ANGELS: Angels Unawares, by Sophy Burhham

From A Book of Angels

In the beginning the immortals
who have their homes on Olympos
created the golden generation of mortal people
These lived in Kronos’ time when he
was the king in heaven.
They lived as if they were gods,
their hearts free from all sorrow,
by themselves, and without hard work or pain;
no miserable
old age came their way; their hands, their feet
did not alter.
They took their pleasure in festivals,
and lived without troubles.
When they died, it was as if they fell asleep.
All goods were theirs. . . .
Now that the earth has gathered over this generation,
these are called pure and blessed spirits;
they live upon earth,
and are good; they watch over mortal men
and defend them from evil;
they keep watch over lawsuits and hard dealings;
they mantle themselves in dark mist
and wander all over the country;
they bestow wealth; for this right
as of kings was given them. . . .
Works and Days

⊹     ⊹     ⊹

It is said that angels come as thoughts, as visions, as dreams, as animals, as the light on the water or in clouds and rainbows, and as people too.  Are they walking on this Earth as people in disguise?  Or do they appear for that one moment and vanish into ether again?  Or is it really us, mere humans, who for a moment are picked up by the hand of God and made to speak unwittingly the words another needs to hear, or to hold out a lifeline to another soul?

Once a man on the highway saw me pull over in my faltering car and stopped to help.  This was on the New England Thruway, on my way from New York to Cape Cod.  It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night in a slashing rain.  My car kept stalling out at 60 miles an hour, which was the safe high speed.  The motor would die and I would watch in terror as my pace sank to 25 miles per hour, while I stabbed on my warning blinkers, wondering if I’d be slammed from behind.  A man stopped his pickup, seeing me helpless at the side of the road, and accompanied my failing car in his truck for miles and miles out of his way, his flashers protecting me.  That wonderful man spent six hours trialing me (imagine!), six hours of his time to ensure that I limped safely to my destination, I tried to find him later in New London, to thank him, but either I had misunderstood the address or he had left.  There was no such man at that address.

For each moment of horror in the world we find these acts of goodness, by the hands of angels.  Here is how another helped my reconciliation with my mother when she lay dying.  My Jamaican angel, a charlady, come to give me back my life.

My mother was a great lady, small and muscular, endlessly active.  She would haul the Gravely tractor around the lawn, then slap together a salami and tomato and lettuce and cheese sandwich on Wonder bread with imitation mayonnaise.  She would eat two of these for lunch, standing at the kitchen counter, drinking several cups of coffee, as if sitting were a waste of time.  Then off again to play a round of golf or rake up leaves or meet a friend in town or run to market or the bank.  She was always moving, yet her favorite words to me were, “Relax!  You’re so jittery.  Just sit down.  You don’t have anything to do here now but sit.

Which would set my teeth on edge, because the babies (her grandchildren) needed feeding or changing or something to divert them, and she was always picking, pecking at my skin.

And at her own.  All her life she suffered from eczema.  She was in constant pain and never talked about it.

There came a time when David and I moved from New York back to D.C., and I began an effort to mend my relationship with my mother.  It took several years.  She had had one bout with breast cancer and half her side had been lopped away.  An Amazon removing her breast in order to draw her archer’s bow would not have shown more disdain for her body than my mother did.  After breast cancer she got lung cancer and had a piece of lung removed.  That made her stop smoking, though she continued to sit in the study with my father, who lit one cigarette after another in the stuffy room, while the fire belched out clouds of smoke (the chimney held swallow nests which my mother decided would be too expensive to remove).  At the end of her life my mother was so unhappy, stricken with grief by my father’s stroke and her incapacity to help, embittered at the cruel trick fate had played, and her pain and anger often came tearing out at me, barbed and cutting.

“Oh, journalists,” she snorted.  Both David and I were encompassed in that term.  “New York!  You’re all so provincial.”

Sometimes she would turn on my writing.  One book in particular she loathed.  She never explained its offense, but for several years she could hardly look at me without recalling it: “What an awful book.”  She said it again and again.  “I was just ashamed reading that.  Ashamed.  I don’t know how you can hold up your head in public, knowing you’ve written that.”

“Well, what exactly didn’t you like?”

“The whole thing.  You can only hope it doesn’t sell.”

It would be a lie to say it didn’t hurt.  Once I fled the house before her assaults.  But I also wanted a reconciliation.

One day she telephoned to say that she felt a little under the weather and had gone to bed.  The doctor diagnosed it as walking pneumonia.  Also she had slipped in the bathtub and hit her ribs, so she had a terrible pain in her side.  My brother and his wife and David and I talked in whispers in the kitchen, as if she could overhear from upstairs.  The sight of our mother lying down was still new to us.  In forty years we’d hardly ever seen her sick, and then suddenly he’d had the two battles with cancer.  We worried the pneumonia might be serious.

A month later she was in the hospital.  I moved to Baltimore to be nearby.  Every day I drove to see her in the hospital, and every day she bickered and quarreled with me.  Reporters at the The New York Times had gone on strike: my husband was out of work, our financial situation precarious.  I had taken a job as a consultant to a federal agency and was keeping my sanity and reducing my grief with bouts of intense hard work.

My mother picked and picked at me.  Why didn’t I relax?  Just sit in the garden?  Take it easy and do nothing for a while?  Did I always have to work? What was wrong with me?  Intermittently she would worry about our finances: Were we all right?  Could David find another job?  But usually her attention focused on the fact that mine was divided.  Looking back I see the quarrels were partly my fault.  I didn’t comprehend her fear.  Why didn’t I tell her I was scared for her – and for myself?

One day in the hospital she lit into me again.  Peck-peck.  Nothing I could do was right.  I sank deeper in my chair, desolate: what was I doing there, when all she did was tongue-lash me?  At this moment a broad-faced, black woman came in to mop the floors of this cramped hospital room, hardly big enough to fit a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers.  My mother was sitting straight up against her pillows.  She wore a nightgown with a little bedjacket over it.  Her hair, freed from its customary bun, lay thin and loose on the pillow.  Beside the bed stood an enormous oxygen tank with a plastic tube running to her nose, and this she had removed and waved in one hand like a pasha with his hookah as she shot off her charges at me, complaining about the way I dressed and my pathetic efforts to write, scorning my present assignments on urban affairs as trivial and pointless.  Not even the entry of the hospital attendant quieted my mother’s tirade.

I hunched in my chair, hurt and angry, wondering if I should simply get up and leave.  Here was my mother, dying.  There were things we should be saying to each other, not nagging, picking at me so.

“I grudge you the mother-talk.”  The Jamaican charwoman stopped her mopping.  My mother and I both looked up startled.  Neither of us had understood her lilting Island accent.  But a thrill of recognition ran through me.

“What?”  I sat up straight.

“I grudge you the mother-talk,” she repeated, looking from one to the other of us, smiling with a broad, gold smile.  “My own mother died when I was twelve,” she sang, “and I’ve had no one in all these years to give me mother-talk.  It is so nice to hear.”

My mother looked embarrassed.  I sat up even straighter, hit by joy.  Of course!  She was cuffing the cub, was all.  I had not understood.  It took only a few moments for that beautiful, dark-skinned woman to finish with the floor – three swishes of her mop and she had done.  She left, but she left us in a different state.

I did not consider her an angel at the time, but marveled at the synchronicity of the encounter, this woman walking in to explain my mother’s behavior and walking out again.  From that movement our relationship took a turn.

We began to talk on another level.  We could approach the topic of death, say how much we cared for each other.

A week later she was dead.

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