Photo © 2007 by NICOLAS RAYMOND (www.cmky.ca)
Following easily and gently
The woods of Robinhood Forest were thick and dark and wild, home to animals and noises and the imagination. For two years of my childhood, I lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse suitable to that foreboding forest backdrop. Dirt trails wound through miles and miles of woods behind our house, snaking around trees, leading off into shadows around the bends.
I lived in the farmhouse with my siblings, raised by a single mother fresh into divorce and the age of feminism, so we were often left to our own devices. And we often devised to walk the trails, venturing off like kids in a Grimm fairy tale, the trees eerily closing in the deeper we pressed into the woods. The cries of bobcat and our dog’s nose covered with porcupine quills alerted us to danger’s potential.
In hunting season, we heard the crack of gunshot ricochet through the trees. But when you’re just a kid, tempting fate is the fun of it. You believe you’re faster, smarter, luckier than chance.
“We’re not deer! Please don’t shoot us!” our child voices randomly called out on the wooded trails in Robinhood Forest.
Our small, thin bodies were ambiguous in the deep, leafy shadow, indistinct from the trees. And from the foraging deer. A hunter could momentarily, adrenaline-driven, mistake us for his target.
Only something faster, smarter, and holier than fate kept us safe from a loaded gun aimed into the trees. That would be the same something that kept me safe when, as a teen, I was ignored for many hours while in the throes of an appendicitis attack. The same something that slipped its wing between my four-year-old daughter and the highway pavement when she fell from her grandparents’ car. The same something that intervened years later when a bolt of lightning struck a fence butting against our home. In a split second, the lightning traveled along the fence, blew off the gate, then proceeded through the garage wall and struck a can of gasoline on the other side. The only damage was burnt-out electrical circuitry and a discolored gasoline can at the sight of impact. Possibly a little wing damage, too, I would imagine.
“Do you believe in angels?” my daughter recently asked me. That’s all it took, one question, to send me reeling back in time, flipping through those pages of memory.
“Yes! I do.”
She seemed surprised, more about my conviction than the answer itself. If I had hesitated before responding, that pause would have cast doubt on my answer, as though I had to wonder about it myself. As though I had to envision what an angel looks like, or how one would fit into my life. Sometimes life makes sure you don’t need a pause.
I don’t know how else to explain the unseen helping hand that gets us through life. Okay, I’m not thinking the whole heavenly bodies hovering above us with feathered wings. This is more the form of an angelic essence, much like the unseen capacity that makes a soul. Angels are sensed rather than seen. They may be with us all the time, but the secret lies in knowing how to open the door to them, how to recognize them and let them in.
Part of that secret comes from being in a focused state when our senses are heightened, raised like a satellite receptive to changes in the air pressure. And maybe there really are those changes. What steered us onto a safer path in the woods as we nervously called out to hunters, our every sense tuned to gunshot? Or when every nerve stood on edge, waiting for a lightning explosion, did an angel deflect the electrical blow to a gas can? Maybe. But the nice part about this presence, this state, angelic if you will, is that not only times of danger bring it about. Often the most personal, poignant moments keep us amenable to the comfort of angels.
December 10, 2006. Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut. Liza Minnelli performs in this arena too large for her gracious intimacy, though she must sense this as much as I do. Early in the concert, she refers to the venue as her living room, as though trying to verbally bring the 10,000-seat theater down in size, to move in the walls of comfort, assuring us that we are all her guests. It makes you want to pull your seat closer, lean in. She opens with I Can See Clearly Now.
What I love about Minnelli is a certain stage presence that I’ve seen rarely before. Sinatra had it. Billy Joel does, too—that way of weaving songs together with conversation that turns the spotlight on their personalities, on the intricacies of their lives, so that the concert is more than a rote song list.
During the evening, Minnelli talks about growing up as the daughter of Judy Garland and movie director Vincente Minnelli. We listen to a history not found in the textbooks, like how, when she was a little girl, instead of going to playgrounds, she went to the MGM Studio lot. She had her own bicycle there, and knew all the alleyways. While talking about her parents, a fondness comes with her words. She even admits it, saying that she is feeling very sentimental this night. Maybe being so close to Christmas has her ache for family, or perhaps singing a song her mother sang in a movie role makes her sensitive; I’m not sure what it is, but something heightens her emotions, tunes her radar.
So when Minnelli introduces a special song, saying she is singing it for her father, her awareness of him is clearly visible, though he died twenty years before. At that quiet moment, as she says the words, a door is opened and she looks, with those big, dark eyes, instinctively, necessarily, up.
This past spring, my husband, my daughters, and I took an afternoon trip to the beach. We wanted to walk on the boardwalk to stretch our legs and fill our lungs with sea air after a long winter. One of the roads we traveled was a winding, rural road, beautiful with old stone walls, historical homes, and rolling farmland straight out of an artist’s painting. On a long straightaway stretch of this road, we drove along at about forty-five miles per hour. In the distance, a typical domestic family van came towards us in the other lane.
And then it happened, one of those moments when time slows, the second hand barely clicking along. Its effect is strange, stretching out an intense fear so that every sense can register it, can take a look at it under some ethereal microscope.
What we saw was the family van drift completely over the center line and come straight at us, directly head-on, both vehicles traveling at a high rate of speed. In broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon. I haven’t a clue what inattention to the road led that driver to threaten our lives with pain and extinction, but at the very moment when my husband was about to drive our vehicle off the road, surely resulting in injury and damage to our bodies braced with panic, the van swerved back to its lane.
When I was done wiping the sudden tears that burned my eyes, when the realization of how close my family had come to destruction because of iniquitous disregard, I got mad. Really, I don’t think that, no matter how bad the crash could have been, I don’t believe it would have killed me. It felt like my rage would have kept me alive and moving, bleeding and injured, staggering straight to the van to personally kill the driver with my bare hands, if he or she had subjected my innocent family to that dark hell.
After we all calmed, something else happened, some post-traumatic reaction. We quieted more than usual and continued on our way, resuming our lives, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. We had literally been taken off the track, derailed, then haphazardly thrown back on. Some people dodge a bullet; this one was a grenade.
I eventually looked up at the sky and tears came again on the heels of two words, words that expanded like a cloud to fill every crevice of my mind. Thank you, thank you, thank you—that I was still doing something as innocuous as sitting in my car, heading to the beach with my family. The Jaws of Life had not been called. We were not tied to stretchers in screaming ambulances. Our lives were at peace.
I couldn’t think my gratitude enough and I still think it, with all my heart. However they manage to keep their wings spread over my life, they—angels—have to know, please, that I never stop thanking them with all my life; a life more full, more appreciative of the little things, the knitting, the reading, the cleaning. When your ability to do these small things is threatened, they are all you want—that mundaneness, that normalcy—in life’s inimitable cabaret. Because being able to sew and read and clean means, even more importantly, that I have the ability to put them down, as Liza Minnelli sang to us that December evening. And—that’s right—to “come, hear the music play.”
Copyright © 2007 by Joanne DeMaio