This was a comment on a post where I announced the coming of my reading of Angel. I had sent Sherry the story earlier, thinking that she might appreciate it. She didn't disappoint. It's always deeply gratifying, and curiously humbling, when my work is so well received.
Here is the short introduction that I used on Sunday, explaining where my inspiration came from. Following that is the story itself.
PS: I felt that this was one of my best readings. Stay tuned for photos in the near future.
"December tenth of 2011 marked the death of my friend’s much-loved pet, Heidi. Hurt launched me into a series of stories that were an attempt to capture what I was feeling - the essence of loss. This story, “Angel,” was an effort to go even further: to ease my friend’s sorrow. However, notwithstanding the depth of my desire to do so, of course I failed. If such words exist, I’ve yet to find them."
CW Lovatt – 30/12/2011 – 03/01/12
My earliest memory of her occurred well before my first birthday. You might think that such an occurrence isn’t possible; I assure you that it is, but only because of what happened later.
It was in the morning, just after breakfast. I was still in my highchair, playing with my oatmeal. My father had already left for work. My mother had given up trying to coax me to eat, allowing me instead to snatch the spoon away from her for my own amusement; after which she’d gathered the remainder of the dishes and taken them to the sink, so was busily engaged when it happened.
It was like someone appearing out of a heavy mist on the far side of the room. At first there was just a hint – the barest of outlines – growing ever stronger as her form gradually coalesced, until finally she was standing in front of me, not ten feet away, as real as my mother, over by the counter, up to her elbows in a mountain of suds.
She was lovely, although slight of build - the top of her head came no higher than my mother’s shoulder who, in turn, came no higher than my father’s. Her hair was a curious silver-white, framing emerald eyes and a pixie face, and flowed unfettered to the slender contours of her waist. Her dress was medieval, of forest green, with tight sleeves and a laced bodice covering a youthful bosom. Although I had never set eyes on her before, somehow I recognized her the moment she appeared.
Ben, our old mongrel (and my self-appointed protector) had been lingering beneath my chair out of habit, alert for whatever edible offerings might make it to the floor. He regarded her solemnly, cocking his head and wagging his tail with polite interest, but nothing more.
I kicked out with my legs and grinned. Then I said, “Uk!” all the while drumming the spoon on the highchair counter. It had been my intention to offer a more formal greeting, but I was an old soul trapped in a baby’s body, with nothing more than a baby’s vocabulary to work with, so “Uk!” had to do.
She smiled and said, “Hello,” although her lips never moved. It was as if the word simply appeared in my head. I soon found that my own thoughts registered likewise with her.
I sent her a devilish, “Back atcha,” and tried to impress her by wadding the entire spoon into my mouth. What I actually said, however was, “Blap!”
She drifted nearer – not so much walking, but gliding - her head tilted to one side, studying me closely.
At length, “You have changed,” appeared in my mind.
I gargled, took up the bowl in my sturdy little arms and plopping it on my head, smiled and said, “Gubble!” Then, as the oatmeal oozed down my face, I thought, “Change is the only constant, beloved.”
“You speak truly,” and was there sadness? If so, it was chased away with, “But I am with you now.”
“Yes,” and as my mother burst into peals of laughter over my antics, and tried to scold me (all the while unaware of our visitor, standing next to her) I thought to add, “and I bid you welcome.”
That was our first meeting.
It would be many years before I saw her again, and in that time my memory of her had long since faded, as well as memories that I had ever had a past. In this life, I was Michael Johansen, of good but unremarkable family, and had no recollection that I had ever been anyone else. That’s the way of time: there’s no other present than the one we live in, and the past exists only in photographs and memories. It exists more so as we grow older, and perhaps, eventually, that is the entirety of old age – thoughts of all those yesterdays – but not even the most ancient can remember every yesterday that ever was…or every face ever loved.
It was only after the second occurrence that I began to consider that she might be an angel.
My thirteenth birthday – that precarious age of child versus unchild – was when I first noticed Carolyn Spencer. Of course the cause of my oversight was that she belonged to that much-despised Girl tribe, and was therefore beneath consideration; but when I saw her that day, with warm sunlight on her face, emerging into womanhood, I noticed plenty, and in my not-quite-child way, stared at her with all the wonder of one to whom the world had just revealed its most cherished secret. She blushed under such foolish attention and whispered something to her friend, Andrea Kinsley. Andrea giggled and rolled her eyes, but Carolyn merely looked down and smiled at her hands, folded neatly on her lap.
That’s when it happened again. Behind her, ‘she’ appeared as before: silver-white hair, green dress and all. Once more she smiled, but this time the words, “Enjoy her,” formed in my mind, as an aura began to glow over Carolyn’s head like a golden halo; then both she and the light were gone before I could overcome my surprise, or even convince myself that the moment had actually occurred.
Whether this urging was the cause for my actions or not, I couldn’t say; the spell that Carolyn had cast was strong enough on its own. Whatever the reason, eventually I mustered the courage to approach her, tongue-tied with nerves, but before I could speak, she shared her smile with me – the first of many – and asked, “What took you so long?”
Thereafter I did enjoy her. Forty years later, I was enjoying her still.
But that moment had left an impression, enough for me to relate what I had seen (or thought I had seen) to the one person who, in all the world, I was certain would not laugh in my face.
My mother’s ancestry was Hungarian, her dark hair and swarthy complexion suggesting what might have been traces of Rom. Perhaps this held some significance, for my tale was not lost on her. She listened carefully to what I had to say before rendering judgment.
“You are blessed, Michael,” she pronounced with solemn pride, “There is an angel watching over you.”
Such tales are never more wondrous than at that age. In my excitement, I related it to any and all who would listen, only to be patronized by my elders, and scorned by my peers. I continued to remain stubbornly defiant for a time, but year after year, when a recurrence failed to materialize, my life moved on, and the episode was left in the past.
Living in the day-to-day seldom leaves any room for what is only half-remembered as a child. We grow, we marry and have children of our own, causing the day-to-day to become even busier than ever imagined. But the past isn’t always content to stay forgotten. Sometimes it catches up with us, and comes home to roost, as it did with me, in what I’m about to relate.
I had said that my life with Carolyn spanned forty years. This story occurred a year after she was dead.
The death of a loved one affects us all in different ways.
The pain of losing her was far worse than anything I had ever imagined, worse even than losing both my parents years earlier, and I discovered that I was ill-suited to such grief. The very idea that the woman who had walked beside me for so long was no longer here was too much to endure. Being forced to accept that, in her place, I was given nothing but the unacceptable, was a poison growing inside me, so that I sought any anecdote by whatever means available.
“Dad, you’ve got to lay off that stuff.”
That was my son, Frank, and I suppose that this was his version of an intervention: to come storming into the house unannounced, march into the living room (where I’d been staring at an old patch of mildew on the ceiling, possibly for hours) and take the bull by the horns. I’m sure that he meant well, but he had his own wife and family to think about now. Why on earth wasn’t he preoccupied with them instead?
“Let me be,” I said amiably. He was my flesh and blood, after all.
“Can’t you see that it’s killing you?”
I repeated, “Let me be!” this time with feeling.
Oh I loved him – of course I did, he was my son; but Carolyn…she was everything.
“Okay, forget what you’re doing to yourself,” the boy had a stubborn streak a mile wide and half as long. “Think about what you’re doing to Ellie and me, and the kids!”
The thought had crossed my mind, once or twice in an OxyContin haze, but those little yellow pills had me by then, and that was all right with yours truly, quite fine actually.
I was offended. Life offended me, and I didn’t want any part of it anymore. There were just too many pitfalls, everywhere you looked, and everything you felt, eventually it always came down to dealing with the pain. Even when I gazed bleary-eyed into Frank’s good, honest face, all I could see was his mother, and that hurt like hell. Even without the visual comparison, the very pureness of my love for him – for all of them - ached until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Fact is, as far as I was concerned, love was the problem, it left everything too exposed – too defenseless to face the inevitable. I had learned the hard way that everything ends, and that it all ended badly. So give me numb any day of the week, and twice on Sunday – just give me something I can’t feel.
Taking my silence for the repudiation that it was, Frank threw up his hands in the same way that I used to throw up mine, when I found him engrossed in He Man on television instead of out on his bicycle, delivering the local rag to the neighbours.
“To hell with you then, okay?” He wasn’t my grown son anymore; he was my little Frankie again, striking out at what he didn’t understand. “I don’t give a damn about you,” he lied, “We’re done, okay Dad? You and me, we’re done!”
And with that, thank God, he stomped out of the house, slamming the door behind him, leaving me, mercifully, to myself.
Although we’re never really by ourselves, are we – never really alone? Like I said, we have our memories, we aged few; we have all those ghosts from the past, but supposing that the past is just too painful, what then?
We believe that we have a choice – it’s been proselytized into us from the cradle to the grave; but if that’s really true, then why is it that in the quiet hours of the night, I can’t choose to keep my wife’s memory away?
Granted, I’d taken one too many pills, but the day had already been a chore. The past had been crowding in on me, so I kept on popping them until I’d chased it away, just as I’d chased Frank away only moments earlier. That’s what you do with memories – you kill them - you eradicate them with little yellow pills, just like you eradicate weeds in the garden. You kill them before the pain comes home to roost…and, sooner or later, it always does.
I heard Carolyn sometime in the night, while I lay sleeping in our bed. Shadows of foreboding crept over me, because I knew that, in spite of all my efforts, the past had returned.
She whispered, “Michael.”
I tried to block my ears, and thought that more of my little friends were needed to get me through until morning. Except when I opened my eyes, on the point of reaching for the phial on my bedside table, it was to find that our bedroom had disappeared, and I was already ensnared in her dream.
I was standing high on a hill, overlooking a green pastoral valley far below. Close by, Carolyn sat on a rough-hewn bench facing the valley with her back to me. Her posture was of deep sadness. But then, that would make two of us, wouldn’t it?
I called to her. “Carolyn?” but she wouldn’t answer.
I became annoyed – was already more than half-annoyed just to be here, wherever ‘here’ actually was. At the same time I was struggling with the usual pangs of guilt, thinking that I should be grateful for times like these, but I never was. The existence of guilt is something else that offends me.
Be that as it may, now that I was here, there was nothing left but to put on my best face, and endure the unavoidable upon waking. If anyone was going to act churlish and out of sorts, it wasn’t going to be me.
I strode up to the bench and sat down beside her.
I asked, “So what gives with you?” Okay, maybe I was being a little churlish, but I resented being pulled away from the numb only to be treated to the coldness of her shoulder.
However, this time I was mistaken; there wasn’t anything cold in the way that she looked at me. Her eyes weren’t angry, but filled with concern, and fond reproach.
“What gives with me?” Her voice was purest sorrow. “Oh Michael, what gives with you?”
All the bitterness welled up like always. I replied without hesitation, “You left me! You had no right!”
The sadness of her smile saddened even further, until the smile was gone altogether. She raised her hand to smooth an errant curl on my forehead – an often repeated, absent-minded gesture - but stopped just in time. We don’t touch in dreams – some one, or thing – won’t allow it. That also offends me.
Still, I recognized the gesture for what it was: contrition…love…a desire for peace. In the end it was my own folly that ruined the moment. Time after time, I found it impossible to be so near to her and not react. So I woke up without ever having had the comfort of holding her, and instead re-experienced the cruelty of knowing that I never would again. The old wounds had been re-opened, and the harsh bite of my sorrow cut deeper than ever before.
By now my reaction had become habit. The grey light of dawn was just creeping in through the window, so it wasn’t necessary to fumble in the dark for the phial; but somewhere between seizing hold, and popping the lid with my thumb, I knew that the time had come to make an end.
It all made sense, and making sense out of anything was rare these days, thereby doubling its appeal. Now that I could see it all clearly, the only question was (just as Carolyn herself had asked so long ago) why had it taken me so long?
I upended the phial, depositing a mound of pills into my palm, more than sufficient for the cause. I sat there gloating over them, relieved that it was finally going to be over, when suddenly I felt the hair rising on the back of my neck, and I knew that I wasn’t alone. Slowly, I raised my head, fearful that my dead wife might still be lingering in the shadows, but it wasn’t her at all.
‘She’ was standing at the foot of the bed like an unleashed storm, with creases across her brow, and the corners of her mouth turned down into an angry frown.
“NO!” exploded in my mind like a blast of dynamite, “Beloved, you mustn’t!”
That gave me pause. I had very little memory of her, nothing but something that was distant and half-dreamed, and yet there she stood, as if the curtain between our worlds had been torn away. I was too amazed to demand who she was. Perhaps at a certain level I already knew. Instead, to give my anguish its due, I groaned and said, “Go away!”
“Don’t be a fool! You know that isn’t possible!” and again, at some level, I think that I had been aware of that, too. But at length, the words began to arrive more gently, without the crash of angry explosions, “Nor would I, even if it was.”
The hand holding the OxyContin didn’t waver, but neither did it rise any closer to my mouth.
“It’s too much,” I told her, urging – and somehow needing - her to agree, “Everything, everywhere…it’s all too hard!”
But she didn’t agree, although her wrath gradually transformed into a sad, knowing smile. Instead, without a word, she drifted closer and took hold of my hand. I was too mesmerized to do other than let her.
Soon I was encompassed in warmth, unaware that the pills had slipped from my fingers, pattering unheard amidst the folds of the covers. She held my eyes…and moments later the fabric of the world began to change as my life played out in a vision…
I saw our first meeting, as I’ve already described, and the other that came later, and still many others that I’d never been aware of. I saw myself standing by Carolyn’s grave, the casket ready to be lowered into the ground. She had been with me then, as well.
I gasped, and felt something wrench deep in my chest.
Her smile warmed, “Do you see? Do you understand who I am?”
“I don’t know,” I moaned, “Are you an angel?”
Her eyes widened with surprise, but then her smile deepened, and she said, “Look.”
Unable to do otherwise, I obeyed.
I had said that her eyes were green, but gazing into them now, I wasn’t so sure, for they gradually appeared to change into the same blue as Carolyn’s, at the same time her features transforming to make her so, but it didn’t stop there. Soon I was seeing many different changes in eye colour - many different changes of features. There was my mother, my father, grandparents, aunts and uncles – even my old protector, Ben, and others like him, but there was one thing in common with them all – a lingering essence of ‘her’, a recurring soul, resurfacing again and again across the threads of time, and I understood how it was that Carolyn and I had recognized one another so easily.
The transformations were coming faster, until they were racing past, as though some unseen hand was riffling through cards, only the cards were faces and all of them familiar…and all of them loved.
Faces, thousands upon thousands of them, so many that it wasn’t possible to contain them all in one lifetime – or two – or even ten - now whirring past in a blur, until the blur fanned into an irresistible wave penetrating my chest. All those who had ever known me, and cared for me – this ‘me’ and other ‘me’s’ that I’d been before – where here, embodied in this strange, beautiful creature.
Eventually, the question was asked a second time, “Now do you see? Now do you understand?”
I heard myself answer, “Yes,” then louder, “Yes!” and suddenly everything vanished, and I was alone.
Although not alone - never again.
I sat in bed with the blankets draped around my hips, unwilling, or unable, to move. After a time (minutes? hours?) I finally managed to rise and, one by one, rooting through the covers, gathered all the pills and took them to the bathroom, ignoring the haggard reflection in the mirror while flushing them down the toilet.
Then I went to the living room to the sofa, amid all the clutter from a year of neglect…thinking in the dark, unsure that it hadn’t been a dream, or that I might be dreaming still.
I thought about me - this ‘I’ - a mere droplet in an eternal river, one that had given to and received from so many others, until all were indivisible. If I were to believe what I had just witnessed, then not everything ended badly – indeed, not everything ends. Without Carolyn’s physical presence my cup might not be full, but it was far from empty, and maybe, just maybe, that was enough to build on. In a few hours Frank would be up. I’d give him a call. He’d be happy to hear that it was time for me to break free of my habit.
Finally, I thought about her.
In the silence, I allowed it to play across my lips:
But it sounded flat, like an untuned string - flat and discordant - a cry lost in a gust of high summer wind.
No, not an angel; whether dream or real – whether droplet or the river…she was my ‘self’.