Angels Among Us:
Part 1. The Motherless Home
There are times when a family becomes so broken, that only a very special person can fix it. There are some among us who travel about the world, making it their mission in life to find these families and help them to heal. They do not know what force or spirit calls them. They simply follow that call. Some who do this are angels and others are children of light. But most people cannot tell the difference. It doesn't really matter. They are all gifts of God, the Father, who wants to see his people happy and their families mended.
The "children of light" are members of a special breed, within a special race of people. Buried deep inside the various Celtic regions of Europe, they are a highly intuitive people, intimately connected with the universal consciousness that makes up the psychic fabric of the universe, which has existed for millennia. Throughout the ages, these people have quietly lived within their simple villages, attempting, but not always succeeding, to bother no one. Things may not work out so well for those who attempt to venture beyond the security of their little world.
Those that stay at home provide a safe haven for their more adventurous friends and relatives who (mostly) wander the world in search of ways to help others. They have large families to "replenish" the stock of the race, as those who roam only very rarely settle; much less have any children of their own. For if they marry outside their race, then they may not return to their home villages to settle. It is not allowed. Thus, any children that they have are swiftly absorbed into the larger race of humans. This is not always a bad thing, since their kindly and generous proclivities often pass down to their descendants.
There are many things in the modern, twentieth century world that are mysterious to those of the villages. However, they have a much deeper understanding of the nature of the souls of humankind than their modern counterparts. For one essential one thing that these people are aware of, is that human souls exist in a constant cycle of life, death, and rebirth. All humans are a part of this cycle. There are some easterners, such as the Hindus, who recognize this and celebrate it. But in the western world, it is scarcely acknowledged. It is those of these Celtic villages, who have a greater awareness than others there.
Within this cycle, human souls live to perfect themselves in terms of goodness by traveling through any number of "lifetimes," until they reach a point when their journeys in the earthly dimension are complete and they reside in their heavenly Father's home with the celestial beings, or angels. Many of the children of light are on their final journey. As children of light they possess enormous goodness and prescience. They are destined to do very good things for the human race before they pass into the heavenly realm forever.
Heaven is a place of peace and joy. It is a place that is free of the tensions that exist in the rest of the universe. But it wasn't always like this. Long ago, before the humans were ever dreamt of in the mind of God, a great battle took place between the good angels and the bad angels or demons. The demons were cast out of Heaven forever. It is proof positive to those who might doubt that good will ultimately conquer evil in the world, that a place free from darkness can, and indeed does, exist.
For the universe is made up of any number of dualities, all of which can be traced back to this essential one: the ever tenuous coexistence of the forces of goodness and evil, also named those of light and darkness. The Celtic races, born far in the north where the cycle of daylight and night darkness is profoundly contrasted within the seasons of the year exist mostly in the realm of the forces of goodness. Those on the outside view their mysticism as one of their inherent characteristics and accept it with a wink and a nod. It is at their own loss.
Understanding this world does not require knowledge, but faith. For one cannot reduce to pure logic this world of mists and shadows. It requires simplicity of mind and a pureness of heart to have a belief in things that one cannot see, especially the intangibles of love and goodness. The complexity and scientific quest for absolute truth of the modern world is an inadvertent threat to this world. There are many things that reason can answer, but the attraction of one soul to another is not one of them.
The Tressidors were a family of this race. One of their own, a young woman named Selena, had settled outside of the village in a city in northern California. Selena was a special child of light, the child of two parents who were each on their final journey home. As one who roamed, it was her simple mission to help save the world, by healing the broken-hearted. Whether she was a housekeeper, au pair, nanny, or caretaker, her reason for roaming was to mend broken families. In her own words, her purpose in life was to set the world to rights one family at a time.
In order to stay in touch with her roots, and because one day she was destined to ultimately settle there, in between her various jobs, which only lasted a few months at a time, she would return home. She deeply loved her parents and her younger sister, another child of light. This child was unique even among those of their race. Her mind was so closely intertwined with the universal consciousness that she was able to perceive aspects of spiritual world that few others could. She had a most simple and prophetic mind. She was the other reason why Selena so frequently traveled home.
The time was the late twentieth century, in the early 1970's. It was a time of great social upheaval and families seemed to be flying apart faster than they could be mended. But Selena Tressidor, undaunted, continued her travels until she reached the final destination on her earthly journey. Of course she didn't know it at the time. As always, she had gone where she was called, but for once she found herself at a loss to put things in order. Something was clearly amiss.
For it was in this place that she met and fell in love with a most unlikely outsider. He was a university professor, a scientist no less, and a widower, with four children ranging in age from sixteen to four. His home was in a state of turmoil when she arrived. After nearly a dozen housekeepers in two years, in addition to starting to feel like Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Dr. Justin Harrington was desperate.
Justin Harrington was a rather brilliant professor of mathematics who worked at a large and prestigious university in northern California. He was not only an excellent teacher and mentor to the young men and women in his program, but he was also engaged in some of the most innovative areas of scientific research. It was the time of the space race between America and the Soviet Union and the first moon shot. And he was one of the great minds that made it happen.
He had been lucky enough to be in the right place and at the right time as a graduate student at Caltech. His department had just received a grant from the US space agency to research some of the most elusive aspects of precisely landing a lunar craft on the surface of the moon. His graduate advisor had written the grant proposal and made sure that his star student had a prominent role in the research. This not only gave him the topic for his dissertation, it opened doors for him when he hit the job market when he was ready to move on.
Justin had married right after his first year of graduate school. His wife, a graduate student herself of anthropology, gave up her academic career when she became pregnant almost immediately after the wedding with their first child. With her husband fully absorbed in his academic work, she threw all of her time and energy into raising her daughter.
Once Justin was ready to begin looking for that all important tenure track job, a tense time followed. A native Californian like himself, she came from San Jose in the northern part of the state. To appease her mother, who was afraid that they might move far away, Justin took a job not far from where she grew up. It was an excellent job and it seemed a very small price to pay to keep his mother-in-law happy.
When Justin and his beautiful young wife Helen moved to their new city, they seemed to be living a charmed life. Helen found the perfect home for them and their little daughter Willa. Justin fit very well into his new position and with Helen to help him, his star was on the rise. However, after fifteen happy years of marriage, that star, on a very personal level at least, came crashing back down to earth, leaving him a widower with four children to raise before he had even turned 40. It proved that even the greatest rocket scientists can fall.
In 1970, Dr. Justin Harrington was a dignified man. With his jet-black hair graying at the temples, light grey eyes, and tanned, athletic physique, he often had trouble with the schoolgirl crushes of his female students. When they initially met him, they felt sorry for him for having lost his beloved wife to a virulent form of pancreatic cancer two years earlier. It was a sad story, and only a romantic young woman could see it as romantic. It was actually a tragedy.
Helen Harrington had been a typical homemaker of the era. Her life revolved around her family, her husband and their four children. And also typical of this era, Justin went out and developed a career to support the family, while it was Helen's career to care for the family. Society was only on the cusp of the women's liberation movement, so that even a bright and talented woman like Helen had no aspirations for an academic or professional career of her own. Thus, both were very happy with this arrangement. After fifteen years of marriage, they were still deeply in love with one another.
Like many mothers, Helen was inclined to neglect her own needs to care for her family, and this was how the tragedy struck. She had been feeling a bit under the weather for a couple of months, nothing too specific, just a little ill. However, there was always another cake to bake, another costume to make for a school play, another neighbor who needed a lift to the store. It was only when she fainted while helping with her son Max's kindergarten class Halloween party that anyone realized how truly sick she was.
Although she tried to brush it off, the school principal, Mrs. Clark, seeing her hollow cheeks and sallow complexion, insisted that she go to the emergency room. By the time that Justin arrived, she was in surgery. The doctors suspected something serious was amiss and had insisted that it could not wait. It was only hours later, that Justin met up with his father-in-law Tom Williams there.
"Where have you been?" asked Tom bluntly. "They called you over eight hours ago."
"I was in class and then a meeting and then a graduate seminar," he explained. "I didn't know it was so serious."
"The fact that you were called to the emergency room wasn't enough of a clue?" he asked sarcastically.
Justin was taken aback. His mother-in-law Bernice had a pretty sharp tongue, but Tom had always been fairly easygoing. He didn't know what to say, so Tom continued.
"She was helping with the Halloween party in Max's class when she fainted," Tom continued. "She had Jennie with her. Mrs. Clark didn't like the way that she looked, so she insisted on driving her here. After she called the university, Helen asked her to call us. She was concerned that you might not be able to get here quickly enough to care for Jennie."
"Where is Jennie?" asked Justin, now feeling rather dazed.
"She's at home with Bernice and the other children," he replied. "You might not realize it, but school let out for them hours ago."
"Uh, yeah," said Justin, inarticulate as always, when caught off guard. He was trying to wrap his mind around everything that he was hearing. His brain was still swirling with the latest crisis in the math department and a debate that his students in the seminar were having about algorithms for measuring space flight.
"What do the doctors think?" he asked.
Tom let out a sigh of frustration after noting his inattention to the matters at hand. However the doctor was approaching them with a serious look on his face.
"Mr. Williams," he said to Tom. "And you must be Dr. Harrington?"
"Yes, sir," answered Justin. "How is my wife?"
"Why don't you come over here so that we can sit and talk," he suggested.
Forgetting their previous words, Justin and Tom followed the doctor to a cluster of chairs in the corner.
"I'm going to give it to you straight," said the doctor. "Because you are going to have to begin making some decisions tonight."
Justin's heart sank. Every thought that he had walked into the hospital with about his job, left his mind. As engaged as he was in his career, Helen was always (or so he thought up to this point) the most important thing in his life. Perception and reality in life do not always perfectly match up.
"Mrs. Harrington is suffering from pancreatic cancer," he stated. "In the exploratory surgery that we just did, we discovered that it has metastasized into the liver. At this point, there is very little that we can do."
"You can live without your pancreas," he replied. "But not your liver. And once the cancer metastasizes out of the original area, no one knows where it will go next."
"Radiation? Chemotherapy?" asked Justin.
The doctor shook his head.
"It would be painful, with terrible side effects," he explained. "But it probably would not prolong life for enough of a length of time to make it worthwhile."
Justin put his head in his hands. The doctor was talking about prolonging life, not saving it. Essentially, he had just pronounced a death sentence on his wife. This was his worst nightmare. Helen was the best thing in his life. And what about the children?
"Then, what decisions need to be made?" asked Tom, seeing that Justin was incapable of responding.
"You don't have a lot of options," admitted the doctor. "The real choice is whether you bring her home now or let us try some treatment here in the hospital. I am not sure of what we can do, but we may be able to make her more comfortable here."
"What about the children?" Justin asked.
"What about them?"
"If we leave her here, will they be able to visit her?" he asked.
The doctor looked uncomfortable.
"No," he said slowly. "In order to go into the cancer ward, you must be at least sixteen-years-old."
Justin and Tom were now both silent. Justin was already dreading telling the children. The only one who would fully understand the situation was Willa and she was also likely to be the most devastated. But if she couldn't see her mother it would make things worse. Justin's head began to spin with the possibilities of that and how he was going to manage to care for the children anyway. It was Helen who always worked these things out. He looked helplessly at Tom.
"We will be here for you," he said quietly. "Bernice is going to be beside herself, but she is a very strong woman. I don't know what to do about Helen."
"I'm going to ask her," decided Justin. "If it were up to me, I would want to see her suffer as little as possible. But she may feel differently if she knows that it will separate her from the children. This should be her choice, not ours."
Tom looked at him and nodded. It was Helen's life and the very least they could do for her was to give her the power to decide how and where she would spend her last months. They followed the doctor to the hospital room. Helen looked frail in the hospital bed, especially with the intravenous needles sticking in her arm. Her skin had a yellowish tinge from the liver failure. Now that he could really focus on her, Justin realized how poorly she looked. She gave him a weak smile as he sat down in the empty chair beside her bed. Then picking up her hand, he gently kissed her.
The doctor made the same speech, with a little greater sensitivity, that he had made to them just now. Helen took the news stoically. Looking at her, Justin realized that she must have had an idea that she was very sick, but between the kids and her own fears had chosen to ignore it. Now it was too late.
"I want to go home," she said simply.
"Are you sure?" asked the doctor.
"If I don't have much time left, I want to spend it with my children," she answered weakly.
"You realize that we can treat your pain better here?" asked the doctor.
"And you realize that I will be in much greater pain if I can't be with my children," she replied with a bit of spirit.
"We will do everything we can to keep you at home for as long as possible," promised Justin. "And hopefully we will be able to do something to mitigate the pain."
"And we will do everything that we can to help," promised her father. "We will make sure that you can have all the time that you want with the kids."
She weakly nodded. Justin took her in his arms and held her close. For fifteen years, she had been the center of his life. He couldn't even contemplate what might happen in a few short months. Fortunately, he didn't have time to. His next concern was telling Bernice and the children.
After a brief discussion, they decided that Helen would spend the night and one more day in the hospital. It would give them time to get things organized at home. Presently, they would go home to tell Bernice and the children. Helen did not want them to lie to the kids. She wanted them to know the truth from the first and that their Mommy would be home the following day.
Justin decided that he would take a leave of absence for the rest of the school year. It was not a difficult decision to make. There was no way that he would be able to go in and teach effectively everyday if he knew that Helen was at home suffering. The minute that he spoke the words, Helen's face lit up with the closest thing to a genuine smile that he had seen yet. It was obvious that she wanted every minute that she could get with him as well.
It didn't take long for the regrets to set in. For years, Helen had patiently kept the home fires burning while he established his career. After graduate school, there was the first tenure track job to find, then the "publish or perish" challenge. Then, even after he had earned tenure, his need to pursue grant money to bring into the department to earn his full professorship.
The great irony was that this had happened just as he was so close to achieving that point in his career. With those professional pieces in place, he could have given more time to her and the family. He had even made the unfilled promise that he would take her on a second honeymoon for their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Now he would never be able to keep that promise. The full professorship that he was so close to earning would be cold comfort after the loss of his wife.
By the time that they returned home it was well after dinner. In fact, the younger children would have been in bed on any other school night. But this was not any other night. Bernice was in charge, but the kids were all in a state of upset. Max had told Willa and Jay about how Mommy had gotten sick in his classroom. They had insisted on waiting up, so of course the younger kids wanted to stay up as well. It was an indication of Bernice's own state of mind that she hadn't insisted on their normal bedtime schedule.
Two-year-old Jennie didn't know what was going on, but was running around because of the uproar with the other three. When they walked in the door, Jay began to ply them with detailed questions and Willa kept interrupting him. Max was loudly trying to tell his story about Mommy getting sick. While Justin would have preferred to tell Bernice before the children, the chaos meant that they would need to tell them all at once. There was nothing else for it.
Justin took Jennie on his lap while Tom held Max on his. It was the only way to keep them seated. Jay sat beside his grandmother, huddled under her arm, while Willa paced. At the last moment, Justin lost his courage and looked at Tom pleadingly. Always the strength in any crisis, Tom took charge of the conversation.
Very gently, he told the others of Helen's illness and the dire prognosis. Then he told them that she would be coming home in another day because she wanted to have as much time with them as possible. But the house needed to be organized first.
"Does that mean I don't have to go to school?" asked Max eagerly, clearly having missed the larger issue.
"No," replied Justin. "You children will still go to school as usual. But I am calling my department head tonight and will go on leave of absence as soon as possible. Someone has to be here for Mom and Jennie."
"There's no need for you to do that," said Bernice dismissively. "Tom and I will move in and give you all the help you need."
Justin looked at her stunned. Not surprisingly, she was thinking of herself and her own need to spend as much time as possible with her daughter. As with many of the other situations in their marriage when Justin might have dropped career matters to help Helen at home, she was interfering and telling him that he should keep working. But this time he wasn't going to let her do it. Tom looked at her with a mixture of annoyance and sorrow.
"Dear," he said. "I am sure that Justin will be happy to accept any help that we can give him. I think that it was appropriate to allow him and Helen to discuss it and see what they wanted. And it is Justin's decision whether or not to take the leave. He told Helen about his desire to take a leave just now at the hospital and she agreed. In fact she seemed relieved."
Now Bernice looked annoyed. No doubt, it displeased her that she had been informed of the situation at the same time as the children. She also didn't like the idea that Justin's decision about his job had been made without her consultation. But they really hadn't needed to ask her. They had already known what her opinion would be.
Jennie started to wiggle on his lap.
"Want Mommy," she said. "Where is Mommy?"
"Mommy will be home in a day or so," he said gently. "She needs to spend a couple of nights away to rest up."
"Why don't you just tell her the truth?" asked Willa with an edge in her voice. "Jennie, Mommy's coming home but then she's going away forever."
"Mommy go away?" asked Jennie confused.
"Mommy's going to heaven to sing with the angels," replied Willa, her voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Mommy sing?" Poor Jennie was even more confused.
"And we'll never see her again!"
Jennie's eyes filled with tears.
"Want Mommy!" she begged. "Want Mommy now!"
"Willa! How can you say such a thing to her?" said Tom incensed.
"Mommy's going away forever?" asked Max suddenly getting upset. He struggled to get off of Tom's lap and began to cry loudly.
"No Mommy away!" cried Jennie, as Jay began to silently cry. "Want Mommy now!"
"I didn't know she was so sick," sobbed Jay. "I told her to go to the doctor because she was so tired. She said that it was nothing."
Justin wanted to cry himself. Bernice however gave Jay a little squeeze and then got up and walked over to Willa. She stood in front of her, stared her directly in the eyes, and then slapped her hard across the face. Everyone was stunned.
"Young lady, those remarks were completely unacceptable!" she scolded. "You do not need to make this any worse for the younger children."
Willa looked at her darkly but did not answer. Bernice was not someone to engage in battle, especially if you were a child. Justin could only imagine what she was thinking. Willa loved her mother more than anyone in the world. But her grandmother felt equally strongly. Helen was her precious only child.
Since they had been married, Bernice had hovered over her, making sure that everything was well. Ironically, Bernice had also helped her to spoil Willa to the point where her resentment for her younger siblings ran deep. Their only crime was that when they were born, she was no longer an only child and the center of her mother's attention.
Not knowing what else to do, Justin cradled Jennie in his arms to comfort her. Of all the children, she was the most helpless. It also occurred to him that she would never really know the mother who had so joyfully given birth to her two and a half years ago. The nightmare existence was only now beginning.
Pastor Jason entered University Hospital on that early November morning to be greeted by one of the nurses from the Intensive Care Unit. The hospital had no resident chaplain, but there was a group of local clergy who each donated one day a week. Normally, Jason would not have been there, but his friend Pastor Mark from the local Methodist church had needed to swap days. Nurse Walters had a deeply concerned look on her face.
"Pastor Jason," she began after saying good morning. "Yesterday a young woman was brought in after she had passed out at her son's school. Tests have discovered pancreatic and liver cancer. The doctors are giving her three months at the most."
For a moment Jason was silent.
"Is she asking for a priest or minister?"
"No," replied the nurse slowly. "But she is the mother of four children, the youngest of whom is two. She had a very rough night, worrying about them and her university professor husband. She has decided to go home without any drastic or invasive treatment. I'm worried about her because she is feeling so hopeless."
"That is very understandable," he said. "She has a young family and her situation does sound hopeless. What do you think I can do for her?"
"I'm not sure," she answered. "But I know that sometimes when you listen and talk to the patients, it gives them the strength and courage to go on. None of the other ministers are able to do that so well. Somehow, I think that you can help her."
Considering the coincidence of his change in schedule, Jason could only assume that she was right. Of course Nurse Walters couldn't know that his special ability to comfort the sick and dying came from his unique relationship with God and His kingdom. Finding out the room number, he went upstairs immediately.
Helen Harrington was lying in bed staring at the ceiling. If it wasn't evident from her thin and fragile appearance, her aura indicated that she was not far off from death. In addition to her physical illness, she was spiritually ill. It was clear that she was not a regular churchgoer by the lack of substance in its milky glow. Those who attend church on a regular basis provide their souls with the nourishment that a close relationship with God brings. Few people are able to achieve this even with personal prayer at home. He knocked on the door.
"Yes, Father," she said a sigh, noting the collar. "What do you want?"
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "But I am not a priest. I am Pastor Jason from Trinity Presbyterian Church. Would you like me to call you a priest?"
"No," she said. "I'm not a Catholic either. But I don't recall asking for anyone."
"You didn't," he said. "Let's just say that I am here as a friend. The nurse tells me that you got some bad news yesterday. Would you like to talk about it?"
Jason could see her hesitate. She did want to talk about it, but she didn't know if she could trust him.
"I don't report to anyone but the Man Upstairs," he said. "Anything that you tell me will be held in the strictest confidence."
She pondered his words. He realized that she was about to open up. He knew from experience that he needed to be patient and let her tell her story in her own time. He already knew it, and it was not very good, but for her to accept the reality of the situation, she needed to speak of it herself and in her own words. He sat down in the chair beside the bed.
"Pastor Jason," she said. "There is no one responsible for my being here but myself. I knew that I was sick, but I never took the time to go to the doctor. They tell me that pancreatic cancer is always life ending. But if I had gone for a check up when I started feeling ill months ago, then perhaps I could have had treatment that would have given me more time with my family. Now it's too late."
"It's never too late," said Jason gently. "That perception comes from looking back at choices that we made in life that we can't change. You still have time. You are still able to make choices about the future and how you will spend the time that you have left. The last thing that you want to do now is waste any of that precious time regretting the past. I understand that you are going home?"
"The only thing that they can do for me here is with regard to the pain," she explained. "And if I stay here then I can't see my children."
Now he nodded.
"Then you are making the right choice," he said. "Will you have help at home?"
"My husband is going to take a leave of absence from the university and my parents will be there to help with the children," she replied. "We will at least have this time together."
"Yes," he said. "God is being merciful."
"If God is being merciful, then why did He give me cancer?" she asked bitterly.
"In other words, why did God let this terrible thing happen to you?" he commented.
"Can you answer me that?" she challenged him.
It is so interesting, he thought to himself, how the people who ignore God when things are going well are so quick to blame Him when things go badly. But chastising this poor woman for her lack of faith was not going to help her.
"God neither lets nor makes bad things happen to us," he said quietly. "Circumstances related to the human condition do that. We are not perfect, immortal beings. We do not know the cause of cancer and therefore we cannot prevent or cure it. God does not interfere in the world to the degree that we often give Him credit for, and that is a two way street. There is no more value in attributing good fortune to God, than bad. There are many circumstances beyond God's control. This is one of them. But He is here for you right now if you need Him."
"Then why do people pray to Him?" she asked. "If he can't really change anything, I mean."
"There are people who pray to Him as if He were Santa Claus," he replied. "That is very true. But if they 'get what they want' so to speak, that is coincidence, not cause and effect. Statistically speaking, the answers they get to their prayers can most likely be predicted by probability. But the people who benefit the most from prayer are those looking for strength, comfort, wisdom, and insight. I frequently pray to God when I am in need of help, but I am not looking for Him to do something. I am only looking for strength and guidance."
"Guidance," he nodded. "Just like you, I am a human being with a free will to make my own choices. I believe that if I have faith and trust in God, that He will help me make better choices. I read His word in the scripture, especially the words of Jesus to show me the way."
"Why Jesus?" she asked, now engaged.
"Because Jesus was both God and Man," he replied. "And as a Man, Jesus set for us an excellent example to aspire to. And I do say aspire to, because we will always fall short. This not a failure on our part, but rather a limitation of our human nature."
"How does God give you strength?" she asked curiously.
"My strength is my faith," he said simply. "Praying often gives me a sense of peace. It is actually more like meditating. The more quiet and focused I am, the more likely I am to feel his comfort and strength."
What if I don't have any faith?" she asked.
"Ask and you shall receive it," he said simply. "But you have to open your heart to it first. It is never too late."
"You are a very wise man, Pastor Jason," she said thoughtfully. "Despite being so young. Did you learn all that in seminary?"
"Actually," he replied. "I learned it through my own experiences with life and God. My beliefs are based on faith, not knowledge. You cannot teach someone what I know. You can only point them in the right direction and offer them the opportunity to embrace it."
"I like you, Pastor Jason," said Helen. "Will you come and visit me at home?"
"Of course I will," he said smiling. "All you have to do is call. Would you like to pray with me now?"
"Yes," she said. "But it's been so long since I have prayed that I don't know how."
"Then I'll show you."
Jason took her hands and allowed some of his own strength to flow from himself into her. He spoke a few words, blessed her, and when he left she was clearly at greater peace with her fate. He knew that her physical state of being was hopeless, but not her spiritual. He wrote his name and phone number on a card for her and pressed it into her hand. He hoped that she would let him help her. For some reason, he was drawn to her.
The Last Days
Once Helen returned home, it did not take long for the days to settle into a pattern. Justin spent every minute that he could with her. Despite the fact that he was on leave from teaching, he had other responsibilities that he couldn't just drop. It was just as well. There were the family members demanding time with Helen.
Jennie was often with them, but was too young to really understand what was going on. Fortunately, she had quickly forgotten Willa's performance the night that they had told the children the bad news and so she just had fun being around them. Helen would look at her with mournful eyes, knowing that she would never get to see her youngest child grow up.
Bernice was a constant presence, but Tom kept her in line. With Willa's reluctant help, she kept the house running efficiently in terms of the meals, laundry, and housework. When she wasn't busy with that, she spent every possible minute with Helen also. Seeing Justin's emotional paralysis, she took full advantage of it. She made all the major decisions. One of them was that Justin's parents were not needed there.
As soon as they had heard about Helen's illness, Dad and Mother had flown up from San Diego. They too offered to help with the house and the children. His Dad, knowing how things were with Bernice, offered to give the Williams a break on weekends. Justin knew that the offer was really to give them break from Bernice. But Bernice was determined to maintain an iron grip on the family. It did not take her long to make them feel superfluous.
Justin knew that he was coward and that he had been that way throughout his whole marriage. Rather than confront Bernice or even encourage Helen to, he had allowed his parents to be marginalized in the lives of the children. But now, he was too stricken and Helen was too ill to do anything about it. After a week, they returned home.
Tom was a huge help with the boys. He tried to keep things normal for them by driving them to their activities and stepping in when they needed a parent to attend something. Tom also kept an eye on Bernice and made sure that she didn't take all of Helen's time for herself. Since Helen had made it clear in the hospital that she was coming home primarily for the children, he wanted to make sure that they were not shunted aside.
But Willa was also a problem. Her first issue was that she was forced to give up her bedroom to Tom and Bernice and bunk with Jennie. Justin had a lovely old Victorian house that Helen had picked out for its "potential." It was a bit rambling, with large rooms and a wrap-around porch, but there were only four bedrooms upstairs. Now these were large rooms. Jay and Max comfortably shared their room. Before Jennie had been born, her room had served as a guest room.
Once she was born, because of the twelve-year age difference, Helen had decided that she and Willa should each have their own room, with the understanding that Willa's would be the guest room. Prior to this, she had not had to surrender it for more than a weekend.
In addition to the sleeping arrangements, Willa was in almost constant conflict with Bernice. Like Bernice, she wanted as much exclusive time with her mother as possible. But that could not happen to the extent that she wanted. She resented the presence of any of the others when she was with Helen and was never satisfied with the amount of time that she had alone with her. Justin found that his previously happy oldest child was rapidly slipping away from them.
With the primary focus being on Helen and her needs, none of them noticed that the new high school student was taking full advantage of her new greater independence. Willa was a very pretty girl with long, black hair, wide grey eyes, and her father's height and athletic build. In earlier years, she had played volleyball and basketball. But now she quit the teams and began to "do her own thing."
Justin was only vaguely aware that she was hanging out with a group of older kids who were modeling their looks and behavior on the flower children. Because he was out of touch with what this really meant, by the time he realized that drugs and alcohol were involved it was too late. And the sicker Helen grew, the less he noticed the children. Bernice was wrapped up in Helen and Tom had his hands full with the boys. Willa went her own way.
Then, on one gloomy January day, Helen Harrington passed from this world into the next. She was at home, surrounded by her husband, children, and parents, when she peacefully slipped away from them. Justin wasn't sure at first that it had happened and looked over at the day nurse.
"Your mother has gone to sleep, children," she said gently. "Why don't you let her rest?"
Willa looked like she was going to argue, but one look from Bernice silenced her. They all left the room as the nurse picked up the phone, and went down to the living room. It was there that he told the children the truth. He and Helen had discussed it. It was her last wish that they be carefully told. She had even given him instructions as to what to say.
"Kids," he began, after taking a deep breath. "Your mother won't be waking up this time. But she is no longer going to be in any more pain. She has gone to heaven."
The children were all silent. They had talked about heaven and what a beautiful and joyful place it was. Heaven was where the angels lived.
"Do you think that Mommy will miss us?" asked Max.
"I know that she will," replied Justin. "Just as we are all going to miss her."
"Is it okay if I cry?" asked Jay.
Tears in his own eyes, Justin said simply, "Yes."
When the nurse came downstairs to let them know that she had finished making her arrangements, she found them all weeping in each other's arms. It could have been a turning point for them, if they could have figured out how to put aside past injuries and move forward together. But within hours, the news was out, final arrangements had to be made, and a new time of chaos began.
Time of Mourning
The phone began to ring with offers of help and comfort. The first person over was their neighbor Mrs. Jennings with a large tray of lasagna and a torrent if words of comfort and advice, mostly advice. His hands full with that, Bernice immediately took control of the funeral arrangements. Helen had written them a letter expressing that she wanted a small private service conducted by a Pastor Jason at the Trinity Presbyterian church. She wanted no wake or flowers. The first thing that Bernice did was to discard the letter.
"In the first place," she declared. "You are not even Presbyterians. In the second there are many people who will want to come and express their condolences."
Justin wasn't sure of how to respond to that. He thought that if, sick as she was, Helen had taken the time and effort to write this very difficult letter, then it must have been very important to her.
"Bernice," he said gently. "We haven't been a church since Jennie was baptized. We've never even gone on a regular basis. If this was Helen's last wish then I think that we should respect it. Do you know who Pastor Jason is?"
"Oh, he's some young minister that Helen met in the hospital," she replied with a brush of the hand. "He visited her a couple of times here. But that does not change the fact that you are all Episcopalians. I will contact Pastor Paul at St. Andrews and take care of that."
"If you insist," answered Justin reluctantly. "But Helen and I did talk about the idea of a wake and she felt that it would be too difficult for the children, especially Max and Jennie. I am not sure of how Jay and Willa would hold up either. She really did not want a fuss. People can send cards if they like."
"It is no fuss," asserted Bernice. "To hold a wake for a deceased person. It is only right and proper. And people will wish to pay their respects in person. All things considered, it should be two days, with two afternoons and two evenings. It will be good for all of you to see the support that people feel for you. It will help you to accept things and move on."
Justin turned his back to her so that she couldn't see his face. Right now he didn't want support. The last thing on his mind was accepting things. And he certainly couldn't even think of moving on. He wanted to be alone to think about his wife. As he turned away, Tom, who had been quietly standing by and listening, took his arm.
"Justin," he said urgently. "If this is not what Helen wanted then you should stand up to Bernice. I will support you. She wants to be able to play the grieving mother. It's not only about the attention. It's just the way that she will feel better. I agree with Helen. It will be much too hard on the kids."
Now Justin was torn.
"What about the minister?" he asked.
"Let it go," advised Tom. "The best way to deal with Bernice is to pick your battles. It will be easier to win one point if you let her have her way on the other. Besides, do you really care who says the service?"
"No," said Justin. "But if Helen wanted him . . ."
"Would you rather have the big wake?" asked Tom.
In the end, it didn't matter. Bernice refused to back down on either point and Justin didn't have the energy to defy her. Even Tom was too sad to stand up to her for very long. But this wasn't the only ordeal they had to face.
When Mother and Dad came up from San Diego, they weren't in the house two minutes when Bernice started her controlling and nagging. Mother was sitting in the living room with her arm around Willa trying to comfort her when Bernice interrupted.
"You have chores to do, young lady," she said firmly.
"Please can't I talk to my Grammy?" she asked tearfully.
"After your chores," she said sternly.
Willa left and Mother stood up and looked sharply at Bernice.
"Couldn't the chores have waited?" she asked.
"I'm the one who has been here running this house for the past three months," replied Bernice briskly. "Willa is too easily distracted from her responsibilities. I won't have her shirking them now."
"Speaking with her Grammy about the loss of her mother is hardly what I would call shirking," said Mother.
"Well, you haven't been here . . ."
Justin grabbed his mother and pulled her away from Bernice before the two could start arguing. Mother would certainly have stated that she and Dad would have been there if Bernice hadn't sent them away back in November. He had enough to worry about without the two of them going at it.
"Mother, please," he said, when he had gotten her into the study. "I understand how you feel, but this is not going to help."
In the end, there was nothing that anyone could do to help. The wake was torturous. Justin was forced to stand and greet the long lines of people who came. Bernice stood beside him on one side doing most of the talking while Jay manfully stood on the other, shaking hands and graciously accepting condolences. Tom spent most of his time trying to keep Max under control. He thought that it was some kind of a big party.
After Bernice had shooed Mother away from Willa, his daughter refused any more offers of comfort. She sat by herself on the side of the room either silently weeping or with a face of stone. None of her so-called friends from school even bothered to come. But Jennie was the saddest sight of all.
On the first afternoon, they had come in early so that they could have some time alone to view the body. Despite the ravages of her illness, the mortician had been able to restore most of her youthful beauty. If he didn't know better, Justin might have thought that she was peacefully sleeping. Bernice had also chosen a beautiful dress. She looked simply lovely. But Jennie still didn't understand.
"Thought Mommy went to heaven," she said.
"Mommy did go to heaven," said Justin gently.
"Mommy here," she said. "Wake up, Mommy!"
Rather than make a smart remark, Willa started to cry. It was a true indication of the depths of her grief. Jennie looked at her. If Willa was crying then something was definitely wrong.
In front of the casket, there was a prie dieu (kneeler) where visitors could kneel to say a small prayer. Needless to say, the children had never before seen the like. Jennie sat down on it and began to sob. When Dad tried to pick her up to move her, she started to scream. There was nothing else to do, but to leave her be. For the rest of their time there, that was where she sat, sometimes crying, sometimes listlessly looking around. She refused to acknowledge anyone who tried to speak with her. It was pathetic and a visible reminder to all of the tragedy of the situation.
Because Helen was a young woman and her husband a prominent member of the university community, the wake was packed. Everyone wanted to pay their respects and comfort the young widower who had been left with four children to raise on his own. At this time, he was not yet 38.
Helen had also been popular in the university, not to mention the PTA, social circles. Of medium height, with light brown hair, and lovely deep blue eyes, she had been a beauty. Because she had been a budding scholar herself when she married, she was able to more than hold her own in the intellectual conversations that took place during faculty parties. She had been a tremendous asset to her husband as his star rose in academia. She had been extremely proud of him and his accomplishments.
Justin grew weary from greeting the lines of people who shuffled through, many of whom were Helen's friends from her volunteer work in the children's schools. Friend after friend told him about what a thoughtful and caring person she was. Nearly all of the neighbors came, each with their own story of her generosity and kindness to them. No one who ever came to Helen for help, left without it. In her quiet way, Helen had been deeply connected into the fabric of the community. Over and over, Justin heard that her loss would be felt.
After a while, he didn't even know what to say. The whole scene felt surreal. His oldest daughter was off in the corner refusing all comfort while his youngest was weeping before the casket. His younger son was running around like a wild Indian while his older son stood at his side attempting to be strong for him. But the cruelest blow was the last.
Before they closed the casket for the final time, the family stood around for one last look. Mother noticed that Helen was still wearing her engagement ring. It was the ring that she had given him for her. It had been her mother's engagement ring and it was intended to be a family heirloom. But Justin had forgotten to remove it once the wake was over.
"You cannot possibly take the ring from her now," said Bernice, who was finally showing the emotional wear and tear of the past few days.
"People do it all the time," said Mother. "She knew that the ring would be passed down to her oldest son for his wife. I am sure that she would want Jay to have it."
"Really, Catherine," said Bernice in exasperation.
"I don't want it," said Jay quickly. "I want Mom to have it. It's her ring."
"See . . ." began Bernice in an authoritative tone.
"Be quiet, dear," said Tom tensely. "You've won. Now drop it. We have to get to the church."
But the damage was done. The two women glared at each other for the rest of the long day as they went from the funeral home to the packed church to the cemetery where Justin had recently purchased a plot. Then they went with a smaller party of close family and friends to a restaurant. At the last stop, everyone seemed to relax a little. However, Willa by now had completely withdrawn. No amount of coaxing could get her to speak or eat a bite.
And for Justin, the bottom had just fallen out of his world. Still unsure of how he would manage without her and feeling as though he was living in a nightmare, he basically went through the motions of bereaved husband at the funeral. When it was all over, the limousine that had ferried them between various functions that day dropped them off at the house. It was then that the reality set in.
Tom and Bernice were gone. Needless to say, Bernice was nearly prostrate by the time it was all over. Now that she no longer had any frenetic activity to hide behind and she had to face her own grief. The house felt very empty. It was just himself and the kids. Feeding them was not a problem since the fridge was packed with casseroles and other dishes that thoughtful friends had provided. After dinner, he sat in his study and stared at the wall.
"Dad," said Jay, interrupting his brooding. "I think we have to go to bed now."
Looking at his watch, Justin realized that they should have been in bed a half hour ago. But he had never put them to bed before. It was one of the many tasks that Bernice had insisted on doing.
"Where is Willa?"
"She moved her stuff out of Jennie's room and back to her own," he said. "When I knocked on the door she told me to get lost."
Justin sighed, but didn't do anything about her. He was too tired and too sad to get mixed up in some kind of an altercation with his older daughter. Now that she was speaking again, she appeared to have reverted to her old behavior. He led Jay upstairs and the two of them put Max and Jennie to bed. Then Justin kissed his son goodnight and turned off the light. He decided to talk to Willa.
He knocked on her door and once she knew that it wasn't one of the other kids, she opened it.
"What do you want?" she asked without preface. Her eyes were red from crying.
"We need to talk about how we are going to manage now that Mom is gone," he said.
"Well," she replied coldly. "You don't have to worry about me. I can take care of myself."
"I know that you can take care of yourself," he said patiently. "But you are going to have to help me with the others."
She looked at him in surprise.
"Are you kidding?" she asked.
Justin was equally amazed by her response. She really had no intention of helping the family out. He then realized that they had never discussed this moment with her. They hadn't wanted to face it. Helen had just assumed that Willa would step in and do her duty to the family. She loved her so much that she had been blind to the hints of rebellion at the coming new order that she had been dropping. But then again, Willa had always been on her best behavior around her dying mother. She hadn't wanted to waste any time in conflict either.
Looking at her now, Justin could see her boiling over with resentment and simply spoiling for a disagreement through which she could vent her anger. Like Bernice, she seemed to want to act out her grief by fighting. It was only later that Justin would realize that she wanted comfort from him, not added responsibility. She was so tall and sophisticated looking that he had forgotten that she was fourteen and a very young fourteen at that. She needed his support. It was only one of many miscalculations that he would make with her.
Not knowing what else to do, he left her room and went to his own room. Looking around it, he could see Helen everywhere. Unable to think of what he should do next, he sat down on his bed and wept. After controlling his emotions throughout the whole ordeal, this last cruel reality of sleeping alone for the rest of his life, without his wife by his side, hit him hard.
The next morning, one of his friends from the math department, Sy Spencer, called up to see how he was doing. He told him the unvarnished truth. The next thing he knew, Sy and his wife Alice were at the house helping him get it cleaned up and organized. Sy knew as much about housekeeping as he did, but Alice took charge of that.
"You will need to hire a housekeeper," she told him.
"Oh," he replied. It had not occurred to him that that would solve a part of his problem.
"You should get someone to live in," she recommended. "You need someone full-time to care for Jennie. And running a house this size with four children is no small task. Do you want me to call the employment agency and help you interview?"
Gratefully he nodded. Alice might have a sharp tongue and a sarcastic wit, but she also had a good heart. Her crisp interviewing style impressed him. And that was how the first housekeeper came to work for the Harringtons.