The Black Angel Comes to My Rescue
When, O Lord, shall my voice
Produce such a lament
That your image flashes suddenly before my eyes?
—v. 19, The Ninth Song,
Shaiva Devotional Songs of Kashmir
It was Iowa, it was winter, and I got the flu. Greg took me to the doctor, and then we walked over to the Medical Centerto pick up a simple prescription. While we waited, I felt a little dizzy and somewhat nauseous. I said, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and got up to walk down the hall. Suddenly the lights seemed to be everywhere, the room was reeling, and I passed out. Greg had followed behind me, saw me stop, and then watched my arms stiffen as a strange sound came from my throat. Terrified, he lurched forward, broke my fall, called out for help, then held me while I shook.
I came to in the emergency room. I had had seizures before, but this time the medical people had been there and had taken over. This time it had happened in the halls of a teaching hospital. There was no covering it up. I went home with an appointment for a brain scan and some other tests.
Two weeks later I went in for the results. I was greeted by a friendly young doctor who explained that he was going now to take the photos of my brain into consultation, and he’d be back in a few minutes. Then he got up and walked down the hall with my file.
The office held little interest, no welcome quirk to focus on. There was an almond desk, an almond file cabinet, and an almond chair with wheels. Next to the metal chair in which I sat was another metal chair just like it; the arms of the two linked together. Beneath the desk lurked a brown plastic wastebasket that housed some stray bits of pharmaceutical literature. A notepad from a medical supply company sat on the desk, along with a big paper calendar. My doctor whisked past going the other direction. Faint voices rose as the metal doors to the large conference room swung open for a moment. I peered around the corner for a glimpse. Seated around the long table were a dozen or so doctors, discussing pictures of my brain. Some took notes; others stared at the oversized gray slides tacked to the wall and lit from behind on the viewing screens. A bearded man at the head of the table pushed his glasses up onto his forehead. My doctor whisked past once more, accompanied by yet another gray-haired doctor. The two went in and the door was closed.
After about two hours my doctor reemerged looking weather-beaten. He sat down in the chair next to mine. He glanced at me. Then his eyes shot straight ahead to the file cabinet. He placed his hands on his knees as if for support and said, “The tests are inconclusive. We’re going to recommend that you take medication to keep the seizures under control. We’d like you to come back in six months for another test.”
“Well, because then we may be able to see a little better.”
“I don’t understand what you mean. What difference will six months make?”
He shifted in his seat. A sick feeling had begun in the pit of my stomach and was rising into my throat like an impending scream.
“Listen,” I said, “my father’s a surgeon. I’ve been around doctors and hospitals all my life. Just tell me what the hell’s going on. I want to know.”
He turned to look at me. His eyes softened with relief and gratitude. “We think you have a brain tumor that’s still too small to see. In six months it may grow to a visible size, and then we’ll take it from there.” Then he looked away, and so did I.
A brain tumor.
In a flash it all made sense. The seizures, the vicious headaches, the sudden onset of dizziness with no apparent outward cause. The migraines starting in my teens that had become more frequent as time went on. And it explained the fearful tone of my father’s recent airmail from France . When my mother called to tell him about my episode at the hospital, he had written to me immediately. His tone had been exaggeratedly encouraging. He had known what the recurring symptoms meant.
I knew that I had a brain tumor. I didn’t need to wait six months to be sure. I felt the truth of it. And the truth spoke volumes. God’s voice seemed to be shouting inside my head, Wake up! Do you think you have forever?
I walked through the rest of that day alone with my purpose. Greg couldn’t help me. My writer friends couldn’t help me. My friends in Al-Anon couldn’t help me. I was the only one who could live whatever was left of my life. If I wanted to serve God, to do the things I had come here to do, I had best get on with it.
At some point during the next few weeks I stopped being hard on myself and began to look at the situation in a practical light. One afternoon I stood alone in the center of the living room and spoke frankly with God, out loud. “Okay,” I said, “You’ve definitely got a point. You got me to Al-Anon, which was a big boost, and now I know how I need to change. I’ve been wasting time, I admit. I haven’t really worked on my anger and I’m full of pride. I’m still smoking and lying to myself about how little I eat. On the whole, I still act like someone who doesn’t want to live.” I had no idea how God heard such things but I had to say them. I went on, “So maybe I’ve blown it. Maybe it’s already too late. But listen, I know there’s so much I’m supposed to do before I die, and if I die now I won’t have time to do it. So I’m willing to make more effort, but obviously it’s Your call. Whatever You decide, I will accept as Your love, but this is my request.”
It was probably the first true prayer I had ever prayed.
She Held Both My Hands
Six months later I was back at the hospital, lying on a lab table waiting for the technician to come and draw blood for another round of tests. The equipment looked chromey and new, shaped like a space capsule. The nurse had pushed a button which electronically moved my body, like cargo on a conveyor belt, into a large, bulbous enclosure. It felt like a cave except that the lower two-thirds of my body was outside the cave, and I could still see a little of what was going on in the well-lit lab. This is a much snazzier model than the one I test-drove six months ago, I joked to myself. Then the nurse started the iodine IV, which accounted for the cold, metallic feeling now making its way through my upper body. Along with the chilly liquid, worries crept in. The nurse left and two young girls in white coats walked vaguely around me, rearranging the instrument tables and swivel chairs, talking about how much they had drunk at a party on Saturday night. They moved about as if I were no more than an invisible appendage of the testing equipment. I listened to my heart growing louder as I fought off an intense wave of loneliness. Then she walked in.
“How we doing today?” She wore the blue coat that was standard dress for lab technicians. Her skin and eyes were dark brown. Her black hair had been ironed and curled in a friendly, shoulder-length do.
“Oh, fine,” I said cheerily, glancing around. “You know, this is really impressive. Every time I come, you guys have installed some newer, fancier gadget.” She wheeled her cart closer and tied a tourniquet around my arm. I glanced at the rows of empty glass test tubes as the one at my arm filled up with blood. “How many of those are you going to need?” I asked.
Her eyes shone. “Yes, we heard you were coming and thought we’d update our equipment. You know, I was only going to fill up five of these, but now that I see you’re a troublemaker I’m going to need twice that many.”
I laughed. It felt so good to laugh. Just moments before I had been fending off rapid-fire anxieties. From within the cave I had wondered what the doctors looked for on the X-ray, and what they might find on these new pictures. I had wanted to talk to someone, be light, distract myself.
As she labeled the last of the ampules, the black medic asked how old I was.
“Twenty-four,” I said. I felt suddenly sad, and fell silent. She finished slipping the tubes into their holsters in the tray table, then turned to me. Looking directly into my eyes she leaned forward, took both my hands firmly in hers, and gave them a squeeze.
“God bless you,” she said, then turned and wheeled the lab cart out of the room.
I hardly noticed her leaving. Warm, tingling sensations were rushing through my body from head to toe, as though every cell was being washed in light. Tears rolled down my cheeks and I stifled a couple of sobs. A deep conviction arose in my heart: I am healed. She is an angel and I am healed. I don’t know where the words came from but I knew that they were true. Just as I had known before that I had a brain tumor, now I knew that I didn’t have one anymore.
I never had another seizure. Every six months for two years I went through the same series of tests, but the expected results never showed.
After I came to my senses and realized that of course the lab tech had not been an angel at all but simply a kind woman of faith, I tried to contact her. I wanted to thank her, to tell her how I had felt the power of her prayer for me. I called the hospital and asked to speak to the black woman who did blood draws for the CAT scan lab. I assumed this would be enough of a description. It was Iowa City, after all, the least racially diverse place I had ever lived, where to meet anyone with dark brown skin was a rarity.
The hospital receptionist said, “No one like that works here.”
I frowned. “Are you sure? She’s pretty, about thirty years old, with short black hair . . . she was wearing a blue lab coat.”
Laughter from the voice on the other end. “Well, the blue lab coat makes sense, but hey. I’ve been here for 14 years. I know all the lab techs, and nobody by that description works here. I’m sorry.”
More stunned than disappointed I said blankly, “Well, thanks anyway.”
One night a few weeks later I was lonely. Greg had gone on retreat at a nearby monastery. I called a writer friend and he invited me over for a drink.
I had entered a time of reevaluation. Since the tumor scare, I now thought about every choice I made, however small. I sensed that every action I took was somehow much more important than I had previously guessed. Instead of the candy bar and coffee I previously ate for breakfast, I started forcing myself to eat a single piece of toast. I looked at my watch and observed mealtimes, doing my best to mimic the norms of feeding oneself. I had stopped smoking. And I spent a few minutes every day in prayer and meditation.
I declined the drink he offered and watched while he poured one for himself. We hadn’t been close friends, just acquaintances really, so we talked about what we had done before the Writers’ Workshop, the writers whose influences we valued, what we thought of life in Iowa City.
He said, “You know the Black Angel?” I froze, not sure what I was hearing. “What?”
He brightened. “The Black Angel! You haven’t seen her yet? You have to see her once before you leave here. It’s a must. Some famous Workshoppers have written about her. She’s an Iowa City icon.”
A few minutes later we were driving past the wrought iron gate and into the little cemetery. The sky was already darkening, so my friend pulled in close and turned up the headlights so that they shone on a towering figure, entirely black. Her shape rose to a height of nearly eight feet, the wings spread wide as though she had just alighted to protect the grave at her feet. The black metal features shone like skin. I gazed at her face, undoubtedly that of an angel: pure and unwavering, intent on her charge.
“Well, what do you think? Isn’t she great?”
“She’s magnificent,” I said. “I feel like I know her.”
Excerpted from Sacred Visitations: Gifts of Grace that Transform the Heart and Awaken the Soul, © Ceci Miller 2006, published by Five Wisdoms Press. You're warmly invited to subscribe to SAINTS monthly email newsletter, and check out Ceci’s workshops and courses based on the book and the Sacred Visitations AudioCourse.