The Angel of Zilker Park
I've never been particularly religious, but I always wanted to see an angel. I read books about them, pondered the old Biblical passages, watched TV stories about angels coming to earth, and wondered why it is that some people see these and some don't. I obviously was one who didn't, since I had never seen anything in this world out of the ordinary. My Christmas tree is decorated with glass and plastic angels; I have pictures of them; but no real ones, no spiritual beings wafting down out of the ether sphere, with huge bright wings and halos. No angels. I once sat on the floor of a cathedral in San Francisco, and I asked God, once and for all, could I see an angel? It was more of a demand than a request: “Ok, God, if you are out there, show me an angel,” sort of “I dare you, you old so and so.” I concentrated as hard as I could on the high altar, the huge organ pipes shining on the wall behind it, the colored light filtering through the stained glass windows giving everything a surreal glow of mystical rapture. Surely this was the best place to see an angel, and if I was ever going to see one, then it would be here in this holiest of holy places, on the labyrinth of Grace Cathedral. Finally in my concentration, I closed my eyes, and there it was, the perfect image of a huge angel with enormous spread wings before me. Oh my God....my angel. So they really do exist. At least. Then as I concentrated on this figure, I realized that it was the negative imprint on the backs of my eyelids of te organ pipes on the wall that formed the shape of an angel with spread wings. I did indeed see an angel, but not exactly what I had expected. God certain does have a sense of humor, but then he always did.
I guess I didn't know then that the reason I had never seen an angel was because I had not needed to see one, but when I needed one, it would be there.
This story begins a long time ago with the birth of my oldest daughter, long before I tried to see the angel in Grace cathedral. Heather is twenty-seven years old now, a tall woman graced with quiet energy and a sweet angelic face that lights up easily with joy at butterflies and kittens. She was once tested for her IQ and came out an extraordinary 147, which amazes me. I never doubted that she was bright; all mothers think that their children are exceptional, but she had been so simple and sweet in spirit all her life, I had never given much thought to the fact that she also had the amazing mind of a genius behind her gentle smile.
She was born six weeks early on a bitterly cold night in January. Heather is one of the slowest, laid back people I know, and I always say it's the only time in her whole life she was ever in a hurry to get somewhere. I had intended to carry her under my heart another six weeks until sometime in February, but on January 9 at around 11:00 p.m. On the coldest night of the year, my water broke while I sat watching Johnny Carson, and by 3:15 a.m., a scant four hours later, she entered the world. We named her Heather, after the sturdy little purple flowers on the wild English moors. We had chosen that name because of its beauty, the pleasant images of flowers it invokes, and the softness of its consonants, making the name impossible to say harshly. Years later, I realized what a sturdy, strong little plant heather actually is. I never dreamed that the name would fit her so accurately.
And so tiny minutes-old Heather was whisked off to the nursery, placed in a glass coffin-like box; the downy soft hair on her temples was shaved, needles and tubes were taped in place on the sides of her fist-sized head, and she was left there naked for all to see, gasping for each breath, panting like a dog, her little chest rising and falling like a tiny firghtened bird: she looked like a living expiriment in a laboratory, in a torture chamber for infants. As soon as I could get up, I walked down to the nursery and stood outside the glass window and watched helplessly, unable to touch my baby, unable to help her breathe. I stood there alone, my womb empty too early, tears streaming down my face. There were people behind me, total strangers obviously there to celebrate the birth of a new baby in their family. Those infants were lined up in pink and blue blankets against the window, looking all rosy with health, their tiny blue eyes tightly shut against the glaring hospital lights. I heard one of these strangers say, “Look at that poor thing over there....what's wrong with it? Look how it breathes!” I think I was more stunned by the “it” than the words they used. There was no doubt that “it” was a girl, since Heather was naked, but they saw her as a thing, sexless, not human, in her little glass coffin. I was to experience this scene each day I was at that hospital. It never failed when I would be standing there, and I stood there a lot, that someone commented on “it.”
The doctors told us the first day that she might not live, but that since she was female, the statistical chances were in her favor, since girls were stronger than boys at birth. I never forgot that statement: since she is female, she has more of a chance of living than dying, which means nothing if she is too weak to live. I realized that even though he was trying to give me courage and hope, he was still saying that she could die. I wished that if she were going to die, that they would let her die in my arms, wrapped in a soft warm blanket, held next to my breast where she could hear my heart beat and feel my love rather than lying naked in that glass coffin under the glaring lights with the tubes coming out of her. But it was 1969, and I was never given that choice. The doctor said that the first 48 hours were crucial; that if she did live, she would get stronger in that time, or weaker. We waited.
Later that day, as I lay alone in my hospital bed watching my roommate feed her new baby, a nurse passing by noticed me. She must have seen that I had no baby to feed, or maybe the look on my face as I watched my roommate feeding hers caused her to stop. But this angel of a nurse paused, wandered into the room, commented about the baby nursing in the other bed, then came over to mine. She tucked in my blankets and casually asked about my baby.
“My baby has hyaline membrane disease.....I can't hold her yet,” I said quietly, trying not to cry.
“Oh, yes, Heather,” she smiled. It was a small hospital and there was only one baby in critical care. “Don't you worry about her. She's a fighter. She'll pull through fine.” She smiled and patted my hand. “We've had a time with her alright. The little rascal keeps pulling the tubes out of her head. The other nurses couldn't believe it. They've never seen anything like that, but I know. Those that have that much spunk always pull through.” And as she left, she said again, “Don't ever worry about Heather....she's a fighter.”
Sometimes angels wear white uniforms and orthopedic shoes. I clung to those encouraging words for the next two days. Heather was still in the woods, struggling for every breath. I could tell that by standing outside the window and watching her little bluish body heave up and down. And now her torture chamber was even worse because they had taped her hands to her sides so that she could not pull the tubes out. Have you ever seen a two day old baby with her hands taped down? It seemed unbearably cruel to me.
Our relatives came and went, and while they tried to be cheerful, I could tell by their faces that few of them saw much hope. They would return from the nursery with tightly drawn lips and teary eyes. Many of them told me later that they did not think Heather would survive, but no one said a word during that 48 hours. Yet they all tried to cheer me up, smiling and talking, giving me little infant clothes tiny enough for dolls that would still have swallowed Heather's now less than five pound body. My father-in-law came sometime during that time, and unlike the others did not mince words. He told me that there was obviously something wrong with that baby, and if it were a permanent condition, then it would be better for her to die now. He did not mean to be cruel, but as he said it, I knew that it was not true. Even if she wasn't perfect, I wanted her to live. I watched her fighting for each breath, and like the nurse said, I knew that if she did live, perfect or not, she would always be an extraordinary person, a real fighter. If you have ever watched an infant fight for life, you will know the meaning of the words “will to live.” Even at five pounds, only a few hours old, that will was there in full force, driving her to draw each tiny breath, and then another, and then another. Heather had courage before she had anything else.
And live she did. After three days, she began to breathe normally, and after ten, they sent her home with me, which was the first time I was allowed to touch her. She came home to two parents who could not have loved her more and who wanted her more than anything imaginable. And for the next two years, we watched her like she was some fragile, priceless ornament, afraid to let her out of our sight, afraid she would stop breathing, or break into a thousand pieces if we so much as missed a feeding. Once you have watched a child almost die, you never feel quite the same. For the first two or three years of her life, I always had the feeling that this was stolen time, time I might never have had with this magnificent being. Each moment was absolutely and perfectly precious. Each day was a gift. In time, thank God, that feeling gradually waned some, or Heather would never have been allowed to grow up normally. She would have been a china doll in a sterile doll house. Eventually, we began to loosen up and let her live a normal life, but it took a long time for us both to get there. Sometimes I think I never did.
Heather grew up, becoming a wonderfully strong and sweet woman, went off to college, where she struggled with homesickness, chose more than one major, fell in love with her best friend and seemed happy Then one day, I got a terrifying phone call from her roommate's mother, who told me she had been in a wreck. A phone call later, I talked to Heather in the hospital. She had been thrown from her boyfriend's jeep onto the hard pavement, slamming hard into her jaw. She was fine: no broken bones, no brain damage, no broken teeth, just bruises and scrapes caused by falling out of a car. A close call. After a week or two of struggling with very sore muscles and a swollen jaw, she was fine again. A close call: just inches away from a mother's worst nightmare. I remember feeling like we had narrowly avoided the tragedy that I had always dreaded from the time she was born.
Less than a year later, I was to receive a second terrifying phone call. This time it was her boyfriend Dave's father, who made the call. Heather had been attacked and mauled by a dog and again was in the emergency room. Again, the phone was handed to Heather, who reassured me that she would be fine, that everything was ok. They were waiting for a surgeon who would come and stitch her up. Somehow in that phone call, I did not grasp the seriousness of her injuries, and I hung up with a picture of a few dog bites that needed a few stitches. It was over two hours later that I learned from Dave's mom that she was seriously injured having plastic surgery. “You need to come down here,” she said seriously. I caught the first plane out the next morning.
When I saw Heather, she looked like she had been hit by a truck. Both legs were in casts up to her knees. The injuries to her feet and legs alone had taken hundreds of stitches to close. Both hands were bandaged. There was a bandage on her head, and blood and betadine were in her hair. I stayed by her side those three days in the hospital, helping her eat, rubbing the toes that protruded from her casts, putting lotion on her elbows, and watching her endure incredible pain with complete stoicism. I only saw her cry once. She underwent a second tedious surgery on her hand while I waited alone in the waiting room. During those three days, bit by bit, the story of the dog came out. She had been attacked by the family pet on Dave's father's ranch. She had been alone at the ranch at the time, and the dog had attacked her over and over again, while she fought to get away. At one time, she told me, the dog had her down and was on top of her. She heard a voice telling her to get up, and she realized that she had to get up or she would die there alone. Somehow she found the superhuman courage to push him off and get to her feet. He continued to attack. Sometime during that time, she told me, she stopped screaming, because she knew no one could hear her, and the two fought in a primitive life and death struggle in silence. She tried to play dead, tried to beat him off, tried everything she could think of, but the dog continued to attack and holding tightly to her mangled legs with his powerful jaws. Finally, she somehow managed to get loose and get into the house, where she called for help. The story of her superhuman struggle alone against a ferocious animal still leaves me in chills, as it did then. I cannot think about it without tears coming to my eyes. I told someone later, that never in my wildest nightmares about my children could I have imagined a more horrible thing happening. But fortunately she won and survived. A few days later, she was sent home to recover, first in a wheel chair, then on crutches, then finally walking and moving again. It was a struggle, and again, I realized that the nurse so long ago had been correct: Heather is a fighter. Two months later, I watched her walk across the stage and receive her Bachelor's degree: she winced with pain when the man shook her hand, and turned to all of us and smiled broadly, waving her diploma. Her life went on.
I thought that was all of her fight for a while. Surely the universe had dealt her enough blows and she was due for some good luck for a change. Heather moved in with her boyfriend and started looking for a job. After just a few weeks, she landed a position with American Airlines, and while it wasn't very good pay, she was getting some training and some experience, and seemed happy with her world. She had what she wanted: the guy of her dreams, a degree, and a bright and happy future.
Toward the end of August, I had made a trip to Austin with a friend, and Heather and I had planned to meet halfway between Austin and San Antonio for breakfast. Heather had been complaining of stomach problems, had sought several doctors' opinions, but so far, nothing seemed to be causing them. That morning was different. I called her to confirm our breakfast appointment and was disappointed to learn that she couldn't come.
“Mom,” she said. “There is something wrong with me.”
I waited for her to finish, small alarm bells going off in my mind.
“They found a tumor on my ovary,” she said quietly. I sat in stunned silence.
“Are you sure?” I finally managed to ask.
“Yes, I had a sonogram. I am going to have surgery next week.”
We both sat in stunned silence for a long moment. “What does the doctor say it is?” I asked, after some hesitation.
“I don't know.” Again silence. Then she went on to explain the details. “I have to go today to get prepped for the surgery sometime next week. I also have to have a lower GI to see if there is bowel or intestinal involvement. The surgery should be late next week.”
That sounded like a long time to wait, I thought. I don't remember what else we said, but after a while, I hung up. After a long time of numbness, somehow I managed to get dressed and drove to Zilker park where I like to walk when I am in Austin.
In Jewish tradition, I am told that it is considered quite acceptable to argue with God, and that day I did just that. I walked and walked, in the scorching Texas August heat, and I berated God for his continuous siege against this beautiful, kind person. Why Heather? Hadn't she had her share of adversity and pain already? As I followed the Butterfly path, I didn't notice the butterflies, because I was thinking about reorganizing my week to be able to be with Heather through her surgery. As I walked to the MoPac underpass, I thought that Heather would probably lose her job having only been there for a few weeks, and I felt bad for her: she had been so hopeful about it. I was still carrying her on my health insurance, and I worried that it might not pay since she had already left college. What if it didn't? How would we pay the bills? As I left the scorching heat of the soccer field and headed back into the deep shade of the botanical garden, I thought about the surgery ahead, and the pain and suffering it would cause her, and how difficult that must be for her and David both. But mostly I thought about how unfair this was, Heather who had just recovered from the horrible dog incident, not to be immobilized again.
All those things cluttered my mind as I walked, the pretty worries that cover the real truth, the real fear that lurks deep inside every mother's heart. Somewhere between the Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden, the layers began to strip away and I let myself say the word: Cancer. What if it was cancer? Then I thought about chemotherapy and the months of devastation that might lay ahead of us as she lay sick and weak with her body full of drugs. Would she need to come home where I could take care of her: What about my job through all this? And what about Dave....would he want to stay with his sweet heart ifs he were really really ill. It would be a strain on a marriage of many years: more so on their short relationship.
Then in one moment of crystal stillness, so deep it stunned me in its awesome silence, the last layer of denial peeled away, and I finally reached the bottom, the central devastating source of every mother's worry: what if my child should die? What if she should not live through this thing? I cannot tell you the paralyzing terror that such a thought brings. Only a mother understands. Only a mother can know this kind of anguish. I had known it once, at her birth, had watched her suffer great pain more than once, but this was even worse. Anyone I passed at this point on my walk probably thought I had gone mad. I was crying and muttering to myself as I railed against God. If this is what she has been brought this far to do, then why? Why Heather who is the best of us? Tears streamed down my face as I faced my ultimate and most horrible nightmare: losing one of my children.
It was at this darkest moment of my entire life that all the trivia and detritis of my existence was swept away by the awesome spector of Death. Oh, yes, Death. He's always there, his hot breath on our necks every minute of our life, but we do such a very good job of ignoring him. But that day I faced him full in the face, saw him only inches away, and I realized he had always been there. For one moment, I saw what my life would be like if he took my children. And it was more awful than words can describe.
Then something happened. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw an angel. I turned quickly and looked more closely, and no, it was a root or part of a tree standing about two feet above the ground. Then I realized it had been carved into an angel, its planes smoothed into a small winged creature with a tiny head and face, a small expressionistic body, even a tiny penis, a male angel. I stood staring for a long time. After a few minutes, I crossed over onto the grass and stood by the figure. It seemed to be growing out of the ground, deeply rooted in the soil. The face bore no expression, and at first glance, one might think it was merely a part of a tree or shrub. But no, it was definitely an angel. Someone had carved it into an angel, there was no mistaking it. I stood for a long time looking at its shape, touching its tiny bald head. I knew with certainty that this angel was for me, my angel. I had no doubt at all. But what did it mean? At first I was afraid, because I knew that if I were seeing an angel that was meant for me, things must be really bad. Maybe this was a sign that Heather wasn't going to survive this.
I asked aloud, “Are you an angel of hope or of death?”
Inside my mind, I heard, “It doesn't matter.” I stood pondering the meaning of this thought. How could it not matter? If it was an angel of death, Heather's life was ending. But for some reason that I cannot explain, those words rang true and comforted me. A line from the medieval poem, “The Pearl” crossed my mind, “The grace of God is enough for all.” I have always loved that line, often write it on my calendar and in my journal. It has always brought me comfort when things were going badly.
Suddenly I knew that it did not matter, a feeling that I have never been able to explain. It was as if I knew that at that moment, that no matter what happened, it would be the way things should be and we would bear it. I felt great peace, peace that was to accompany me throughout the journey of the next few days. I never lost the reality that this may be so serious that Heather might not survive, but I lost the fear. And while I know that such a thing would bring grief unimaginable, for some reason, I was no longer afraid.
After I left Zilker Park, I went by the book store and bought Heather a card. It had an angel on the front who was guiding the viewer into a bright light. The name of the card was “Transformation.” I wrote a short note reminding Heather of her birth and that the nurses said she was a fighter. I told her I knew she was afraid, and that I was too, but we would be fine. I believed it, I think.
I returned to work, told my closest friends what was happening, and went on with my week. Several told me they could not see how I was taking this so calmly, but I did not tell them about the angel. I just told them that I knew we would be ok and to pray and hope for the best. During that whole week, I don't think I ever stopped praying, but it was not an angry railing against God, but a quiet prayer for courage, strength, and hope, for all of us. At the end of the week, I joined Heather for her surgery. The night before, she was in good spirits, joking about the laxatives that she had to take, and trying hard not to be afraid. We went together to the hospital. Somehow, that day, I ended up in the waiting room alone again, something I do not recommend for those who face this sort of thing, but somehow I felt that I wasn't alone, and there were many there with me waiting, hovering about us both. I wrote in my journal. Before the surgery was over, Dave joined me, and we waited together with the rest of the spirits in the room.
The news was good: it was not cancer, but a huge fibroid tumor that took up most of her lower abdomen. After a few weeks of recovery, she would be fine. And she was.
She has never seen the angel of Zilker Park, but I have been back many times. I always stop there, amazed that I even noticed this tiny little earth angel that day. It is small, and so much a part of the surrounding landscape, not really on the path. But somehow I noticed: it was there for me at just the right time. I still feel peace when I touch his little bald head. A friend of mine took a picture of it which stands on my dresser, a reminder that indeed there is an unseen world, even though we usually don't notice it, but maybe most of the time, we really don't need it. But when we need it, it will be there for us. Maybe not an angel, or maybe just a tiny wooden one, but it will be there, just for us. And Heather, well she is doing great. She married that best friend of hers in a wonderful ceremony in Las Vegas last year. I walked her down the aisle. It really is the mother who gives her children away: she had them first, and they are hers to give. I turned her over to her new husband, and said in my mind: “Well, David, she's yours now, to love and care for. Take good care of her.”
Then I added, “But don't ever worry about Heather....
She's a fighter.”