Christmas is a reflective time for me for quite personal reasons. When I hear the carol, “Angels We Have Heard On High”, I am reminded that we never travel alone in this journey called life. I have proof.
The year was 1980 – Houston, Texas – the fourth largest city in the United States. The movie “Urban Cowboy” set the cultural tread for the moment. Stetson hats were appropriate attire. Snakeskin. Ostrich. You name the hide, there was a boot to fit your style. Everyone was learning to dance the two-step while holding a long neck beer in one hand, circling the honky-tonk dance floor of Gilley’s. Big hair. Big cars. Big jewelry. Big lifestyles. The oil industry was booming, and everyone was “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
I was a naive 20-something living the high-life that I never felt comfortable embracing. I was ill-equipped to survive in a world that cared less for me than I did for myself. Abused human beings develop a distorted view of their self-worth, and often gauge their self-respect based upon the approval of others whom they mistakenly view as more credible. We seek validation. Seduced by a captive lifestyle, my life was propelled by money and influence. I was trained as a child to believe that money, title and possessions were a sign of importance and worth. So to appease my “trainers”, I reluctantly accepted a relationship (I never call it a marriage) in order to seek approval and validation.
The Fiery Furnace
By 1982, I was living in hell. Fear was my mantel. Whenever curiosity prompts people to delve into my past, searching for salacious details, I tell them to just rent the movie, “Sleeping With The Enemy”. That was my life.
One unseasonably warm morning in March of that year, I awoke with the symptoms of yet another cold – the fifth one since January. My breathing was labored and painful. I was fatigued, and had a fever. I didn’t look sick, but I had to see a doctor. However, characteristic of my then people-pleasing personality, I made a brief appearance at work for everyone to see I was really sick. We had a big deadline, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was faking it. Back then I worried far too much about what other people thought.
Upon arriving at the Texas Medical Center, I waited about an hour before being called back to the exam room. The doctor checked me thoroughly, and then expressed concern that I might have pneumonia. She ordered me to go straight to the Imaging Center on the first floor and get a chest x-ray. Afterwards, I returned to the same exam room where she shared the results. As she looked at the film, explaining the presence of fluid in my lungs, she advised me to go straight home and rest for several days. The pain that I was experiencing in my chest was pleurisy, a condition not typically seen in a young active adult. Handing me a prescription for a powerful antibiotic, I walked out the door on auto-pilot in a haze.
Now if you have ever lived in Houston, you know that the interstate highways are a driver’s version of The Wide Wide World of Sports. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are never far from your bumper. By the time I navigated home, all I could do was literally fall into bed, and prop myself up with pillows in order to breathe easier.
Dosing peacefully, the phone woke me suddenly. A sharp pain struck my right shoulder as I gasp for breath to reach for the phone. It had only been an hour since returning home. It was my doctor asking me to return to the Medical Center that afternoon for another x-ray. Apparently, the one they had wasn’t good enough. She said it was important, because I might need different medication. She inquired if I could bring someone with me. There was no one. So, as I hung up the phone, I began venting the incompetence of the doctors and staff.
Backing out of the driveway, I noticed a disheveled woman walking up the street towards me, balancing a small toddler on her hip. When I looked a second time, she was waving in my direction and trotting towards me yelling, “Ma’am! Please! Wait!” Feeling the anxiety of traveling through peak rush hour traffic again back to the Medical Center, I did not want to stop. But the woman was persistent, waiving and yelling for me to help her.
As she approached the driver’s side window, she began to tell me that she and her son had just walked from the Walgreen’s pharmacy on Westheimer Parkway, which was about two miles away by my calculations. The poor child was visibly sick, green mucus draining from his nostrils, red cheeks. (I had no children) She asked if I could give them a ride home. She would never look me in the face, focusing all her attention on the child, which made me rather uncomfortable. I proceeded to fabricate an excuse, since I was still dressed in my Brooks Brothers suit, that I was really late for a business meeting that I could not afford to miss, and apologized for not being able to do more, while continuing to slowly back out of the driveway.
She would not relent. “Please, ma’am, we don’t live that far. It’s just around that corner. I promise it will not be any inconvenience. We just need to get home. My son is very sick.”
I thought to myself, and yes, I need to get to “my meeting.” Yet, the poor little boy compelled me to aid them. Being the skeptic I still am occasionally today, I opened the passenger door, while saying a quick prayer for protection and hoping the child was not just a distraction.
The drive was quiet. Neither of us said a word. The drive time was less than a minute, when the woman said, “Oh, here we are. You can just pull over here.” Meanwhile, I felt miserable. Yet, as always, I kept up a convincing image of perfection.
The woman opened the door, and stood the little boy outside on the grass, and then paused. I got that sick feeling in my stomach when you sense something is wrong, thinking I was about to be robbed at gun point. She turned toward me slowly, and placed her right hand on my right shoulder. I felt very uncomfortable. She looked directly in the eyes, and said in the most reassuring tone, “No matter what the doctors tell you. Don’t be afraid. God loves you. You are going to be alright.”
As I drove away, I thought how strange. What a strange statement to make to someone. I didn’t tell her I was seeing any doctor. I made the explicit point to say “business meeting.” But her eyes were so blue. Her face was pretty. I dismissed the encounter as just a bizarre incident from a disturbed individual, thanked God for my safety and proceeded to my destination.
Once again, I navigated through the Houston traffic and arrived at the doctor’s office to be greeted this time by three doctors in the same exam room. They proceeded to tell me that my x-ray revealed something more serious, and that they had brought me back to give me the diagnosis in person. They began talking to me in that controlled consoling tone, using terms I didn’t understand. Lymphoma. Hodgkin’s. Non-Hodgkin’s. Form of Leukemia. White count. Grapefruit-size tumor. 50/50 odds. Percentages. I wasn’t comprehending any of it until they said the word . . . cancer. Then from that moment, I didn’t hear anything else, except for the words echoing in my ears, “No matter what the doctors tell you. Don’t be afraid. God loves you. You are going to be alright.”
Despite the disbelief in my diagnosis, before I returned home, I returned to where I dropped off the woman and child. Of course, they were nowhere to be found. In fact, further investigation revealed that they didn’t reside in any of the houses near where I delivered them.
Who was she? And how did she know I was going to see a doctor?
For a year of my life, surgeries, tests and treatments were my every day existence. Fortunately, I had M.D. Anderson and Methodist Hospitals taking care of me. I drove myself to every appointment (4 days on/ 3 days off), except for occasional help offered by a neighbor, as well as meals. I knew exactly how much time I had from the moment the machine was turned off in order to navigate through traffic and get home before becoming physically ill. I lost some of my hair, of course, and had to walk around wearing lines and crosses drawn by a Sharpe pen, which served as guides on my neck and chest for radiation treatments. I looked like a tattooed disaster. I vomited almost every day. Struggled to find foods that tasted good enough to eat on a good day. And prayed more than I had my entire life. I knew exactly how many Our Father’s, Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s it took for one treatment, and how many Memorares I required to stay calm.
The abuse stopped. Sadly, it was perhaps the most peaceful time of my life. I lost all the “friends” I thought I had. The remaining few served me drinks in paper cups, and refrained from hugging me, or even standing too close for fear of contagion. However, throughout the ordeal, I gained a more genuine circle of friends in the most unexpected places, and a stronger faith that empowered me.
I’m Not Who I Was
Why do we have to travel certain paths in our life’s journey? Are these events by choice, by chance or by circumstance? I believe that we are like rocks, entering this world formless and resistant. Life’s experiences hone us into a brilliant diamond by the time we leave this earth.
I am not the person I was. In my 50-something life today, I recognize that I have survived cancer at a time with lesser odds for success (Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), 8 surgeries, the loss of a child through miscarriage, cared for and witnessed the death of my father (Lung and Brain Cancer) and my mother (Alzheimer’s), learned the reward of forgiveness, survived 3 tornadoes, one hurricane, and one earthquake. And through it all, although fear was never far from my experiences, I always heard the woman’s soft words in my ears, ” Don’t be afraid. God loves you. You are going to be alright.”
Now here is the segment in the story where I impart my wisdom. But honestly, I’m still being educated. I have about 30 to 40 more years to go before considering myself wise. However, I have learned a lot about what God expects from us. It’s an easy prescription. Hope. Faith. Love. Trust. If we focus on Him in all things, never allowing fear to overcome our endeavors to live faithfully, the blessings He has stored up for us are incomprehensible. No situation is ever hopeless. As Ruth Minsky Sender always said, “Where there is life there is hope.”
For the past 30 years, I have traveled my paths in life with a purpose. I have known great successes and great failures. Today, I am a blessed mother and wife; loved, respected and adored by my little family, and extended family. Often when talking about my experiences, I feel as if I’m talking about another person on another planet in another century. I occasionally use my experiences to help others overcome and prevail through their own struggles and journeys. Despite what I’ve endured, I have something that no one can ever take from me; a servant’s heart, greater understanding of my faith, and a deeper love of God and all things holy.
Were that woman and child angels, I have been asked? I will let you be the judge. I only know that at a pivotal moment in my troubled life, I felt God’s loving touch on my right shoulder, and His breath of life in my ear. From that day forward, I was changed.
Merry Christmas. May you always recognize the angels that God sends your way.
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 ]
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” [Romans 8:18]
© 2013. Diane McKelva. All rights reserved.
Angels among Us. Carmel, NY: Guidepost Associates, 1993. Print.
Anderson, Joan Webster. Where Angels Walk. New York: Ballantine, 1993. Print.
Photography: See our Photographers page.
About the Author: Diane McKelvaDiane McKelva is an American writer and essayist living in the Southern United States. She shares stories that compel her readers to challenge their potential in life. Her work often reflects her Catholic faith, and frequently examines issues surrounding moral and ethical dilemmas, injustice, conflicts within humanity, and resilience of the human spirit. She is a contributor to numerous religious and secular publications such as Catholic Online, The National Catholic Register, Shalom Media, The Tennessee Register, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, to name a few. Her editing and creative writing talent has been utilized by such clients as US Steel, Focus Magazine, Hilton, Bayer, The University of Pittsburgh, San Jose Museum of Art, Def Jam Records, Nashville Business Journal, Marathon Oil Corporation and country music artists. She also provided work for the late Senator John Heinz (R-PA). She is currently the Senior Editor for the online publication, Catholic Stand, owned by Little Vatican Management, founded by Tito Edwards (The National Catholic Register).
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