Along the way, I met angels. It was about 19 years ago. There were maybe 10,000 or so of them hovering about. They were all of different sizes and shapes. Some looked like Walt Disney cartoon angels, the kind that carried Goofy to heaven when hed been hit over the head. Others were straight out of store window displays or greeting cards. Some looked like the plaster angels I used to buy in a Mexican market, primitive, brightly painted in pastel blues and pinks. It was a fascinating assortment, all vigorously flapping their big, little and medium-sized wings.
I met them one day in my car. After days of deliberation and overcoming a tremendous amount of fear, my wife and I had decided to let our six-year-old son cross the street on his own. The place was Milwaukee. Not as bad as New York or Chicago, but with cars just as hard that drove just as fast. The images that passed through our minds were as gruesome as if he’d been walking across 42nd and Broadway for the first time. Little fragile bones, soft pink skin. You get the picture.
We came up with this plan. Unbeknownst to him, after he left the house, I would get into the car, drive to each of the corners he would have to cross, park the car where he couldn’t see me, and watch. I didn’t know if I could protect him. But at least I would know his fate.
(I haven’t thought about this day for years. Then the other day something happened to pry loose a crystal-clear image in my memory.)
I sat in the car and saw him approach the first corner. He looked absolutely tiny. He walked with these little steps, looking this way and that, stopping every once in a while to look at something on the ground, or to turn his head and catch a glimpse of a bird in a tree or a cloud or something up high in a window. He had on this little striped blue and yellow T-shirt, blue shorts, little socks that came just above his ankles, and blue sneakers.
As he approached the first corner, my heart was thumping, my hands gripped the steering wheel. I mustered up all my concentration and attempted, through mental telepathy, to remind him to stop and look both ways. My eyes didn’t blink, for fear that in the momentary blackness when my lids would cover my eyes, something horrible would happen. As he came to the curb, my hand moved to the door handle, and I calculated how fast I could open the door and run to grab him. There was no hope of rescue, but I gripped the handle nonetheless.
Whether he received my message, or whether his own good sense kicked in, he stopped. Cars were coming from both directions. What would he do? As he waited, looking both ways, back and forth, back and forth, calculating when to cross, I experienced a profound helplessness. I felt as if I had no spine, no muscles in my legs or arms, no vivifying force animating my body. I sat and watched and waited, and tried to breathe. He was out of my hands. Then he made his move. When the coast was completely clear, he started to skip across the street, happy as a clam, spry as a bunny.
At the next corner I learned to pray. At the time, I was not religious. But as I sat crouched in the car, I decided there must be a G‑d. As I watched my son approach, I could not accept his vulnerability to the great unknown forces of darkness and harm in the world. Nor could I accept my helplessness to keep him safe. I refused to believe that this little guy was out there on his own with no protection. It made no sense to me that a little life would be brought into this world, forced one day to claim his independence, and then be set adrift with no one or nothing to watch over him. I prayed. I beseeched whatever benevolent forces there were in the world with the power to watch over my son, to come to him now and protect him.
Don’t get me wrong. My hand was still on the handle of the car door. I was poised like a race horse at the gate, prepared to sprint even though I knew the race would be lost. Yet I prayed with the full strength of my love and fear and terrible fantasies combined. And then he crossed the street again.
At the third corner, I had trouble finding a place to park where he wouldn’t see me. I panicked. By this time I was convinced that my prayers and my concentration (reminding him to stop and look both ways) were the only things protecting him. What would happen if I couldn’t get he car parked in time to take up my position with my hand gripping the door handle (which by now had become a superstition)? What if I was unable to focus my unblinking eyes on his little striped T-shirt, and begin praying before he reached the corner? Finally I scooted down an alley, and positioned the car so that just the hood and part of my window was sticking out, allowing me to keep him in view without him seeing me.
As he approached the corner, I took my position, hand in place, eyes unblinking, mind focused and my lips mumbling prayers for divine mercy and protection.
Then I saw the angels.
There were thousands of them. All hovering about, flapping their wings, covering him from head to toe, some touching him. I realized that my son was not walking, but being carried forward by these angels. I saw this clearly when they all, including my son, came to the corner. The angels stopped, and then my son stopped. The angels moved in unison, as though they shared one mind. I remember thinking how strange this was, since all the angels were so different one from the other. How did those Walt Disney angels know what the Mexican plaster angels were thinking and doing? But, sure enough, they all moved together and brought my son to a standstill right at the edge of the curb. And they didn’t let him budge. It was fascinating to watch. While most of the angels stood holding my son, others flew out, like scouts, to make sure no cars were coming. Then, as they flew back to make their report, a new batch of angels flew out again to keep the vigil. I wondered if the mission of some of them was to actually stop the cars from proceeding down the street so my son could cross. Angels were flying back and forth, to and fro, in the same way I now imagine angels ascended and descended Jacob’s ladder. I sat transfixed.
Finally, when all was quiet, the angels moved my son across the street. And as I watched, I felt my hand let go of the door handle. My eyes began to blink again. My mind relaxed and seemed to fill with light. And I took a deep, long breath. I think—though I can’t trust my memory on this point—that I smiled.
I know my son smiled. I saw him (and can see him perfectly clear in my memory, even now) with a big grin on his little face, and I saw him kind of skip and hop and chuckle across the street. I noticed for the first time how absolutely sure of himself he was. How much he was enjoying his new freedom. How he embraced it with not the slightest twinge of anxiety or worry. I wondered, then, if he could see the angels, and I wondered how anyone could possibly have children and not believe in G‑d and angels and still survive the growth of their offspring without a nervous breakdown.
I didn’t actually see the angels again after that. But I knew they were there. As each child after him was born, and grew, and reached that time when he or she needed to cross the street, I remembered the angels, but I didn’t actually see them. I continued to pray, though not so desperately. I even continued to drive to each street corner, but now more out of curiosity than out of genuine worry and dread. And, as each of them grew older, I even stopped thinking of the angels so much, except on especially worrisome occasions.
For my son who introduced me to angels, I didn’t think of them at all. Not until the other day.
My son is now 25. He lives in New York. I went there on a business trip, and we spent a lot of time together. He showed me his apartment. We davened together. We went out to dinner. Did a little shopping. He hung out with me while I went about my business. We talked about him and about me and about his brothers and sisters and about his mom. We talked about his future. It was clear that he knew how to cross the street by himself, yet he still walked close by me down the street, and sometimes I had the feeling that it was he looking out for me, rather than the other way around. He’d pick lint off my coat, or ask if I remembered my tickets, as we headed out to find a cab to take me to the airport. I loved him so much during those days. I enjoyed him. I liked the man he had become. Yet now I had to leave him and go home, many, many miles away.
We had trouble finding a cab, and he carried my suitcase for me as we walked to a cab stand by Grand Central Station. We hugged, and I held my tears inside my eyes when we said goodbye. He let me kiss him. I put my luggage inside the trunk, and as I got inside the cab he said, “Don’t forget to get your luggage out when you get to the airport, Ta.” I turned my head away so he wouldn’t see my tears and my heartache, my worry and hope, my fear and regret, my lips moving in prayer.
And just before the cab turned the corner, I looked back. And then, once again, I saw the angels carrying him down the street.