I met an angel yesterday. Her name was Sheila. The first time I spoke with her on the phone, an hour before I met her in person, her voice was as rich and warm as hot chocolate, with slight Southern twangs sprinkled among her words. “I got your son here with me,” she said. “I want ya’ll to know I’m keeping him safe.”
I was headed South on I-95 at the time, off to rescue my son whose 1998 Mercury Villager had once again left him stranded in North Wilmington. I was tired of the whole rescue routine and pleaded on several occasions to get rid of the car that caused me headaches and put a dent in my bank account. But Allen, living rather precariously on the upper edge of the autism spectrum, is stubborn. Change comes hard. Hanging onto a car that should have been junked months ago gives him some semblance of control over a life that is not really of his choosing. When Allen called me at 1:00 and told me his car had—once again—conked out, I was very tempted to blow my cool. Enough is enough. But God stayed my tongue and allowed me, instead, to make some practical suggestions to Allen.
Two hours later, I was speeding towards his rescue, unable to reach him on his cell phone for the last hour and a tow truck from AAA on the standby. All I needed was an address. As I headed south, I prayed: Dear God, send another angel to help my son. Keep him safe.
God loves each and every one of his children, there is no doubt. But I have realized for years that God places special protection over people like Allen, those who have particular needs in one way or another. In the past, when Allen has found himself in a situation that he has often created himself, God has sent angels in the way of a truck driver, a policeman, a pet shop owner, a woman walking her dog, and a guy in a brand new Mercedes. I had no doubt, as I prayed, that God would send another angel his way.
My phone rang almost simultaneously with my “Amen.”
Allen assured me, using Sheila’s phone since his own was out of minutes, that he was fine. Sheila had given him a drink and some chicken strips and was waiting with him until I arrived. His angel got back on the phone and gave me an address at 4th and Church Sts in N. Wilmington. I thanked her profusely. “God always sends an angel for Allen,” I told her. “Today, He sent you.”
Sheila assured me she would keep my quirky son safe until I arrived. After she rang off, I called AAA and gave them the address for the tow truck.
4th and Church Streets took me past the exit I used when I got off for Springfield College, my part-time job for the last six years. But I was less familiar with the area down around Front Street. I admit to being a bit nervous. I reminded myself that our Heaven sent angel, Sheila, was looking after Allen. Allen saw me as I pulled up in front of the house where he sat waiting. I saw Sheila put a restraining hand on his shoulder to keep him from darting across the street to me. Although a young adult now, Allen’s presence on the spectrum still keeps him tied closely to me. I help him make sense of a world in which is continues to be a stranger. I parked—luckily, there was a lot just across the street—and met Allen and our angel.
The tow truck was on its way, but we had about an hour to wait. In the tradition of city dwellers, we sat on the stoop outside, talking and getting to know each other. I was sure we had interrupted Sheila’s day, but she stayed with us. “I never had no trouble here,” she said, “but you never know. Nobody’ll mess with you if I’m right here.”
And no one did. We sat companionably on the stoop, sharing pieces of our lives. I learned that angels, too, carry misery beneath their wings. Sheila’s 14 year old daughter was killed years ago, a victim of gang violence. “My church helped me, “ she said. “I ain’t too proud to ask for help when I need it.”
Now, Sheila tries to give back when she can. At one point in time, I pushed a twenty dollar bill into her hand. “I don’t want that,” she said. “I know,” I responded. “Give it to someone who needs it.” She told me about her fiancé, who treats her fine, as opposed to the former husband who did not. I told her about Ron’s car accident and the burdens I carry as the well spouse and the wage earner. She pats my shoulder.
I am almost sorry to see the tow truck pull around the corner and stop next to Allen’s car. I had, for a time, forgotten why I was sitting on a stoop in Wilmington, enjoying the warm November sunshine and a beautiful angel.
I tell the tow truck drive that Allen and I will follow him in my car, and then I turn to Sheila. I have dug a business card out of my wallet, the one for KeCo that names me as Editorial Director. “Sweet Jesus,” she says when I hand her the card. “Just how many jobs you got, Dr. Linda?”
“Three or four,” I tell her. “Depends. This one”—and I tap the card—“is a business I started with my friend John. We believe everyone has a story to tell. We help people to write and share their own stories.” I give Sheila another hug. “You, dear one, have a story to tell. It can help others.”
She nods and I see the tears forming in her eyes. I know what catharsis writing can be. It keeps me from going over the edge. I offer this to Sheila. “My other daughter,” she whispers, “she was there when SeSe was killed. She’s never gotten help. She holds it all inside. She’s got a story to tell.”
“Give her my card,” I say. “I can help her.”
We are just about ready to depart and Allen gives Sheila one last hug before walking across the street to my car. I cannot leave our angel, not just yet. Something is not finished. I linger.
“You got a special son there,” Sheila tells me. “But you got burdens, honey.” Don’t I know it. They are burdens I have carried for a good long time. “You offering to help me and my daughter,” she says, “but you needing help, too. Maybe, just maybe, we find a way to help each other. I can help look after your husband a bit,” she says, “and do some cooking, too. I’m a good cook.”
I smile. “I’m sure you are. I think you are right,’ I say. “I think we can help each other.”
One final hug and I leave the angel on the side of the street in Wilmington, taking with me her smile and the faint scent of hot chocolate.
Maybe, just maybe, God didn’t send this angel to Allen.