81: Angel Unawares

81: Angel Unawares

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

Angel Unawares

To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.

~Thomas Campbell

As always, Christmas cards lined our living room the season I was sixteen. And as always, I marveled at the masses of them. This year they were swirling in, even more abundantly, like gentle snowflake messages meant to remind us we were loved. But nothing about this year was like always. For it had only been eight months since my nineteen-year-old brother, Greg, had been murdered.

Mom stood back from decorating the tree, and said, as she had through every one of my growing up years, “Isn’t it just like a fairyland, Pam?” Tears glistened in her eyes, like the room reflected in the shining red balls hanging from the tree.

“Yes, Mom,” I agreed. If anything could ease my pain, it just might be the wonder of turning off all the lights except the tree and letting the glow flow over us, as Andy Williams crooned of silver white Christmases, one Holy Night and sweet Noel — a balm to our souls.

But could anything wipe out the memory of our last six years? They’d seemed like one long rumbling earthquake in our family life as Greg looked for friends in all the wrong places....

Just then, the doorbell startled us both and we laughed uneasily. Lately, the thought of unexpected visitors set my heart pounding. Dusty, our usually calm Sheltie-Beagle mix, started barking. I grabbed her before Mom could open the door. No use scaring whoever that was on our doorstep.

From over Mom’s shoulder, I could see a young girl about four years older than I was — slim, blonde, with a nice smile. She held a potted poinsettia. I’d never seen her before.

“My name’s Gloria,” she introduced herself. “I was a friend of Greg’s...” Her voice cracked slightly and she paused. “I’ve been wanting to stop by for a long time now... to tell you... how sorry I am. May I come in?”

Mom opened the door wider. “Yes, certainly,” she said. Then to me, “Pam, take the flowers from Gloria.” I put Dusty down as she woofed a little softer in her “I don’t know you so I’m watching you” tone. But Gloria just commented on her beauty, stooping down with confidence to pet her long soft fur. Dusty’s tail swished, a sure sign of acceptance. I caught Mom’s eye, certain we were both thinking the same thing. We’d learned to be wary of Greg’s... friends.

I reached for the flowers and met Gloria’s smile, as Mom led her to the couch. I sat across from them to listen. Dusty moved to sit protectively at Mom’s feet.

“I don’t remember Greg ever speaking of someone named Gloria,” Mom began.

Gloria relaxed back against the cushions comfortably. “We knew each other in grade school,” she explained. “I hadn’t seen him in years, but I just wanted to tell you about what a wonderful boy he was back then.”

As we talked, Gloria’s open laughter and sweet reminiscing about my brother warmed us, melting a little of the ice around our hearts. “Greg was one of my first ‘dates,’ ” she confided. “We were just kids, but he impressed me because he was such a gentleman. He opened doors — always so thoughtful — even brought me a rose.”

Again, I could almost read Mom’s thoughts. I knew the sorrow devastating her all these months since Greg’s death. The idea that she’d done something wrong in how she raised him, somehow failed him. The constant self-questioning. How had he changed from a happy kid to a reckless teen? And even more importantly, could she trust he was now at peace with God? As for me, I loved God, but he seemed somehow so far away and I wasn’t sure how that could change.

As Gloria recalled the Greg she knew, it was like she somehow brought him back into the room with us. Not tormented, as in recent years. But as the young boy we’d almost forgotten existed. She spoke of all the values my parents had taught each of us kids — faith, compassion, gentleness — and how she had seen them all in Greg. Her words became sorely needed proof that he had been a boy of character and values.

Time flew, and before we knew it, the dark of evening was on us. I got up to turn on the soft lights of the tree. Gloria stood to leave, moving to hug Mom as Dusty eyed her carefully. She had to go, but it was one of those moments you felt you didn’t want to lose. A sense that it shouldn’t just end there. Gloria met our eyes and smiled. “I’d like to come back,” she said, “to stay in touch.”

“I’d like that, too,” Mom said, warmly.

We picked up the empty decoration boxes after Gloria left, clearing things out from under the tree to leave room for presents. A soft feeling hung in the air for the first time that season — Christmas-y, like the scent of incense in church when every candle was aglow and all was quiet and peaceful. A benediction.

“I think we’ll start baking the oatmeal cookies after dinner tonight,” Mom said.

“And Russian teacakes?” I asked, mouth watering. Those had always been my favorite.

“First things first,” Mom laughed. “Dad and your sister will be home soon. Let’s get dinner started.”

Beginning that night, and carrying throughout the season, it was as if a candle had been lit. A little light to melt our sorrow. Carols flowed from the stereo, and from us, as we sang of angels bending near the earth with their song of peace. Soon, we started hearing the familiar hum of Mom’s sewing machine again, as she worked long into the night on our presents — lovely new nightgowns for Christmas Day.

Gloria became a part of our lives for several years, stopping by regularly, seeking out Mom as a second mother. Others after Gloria came to us with their own peace-giving puzzle pieces of Greg’s life.

Healing comes in stages, of course. But that one Christmas, we received a blessing of God’s assuring love from an angel so wondrously named Gloria.

~Pam Depoyan

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