From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul

Four Angels

I glanced out the rear windows of the ambulance, which was making its strange reverse trip, hospital to home. I stroked the back of my mother’s limp hand in a slow, steady rhythm, trying to comfort myself as well as her.

She was breathing so shallowly, I concentrated upon her now-tiny body (tiny except for the huge, swollen abdomen) before I detected a slight, uneven movement of her swaddled form. I stopped breathing myself as I death-watched her, utterly transfixed with terror.

I breathed out a desperate prayer: Please God, wait until we get her home. Let it happen in her own bed, in peace.

“Is there anything in particular you want to talk about?” my mother asked, but with a stranger’s voice. Her throat was so raw from the tubes and machines that even the simplest words were thickly coated with involuntary and sometimes almost unintelligible inflections.

I could not answer her question at first. I looked down at my hands clasped in my lap.

“Just everything, Mom. I just want to talk about everything.” Every little big thing and every little thing that will happen to me for the rest of my life, I thought to myself. I want your advice on raising my daughter, your first granddaughter, who, now too young to know you, will have to borrow my memories. But most of all let’s talk about how, exactly how, step by step, I am going to live the rest of my life without you—my one and only safe harbor of unconditional love.

This is what I wanted to say, but I remained silent instead. Spoken words could not do this moment justice, I painfully realized.

“I know,” she said, in the saddest tone yet of that stranger’s voice, as if she had just read my thoughts from the worried lines of my face.

I stared at her, momentarily shocked by the sudden change in her eyes. My mother’s extraordinary ocean-blue eyes were now filled with the pale-yellow tears of a dying woman. When had this happened? Last night? Last minute, when my head was turned down? This was the ultimate deprivation, to be robbed of seeing her unique qualities, to see her only, and finally, in terms of dwindling bodily functions.

“The bottom line is that she has a tumor that is growing rapidly and will result in her death in the next 24 hours.”

This is what her oncologist said to us late last night in the hospital corridor, his eyes dropping to the floor.

“It could be a particularly agonizing kind of death,” he added, now speaking directly to our feet.

My sisters stood there with me, flanking our father. I clutched a notepad to my chest, where I had carefully written down all of our questions. Somehow we figured that if we just asked this man the right question, he would finally give us the answer we hoped for. But now none of the questions about the quality of our mother’s life mattered anymore, after being given the answer of death. Still, my father choked one out.

“Will she make it until we get her home?”

The doctor gave my father a look I had seen on his face once before. It was 10 months earlier, when the diagnosis had been made, and after listening to his clinical speech, my mother asked him a single question. The room was so quiet, I remember thinking I actually heard the sound of our hearts breaking as she spoke.

“Do I have one good year left?” she had asked.

And the doctor had answered my mother with this same wary expression.

Unfortunately he had been right. It had not even been a year, and certainly not enough of what had occurred since then had been good.

My father flinched at the silent message on the doctor’s face. And then he spoke in a voice I remembered from over 20 years before, an incredibly resonant, strong voice, the way as a child I had imagined God sounded.

“I have arranged for a private ambulance to take my wife home as soon as she wakes up tomorrow morning. I expect you to be there, and take every damn tube, and I mean every one, out of her so that she can go home the way she should—the way a person who is as loved and cherished as she is should.”

“Yes, of course,” the doctor said simply.

The doctor was visibly relieved. There was nothing else for him to do, and best of all, nothing else he was expected to do. The passing of the torch, so to speak, for the home stretch.

“Have we gone over the bridge yet, darling?” my mother asked, waking surprisingly alert.

I looked out for a familiar landmark and saw that we were slowing down to glide through the sleepy Maryland eastern-shore town that my parents had retired to a few years earlier. I recognized a few of our neighbors outside their houses, standing in a solemn salute to the ambulance passing through, acknowledging its precious cargo.

They had been there for her, the way only a rural community still knows how to be. Leaving freshly baked, still-warm casseroles on the doorstep at five o’clock, weeding her flower garden when she was away for chemotherapy, clearing brush from the shoreline so that she could see the water from her bed. People made of solid gold.

“Mom, we’re almost there. We’re going through town.” The ambulance crept up our driveway, and I could see my father and sisters standing outside the front door, waiting. The sight of their wretched vigil struck me, and I burst into tears. So, this is how I must look, how we all look, the exposed faces of premature grief.

How terrible for her to remember us this way. How equally terrible for us to remember her this way. I threw myself angrily against the doors, just as they opened, and gasped the rain-filled air as I scrambled out.

I have only the filmiest memories of those first hours of my mother’s return. But at some remarkable point during the early evening, right before our eyes, she turned her own corner, one that no physician had foreseen or even held out the remotest possibility of existing. And the next morning she woke up, her abdomen completely flat, got out of bed, and made a pot of coffee for her incredulous family.

“There were four angels with me last night,” she announced quietly, her soft voice restored.

My sisters and I smiled at the same time, each of us thinking that she was referring to her four daughters because, angels or not, we had taken turns listening, every moment of the night, our ears pressed against a baby monitor, to the sounds of her continued breathing.

“No,” she said, reading our thoughts. “Four angels came in the night, and each held one corner of the sheet a few inches above my stomach.”

She looked across the table solemnly at each of us in succession. My father looked down at his hands, but the rest of us held her gaze, steady, utterly believing.

“And they are still waiting for me, but they said that I must have faith because there is still some time left. And I know what all the doctors have said, but you all must listen to me because the angels told me. And so, let’s make some plans, now.”

And then she proceeded to give us her wish list. To pick up the new boat and go on a family ride across the creek. To have my daughter flown out to see her one more time. To arrange a small dinner party to thank her closest friends. Small wishes. Yet, the day before, they had been beyond our most far-reaching prayers.

My sisters made a grocery list in preparation for the dinner, and I followed my mother back into the bedroom.

“Mom,” I started to say, not even knowing what my question was.

She adjusted her brightly colored silk scarf around her bare scalp, and looked up at me defiantly.

“Darling, it was not a dream. It was not even a vision. It happened, and they were here, as surely as you are standing here right now. And,” she added, pointing to Danny, our aged golden retriever in his favorite position on the end of her bed, “he had to shove one of the angels aside last night before he could find a place to lie down. I watched him nudge an angel gently with his nose so that he could sleep here.”

We both stared at the dog, who rolled his chestnut eyes toward me, tilting his head up proudly, as if he knew full well the importance of being sole witness to my mother’s story.

“So you see, you have time to fly back to California and bring my granddaughter here so that I can see her again.”

I buried my face in the dog’s neck, hiding my bewilderment, and listened blissfully to her plans for her short but still existent future. I had always believed that if God had to choose one animal to enter heaven, it would be a golden retriever. My mother’s revelation only strengthened my convictions.

“The angels told me that God has chosen my time,” she said, “but he is allowing me to choose the hour.”

And so indeed he did. In the next few weeks she hosted her dinner party, although informally attired in her bed clothes, and she had Communion in her living room, the minister stepping good-naturedly over the sleeping dog on the floor so as not to spill the blessed wine. And she went out on the water for a short ride on a calm day in my father’s new boat. And she saw my daughter once more and listened to her giggle abandonedly the way only a two-year-old, untouched by the closeness of death, can. And more small things, but enormous to us by the mere fact of their occurrence. Each one a gift, from God, through her, to us. The gift of answered prayers.

And then, six weeks later, my mother chose her hour. She was home, sleeping in her bed, holding my father’s hand. I did not ask, but I am sure our God was somewhere nearby. And I am surer still, that even closer to her side were those special friends that only my mother and our dog had been granted the privilege to meet, returning once more to reclaim their precious charge.

Jacquelin A. Gorman

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