A long time ago – on the evening of December 18, 1967, I saw an angel with my own naked eyes.
It was pure and blinding white in the sky. Brighter and whiter than the blinding snow that was falling. I was not raised in a church but even so, I knew exactly what I was seeing. An angel, like the kind that came to announce Baby Jesus in the Bible story I read about in Ideals Magazine and taller than our house, came down from the sky and picked my mother up in his arms like a tiny child. She lay draped in his arms, her head held tenderly in one arm, her legs draped over the other. Then silently, brilliantly, white and gleaming, he rose up into the sky – a sky full of snow and wind – and took my mother away. It was the last time I saw her. I was 12 years old.
A silent night
It was the week before Christmas – 7 days exactly. She loved Christmas more than anything except my sisters and me and in fact, my mother loved Christmas more than anyone I ever knew. She loved everything about it. She saved presents for months for us. She made Christmas cookies, and pomander balls from oranges studded with cloves, and strange, rum-dosed fruit cakes covered with a white tea towel. She handmade gifts for everyone in her family, though when she did that I can’t really imagine because as a single mother she worked two full-time jobs for as long as I have memory. She loved Christmas music and Christmas stories. She loved wrapping gifts and giving them. Giving gifts was one of her love languages, and I am sure that is where I got it from. For a woman who lived with so much suffering and heartache, you would never have known it by the way she celebrated the holidays. She was, all her life, generous to a fault and “hospitable as only the poor can be.”
That night we were making the 80 mile-trip to Colorado Springs to deliver Christmas presents and a Christmas visit to my uncle and his wife and boys. I don’t know why we didn’t take our own car (I imagine now because it was just too small), but we took my aunt’s car, and she was driving. Snow started to fall as we left our house adding a perfect Christmas ambience to our expedition. We sang some Christmas carols and Mama told us Christmas stories. She was a dazzling storyteller.
Driving eighty miles now from Denver to Colorado Springs over 4-lane highways, with cell phones, and up-to-the-second weather forecasting is not the same as driving that stretch then. Then it was 80 miles of two, one-lane roads, few lights after you got out of the city, driving in vehicles with no heated windshields, no cell phones, no weather forecast. For my Christmas-loving mama and her sister, however, both having grown up on a working horse and cattle ranch, it was just “business as usual.” All of us in that car were accustomed to hard conditions.
Somewhere along the road, our voices became quieter. Eventually, we fell completely silent with tension. Beautiful snow became blinding. Driving was harder, lights were fewer. We couldn’t see more than a few feet beyond the hood of the car. We drove more slowly, passing cars spun off into the ditches and edges of the road. We saw two semi’s tipped over on their sides by the time we approached Monument Hill. By then we were afraid. Driving as carefully as she could my aunt tried to navigate the roads but at some point, on Monument Hill Road she hit ice too. The car spun wildly out of control. I do not remember the spinning, but I remember when it stopped. We landed in a snow-buried ditch southbound on the side of the road. Tall evergreens stood like snow-covered sentinels in the dark to the west of us. There was no getting out of the ditch on our own. The angle of the car was all wrong. Somewhere, maybe 50 feet ahead, through the blinding veil of snow we could see the strange glow blinking red and blue lights belonging to a tow-truck. Mama quietly told my aunt she would go down to it and get help. I don’t remember if there was any other discussion between them. She put on her parka, got out of the car, and disappeared into the snowstorm.
I can’t tell you how many minutes passed. Maybe it was 5 minutes, maybe 10 or more. No one was talking. Then, where the tow-truck lights were glowing through the blowing snow, I saw a huge, bright angel silently come down in the sky, pick my mother up like a little toddler, and rise silently into the sky again. I remember how awkward my matter-of-fact voice sounded breaking the silence in the car, “Mama’s not coming back.” My aunt – tired, terrified, edgy – said “Don’t be stupid. Of course, she’s coming back.” And sometime later, maybe 10 minutes, maybe half an hour, we saw a dark figure moving resolutely toward us through the snow. My aunt said, “See, I told you so.” But that figure came to the driver’s side of the car, not the passenger side, and knocked on the window. My aunt rolled it down with the snow blowing in and a man in a heavy coat and hood said, “Are you with this woman down here. She’s hurt real, terrible bad.”
Crushed by another car sliding on ice on the darkened road, a small, obscure 32-year-old woman, broken-hearted by a thousand griefs in her brief life, died within minutes in the freezing weather. An angel silently took her over the horizon line of mortal sight.
The Lens of Memory
Every time I try to write about this night a profound silence overtakes me, a writer’s paralysis. It is a crippling, deafening, muting silence that comes from having been close to the presence of the Holy in an encounter with devastation. I can speak verbally about it now with some distance – the practiced distancing that gives the clinical sound to so many survivor accounts. Writing about it is another matter. Writing about something that happened requires some objectivity and emotional distancing. (The process of looking at it from a removed perspective serves an important purpose and ought not to be discounted.) I can write what happened. However, to come close enough to name and write about what it means requires something else. It requires long looking, the steady held gaze. It requires me to stand still again on the edge of the abyss between Death and Life, Heaven and Earth, at the intersection of heartbreak and marvel. To stand here again, under a dark sky and through the lens of memory watch unflinching God perform an act of severe mercy wrapped in severe wonder.
The faculty of memory is not a passive one, not a wistful, nostalgic re-interpretation of events or relationships but the deliberate act of bringing them into fullness. To remember requires a willingness to be present, to see again and yet to see anew. It requires courage to look unblinking in the face of grief to see past it and beyond. To remember is to put something back together, to reassemble it. Re-member. Re means “do again.” To remember is to re-attach members of something broken apart. To restore to wholeness and to prevent something from being lost in time. There is a reason God tells us again and again in Scripture to make memorial and commands us to remember. He Himself remembers. He remembers promises and covenants made before we were ever formed. He remembers that we are dust. He remembers that long, long ago by choices made in a perfect garden, we broke the world and everything in it. The wonder of this is that He redeemed the world and is restoring it – making right everything that was made wrong. And one Day another wonder will transpire. Exercising both His faculty of choice and His faculty of memory, He will forget our sins – the sins that broke the world and brought Death into it.
There are as many ways to remember this event as there as those who were part of it. Every memory of it is different because it was experienced from different perspectives. My sisters both remembered different things about this night. My aunt, of course, remembers a different but equally heartbreaking experience. The tow-truck driver and the driver of the car that hit my mother have completely different memories of it. Neither my sisters nor my aunt saw the angel.
I alone witnessed it.
Why was I granted that sight? Not all children see angels take their mothers away when they are orphaned. I don’t know the full answer to that question though I have asked myself that countless times. What I do know is that God Almighty spoke to me in the only language I would have or could have understood at the time – Light shining the darkness. Astonishment mitigating devastation. With no words at all, He framed the horror and the trauma of that night – and everything that came after it – with the presence of holiness. The holiness spread through my entire life, like ripples growing deeper and bigger over time. No matter what else came in my lifetime, this one thing I knew absolutely. An angel took my mother into the sky and, in my very limited understanding, I knew that meant she went to Heaven. I knew that meant God was present in it even though I didn’t extrapolate then that He was with me in it. I never had to wonder if she went to Heaven. I also never, ever had to wonder if human beings are the only life forms in this world. I cannot tell you how long I watched the angel coming down from the sky, picking her up, and taking her away. It seemed like minutes, but it might also have been a split second slowed down to the speed of a child’s sight.
Seeing the angel take my mother away isn’t a metaphor or a Christian embellishment I added later to the story about the night my mother died to give the trauma of being orphaned some framework. Seeing it was something I experienced. I saw the angel carrying her before I heard from anyone what had happened. Seeing it is central to my experience of being orphaned. Almost nothing in this world carries more anguish than a child losing a parent, especially an only parent, except losing a child. Everything good I associated in this world I associated with her. She was the universe, the way mothers are, whether they are good mothers or not. For me, all beauty, all goodness, all hope, any sense of being loved and wanted at all, lived embodied in her.
The Cost of Wonder
Understanding often comes before words. But words are understanding come into full bloom. Cultivating the words gives name and identity to meaning. Naming brings the fruit of meaning into being – an act cultivated incarnation. Time alone does not bring meaning any more than it heals all wounds. Neither does staring into darkness or watching around every corner bring wonder or an encounter with the numinous. These do not come at our bidding but are often given in answer to our longing.
Everything I am was altered that night by that sight. I was altered by her death, yes absolutely and permanently, but not nearly so much as by the seeing her being taken away. The severing of our physical ties with all its scarring impact was mitigated by such profound tenderness and care, though I could not then feel it or name it. The truest wonder of that night was not that a child saw an angel – children often see what we have forgotten how to see as adults – but that the Holy God Who fashioned the universe in all its vastness bent down low to earth to show that child where her mother was going.
What I certainly did not understand is that she had crossed over into Life. It was years before I could understand that, and decades more before the meaning of it permeated me enough to redefine my grief. Part of the wonder in this experience seems almost homely in what we might call ordinary. The “ordinary” passage of time is given as a gift. The Holy I AM Who performs wonders gave me not only a sight of the veil pulled back for a moment, but He also gave me the time to understand it, and the time to give report of it. In all He righteousness and sovereignty He did not expect or demand that I accept it gratefully then. He kindly gave me time to receive the gift that was bound in the experience from before its occurrence.
The words for this are, of course, too small. How can our mortal utterances, no matter how eloquent, convey the infinite? “Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.” (Francis Pharcellus Church)
There are not neat ways to tie a bow around the inexplicable mysteries of life and death, mercy and holiness. Sometimes there are not words to define our understanding of the presence of the Holy or how profound are His intentions for our good. Living into that presence without words, oftentimes without answers, is part of the cost of experiencing wonder. Worshipping Him is the condition. There is a greater wonder than all the wonders we yet have seen waiting for every soul who clings to the name of Christ. A great mystery will come for us, unlooked for but ever longed for. In the twinkling of an eye we will be made new. The cost of this wonder is believing.
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” ~ 1 Corinthians 15:52
The exquisite image of the comet flaming through the starlit sky is courtesy of the gracious Jade Payne and used with her kind permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is passionate about disciple making. Reflecting an irresistible calling to the intersection of faith and the arts, she is the Founder and Executive Director of Cultivating, and of The Cultivating Project, a discipling initiative for Christians engaged in the arts. She is President and CEO of a thriving environmental consulting and construction firm based in northern Colorado which she runs with her husband Peter. They are parents to seven children, and are grandparents to a beloved flock of grandchildren. An inveterate book collector and giver, Lancia loves website and garden design, beautiful typography, David Austin roses, Marvel movies, road trips and being read aloud to by Peter. She cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.