Listening to Angels
Recently, I pulled out a worn edition of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese fortune-telling book. Out of respect, I suppose, I only consult this oracle with the most serious questions: whether I should get divorced, whether I should move to a new city, whether I should give Sophie a different medication. Or not. The history, uses, and philosophy of the I Ching are complex, but at its simplest, it operates on a principle of synchronicity: that when you ask it a question and then throw the coins for your answer, you get the right answer.
I remember reading that Nancy Reagan sought an astrologer’s advice for President Reagan when he faced important decisions. This seemed preposterous and not a little frightening. But if I’m weeping uncontrollably or, at worst, vomiting from anxiety at my daughter’s plight, and the telephone rings with a friend I haven’t spoken to in months, I believe it’s a sign. It’s as if the phone ringing itself has hijacked the despair, leading me to this friend for comfort. I believe that God is speaking to me, and that it’s my duty to listen.
I have a hard time articulating my religious faith and am hard-pressed to admit that I have any faith at all. Raised a Catholic, I have always been attracted to the more esoteric aspects of the church, the traditions of mysticism and contemplation that can be found in almost all religions. And while I have literally kneeled and begged for God’s mercy, my faith lies more in chances and signs. I believe it’s my responsibility to be open to see these signs and act upon them — as if they were God’s answer.
One of my favorite movies is Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. It’s about a bunch of angels in East Berlin, one of whom wants to become human to feel joy and pain, sorrow and ecstasy. The angels are in trench coats and have strong German faces. The movie is in black and white, so it looks serious. In my favorite scene, an angel is on the subway. Seated next to him is a man who rests his head in his hands, clearly in despair. The angel, invisible to the passengers, gently places his hand on the man’s shoulder. The man looks up. He has felt the touch although he is unaware of the angel, and suddenly he has hope and the strength to go on. I like to say that angels have visited me when I needed them most; that God’s grace came to me when I least expected it.
The first time was almost ten years ago, when Sophie was a baby and newly diagnosed. We lived in New York City, and I was trudging down Broadway on a winter day after a physical therapy session on the Upper West Side. The wind was raw and working against me as I pushed Sophie’s stroller, and despite the scarf wrapped around my face, it made my eyes water. January in New York can be bleak with the holidays over, and spring still months and a few snowstorms away. I hated the metallic skies and blowing grit, and I felt no hope in the endless routine of doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions, and unanswered questions. At the corner of Broadway and 86th Street, an old man stood at the entrance to Banana Republic and opened the door for me. I gratefully ducked inside with him, noting his kindly face and modest outfit. He had a Banana Republic badge on, and I thought him an unlikely sort to work there.
“Can I help you with anything today?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “I’m just looking.”
“That sure is a cute baby.” “Thanks.” My eyes filled and I hastily wiped at the tears with my fingers. Ridiculously, I began explaining, “I’m sorry. It’s just that she’s sick and I’m tired.” The man listened quietly and told me that he had a grandson with epilepsy who had grown into a fine young man. I was really embarrassed then, so I thanked the man and started for the door.
“Your daughter is happy to have you,” he said. I headed home feeling lighter and more hopeful, clinging to the story of his grandson who outgrew his seizures. The next day, I returned to Banana Republic alone, hoping to see the old man and tell him how grateful I was for his kind words. But the people at the store didn’t know whom I was talking about.
“Nobody old has ever worked here,” they said. “Nobody like that.”
Several years later, I encountered a second angel. I was leaving the osteopath’s office with Sophie, discouraged that, after so many visits, we hadn’t seen much improvement. I periodically went through funks, some longer than others, when everything I did for Sophie seemed fruitless, and I stifled a panic that we were headed for worse. The office was in midtown and the streets were packed with workers on their lunch hour. The sky was overcast and yellow, the air thick in the summer heat. I decided to stop at a McDonald’s — it was air-conditioned and Sophie loved French fries. It was one of the few ‘normal’ things about her. Pushing her stroller, I made my way through the crowd to the counter to stand behind an overweight man in a short-sleeved polyester dress shirt. I imagined him to be one of the tens of thousands of office workers who spilled out of the glass-and-steel towers and ate their lunches before returning to their beige cubicles and, later, their lives in the outer boroughs of Manhattan. I only noticed him because he was sweaty and slightly repulsive.
When my order came, I made my way to the front of the McDonald’s, pushing Sophie’s stroller and finally grabbing a stand-up spot at a counter along the front window. Absentmindedly, I watched the hundreds of people rushing back and forth on the street outside and fed Sophie French fries one at a time. It was 10 minutes before I noticed that I was standing next to the sweaty man from the line. I nodded cursorily and he smiled at Sophie.
“She likes those, huh?” he said.
“Yeah. She’s a big eater.” I didn’t want to be engaged.
“She must be around two, right?” He was determined to make conversation.
“Two and a half, actually.” I dreaded the rest, mainly because while Sophie looked normal, she couldn’t walk or talk. The man bent over and spoke to her. When there was no reply, he turned and looked at me.
“She understands you, probably, but has some handicaps and can’t talk,” I explained. The man then proceeded to tell me that one of his children, a son, suffered from a seizure disorder and was profoundly handicapped. I listened, stunned at the coincidence. This man then spoke of the incredible love he had for his son and how grateful he felt to have been given the opportunity to love so purely without the usual returns. We walked out of the McDonald’s together and then he laid his hand on Sophie’s curls and said good-bye. I nodded and watched him until he melted into the throng of people and disappeared, leaving me standing next to Sophie on the hot sidewalk under the sun.
The question I asked the I Ching was, “Should I give Sophie this medication that her doctor recommends despite my misgivings?” I threw three pennies six times. The oracle gives its answers in the form of hexagrams. The one I received is called “K’an,” which translates roughly into “The Abysmal.” It seemed to me that the oracle was urging me not to abandon certain principles in trying to conquer adversity. I understood it as saying that success was possible if I remained true to my beliefs. My belief was that I had been down this road before and that medications had done little but harm my daughter. I had vowed that I wouldn’t try another drug for Sophie unless Jesus himself offered it. I was comforted by the alternative-medicine doctors who, while not curing Sophie, had given her a far better quality of life and had ministered, really, to our souls. I didn’t want to give the neurologist another chance because, in my heart, I felt that traditional medicine had used up all those chances and had failed.
Nevertheless, one doesn’t make decisions based on ancient Chinese oracles. Angels appear on crowded city streets, but they disappear and leave only a lingering trace. I gave Sophie the medication.
Five months later, we are going through the painful process of weaning her from it. The drug, like the 15 before it, has had little effect on her seizures but has had serious side effects, including considerable weight loss, depression, and decreased motor ability. It will take us some time to rid her of the drug’s negative work, but in the meantime I just happened to have learned of a homeopath in Arizona who is interested in helping us. ~
Editor’s note: Elizabeth Aquino lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children. A part-time parent advocate for children with special health care needs, she is working on a book about her experiences. This article was reprinted with permission from the May/June 2008 issue of Spirituality and Health magazine.