in my life forever. There’s also my friend, deacon and neighbor who knows just which teacup I like when I come for tea and sympathy, which she offers freely along with sublime wisdom and deeply spiritual and loving thoughts. Being a spiritual director, hospice nurse, and Episcopal deacon is a Carl Yung devotee and includes references to the divine in nearly every conversation, I value and love not only her but her wisdom as well. There’s my British friend who helped me through the hardest days of caring for twin newborns and for years after. And still, despite recently interring her own beloved husband’s ashes in the infamous Memorial Garden, she is always ready to offer love and care to any one of us.
Angels appear. We just don’t know who or when. But they glide in and pick us up in any number of ways. It appears like synchronicity as they seem to know just when and how. And when we can no longer carry our own broken hearts, they carry them for us until some healing begins. With all the loss and heartache I feel as I stare at the stripped, dark and barren church altar this Maundy Thursday, mourning my son and his desperate situation, I am still grateful for all the angels who continue to carry me.