ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD INSIDE


I.


I have always believed in angels. The universe is so vast, and God must be incredibly busy. So I figure He deputizes the angels to help spread goodness across the world. That is probably why Christmas resonates so deeply within me. I can’t get enough of it. Where else and when else can you see a plethora of angels on daily display? The stores and TV stations beginning the holiday blitz right after Halloween provide welcome balm. If anything, I bemoan the fact that in our fast-paced world, signs of the season are gone no sooner than the clock strikes midnight on December the 25th. The twelve days of Christmas have morphed into twelve seconds.

Of course, not all good will among men (and women) comes from the angelic host. Some of it comes directly from us, from a bit of angelic nature deep within our being. This is a story about one Christmas, a number of years ago, where I personally benefitted from angelic intervention that had a decidedly human cast.


II.


“Christmas has come early for you, sir!” the lady from the airline brightly informed me. I had just been summoned via the PA system to report to the check-in desk at the boarding area. Groaning slightly, I made my way to the counter with some trepidation. You see, this particular year the office had me doing an ungodly amount of travel. Today was no exception. December 21, just four days before Christmas, and I was off yet again for a client meeting, this one in Orlando, Florida.

The meeting next day would be over by the end of business hours, so I was booked on a flight back on the 22nd, enough time to celebrate the holyday where it should be celebrated, at home, and of course at Mass in my local parish. Fortunately I am pretty good at time management, so the holiday shopping, gift wrapping and decorating were all done. Usually I plan to be done by early December, so rather than brave the “jingle, jangle, jungle” of last-minute Christmas shopping, I can coast to the 25th and enjoy all the delights the season has to offer.

Sitting at the gate at Newark Airport, my eyes went beyond the bored and in some cases frenzied looks of fellow travelers, as I enjoyed the trees, garland and other secular signs of the season. I decided to wait until on the plane to treat myself to a nice Christmas read. I had brought two books. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which I enjoy re-reading every year. And a new book that came highly recommended, An Angel’s Noel.

In any event, the public address message brought me back to reality, and a certain Scroogian thought, for in the past months I had never had a good experience with the airline agents. “What now?” I wondered,sighing as I approached the desk.

When the agent with forced cheeriness informed me Christmas had come early, I expected the worst. In the aviation business, I have found there is an inverse relationship between the demeanor of the airline employee and the news about to be handed down to the business traveler. I thus assumed I was going to be told the airline had overbooked and I was being kicked off this flight.

Imagine what my wondering eyes and ears beheld when the lady told me there was availability in the first class section of the plane, and since I was now a “frequent flyer”, I was being upgraded…at no additional charge.

I do not fly first class. It seems an undue extravagance that I cannot justify, going against my Jeffersonian instincts, even if it is on the firm’s tab. But if being offered it gratis, well as the Trojans said, never look a gift horse in the mouth. I thanked the nice lady, accepted my revised boarding pass, and was among the select first few allowed early boarding privileges.

Nestled all snug in my seat, I pulled out my Dickens, accepted a Diet Coke and a warmed ceramic tray of mixed nuts from the steward and settled in for what I hoped would be, if not a short winter’s nap, at least a pleasant (and short) read. In a little while, I had gotten to Marley’s ghost, the remaining economy class passengers having filed in, when there was a rustling next to me. An attractive woman who looked vaguely familiar, came in with some pomp. She had the seat next to me, on the aisle.

She was quite pretty, in an expertly made up way, but what attracted my attention was the slightly beleaguered look she wore. I smiled and said, “Hello”, intending no more than to offer a cheerful greeting before seeing if Marley really was just an undigested piece of beef. It had been years since I had any interest in male-female relationships, so my intentions were pure.

To my chagrin, she rolled her eyes and muttered, loud enough for several rows to hear, “Oh puh-leese!”

I may have winced slightly, for I have never taken kindly to random acts of depravity, and turned back to Dickens’s classic prose.

Marley’s chains were not all that disturbed, as not another twenty seconds later my attention was again diverted, this time by a greater disturbance at the front of the aircraft. The steward and a stewardess were handling a wheelchair-bound older woman. They were clearly having trouble navigating the airplane’s aisle. It may have been a jumbo jet, and the seats may have been shrunken to accommodate more fare-paying passengers, but the aisles did not benefit from any increased roominess.

“Where is her seat?” the steward asked.

His companion stewardess replied, “20E.”

Steward number one groaned slightly. “This is not going to be easy.”

“Excuse me,” I offered. “If it helps you, I’d be happy to give up my seat to this nice lady, and I’ll take her seat in the back.”

“That would be wonderful!” the steward exclaimed. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“Not at all,” I answered. “There’s a little chill here anyway,” with a barely suppressed look at my frosty seatmate.


I got up, gathered my coat, carry-on and Carol, and waited a moment in the aisle to see if I could be of further assistance. They did not need me, though I waited, solicitously. They gently moved the woman from her bulky wheelchair to the window seat I had formerly occupied, then folded and stored the chair.

The old lady looked at me with a crooked smile and said, “I’m going to visit my granddaughter. She works for the Walt Disney Company. This is so exciting! I’ve never flown first class before! Thank you!”

I moved past the frosty woman in the aisle seat, who I suddenly recognized. She was Brittany Richards, the famous actress. I was probably the only person on the plane who did not spot her right off. I had an excuse however. I do not go to the movies. At least, I had not for the last six years.

I told the old woman, “Then it’s high time you enjoyed the first class treatment. Do me a favor however. Don’t go making eyes at the captain and distracting him from flying safely. I know how you young girls can be.”


She smiled that crooked smile again and waved me off, sort of an “Oh, you’re such a tease” wave. Then she again said, “Thank you, young man.”

Something in her look touched me. I leaned down and kissed her forehead. “God bless, and have a wonderful time with your granddaughter.”

The stewardess said she would show me to my new seat. As I started to follow, I overheard the old woman tell the actress, “He’s such a nice young man.”

I also heard Ms. Richards say, “Yes…yes he is.” I did not see the thoughtful look she gave as she turned in her seat to look at my retreating back.

“Here we are, Mr. Ryan. Seat 20E.” The flight attendant turned, the first time I had seen her face and…something hit me inwardly, an emotional force that was practically physical. I knew instantly what that feeling was. I had felt the very same thing once before. It was…well, I’ll share that later on in the story.


I didn’t have time to recover my wits when the stewardess smiled warmly and held out her hand, which I grasped. It was warm and soft to the touch, an appropriate match to her very pretty face. She said, “I just want to say I think what you did for that elderly lady was just wonderful!”

I looked down and bit my lower lip. Then shrugged and said, “It was nothing. Just the honorable thing to do.”

“No, it was more than that,” she said. We were still holding hands, longer than I should have, but later learned it was shorter than either of us wished.

I said to her, “Thank you for noticing. By the way, my name is Jim.”

“Jane”, she smiled broadly and again my insides were doing handsprings. I reluctantly let go of her hand and half-whispered, “Have a nice flight.” She smiled again and left. I followed her until she was beyond the curtain separating first class from the rest of us mere mortals.

Only later did I learn that Jane had gone back to the first class cabin with a wide grin on her face. Her companion flight attendant of course noticed right off and asked what was up.

Jane explained. “I just witnessed one of the nicest acts of charity. Makes me feel good all over.”

“Well,” her fellow steward rationalized, “it is the season for all that.”

Jane shook her head in disagreement. “No. No, it’s not. I mean, it’s supposed to be, but despite what people say about the ‘holiday spirit’ (she made quote marks with her fingers), they don’t practice what they preach. It’s actually a pretty crappy time of the year.”

Earlier in the day, Jane had gone gift shopping for her nephew and niece. She had no immediate family any longer, just a first cousin, and Jane dutifully bought presents for said cousin’s young son and daughter. It was only three shopping days to Christmas, or “X-mas” as the store signs proclaimed. With so many last minute shoppers, demon frenzy was unleashed, heralding poor tidings to all. It was virtually impossible to find a parking spot at the mall. Jane did, eventually, accompanied by a number of raised middle fingers as she navigated the aisles of the parking lot.

Inside was not much better. Jane saw a father slap a child who was whining about something or other. The whining did not bother Jane. It was only a little child after all. What disturbed was the father’s un-loving action, sure to resonate as the meaning of Christmas in that poor child’s heart.

Beyond that, there was the rudeness of the store clerks accompanying the lack of items Jane was looking for. Store officials kept urging Jane to go on line, though that rather seemed to defeat the purpose of having a store. No wonder retailers were in the toilet!

Leaving, Jane saw hundreds of shoppers race past the bell-ringing Salvation Army volunteer, with nary a donation in sight.

It all served as further evidence of the generally dismal state of human relations that Jane saw all about her. “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” she harrumphed to her fellow flight attendant back on the plane. “Scrooge had it right the first time. People act as if it really is a humbug!”

Of course, other than Jane’s brush with yuletide dementia, her life was pretty much in the doldrums anyway. The bills were piling up, and her stewardess’s salary was barely adequate to keep up. The car was going, the landlord seemed unwilling or unable to make necessary repairs, a problem in these winter months when the furnace was what was on the fritz, and with the credit card companies charging such exorbitant interest rates, Jane felt like the proverbial hamster running on a wheel. If not for the fact that Jane had to smile as part of her job requirement all day long, she would just as soon have kicked the passengers in the shins. That is why Jim’s selfless act struck a deep chord, and painted such a warm glow on Jane’s face. At least somewhere in the world there was good will toward men and women.

While Jane was having these thoughts, I knew exactly what I had to do. So I put down Mr. Dickens, not something I had often done before, and pulled out my pad and pen. I like to write, as a hobby, so I am in the habit of carrying a pad around. Story ideas crop up in the strangest of places, and I like to scribble them down as soon as they pop up, lest I forget. I began to write furiously, the words pouring forth.

When finished, I did not have an envelope, so I just folded the paper neatly in thirds and decided to wait until the end of the flight. It turned out I would not have to wait that long. I resumed reading my novel. Scrooge and the Spirit were reliving Ol’ Fezziwig’s Marvelous Christmas Ball. Between my note writing and Dickens’s prose, I hardly noticed the overweight passengers hemming me in on either side of the middle seat. Both felt constrained to spread their legs in my direction and to coopt the arm rests. Fortunately I work out and am not particularly chunky, so I could manage a modicum of comfort.

The captain informed us we were cruising at 35,000 feet. I am never sure why they bother. It’s not like I will be so insulted if they only manage to reach 26,000 feet that I will get out and hitch a ride elsewhere. Shortly after the announcement, I was still with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past, when there was another slight commotion in the aisle. What to my wondering eyes should appear (the second time this trip) than the extraordinarily lovely stewardess Jane.

Beaming at me she said, “I thought it only right that you get a complimentary drink. If you had remained in first class, you would be entitled to some wine. I guessed white. I hope that’s all right?”

“That’s perfect. I prefer white.”

She was still smiling but suddenly it lost some of its luster, replaced by, was it a sad look? “It must be your lucky day,” she continued, though her countenance suggested anything but good fortune. “The woman you were sitting next to,” she leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, Brittany Richards, apparently has taken a shine to you. She asked me to deliver this note to you.” And she handed me a folded paper. What was this with all the notes, fourth grade?

“Oh!” I said, breaking free of the spell Jane cast over me. “I have a note too…for you!”

A puzzled frown as she accepted it. She then returned to her front cabin duties.

Curious, I unfolded the note from the beautiful movie star. I now remembered seeing her on billboards in Times Square modeling some fragrance or other.

Her note read: “Dear Jim, I am sorry if I seemed abrupt to you earlier. I will be in Florida for several days doing interviews on the local talk and news outlets for an upcoming film release and would very much enjoy getting to know you better. Say, a late night dinner when we land? I know some intimate places where we will not be disturbed.” She signed it, “Looking forward to a fun time, Brittany.”

Sighing, I folded and put the letter in my valise, and took out my pad to write another note. This one too was easy to write.

“Dear Brittany, no need to apologize. I suspect you get your share of creeps hitting on you all the time. Please understand that was not my intention, rather I was simply trying to be friendly. In any event, thank you so much for the kind invitation. However I must decline. My heart belongs to another.” And I signed it.

While I was reading the beautiful actress’s note, Jane took advantage of a brief respite before serving dinner to read mine. What I had written was this.

“Dear Jane, I am probably breaking some FAA regulation by writing this, but I can tell you have a good heart and I would very much like to ask you out on a date when we land. Perhaps drinks or dessert this evening, or dinner tomorrow if you are available, or worst case, some convenient time back in the New York area. I have never asked a woman out like this, but I don’t want to put you in an awkward position while you are on duty this flight, so this note seems the most feasible alternative. I have no baggage stowed, so I will wait in the lounge area when we disembark for your answer. Please—it’s important. Jim”

After a decent interval passed and I could not see any sign of Jane, I walked up to the curtain separating first class with my note for Brittany Richards. I leaned in and caught Jane’s eye. She came over and whispered, “It’s all right. You’re released.”

“What? Released from what?” I honestly had no clue what she was referring to.

Jane explained. “You wrote your note asking me out before you knew of Ms. Richards’s interest. I understand you not wanting to pass up a chance like that.”

“Oh!” but I said, “That’s why I came up here. To give this note for Brittany telling her I can’t accompany her because I had another commitment. That is to you.”

“You’re sweet, but you don’t have to be so chivalrous.”

“I’m not. I really, REALLY want to spend time with you. Please. It’s important.”

Jane brightened right away, a look of mild surprise on her face. “Uh, I’ve got to go now, but yes, I’ll see you in the boarding area after we land.”

My grin could have lit the way for the pilots to fly by, as did hers.

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully, always a good thing when flying at 35,000 feet. I also managed to get to Scrooge’s redemption, also a good thing. Under the theory that things happen in threes, I closed my eyes shortly before landing, hoping my time with Jane would also prove to be a good thing.

When we landed, I was one of the last to depart, having been replaced so far back in the jumbo aircraft. As per usual, I thanked the flight attendants upon exiting. Jane was nowhere in sight.

At the boarding/deplaning area, I waited while the rest of the passengers disembarked. Then the pilots and crew, and the stewards and stewardesses. It seemed like forever, but could only have been a few more minutes when Jane appeared with her rolling luggage. She gave a wide smile, glanced around to be sure no one was looking and said, “Meet me at the taxi stand in ten minutes.” And she was off.

At the taxi line she reappeared. “Sorry,” she said, “I had to check in with the office.”

“I hope I didn’t make things inconvenient for you.”

“No,” she giggled. “Flight attendants are free to date whomever we please, though it is probably a best practice not to be overt about it when it comes to a passenger on your flight.”

“I’m honored you made an exception to your general rule.”

Again I was rewarded with a dazzling smile.

I had been to Disney World a number of times, but was not overly familiar with the Orlando scene. So I asked Jane for recommendations.

“Where are you staying?” she asked. I told her. It was not far from Disney.

Her brow wrinkled in surprise. “What a coincidence! That’s where the airline’s put us. At least overnight. I’m scheduled to do the Orlando-to-Newark return tomorrow at 5 pm.”

Now it was my turn to be surprised. “Talk about serendipity. That’s the flight I’m on. I have an am meeting tomorrow, and then back home.” Pausing, I added, “Do you believe in fate?”

“I’m not sure,” she again smiled, “but it could be a good omen.”

Given our mutual destination, Jane suggested we check in and meet at the hotel bar. She said it was a pretty good one, “at least as far as hotel watering holes go.” We shared the brief, 20-minute cab ride to the hotel, chitchatting about nothing in particular. Where in the New York metro area we lived, the inconvenience of wearing winter clothes for the departure only to be greeted by 75 degree heat in the Sunshine State, and so forth. She did laugh at a few of my quips intended to be humorous, so the ice was breaking nicely. I did feel there was some reserve on Jane’s part, but that was to be expected. I mean, she hardly knew me, and the entire thing had to be one of the stranger hook-ups.

At the hotel we checked in separately, Jane asked for a few minutes to change out of her “monkey suit”. Ten minutes later we were seated at a small semi-circular booth and had placed drink orders. Jane had a white wine and I went for the local microbrew.

When the drinks came, I offered a toast, “To absent loved ones, and new beginnings.” We clinked and sipped our respective beverages.

Before Jane could say anything I noted the garlands festooning the hotel lobby and said, “Don’t you just love this time of year?”

She shrugged and said, “I don’t really get into all the hoopla. I mean, Christmas is great for kids, but when I got older, I put away my childish things.”

I grinned and remarked that was part of a line out of St. Paul, though not in the context of relinquishing anything having to do with Christmas or the Lord for that matter.

Intrigued, for I could not imagine anyone not totally absorbed in Christmas, I asked if she didn’t feel some spark of wonder during the yule season.

Jane took another sip as she reflected. “No. No, I can honestly say I don’t. I mean it’s nice to see the bright lights and decorations, but that’s not what it’s supposed to be about, is it? And whatever minimal pleasure twinkling lights give you, it’s way more than offset by the nuts clogging the streets and stores.” She paused before saying, “Let me ask you a question. You seem to be a reasonable guy. A solid businessman type. Do you get all mushy over Christmas?”

“I used to. Still enjoy it immensely. But I haven’t been able to really feel it. You know, deep inside me, for…well, for a while now, at least the last six years. I keep trying to get the full spirit back. Each year I try different things to sort of jump start my way into the season. I have something special planned this year, back home, at one of the area hospitals.” Before Jane could pursue this I said, “Could I ask you a question?”

Jane giggled. “You just did.”

“Okay, how about another…I mean a third?”

Now her giggle turned into a hearty laugh, and she indicated that I go ahead. I swallowed, feeling a definite attraction at the way her face lit up when she laughed. I felt like I could watch her all night and never get tired. I did manage to ask my question.

“I don’t mean this to sound trite, and understand I am very happy that you agreed to see me after our flight but…well, I don’t know any other way to say this, but how is it that a wonderful person like you is available?”

She looked down momentarily, stared into her glass. Still staring at the glass she spoke very quietly. “I was married. For about two years. It didn’t take.”

“What happened?” I asked tentatively.

“He, uh, he found someone else. Younger. Actually, I found them, together in bed.”

I reached over and squeezed her hand. “He must be the biggest jerk on the planet.” Now her eyes found mine and she returned the squeeze. I continued. “I would always treat you as the most regal of royalty!”

Jane smiled. “You don’t really know me. But thank you.”

It was my turn to grin. “I know you…better than you realize.”

She made a wry face and I said, “Tell me more about you.”

“Like what?”

“Everything.”

She opened up about her life, in abbreviated form and I soaked it in. After a while, when our drinks had been replenished, Jane commented, “I’m really enjoying this. You seem genuine. Genuinely interested in me. Most guys only have two things on their minds. Themselves, and sex.”

“I can understand why guys would act like that around you. You are so stunning. But I agree, men are such slime.”

Jane laughed. “Present company excepted.”

I raised my mug in agreement. “I’m not like other guys.”

Her smile turned to a small frown. “You’re not gay, are you? Not that I’m against that.”

“Not at all,” I replied. “I just meant this,” I indicated our surroundings, “is not about trying to have brief fling with you. It’s about building a future with you.”

Jane’s smile returned.

“Wow!” I gushed. “When you smile, you are easily the most beautiful woman I have ever seen!”

Jane smiled and looked aside. “I’m not that pretty. Not in the Brittany Richards category.”

“Actually, you are so much prettier. If you’d been alive during the Renaissance, artists would have been lined up for miles to get the chance to paint your portrait. You could be a Madonna or something.” I looked around quickly and added, “Unfortunately there’s no Madonna and Child painting amid all the Christmas decorations here, so I can’t show you a comparison.”

Jane laughed and said that was all right. She’d accept the compliment anyway. “Besides,” she continued, “I can’t see myself as a Madonna…or any sort of religious figure.”

“Why not?” I was genuinely puzzled.

“Well, I’m not all that religious anymore. I mean, I was when I was young, but it sort of slipped away.”

“Happens to a lot of people,” I responded. “What happened?”

“Life,” was all she said.

“You know, religion is not just about rites and formalized prayers. It’s also about purity of heart. And I can tell what Dickens said about David Copperfield is true of you as well, that you have a good heart.”

Jane shook her head, a little sadly. “I’ve become pretty jaded, cynical.”

I again noted that I perceived much goodness within her.

I could tell she did not want to pursue this. Partially to deflect the conversation, Jane said it was her turn to ask about my past. “What’s your story? You divorced too?”

Now I knew my eyes grew sad. “No.” I spoke very quietly. “Karen, she was my wife, died six years ago. Cancer. We had three wonderful years together, plus the year we met and dated, and then…she was gone.”

Jane took my hand. “I’m so sorry.”

I managed a wan smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I guess it’s just part of the circle of life.”

Jane then asked if that was why Christmas had become somewhat diminished for me.

I nodded. “But I keep trying,” I said. “Even at half strength, it’s still the most wonderful time of the year, as they sing.” I smiled. Looking again at the decorations all around us I remarked how it was a shame that the holiday had become so secularized. “Why, there aren’t even any angels anywhere in this lobby. I mean representations of angels.”

Jane smiled. “You like angels?”

“Of course. They’re here to help us.”

“You mean, you really believe in angels?”

“Of course,” I said again. “We all have our very own guardian angel.”

Jane made a dismissive face. “Mine must have taken a decade off.”

“No. You just have to be open to the message.” I didn’t have to be Einstein to see I was not getting through. I tried another tack. “Jane, hasn’t something strange happened to you, something you could not explain, but was aware of?”

She looked at me a long time, deep in thought. “I’ve heard of such things, but…”

“But nothing. Unexplained happenings occur all the time.”

Jane said it was when her mother died. Before that, her mom had always called her at day’s end, 9 pm on the dot, to be sure Jane was well. “When Mom died, each night for two weeks, at 9 on the dot every night the phone rang. There was no one there. I just chalked it up to coincidence.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it was your mother letting you know she was all right.”

“Gosh!” Her eyes widened. “You really think so?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I do believe events happen all around us that cannot be explained and are signs from beyond.”

So as not to keep things too heavy, I asked Jane to tell me about her mother, and her father as well. That led to a prolonged and happy conversation on both our parts about growing up. Life in simpler times. With people who loved unreservedly. It was a fun conversation and I was having a great time. My sense was Jane was enjoying it as well.


Just then the waitress stopped by with the check. “I’m sorry, but we’re closing up.” I looked around and we were the last two in the place. When we left and walked through the lobby to the elevator banks my hand slipped into hers and she did not resist. Nodding at the huge tree in the lobby, I remarked on how magnificent it was. Jane just offered a mild sigh. “I would very much like to see you again,” I said. “I have a meeting in the morning and then we fly back. How about the day after, back in New York. Maybe dinner and a play? Is there anything you’ve wanted to see…that is, assuming you agree to go out again and you