There are 65 angels in my mother’s house. Some fly through gilded frames or pose frozen under glass. Others dangle from ribbons or perch on plaster pedestals, holding harps or horns to strum and trumpet the silent songs that only the dead can hear. There are angels stitched into pillows and sewn in circles across the richly colored surface of embroidered fabric balls. One tiny tabletop tree holds a dozen: a flock of tin and crystal heralds that catch the first rays of the Carolina sun and scatter them across the floor and walls of the small glass room my mother welcomes most mornings in.
I’m guessing the number’s even higher, that I missed others nested deep within boxes of Christmas ornaments or tucked somewhere in the corners of her garden - crouched in holy repose beside a bench or under a spray of rhododendron leaves. But no matter how high the tally, the number wouldn’t surprise me. I know why they’re there, and what they represent. They’re not guardian angels - no retinue of holy sentries posted to protect her and those within from whatever dark fates fly beyond her door. They’re harbingers for my sister - the daughter taken from her more than forty years ago. And however my mother might picture her: dressed in white wings and a halo or in the cutoff jeans and t-shirt she wore before cancer shrouded her 9 year old body in a hospital gown, I know a part of her is glad to have crossed the gulf of days between the one that Pammy died and the one my mother is certain that she’ll see her again.
I came home to postpone that day as long as I could. Mom had been doing fairly well - for 80 anyway - before her husband’s gall bladder began to poison him. My stepdad, Ralph, had suffered months of weakness and fever before his cholecystectomy. But after his gall bladder was removed his wound became infected, and the medical ordeal he and my mother suffered through continued to linger on. The strain of worry and care for a spouse so ill would have taken its toll on anyone, but for someone my mother’s age, it threatened to turn her own chronic heart and lung ailments into critical illnesses of her own.
Still, I was too wrapped up in my own life in Maine 800 miles away to appreciate just how hard things had become. Luckily, my wife wasn’t, and when I acted on her suggestion to fly to North Carolina to lend a hand for a week and took my first look at Ralph, I saw just how badly I was needed. It wasn’t the pale skin or white hair that framed the face that greeted me that told me the real story of his illness. I found that in his eyes. They held the kind of resigned weariness that comes only after days battling with pain, but they were also shadowed with something darker: fear.
As a retired physician, Ralph knows better than most how life ends - at least physiologically. Perhaps he and those like him who have spent their days focused on extending the lives of others find it especially hard to surrender to their own inevitable mortality. Then again, they’re hardly alone; there is no fear more primal or universal than our shared fear of death. But it had been a long time since that specter had come so close to my nuclear family. In the four decades since my sister died, there had been only a handful of medical emergencies among us, all of which were resolved quickly and completely. None of us had been touched by the kind of prolonged life-threatening illness that ultimately claimed my sister.
In a way I credited her for that. Somehow, I’d come to see her as a kind of lightning rod for our fortunes. If some portion of bad luck is destined to rain down on every family, then Pammy certainly took more than her share of ours when her cancer struck - and paid whatever tab we owed to heaven with her life.
The power to keep others from harm is certainly one ascribed to angels, but despite the metaphor I’d adopted for the role my sister played in my family’s fate, I have a hard time seeing her as one. It’s a skepticism that goes hand in hand with my rejection of my mother’s penchant for hidden meanings - in her faith in the unseen agency that engineers the events we call coincidences - and in her belief that my sister lives on as a winged presence that continues to watch over us and waits to welcome us into whatever world comes next.
It’s not the fantastic nature of that premise that I can’t abide. I’m certainly no materialist. I believe in the things I don’t know or understand far more deeply than those that I do. If I’m certain of one thing, it’s that the thin skin of perception I skate across to live the thing I call my live my life doesn’t begin to touch the depths of what is really going on.
No, my rejection of my mother’s angels isn’t grounded in theory. It’s much more personal than that. I was raised on angels - one more Protestant baby boomer bred to believe in the bible stories I heard about them in Sunday school, and to pay them the same blind allegiance I pledged to the flag in the morning and to my TV heroes at night. And when my mother’s spiritual journey led her across the street from our church to explore a more mystical god within the walls of a Catholic abbey, my siblings and I followed her, looking for where He might be hiding within the stained glass windows and swirling clouds of incense. We never doubted He was in there somewhere, and we followed our parents example to worship Him with all the earnest passion our tiny hearts could muster. In return we knew we could depend upon Him to love and protect us. But when my sister’s death exposed that lie, I refused to let her join Him as one more member of His heavenly host.
I didn’t dream of voicing that opinion to my mother, at least not on this visit. It was her hour of need, and I came to do my best to support her in it. I spent the week doing the simple tasks I’d learned at her knee: helping her to plan and cook and cleanup meals for the three of us each day. I followed her up and down the grocery aisles just like I did when I was five, wrestling to adjust my pace and patience, to take my time to assist her - without trying to take over. I looked for that balance all week long. Sometimes, I even found it, aided by my ability to envision just how quickly the years would pile up before I found myself shepherded into old age by my own children. I thought of how hard it would be for me to cede power to those I’d taken care of for so many years - the ones whose needs and vulnerability inspired my surest, strongest self. Would I be strong enough to yield control to those who loved me when the time came? Strong enough to admit I was weaker than them, and that I needed their help?
Ralph seemed to find that strength one morning as I sat beside him at his PC. He walked me through an overview of his finances and granted me permission to share it with the rest of the family. I did my best to earn that trust, sketching spreadsheets in Excel that matched his resources against the costs of moving to a retirement community up north. I looked for ways to make things work, and shared what I found to assure him that the tally would add up to the comfort and care of he and my mother. We stuck to the numbers, but I knew what that move would really cost him: the friends and tennis partners, his connection to the long list of patients in the free clinic he’d donated years of service to, the bluebirds and purple martins that sailed past his windows, the Carolina coast and southern sun, all of the people, places and things that had made North Carolina his home.
My mother found her strength in the future. Once the numbers showed what was possible she began making calls and going online, researching everything from floor plans to meal plans to find the place they might land next. She talked of moving towards new opportunities, new friends, new chances for learning, the next path on her lifelong quest for spiritual growth. But mostly she looked forward to moving closer to family. To a future founded on the love she had seeded in her past.
I started most mornings that week with her in her “Carolina Room,” the small den that overlooks a stream beside a golf course and the collection of bird houses and feeders she’s posted there. We’d watch the birds circle and land while she talked about her life, the people who’d come and gone, and the love that had remained. One story was about the abbey, about the shining white presence she’d found sitting alone with her inside the chapel late one night. When I asked her to describe it, she struggled to define its physical form. She spoke of no wings, or halo, or even a face, and though I wrestled with my feelings - my skepticism, my rejection, I found myself wanting to believe.
The flight home was only a few hours, but it was long enough for what I needed. I’d dropped quickly and deeply into my parents’ world, and though there was still so much left to be done to help usher them into their new life, I needed time for the move back into my own. I looked out the plane window at the curve of the earth, then let my eyes trail from the horizon to the patchwork of land below. Squares of yellow-green grass were mixed among copses of trees still stripped bare by winter, and I couldn’t tell if the flat silver ribbon that ran through them was frozen or had started to flow. The whole world seemed caught between the seasons - some still place poised between death and new life.
As we started to descend I picked out houses and buildings, then roads and trucks and cars as we got closer to the ground. I wanted to find people, or at least a person - one human form I could connect to the signs of habitation I saw scattered across the land. I began to search around each shop and home, but every parking lot and yard below was empty. I scanned the sides of the runway, the hangers, terminal and parked planes, but didn’t see a single soul before we finally taxied to a stop.
I’m not sure why I needed to find evidence of someone in the world outside my window. I’d seen all that they’d created - all the things I couldn’t build myself but believed in simply because I knew that there were others who could. Things that proved that there are powers at work in the world far beyond the small scope of my own. They are forces I don’t understand, but have learned to rely on, even trust, without ever giving them a second thought. They are there to shelter and to serve me, and connect me to the host of others for whom they do the very same. There’s a whole world of invisible beings I am completely unaware of that make my life so much richer.
Maybe the same is true of angels.