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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stand-in Angels

A true story by JoAnne Lakefield

Forget not to show love unto strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Hebrew 13:2

   “I'm sorry JoAnne, but I don't think that we are going to keep contact. We didn't do that 20 years ago, so I don't believe we will now. And my wife and I don't invest in meeting a person if we're not likely to continue the contact.” I was trying to make an appointment with a former youth-club member whom I hadn't seen for years, but ran into again at a hospital. We had exchanged phone numbers, but to what avail?
   “It's OK, I understand” I said, and added in my mind “But I pity you. We are 20 years further and what have you learned?” I remembered how I had learned about the influence a person could have on your life. Even if you met that person only once.
    Like that wholesome tavern that you run into, just when you are too weary and thirsty to continue your journey. Are you going to sleep under the stars because this might be a place where you'll sleep only once?


    After I had finished my study I never found employment as a biologist. But I've always liked to think up ways to stay in touch with my profession. One of those plans was to study bird foraging behaviour at railway stations and the distribution of species over the different large stations of the country. I had arranged with the railway companies that I could visit the stations without platform tickets -if these would be required-.
    And here I was, on a cold gray December morning, seated on a wooden bench at the middle platform of the railway station at my home town.Step one would be to figure out how to gather information at this station, that could be compared with the figures I expected to gain from others stations. What “tests” could I replicate at each station? All for the sake of statistics.
    Seated on my left was a young woman, about my age. Her train was not due yet, and she had decided to wait at this platform, since it was less cold than the platform where her train would depart. We exchanged a few amicable words and I fell back into designing my tests, making occasional notes.
    A woman, in a long black leather coat sped up the stairs leading to 'our' platform and she paced past us. All I remember is her face -mid forty I'd say-, her long wavy hair and the restless look in her eyes. She scanned the area and decided to sit down. On 'our' bench, on my right.
   “Oh please, don't let her talk to me,” I prayed in silence, “I'd like to get some work done, You know?” Maybe my prayer was heard, I don't know, but it definitely wasn't answered. The woman bowed over to me to ask if I could give her a cigarette. Being a non smoker I lacked the proper utensils. She shrugged and decided that sitting there and talking to me was just as good and she settled down for a chat. I tucked away pen and paper, resigned to sit out the arrival of her train.
    At first my left hand neighbour chipped in, but as the revelations of the older woman became more personal and dramatic, she withdrew from the conservation. When the other woman left us to buy cigarettes and lighter -no longer able to do without a smoke- she asked me if I knew the woman with the leather coat. Because of all the personal information she exchanged with me. Surprised at hearing that she was a total stranger to me, the young woman complimented me on my patience. And she excused herself, her train was about to arrive and she had to go to the next platform. Just as she waved to me from her platform, right across my bench, the restless lady returned. She took back the spot she had deserted and lit her cigarette. Our conversation continued.
   She introduced herself now and started telling me about her profession. She had been a nurse. In her time, a woman did not have a wide range of occupations to choose from. And her father, a doctor, had pushed her to become a nurse. She had always hated it. This woman clearly had no intention to take a train yet. She obviously wanted to unburden herself. So I resigned myself to my fate and to my own surprise, I offered to buy her some coffee. The booth was just around the corner, so in less than no time I returned with two carton cups with coffee. She thanked me profusely and while we sipped the extremely hot stuff, she continued telling me about her life. She lived in an apartment near the station. She lived alone, but occasionally invited homeless people and cooked for them. They could also take a bath at her place. But, she became grim, “These rats know I have an alcohol problem. They know they can easily knock me over and rob me. I never should have let them in, in the first place.” She told me some anecdotes that I will not spell out here.
   Suddenly she became quiet. As we emptied our cups, the coffee at a more agreeable temperature, a train arrived at the platform where we were seated. The brakes made so much noise, for a few seconds it was impossible to pick up our conversation. My eyes were directed at the train, but not really focused. I was just mulling over the woman's story 
   In a flash, like a dagger thrust into my chest, I realised this woman came to the station to commit suicide. No pictures, no voices, just plain 'knowing'. I turned my head towards her and she looked straight at me. “I don't even know why I came here,” she said. “I hate stations. My brother killed himself by throwing himself in front of a train”  I could only nod, not surprised, but touched nonetheless, that she brought up suicide. The affirmation of my flash of insight.
   “Look at me.” She pointed to her coat. “I really don't know what brought me here. I just left the house without getting dressed. I'm only wearing this coat with nothing below it.” That was true, she wore trousers, shoes and the coat. No more. “I really don't know what I was thinking when I came here.” When she got through gazing and shaking her head she calmed down and thanked me for the coffee and the conversation. She mentioned her address and asked me to visit her. “But ring the doorbell twice. And do it this week or the next. Else I've forgotten who you are and won't open the door.”
    I'm not one who makes false promises, but now I nodded just to make her feel better. She got up, to go home and get dressed. The restless pace was no longer in her walk.  While I watched her going downstairs a voice in me – untypically calm and peaceful- said:  “No Lady, I gave you this day, because you needed it. But it is not necessary that I will continue our contact.”

   I didn't retrieve pen and paper again. Just got up and went home. Two weeks later my own life was turned upside down, I was forced to make a choice I never thought I had to make. To become a single mother. No time left for bird watching, or visiting the woman I had met on the station.


    I'm not fond of the crappy talk about angels, but the idea that God uses us as temporary messengers* for our fellow human beings arose that day. I still believe it.
   We are all at risk of being stand-in angels.

                                                                                                                               JoAnne Lakefield

* = 'Messenger' is the translation of the word angel

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