Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Bedtime Story for Christmas Eve

My mother died of lung cancer fourteen years ago this past December 15th. It's amazing to me how long she has been gone! She was diagnosed only in the autumn of that year, passed away quietly at home on a Friday evening, and was buried in the middle of a wild, early snowstorm on December 20th. I was grateful that she had been spared most of the physical suffering that usually accompanies this type of cancer, and had resigned myself to letting her depart in peace.

My Dad, however, was inconsolable. Since retiring, he had built his whole life around Mom. She was the sun around which his little planet revolved. He had planned to die first, and could not believe that she had somehow predeceased him. He had no hobbies. He had no faith to sustain him. He insisted that no one had ever felt this way before; no one could help him with his grief. He would not come home with me for Christmas. He wanted to be alone.

In the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, Dad went to the cemetery, as he had done every day since Mom's funeral. It was twilight, and the gate attendant warned Dad that he didn't have much time to visit. The snow was fairly deep; Dad parked as close as he could, then struggled along the path he had already created to Mom's grave. Overcome with despair, he knelt down in the snow to say a prayer -- an unusual activity for him. As he finished his prayer and tried to rise, a deep weariness seized him. It penetrated every bone. All he wanted to do was to lie down next to Mom; he realized that, in that cold, he would not be getting up again. He looked around, and not a soul was near. The sun had nearly set, leaving only a streak of pink on the horizon.

Suddenly, as he told me later that night, two people seemed to be at his side. One was a man in his fifties, the other a young woman of about twenty-five. Both were dressed in warm winter clothing, complete with hats and scarves. Each gently took hold of one of his elbows, and assisted him to his feet. The man said nothing, but the young woman smiled at him and said quietly, "Your wife is fine."

Dad was, naturally, startled and bewildered. He thanked them for their concern, and managed to walk quickly to his car, which was only twenty feet away. Turning to thank them again, he drew in his breath in surprise.

They were gone, of course.

In great confusion, Dad dropped his keys, retrieved them, got into the car and wept. He was not sure what had happened. He drove home and told no one but me, his only child, of his strange experience. He refused to believe he had seen angels. He had been an internal auditor for a bank, a "bean-counter." Bean-counters didn't see angels, he claimed.

But I knew. Our cemetery is a vast, open space in the flat expanse of the Atlantic coastal plain. Erect headstones are not permitted; all markers must be flat, bronze plaques. Trees are few and far between, and none are in the vicinity of Mom's grave. There is nothing which could have prevented Dad from seeing his visitors. I struggled to convince him how blessed he had been.

I initially thought I had struggled in vain. But in January of the following year, my Dad was the oldest of the new confirmands at the Cathedral Church of St. John, in Wilmington, as I stood gratefully with my hand on his shoulder. Unfortunately, he contracted a stubborn form of pneumonia later that winter, and passed away in the early spring, just three months after joining the Episcopal Church.

I don't visit the cemetery often, because in my heart I know they are not there. I last visited Mom and Dad in the high summer a few years back, at noon on a blazingly hot day in July. I sat cross-legged on the grass for my silent visit. I suppose I am always really hoping the angels will return, to assure me that my parents are fine.

Bugs buzzed around my head, the recently-cut grass prickled against my bare legs, and the air was filled with the whine of the eighteen-wheelers out on Route 13. No angels appeared, however. I imagine they only come when someone is in extremis, as my Dad was that night.

But every Christmas Eve, I remember: this is the night my Dad saw angels! Thanks be to God!

And Merry Christmas!


Anonymous said...

This is an absolutely beautiful story. Thank you for sharing something so special about your parents.

3xl said...

Truly moving, and encouraging and thank you for it. I have a different but similar story regarding the death of my mother, which one day, maybe I will tell as you have done.