[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Catholic Stand, December 13, 2013. We are republishing here for your holiday enjoyment.
Whenever I hear the carol, “Angels We Have Heard On High”, I am reminded that we never travel alone in this journey called life. There are angels among us who help us along the way, whether or not we recognize them. And I have proof.
The year was 1980 – Houston, Texas – the fourth largest city in United States at the time. The cultural trend for the moment was set in motion by a movie – Urban Cowboy. The trending fashion was Stetson hats and cowboy boots, tight fitting jeans and belts with eye catching buckles. Now in Houston, where men and women have been dressing in western fashion for generations, Urban Cowboy just dialed up the wardrobe a notch. Snake. Ostrich. Alligator. You name the exotic animal, their skin could be your next pair of boots. City slickers were learning to dance the two-step while holding a long-neck beer in one hand, a partner in the other, while circling a honky tonk dance floor twenty miles south of Houston. And everyone I knew was living large. Big cars. Big jewelry. Big lifestyles. Big bankrolls. The oil industry drove the market, and everyone was “looking for love in all the wrong places”.
Now I was a naïve twenty-something living the high life that I never really felt comfortable embracing. Raised to believe that you could marry a rich man as easily as a poor man, character was secondary. My circle of “friends” relished at seeing their name on the society page; their companies listed on the NASDQ. Like a fish out of water, I was ill-equipped to navigate in an environment that cared less for me than I did for myself. You see, abused and battered human beings have a warped view of their self-worth. We tend to gauge our self-respect based upon the approval of others whom we mistakenly consider to have better judgment than ourselves. We seek validation for our broken spirit. Fear is our mantle. Pain our confessor. Masquerade our trademark. And God? He’s there. But when the environment you live in doesn’t include Him, neither do you. Yet, He was about to reveal Himself to me at the lowest point in my life.
One unseasonably warm morning in March 1982, I woke with the symptoms and yet another cold – the fifth one since January. But this time, my breathing was labored and an excruciating pain pierced my chest with every deep breath. The doctor requested to see me immediately.
Upon arriving at the Texas Medical Center, I waited about an hour before being called back to the exam room. The doctor expressed concern that I might have pneumonia and ordered a chest x-ray. She diagnosed the fluid in my lungs as pleurisy; not a condition typically seen in young active adults. She gave me a powerful antibiotic and sent me straight home for several days of bed rest.
Now if you’ve ever lived in Houston you know that the interstate highways are a motorist’s version of The Wide Wide World of Sports. The “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” are never far from your bumper. A healthy person has a difficult time dealing with the traffic and congestion. And when you are sick . . .
By the time I navigated home at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, feeling miserable, all I could do was literally fall into bed fully clothed, propping myself up in order to breathe. I had only been home for an hour and was trying to get comfortable when the phone startled me. The ring caused me to jump and gasp for breath. The wrenching pain was still there. It was my doctor, asking me to return to the medical center that same afternoon. She justified her request with a sense of urgency, saying that they wanted another x-ray, and asked if someone could come with me. How I wished I had someone who was willing to go with me and advocate on my behalf. In my world, illness was unacceptable.
As I backed my car out of the driveway, I noticed a disheveled woman walking up the street towards me, balancing a small toddler on her hip. When I glanced back a second time, she waved in my direction and trotted faster towards me, yelling for me to stop. Feeling the growing anxiety of navigating back to the medical center in rush hour traffic, I did not want to stop. But the woman was persistent, waving and yelling to get my attention. There was no one else around.
Why didn’t I just drive off?
She approached the driver side window, explaining that she and her son had just walked from Walgreen’s pharmacy on Westheimer Parkway. That was over a mile away. The poor boy was visibly sick: green mucus draining from his nose, red cheeks, coughing. She pleaded for me to give them a ride home. But I was hesitant. After a series of robberies in the area, everyone was leery of strangers, including me. To compound my reluctance, she would not look me directly in the face, always focusing her attention on the child as she spoke. It made me uncomfortable. I proceeded to fabricate a plausible excuse, since I was still wearing my Brooks Brothers suit, and said I was running late for a business meeting. I apologized for not being able to do more as I continued to slowly back out of the driveway.
But it was the little boy who got to me. I could not escape the sad look in his eyes. He never took his gaze off me. So I opened the passenger door – saying a quick prayer under my breath for protection, hoping the child was not some decoy. The drive was quiet. Neither of us said a word. I was too focused on the drive that lay ahead of me. After less than a minute, the woman abruptly said, “Here we go. You can pull over here.” The woman opened the door, stood the little boy outside on the grass, and then paused. That’s when I got that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, certainly I was about to be robbed. Instead she turned toward slowly toward me, and placed her right hand on my right shoulder. She looked me directly into the eyes, and said in the most loving, reassuring tone, “No matter what the doctors tell you, don’t be afraid. God loves you. You’re going to be alright.” She then exited the car, closed the door and walked toward the house. I drove away stunned.
What a strange statement to make to someone? I didn’t tell her I was seeing any doctor. I made an explicit point of saying “business meeting.” But her eyes were so blue. Her face was so beautiful. I just dismissed the encounter as peculiar and proceeded on to my doctor.
This time as I entered the same exam room, I was greeted by three doctors, all posturing to prepare me for their revised diagnosis. Placing the x-ray film in the light box, they explained that the second x-ray revealed something more serious, using terms I didn’t understand. Lymphoma. Hodgkin’s. Non-Hodgkin’s. Form of Leukemia. White count. Blood levels. Grapefruit sized tumor. 50-50 odds. Percentages. Oncologist. I wasn’t comprehending any of it until they said the word… cancer. I froze. From that moment on I didn’t hear anything else except for that voice,“No matter what the doctors tell you, don’t be afraid. God loves you. You’re going to be alright.”
I immediately left the medical center to return home, but not before returning to the place where I dropped off the woman and child. Curiosity got the best of me. Of course, they were nowhere to be found. In fact, further investigation revealed that they didn’t live in any of the houses near where I left them.
Who was she? How did she know?
For the following year and a half 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 treatment alone (4 days on/3 days off), every follow-up appointment, except for occasional help offered by a neighbor, who also provided me with meals when I could eat, as well as help from my parents when they could travel from Tennessee to Texas. I knew exactly how much time I had from the moment the machines were turned off to navigate through Houston traffic and get home before becoming sick. I lost hair, of course. Radiation treatments required me to wear permanent marks on my neck and chest drawn by a Sharpie pen for alignment. I looked like a tattooed disaster. I was 5′-8″ and weighted 110 lbs. I vomited almost every day and struggled to find foods that didn’t taste like metal, even on good days. And I prayed more than I had in my entire life. I knew just how many Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Be’s it took for each treatment. And how many Memorares I required to stay calm. And I was a Protestant at the time. (But that’s another story.)
To compound my treatment and recovery experience, AIDS was the big news in the early ‘80s. People were paranoid. Anyone that looked sick with suspect. I lost the “friends” I thought I had. The “friends” that remained served me drinks in paper cups, and refrained from hugging me, or even standing too close for fear that cancer was contagious. Yet, the experience allowed me to form new friendships – genuine friendships – that still exist today. Iconically, the abuse stopped. Apparently,“in sickness” was interpreted as an optional vow, so cancer provided me with the peace I deserved.
I Am Not Who I Was
Of course, I was forever changed by the experience in 1981 to 1983 that merely fortified me for what lay ahead in my life’s journey. I learned that I am not a survivor, but a prevailer. Since then, I continued to prevail through eight surgeries, the loss of a child, cared for and witnessed the death of both my father (lung and brain cancer), which was incidentally shortly after my remission (lung and brain cancer) and later my mother (Alzheimer’s). And I learned the reward of forgiveness. I have witnessed discrimination, abuse and vindication, and lived to retell the story. And throughout it all, I heard the woman’s soft voice, “Don’t be afraid. God loves you. You’re going to be alright”.
Today, I am married to my soulmate with a daughter who reminds me to find joy in each new day. I came into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1998, while bringing my husband back to his cradle faith, and having our precious daughter baptized.
Whenever I share my experiences, I feel as if I’m talking about another person. A woman once approached me after hearing me speak and said, “After all you’ve been through, I’m surprised you still believe in God.” I laughed and said, “It’s because of God that I am able to stand here and talk about it with a smile.”
I have learned that this world is filled with voices that tell us we are not worthy. Our self-worth is predicated on what others think of us, when in fact, there is only one voice that knows us best. We must find those moments of silence in life where we can listen to the only voice that really matters, and that is through prayer.
And sometimes, when God knows that we need a little extra reassurance, He sends an angel our way to remind us that we are not alone, if we care to look and listen.
Merry Christmas, Everyone! May you always recognize the angels that God sends your way.
Peace be with you.
© 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.
“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]
Photography: See our Photographers page.
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