A Season of Angels – edited

I'm very excited to announce I was a prize winner for a local writing competition The Phidian Art Club of Dixon, Illinois Literary Competition. A very special friend encouraged me to submit a story - I hesitated but decided to give it a shot. I was very excited and humbled to place in my first competition.  As some of you may know, when authors win a competition they are asked to read their submission. I had to pause and collect myself three times to get through this story. It's quite a different perspective reading my words aloud! I posted A Season of Angels back in January of this year and edited it for the competition to meet the word limit requirement. Indulge me in posting this edited version of A Season of Angels. I truly appreciate your support!


Numeric Canvas

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 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 I would classify as pure suffering. Sure, I’ve had disappointments in my life just like everyone – friends who 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 – stuff happens, bad choices made, 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, I was unlucky enough 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 a jerk 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 caught my attention, first, for using the word ‘assholes’; second because we were sitting in St. Mary’s Catholic School. I returned a weak smile.

He went on to advise, “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 sentences 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 horrible days will pass quickly, hope I can endure with grace. My guardian angel – always with me.

Reading the Holy Bible’s book of Romans recently, I discovered a new 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 my rattled breath, 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. I was her namesake automatically bonding us in the ‘Girls Named Mary Club.’ I attended afternoon kindergarten, and this random morning I was at home with my Mom when 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 Homestead,’ the tiny white residence at the bottom of Eighth Street housing everyone in my dad’s family for generations. We entered the bright kitchen through a door at the rear of the dwelling. Uncle Charles was waiting.

Speaking 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, walking through the petite kitchen toward Aunt Mary’s bedroom, I followed. All the curtains in the dining and living room were still drawn. Pausing, I blinked to get my young eyes to work in the darkness.

I heard Mom and Charles exchanging whispers in Aunt Mary’s room. I loved her room. A beautiful blond-wood 1940s-bedroom set filled the space. Flowy lace draperies, porcelain lamps with painted roses, lipstick in fancy cases, hair brushes sporting gold handles made for a queen, each contributing to my 6-year-old’s dream bedroom. An elegant sanctuary.

Mom and Charles were standing next to Mary who was lying 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 and her feet obscured my view of her face. I was quiet because Aunt Mary was asleep.

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 told me something was not right. I moved slightly so they would know I was in the room. Startled, Uncle Charles and Mom exclaimed my name in unison and rushed to usher me out.

I don’t remember much beyond those few moments. Mom made a phone call to my Dad and she cried a little. She placed a second phone call. Soon a man in a black suit appeared at the back door, Mr. Jones. 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 grief, fear … 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. He would let her come back to play with me. 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 Aunt Mary was safe and we are suffering because we miss her, but she is happy with God and 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 had hoped I would see her again. I remembered Mom’s words, “Suffering because we miss her.”

Suffering was the word I then 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.

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

My grandpa passed away when I was nine. He was in his 80s. By then, I understood elderly people die. The knowledge didn’t change the fact my suffering came rushing back with heartache, confusion, fear. Underneath all the anguish I tried to hope 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 horribly.

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 struggle by my family. My dad insisted I needed to concentrate on my studies. He didn’t want me to be upset about his situation. Mom gave me bland responses when I asked after 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, the cancer won and the suffering almost won, too.

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 said I could be anything I wanted to be. He was too young. I was too young. 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 questioned how a 22-year-old girl nicknamed ‘The Baby’ by her Dad could navigate the world without him? 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.

Dad didn’t walk me down the aisle at my wedding, hasn’t met many of his grandkids. He 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 often still hard to fathom after all these years. Making my way through the world I still rely on his advice.

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 each time I go through suffering. I steel myself for the initial pain, but the suffering comes a few days after the funeral when reality hits. The unbelief, fear, and loathing. The finality still blows me away.

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

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.

Believing I have a guardian angel unique to me is – a gift. I know he has helped me in many situations. I recall occasions in college when I was too stupid to curb drinking and then hopped in the car to drive home.

Another time, traveling too fast on a slippery, snowy road on my way, ironically, to a funeral. I was pregnant and running behind schedule. Speeding over a short rise I saw several deer on the road. I knew I was going way too fast. I foolishly hit the brakes and began to spin. As I called out for God, my angel and Dad to help me, 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 though, I doubt.

“We rejoice in our sufferings …”

A few years ago, my Mom had undergone aortic stent surgery. A largely experimental procedure, I was stressed above anything I had previously experienced. Exhausted beyond words I tried to juggle work, family care and attending to Mom while she recovered at the University of Wisconsin Medical Center.

Not in a normal place emotionally, I would frequently have nighttime bouts of tears and terror. In the darkness of my bedroom, I would beg God for help. I asked for answers to my fears, release from unbelief, trust that I could give up control and let Him guide me.

For several nights while Mom was recovering I was particularly agitated; terrified I would lose her. Not able to sleep, but dog-tired, I began my usual litany of pleading prayers. I typically resorted to begging and crying much like I was a six-year-old child again.

I had completely lost control. Being a control freak is one of my worst sins. I begged my guardian angel for some relief, help in understanding, trust that I could let God be in control. As fear overwhelmed me I prayed with all my strength. I tried to articulate my desires. I recall lying flat on my back in bed, sobbing but trying not to wake my husband, Greg.

The answer came. Swiftly.

I heard a sound much like a gust of wind rustling through trees, but our windows were closed on this unusually chilly night in May. Everything was calm outside. I opened my eyes and above me hovering near my bedroom ceiling was … an angel. My guardian angel?

As insane as it sounds, I saw a very real presence above me. A creamy beige color, flowing garments, possibly wings but mostly airy wisps of vapor. I did not see a face but felt the angel’s gaze upon me. There was a rush of silent wind around me. I heard my heart pounding in my ears, then nothing. Silence as I soaked in the enveloping calm.

As I looked at this beautiful flowing mist, a feeling of serenity washed over me. It lasted a sweet second or two – maybe less. I didn’t want it to end.

Then, just as quickly as it started, I was thrust back to my world. Bolting upright, I gasped after realizing I had been holding my breath. I let out a cry, startling Greg.

I attempted an explanation. None came. Greg simply held me as I sobbed.

What remains after that night, is a feeling of love. A bit confused, but oddly not afraid, I have attributed my vision as a gift. Thus, I can better calm the demons in my head. I have grown in my understanding that I need to let God be God. I am still learning to trust my angels’ message:  suffering leads to hope and character.

My mom recovered and had a wonderful 16 months after her experimental surgery before God took her from us. Several years later I’m still suffering her loss. Although I am forever changed by each death I experience, the death of my mom has changed me more than the others. I still grieve her, but I have hope. I, now, understand what those well-meaning friends meant all those years ago – she and the others are in heaven watching over me.

Writer Lang Leav describes angels brilliantly: “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 and hope I will see all my angels in heaven one day. I trust my guardian angel will, through the grace of God, continue to show me how to save myself.

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5:3-4

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