One of the folk-art angels in my house
We need to believe in angels right now.
This became clear to me on the day after the tragic events in Newtown, CT when I saw that an essay I wrote two years ago, called “A Christmas Eve Thought about Angels”—a post I had nearly forgotten about-- had suddenly become the most popular one on my blog . It was no doubt found on Google by people looking for some consolation—or some iota of meaning—in the Sandy Hook tragedy. (They didn’t find it; the post was inspired by a visit to a cancer clinic with an ailing relative and was based on a bible verse I had learned as a child: ”Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” )
The Newtown massacre of little children by a deranged young man with too many guns is like a Rorschach test. Because so many details are unknown and so many conflicting versions of facts have been reported, we all read our own fears, theories and suspicions into it. Because no one knows the WHY of it, or how a loving God could let this happen to innocent children, we keep chewing over every detail, trying to find a pattern or a reason, no matter how bizarre.
I’m as obsessed as anyone. Standing in line at Dunking Donuts yesterday, I started weeping because over the P.A. system I heard President Obama reciting the names of the dead children.
We desperately want to find some consolation in the hope that the six- year-olds who died are now in heaven, being cared for by angels, and that their loved ones will see them again some day. This has produced in the past week both eloquent statements and moving art, as well as maudlin poems and saccharine paintings of children surrounded by angels, and statements like “God needed 20 more angels on Friday”—clichés which make some people feel better but infuriate others like Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religious scholar and author of “The American Bible.” Who wrote “My Take: Six Things I don’t want to hear after the Sandy Hook Massacre.”
One thing he wrote in his essay was: “In the Jewish tradition, it is offensive to bring up the afterlife while in the presence of death. “ I know this is true, but I was both surprised and pleased while, listening to my car radio, I heard the reply of a Rabbi from Newtown when asked “What did you say to the little girl’s mother?”. He said: “I told her that personally I believe that the soul is eternal and that she will be reunited with her daughter some day.”
For myself, I do believe that angels exist and that they can intervene in our lives, although I don’t think they show up as luminous beings clothed in white with wings and halos. I believe that many people are visited by angels —either loved ones who have passed on but still care about us or, sometimes, as living individuals who step in at a critical moment, then disappear, leaving you with the suspicion you have been in the presence of an “angel unawares.”
I ‘m certain that the bereaved parents of these murdered babies will hear from their lost children in various ways, either while asleep or awake, in the months to come, because the child will come to reassure the parent that he or she is all right.
Christmas, of course, is the time when we talk and think most about angels, from the heavenly host announcing the birth of Christ to the guardian angel Clarence who made his wings in “It’s a Wonderful Life” by stopping Jimmy Stewart from killing himself.
Guardian angels have intervened several times in my family’s life in critical situations. The first was in 1974 when my husband, Nick, drove from our home in Massachusetts to Manhattan after the Thanksgiving holiday. He had an ulcer that had perforated and he was bleeding internally, although he felt fine. Stopping to pay at a toll booth in Connecticut, he was suddenly inspired to put on his seat belt which (in those days) he never wore. Within minutes he passed out, drove the car into a lamppost on the turnpike, and was taken to a hospital where he had three blood transfusions and stayed through Christmas.
At the time I had a newborn and a 3 ½ year old (who woke up at the exact moment of the accident and told me his father was being attacked by sharks). Between trips to the hospital in Connecticut, I didn’t think about putting up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, when I went to our local tree farm to be greeted by an empty lot except for the most beautiful blue spruce I’d ever seen, marked down to nine dollars.
We were all pretty sure that it was Nick’s mother, Eleni Gatzoyiannis, who had convinced him to put on his seat belt that night. In 1948, in their native Greek village, she was tortured and executed by Communist guerrillas because she engineered the escape of Nick, then nine, and three of his four sisters (a story that Nick told in the book Eleni.) His mother was still looking after him in 2002, when Nick drove a rented car off the mountain road in his Greek village. After rolling over, it landed on the only spot where it wouldn’t continue to fall down the mountain into the valley below.
We believe it was also Nick’s mother Eleni who tried to warn us in 1976 of an accident to our five-year-old son, Christos. Five months before it happened I dreamed that, during kindergarten recess, he fell off a rise in Manhattan’s Riverside Park. I dreamed that his teacher called me, weeping, to say he’d broken his neck. The dream was so vivid that I woke up Nick who said I was just being neurotic.
The accident happened in exactly the spot I’d dreamed about. The teacher called me to come at once, but when I got there, my son hadn’t broken his neck, although he was in shock. When I got him to the hospital I learned that he had two broken wrists, because he put out his hands just in time to break his fall.
When I called Nick at his office, I learned that at 12:15, when the accident happened, he was at a business lunch and had a dizzy spell and thought he was having a heart attack. Once again, his angel was trying to warn him.
So if guardian angels exist, why did those 20 children at Sandy Hook die, despite the heroic efforts of their teachers and school personnel to save them? No matter how hard we study the details to find a plan, a reason, a rationale, a motive for this atrocity, we won’t. But it’s the nature of the human mind to try.
There’s some solace in learning about the children who managed to survive—the little girl, covered in blood, who emerged from the school to say “Mommy, I’m all right but all of my friends are dead.” And the six children found sitting in the driveway of a nearby house which happened to belong to a grandfather who was a psychiatrist. He brought the six children inside, ran upstairs and grabbed an armload of stuffed animals, gave the survivors juice and listened to them say, “We can’t go back to school because our teacher, Miss Soto, is dead.”
It will take a long time for those children to heal, but they will heal, because children are brave and resilient. It will take the bereaved parents longer—perhaps forever—to heal, but it may be that a belief in angels –or encounters with their own angels—will help them.
One Sandy Hook teacher, Kaitlin Roig, who managed to crowd her class of 15 children into a tiny bathroom and barricade the door, said that the children kept telling her: “I want to live until Christmas.” Twenty children from their school did not live to see Christmas and their parents are left to deal with the sight of unopened gifts beneath the tree, but for the 15 children in Kaitlin Roig’s classroom, maybe their teacher was an angel unawares.