I want to tell you about angels. I want to talk about the real thing, though, not the heavily draped Renaissance types with the big, feathered wings -- a lovely image and maybe Raphael had a vision, but I’m not convinced. Both the Greek and the Hebrew words translated “angel” are words that mean “messenger,” and we know from Biblical accounts that they brought messages to Mary and Elizabeth, that they announced the “good tidings” of Christ’s birth. They did the latter while suspended in the air, frightening and amazing the shepherds in the fields by Bethlehem. We know they appear in dreams, that they are observing us, and that they occasionally show up as humans, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares, “ (Heb 13:2).
I may have done so.
Almost two years ago Tom had to undergo surgery for highly aggressive prostate cancer. We chose to have the surgery done in Seattle at the University of Washington Medical Center – one of the five best hospitals in the country. When the worst happens, I want the best to help me. So we headed north.
The day before the surgery we checked into the Collegiana Inn, a 1920’s hotel on a shady, sleepy side street in the University District. The entrance, framed by a stone arch, red carriage lanterns, and a matching awning, led to a small foyer with warm green walls and black-framed landscapes. I loved the place at first sight.
The building had been used for years as a dorm and the rooms themselves still had that feel, but they were clean and quiet and spacious – a perfect place for the days of recuperation Tom would need after surgery. There were long skylit hallways for walking, cozy little sitting rooms for a change of scene, and a kitchen on each floor, which made eating decently possible. With a coffee shop at the top of the hill and a Trader Joe’s just a couple picturesque blocks away, we were set. The streets were lined with hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bookstores. The sidewalks were filled with college students and their backpacks. (In a year our grandson would be one of those students.) What could have been a nightmarish experience in a parking lot motel out by SeaTac, became a safe, comfortable, friendly experience.
The day of the surgery we reported to the hospital at 5:30 in the morning. It was still dark, but the surgery pavilion buzzed with organized activity. By 7:30 Tom was wheeled into surgery. I had no idea that I wouldn’t see him for seven hours. Waiting room time is slow, and that day it had very heavy feet. I filled it with coffee, a book I couldn’t concentrate on, people I kept thinking I recognized, the art on the walls. Halfway through the morning our daughter arrived and time stepped back a ways, quit breathing down my neck; she and I are good at conversation. Lunch came and went. The surgery had been scheduled to last between one and four hours. By 2:00 I was getting nervous – ok, ok – more nervous. Finally, on the downside of the afternoon the OR nurse called to let me know it was over, an hour later an encouraging chat with the surgeon, by eight Deanie and I were on our way back to the inn.
We were hungry. I was exhausted. We picked up some frozen spanakopita at Trader Joe’s and popped it in the microwave in the kitchen on our floor of the hotel. We were sipping the last of our wine when three women arrived. They spoke softly to each other and rather than disturb us at the table, they gathered around a credenza covered with magazines where they tried to pour out bowls of cereal without setting anything down.
I wasn’t in a very social frame of mind, but we couldn’t leave them standing around munching cereal in silence. So we invited them to join us -- and I’ll never forget the experience.
One woman was about my age, her hair a salt-and-pepper bob. She smiled and I realized that there was something odd about her mouth – not unattractive, but crooked or slanted – something asymmetrical. With her was another woman of the same age – a handsome woman with a spikey crew cut – I figured her for a sister-in-law. With them was a much younger woman, tall and heavy in a soft, pillowy way. Her dark brown hair was pulled back at the nape of her neck.
In a hospital hotel you can count on one opening conversational gambit and being tired – post-terror tired – too tired to even introduce myself, I asked it. “What are you in for?” I don’t suppose I phrased it so badly, or if I did, they were gracious and answered. Here’s their story:
Gray-lady, who was recovering from her battle with breast cancer, and whose husband had recently died, was the mother of a thirty-year-old man (husband of the young woman) who had contracted a virus a year or so earlier. The virus had attacked his heart and in the year following he and his wife had produced a baby son, who was just a month old. This man had been recently diagnosed with congestive heart failure and a cancerous tumor on his pancreas. He was scheduled for surgery the following morning and had only about a 50% chance of living through the procedure, which may or may not take care of the tumor and would do nothing to help his heart.
This sounds like a sob story, but it wasn’t. The women laughed and joked as they told it. Their smiles were soft and lovely. There was no whine in their voices. I’ll never forget their eyes. Those ladies should have looked gaunt and haunted, their eyes hollow and vacant. There should have been deep worry lines between their brows. Tears would have been normal. Pacing, hand-wringing, voices shaky and taut.
After all, the young father of a new baby was likely to die, if not the next day, sometime soon. The grandmother of this baby, a recent widow, was losing her son, and was still not on solid footing with her own health. The aunt was apparently the only support system for these two ladies. Some sobbing and railing was in order. But no, they were happily eating Fruit Loops with two strangers in an obscure little hotel at bedtime. They weren’t just relaxed and apparently happy; they glowed.
They did eventually ask us about our plight. I felt embarrassed to explain. Tom’s brush with cancer seemed a mere hangnail in comparison. In fact that’s how I answered – a hang nail, just a hang nail.
Deanie and I went back to our room soon after. I asked the mother if she would mind if we prayed for her and her son. She patted me on the arm, nodded and said, “Please.”
The next night, with Tom tucked safely away in our room, I popped into the kitchen now and then hoping I’d see them. I never did. Several months later when we returned for Tom’s check up I asked Sherrie Pollard, who ran the hotel, if she remembered them. Sherrie always took the time to get to know her guests and I was sure their story would ring a bell, but she couldn’t remember them.
I owe those three nameless women. That night I had felt as if I’d just staggered away from the wrong end of a street brawl. It had been three terrifying months of research and dread since Tom’s diagnosis. It had been a long trip and a long scary day, but the grace and loveliness of those ladies in the face of a nightmare I can barely wrap my brain around relaxed me to the bone. God had led us to a great surgeon (at almost two years still no sign of cancer), a great hospital, a lovely little inn, and I wonder if He didn’t also send three angels to pull all my pieces back together.
If it so happens that one of you lovely women finds this and reads it – let me know how you are. But then, maybe you are looking over my shoulder as I write this. Who knows?
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares, “ (Heb 13:2).