I haven’t moved a muscle in 8 minutes. I’m focusing on my ragged breathing, trying to calm the horrible wheezing this bronchitis has caused. I’m not often ill. I rarely contract a cold and haven’t had the flu in decades. I consider this illness an inconvenience rather than an occasion for suffering.
As I lie in my darkened bedroom I let my mind wander to all the real suffering I’ve encountered in my life. There isn’t much that I would classify as pure suffering. Sure, I’ve had disappointments in my life just like everyone – friends that weren’t really friends, disappointing choices in dating partners, shitty jobs, a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes days into my marriage – but none of these had I ever categorized as suffering. It’s life – shit happens, bad choices made, me trying to pound a square peg into a round hole.
I reminisce about a teacher in junior high who was a true mentor. On a frigid February afternoon, it was my turn to take the brunt of the latest round of bullying. We didn’t label it bullying in the 70s – we named it – a day in junior high. Adversity taught us how to deal with people, how to stand up for ourselves and to understand everyone can be an asshole now and then.
I hung back, not rushing to the cafeteria for lunch. I didn’t want to sit alone or bear the punishment of the day from my classmates. As I lingered at my desk Mr. S asked me if I felt ill. I shrugged attempting nonchalance.
He moved to the desk next to me and asked again. I responded with, “Oh it’s just my turn to be the outsider, but I truly don’t know what I did wrong.”
As he sat, Mr. S exhaled and quietly said, “Junior high kids can be real assholes.”
He got my attention, first, for using the word ‘assholes’; second because we were sitting in a Catholic school. I returned a weak smile.
He went on to say, “Don’t ever forget – as bad as it seems today, we have the hope of tomorrow. God lets us start new every day. Your guardian angel is with you always; your friend and companion. The situation with your friends will be over before you know it.”
Those few words have carried me through myriad troubles in my life. Even in my absolute darkest days, I have a feeling of hope. Hope situations will rectify, hope those horrible days will pass quickly, hope that I can endure with grace. My guardian angel – always with me.
Reading Romans recently, I discovered another favorite passage:
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5:3-4
Listening to myself breathe, I realize true suffering for me has accompanied the death of loved ones. I’ve struggled to understand God’s reasoning. I often ask my guardian angel to help me in the belief my family and friends are in heaven. For me, suffering comes in the not knowing.
My first encounter with death was my great-aunt Mary Mahan-Rowland. I attended afternoon kindergarten, and this random morning I was at home with Mom when my great-uncle Charles phoned.
Mom said, “Get your shoes on Mary, Uncle Charles needs us.” Her tone carried a calm urgency. I knew not to dawdle.
We lived just a few blocks from “The Mahan’s” – the homestead housing everyone in my dad’s family for generations. We entered the bright kitchen through a door at the rear of the house. Uncle Charles was waiting.
He spoke in a guarded whisper. I couldn’t hear what he was telling Mom. I heard Aunt Mary’s name and wondered why she wasn’t at the kitchen table drinking tea or in the pink bathroom off the kitchen combing her hair. I loved to watch her comb her hair.
When the two turned and walked through the tiny house toward Aunt Mary’s bedroom I followed. All the curtains in the living room were still drawn. I paused, blinking to get my eyes to work in the darkness.
Mom and Charles exchanged whispers in Aunt Mary’s room. I loved her room. An elegant sanctuary. She had a beautiful blond wood bedroom set, flowy lace draperies, fancy lipstick and hair brushes with gold handles made for a queen. It was a 6-year-old’s dream bedroom.
Mom and Charles were standing next to Mary who was in bed. They didn’t see me as I slid into the room stopping near the bed’s footboard. I could see the top of Aunt Mary’s hair from my vantage. Pink blankets covered her body; her feet obscured my view of her face.
Mom sighed as she placed her hand on Aunt Mary’s chest. She turned to say something to Uncle Charles. The look on Mom’s face made me realize something was not right. I moved slightly so they would know I was in the room. Startled, Uncle Charles and Mom said my name in unison and rushed to usher me out.
I don’t remember much beyond those few moments. I understood something was terribly wrong with Aunt Mary. I do recall an awful sadness squeezing my chest. I don’t know if I cried then, but I recall an innocent feeling of fear and loss.
The next time I saw Aunt Mary was at Jones’ Funeral Home. Mom held my hand as we approached her casket. I pulled back slightly, fear filling my body. Mom whispered, “Don’t be afraid. Mary loved you.”
As we stepped closer, Mom kneeled to say a prayer. I half-kneeled, half-leaned on Mom staring at Aunt Mary’s chest. I glanced at her beautiful face only briefly – afraid to look at her. I then proceeded to will Aunt Mary to breathe. I prayed with all my childish might for a miracle. I knew if I tried hard enough God would have her start breathing right then and there. In those few brief seconds, I convinced myself I saw her chest move.
When Mom stood up I burst into tears realizing nothing had changed – Aunt Mary was still dead. At that moment, I missed her so much. The rush of awareness took my breath away. The unfairness of death confused me, the finality terrified me. Mom explained, “Mary is safe with God and we are suffering because we miss her, but she is happy with the angels.”
Later in my bed, I begged my guardian angel to help me understand where Aunt Mary went, why I would not talk to her ever again. I hoped I would see her again. Suffering was the word I associated with death. I cried myself to sleep.
Having a large family is an opportunity to experience death on a regular basis. A succession of great-aunts and -uncles passing kept our family at Jones’ with surprising regularity.
My grandpa passed away when I was nine. The suffering rushed back – heartache, confusion, fear. Underneath all the anguish I tried to believe in seeing my loved ones again someday.
By the time I was in college, I thought I learned well how to suffer. I was so wrong. I was about to suffer like never before.
My dad was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor during my sophomore year at college. A time of surreal terror, I was mostly sheltered from his suffering by my family. My dad insisted I needed to concentrate on my studies. Mom gave me bland responses when I asked about Dad’s condition, progress, difficulties. Her standard response was, “Don’t worry.”
Roughly two years of hope and despair, rejoicing and devastation ended in the worst possible scenario – he died. Science failed, cancer won and the suffering almost won, too. How does a 22-year-old girl, often referred to ‘as the baby’ by her dad navigate the world? All the questions, fears, successes, uncertainties. Our plan, since I was 12-years-old was for me to go to college and graduate. He said he would help me. He said he would be there. He said he was so proud of me. He died six weeks before I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
Well-meaning friends consoled me with the assertion I now had another angel in heaven to watch over me. Who in the hell wants an angel when your dad is gone forever? I suffered so much I almost didn’t graduate. I wanted to give up. I heard his voice telling me not to give up, telling me to finish strong. I finished, it was anything but strong.
My siblings and I rallied around Mom and supported her. My dad’s brother died just a few weeks before he did. Then a couple of years later my uncle Bill died. It was a hugely tragic family of men gone in their 50’s.
Dad didn’t walk me down the aisle at my wedding, hasn’t met several of his grandkids. Wasn’t there physically for all my major life events. But he’s an angel. As much as I believe he is in heaven, it’s sometimes still hard to fathom after all these years. Making my way through the world I still refer to his advice all these years later.
As all of us, I’ve had more childhood friends, colleagues, co-workers pass away. Their passing brings back the same feelings of suffering. I learn more every time I go through the suffering. I steel myself for the initial pain, but the suffering comes a few days after the funeral when reality hits. The finality still blows me away.
I believe God wants us to understand something … the hope in life everlasting? My guardian angel gets a workout for weeks after every funeral I attend. He’s been with me since I was six so I’m sure he’s ready for the onslaught each time.
Being Catholic and believing I have a guardian angel unique to me is a gift. I know he has helped me in many situations – those times in college when I was too stupid to stop drinking and then hopped in the car to drive home. Traveling too fast on a slippery, snowy road while I was pregnant. Coming over a short rise and seeing several deer on the road. I knew I was going too fast. I foolishly hit the brakes and began to spin. I didn’t hit one deer, didn’t slide into the ditch, didn’t hurt my unborn daughter. Yes, I believe my angel was there.
Still, sometimes, I doubt.
Mom had stent surgery and met Dr. Jesus. Not in a normal place emotionally, I would have nightly bouts of tears and terror. In the dark alone, I would beg God for help – answers to my fears, release from unbelief, trust that I could give up control and let him guide me in my grief.
For several nights in a row while Mom was recovering I was particularly agitated. Terrified I would lose her. Not able to sleep, but exhausted beyond reason, I began my usual litany of pleading prayers. I typically resorted to begging and crying like I was six, again.
As fear overwhelmed me I prayed with all my strength. I tried to articulate what my desires were. I recall I was lying flat on my back in bed, sobbing but trying not to wake my husband, Greg. Being a control freak and arrogance are two of my worst sins. I begged my guardian angel for some relief, help in understanding, trust that God was in control.
The answer came. Quickly.
I opened my eyes and above me near my bedroom ceiling was … an angel. My guardian angel?
As crazy as it sounds, I saw a very real presence above me. A creamy beige color, flowing garments, maybe wings but mostly airy wisps of vapor. There was a rush of silent wind around us. I heard my heart pounding in my ears, then nothing.
As I looked at this beautiful flowing mist a feeling of calm washed over me. It lasted a sweet second or two – maybe less. Then I was thrust back into my world. Bolting upright I exhaled after realizing I was holding my breath. I let out a cry, startling Greg.
I attempted an explanation for Greg. None came. He simply held me as I sobbed.
What remains is a feeling of love. A bit confused, but oddly not afraid I have attributed my vision as a gift. I can better calm the demons in my head. I have grown in an understanding that I need to let God be God.
I like the way Lang Leav describes angels. “An angel … one sent to you for some higher purpose; to teach you an important lesson or to keep you safe during a perilous time. What you must do is trust in them–even if they come hand in hand with pain or suffering … the reason for their presence will become clear in due time … Their purpose isn’t to save you but to show you how to save yourself.”
I do believe I will see all my angels in heaven one day. I trust until then my guardian angel, through the grace of God, will continue to show me how to save myself.
Suffering + endurance + character = hope.