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Through the ages, angels have usually been identified by their dazzling white robes and magnificent wings, but in actuality they can come to us in various forms. Some take the build of our human bodies, looking exactly like a normal person, who helps, heals, or stands as a protector for another, but then suddenly, inexplicably, disappears. Others are perceived as lights, beautiful colors of the rainbow darting about a room like the light refracted from crystals hanging in a window pane. Sometimes they can be heard with the ear, new voices joining the choir while hymns are being sung in church, when there is no one to be seen, while others even less distinct are recognized by their smell, the sweet soft perfume of roses, or the fragrance of delicate orange blossoms.
To Rhonda, they appeared as a softly flowing arch, indistinct, without form, yet visible and discernible and very, very real.
"They were angels," she says, and in her voice was the certainty of knowing.
Rhonda and her husband, Gary, had been fighting his cancer for some time. Starting first as melanoma, the dangerous skin cancer which can quickly spread to other parts of the body, they had treated him as carefully as possible, hoping to stop any further growth. But without their knowledge, the cancer turned inward, attacking Gary's organs and eventually traveling to his brain. Intense headaches, accompanied with severe nausea and pain, took them to the hospital again, where tests revealed a malignant tumor.
Dedicated schoolteachers in Billings, with a young family to care for, neither one was prepared for the brusque and thoughtless manner of the physician who told them of this new threat to his life. A hard note of anger slipped into Rhonda's voice as she remembered the day and the way he had treated them.
"He wasn't very good about it," she stated. "He just said straight out, 'You have a golf-ball-sized brain tumor.'
"Gary said, 'What!'
"'You've got a tumor,' the doctor repeated. 'You'll have to see the neurosurgeon tomorrow.'"
Gary and Rhonda sat stunned, unable to absorb this devastating news. For six weeks, the headaches had bothered him but never once had they associated them with cancer. And certainly not a brain tumor.
Struggling to hold themselves together, they went home, asked her parents to take their children for the night so they could be alone, and then collapsed in disbelief, overwhelmed at the severe advances the cancer had taken. Unsuspecting, they'd been blindsided. Deep despair and helplessness filled them, leaving them numb and barely able to function.
"We talked ... cried," said Rhonda, remembering that long night. "Gary was fairly calm," she added, "though now I realize he was still in shock. I made tea for us and we drank it and asked each other, 'What are we going to do?' We decided we would just do what we had to — go in the next day and do whatever the doctors said.
"Gary was put on medicine to reduce the swelling of the tumor before he saw the doctors," said Rhonda. "He laid down but couldn't rest very well because of the severity of the tumor. About two a.m. he got up, went down to the living room and started going over our insurance policy, trying to see what it would cover. He was really just tidying things up."
Rhonda sat by him, ready to help in any way she could. Finally around three o'clock, she decided to go to bed.
"I went into the bedroom, closed my eyes and tried really hard to go to sleep. But I couldn't. I kept thinking, 'I've got to get some rest because I have to support Gary.'"
Keyed up with worries and fear over the impending operation, her eyes refused to obey her mind as she lay, sleepless, staring up at the ceiling.
"The room was dark," she recalled. "A little lighter with the light on in the living room than it would have been otherwise. I was looking straight up over our bed when I saw a white, swirling substance, kind of like clouds.
"Immediately I thought, I'm seeing angels! But I couldn't believe it was so. I closed my eyes and wiped them with my hand, but when I looked again, they were still there.
"A great calmness came over me — and I am not a calm person. I remember thinking, We're going to be all right. We're going to get through this. I was so incredibly peaceful. I didn't hear voices or anything, but I felt a Presence. And I knew I was not asleep. And I was not dreaming because I wiped my eyes and everything.
"The angels were like an arch up over our bed, a swirling light, much lighter colored than anything else around me. There were no faces, or any distinction of any kind, but it was what you would think of as a spirit being. It wasn't one angel, I think it was several.
"After they disappeared, I was wide awake, and so alert I got up and went down to Gary. But it wasn't until we were in the waiting room at the doctor's office the next day that I told him what had happened. 'You're not going to believe me,'" I said, 'but I saw angels last night.'
"He looked at me funny and said, 'You know that song, Angels Watching Over Me, it's been going through my head all day. I can't get it out of my mind.'
"He was in surgery the following day, December 17th, 1992, to remove the tumor and afterwards I brought the tape up with the song on it, and he told me, 'Those songs make me feel so much better.'"
While Gary was in surgery, Rhonda told several friends, who had come to the hospital to keep her company, that angels had visited her the night before. One was the pastor of their church.
"You know, Pastor," Rhonda said. "I am not a very charismatic Christian, but I swear I saw angels last night.
"Some friends looked at me, stunned. One said, 'I was praying for you and Gary and I had my hands folded. They became so hot I had to separate them, I could not keep them together.'
"Another said, 'Prayers are hard for me to say, I can't get the words right. But I was praying for you and Gary and the thoughts and phrases that came to mind were like something you would hear a pastor say.'"
Throughout his recovery, angels of different sorts continued to comfort Gary. The year before, a little girl who found out she needed a bone marrow transplant had been a student in Gary's fourth-grade class. She was really smart and loved working with the computers in Gary's classes. After she got cancer, she told her mother she wished she could have a computer. As soon as Gary heard about it, he contacted some computer companies and found out they had a "Make a Wish" program. One of the companies called Gary and said, "We got your letter about Samantha and were so touched we are sending her a computer." They gave her a laptop, so she could use it in the hospital.
"He always wished he could do more for Samantha," said Rhonda. "I remember him saying, 'Now I know what the Spirit of Giving is all about.' We felt so bad that the treatments did not heal Samantha and she passed away in June of 1992."
When Samantha's mother went up to the hospital to see Gary after his brain surgery, she left him a card saying, Remember, your little guardian angel in Heaven, Samantha, is looking after you. And she gave him a raffia angel which Rhonda hung so Gary could see it from his bed.
Another person who came to see Gary was one of his sister's high-school classmates from Wolf Point. Rita walked in and Gary thought, I don't remember this person, she was a friend of my sister's. What am I going to talk about with her? But he told Rhonda they had the best conversation. She said, "I'm writing a book and guess what the title is? Angel Talk."
It was like the third time angels had come up since he'd been in the hospital.
Rhonda and Gary could hardly believe all of these angels were coincidence. They had to have come from God to help them.
"We said this has to be Divine Presence," recalled Rhonda. "The feeling of calmness that we both had the whole time Gary was sick could not have been found any other way."
Gary survived his brain surgery but the cancer was unrelenting, forcing him to undergo two more operations, one in Billings and the other in Rochester, Minnesota. A short seven months after his initial diagnosis, he was once again back in the hospital in Billings, where Rhonda asked him if there was anything she could bring him.
"Yes," he replied. "I want my angel." The little raffia angel Samantha's mother had given him after his first operation. Rhonda brought it up for him and set it so he could see it easily from his bed.
That night she went home, alone one more time and unable to sleep, knowing in her heart Gary's fight with cancer would not be won.
"I was reading the Bible and praying for strength and guidance to help us through these next few days. I was really wanting things to be calmer," she said, "when suddenly I saw the swirling arch over my bed and I knew it was the angels.
"I thought, I should call Gary and tell him the angels are back. But it was four in the morning, and I didn't want to disturb him. When I went in the next day, he said, 'You should have called. I was thinking of you at the same time.'
"I felt like they were saying, 'We're still with you.'" said Rhonda. "They were so vivid, and the tranquility that came over me was like I have never felt. Way, way up at the top of the ceiling, there was nothing. But a foot below, and down to about three feet above the bed, it was filled with angels. There was no noise. No vibration. But the light. It was a sort of pearly gray over-light, with white in it. Not brilliant like sunlight or streams through a cloud. Just a light that couldn't be there. Because it was impossible."
In that room. In the middle of the night. In the depths of darkness. Where no light shone except for that brought on the wings of angels. With a peace that never left her, even after Gary's death.
How do I know when God is going to give me angel stories?
They come from the the most unexpected places and are always a jolt to my system. Zap! I snatch paper and pen, scribble words I cannot read later and pray God to let me remember.
Some lucky times I've got a recorder. "Wait! Wait!" I cry, punching buttons, turning knobs. "Let me get this thing going." They sit with the patience of a mother placidly watching her child, while I quail beneath God's commandings. Get on with it! I try, knowing I will never be qualified, and frantically wonder why He has chosen me to do this.
Such was the case with Gail.
In the cool evening of November 29, 1997, Mother drove down from the farm to go with me to Sannie and Johnny's 50th wedding anniversary. Daddy's sister, Sannie had been Mother's best friend when Mom worked at QB&R in Glendive just out of business college. A bubbling extrovert, she raised three boys and a girl on their farm, along with a flourishing garden and henhouse full of cockerels. In the summer, we girl cousins took turns going over to help.
This night Mom and I snuck down the hallway of the church, hushed before the program already begun, and stood in the doorway of the room, letting our eyes adjust to the light. My brother Clinton, seated at the big round table in the back with all the cousins from Billings — Tommy, Duane, Jerry, and Bob, waved us over.
I saw their faces, the smiles so big and welcome, and steered Mother toward the chairs, just two, side by side, which seem to be waiting for us. The cousins open their arms with hugs that will never change.
Sannie is talking, telling stories on all the children, who take over the mike after each completion to add their correction. "No Mother, I did not leave the plug out of the tractor. The o-ring was nicked and allowed the oil to drip out."
Sheepishly, "Dad did spank us — once. We had the choice of Mom's metal ruler or Dad, and took him. Never again." To much laughter.
As at every holiday in the past, we call for songs, with Sannie and Johnny playing the piano and violin as they did at the Christmases, Thanksgivings, Fourth's of July when five or six or seven of Grandma's children and all the cousins gathered.
The buzz of friends and relatives stretches across the room as a line starts at the buffet and little blonde-haired grandchildren begin to dance around the tables to the music.
How many times have I heard those songs? Watched the two heads turned toward each other, listening to the beat, synchronizing the rhythm, while fingers unerringly touch each chord, every note on ivory and strings.
Suddenly I am not there, in a crowded church room lit by greenish fluorescent lights. Instead, it is 1955 and I am in Grandpa's house, the one from Montgomery Ward that was built on the homestead near Bloomfield, twirling on the maple floor to a schottische my heart will always remember. I would know it in New York, Chicago.
"Mother! What is the name of that song?" I cry, turning to her, expecting an instant answer because she has heard it, played it too, how many times? And her eyes go back, searching along lost trails in a desperate effort to remember.
"I don't know." The failure sounds in her voice, the shake of her head as her eyes meet mine in a kind of denial that tears through my soul.
Quick tears scratch my throat, clamoring to be let loose, and I swivel in one smooth move away from her view so that she cannot see me crying for her before she is gone.
My cousin Shauna, adopted and raised by her grandparents after the death of her mother, slips into an empty chair beside us and wraps Mother in her arms. Her gentle sweetness reaches over to soothe me, and I am able to bring up a smile. Behind our greeting I catch the edge of her older sister Gail, weaving towards us through the ribbons and balloons.
Once full of promise, the freshness that was Gail has been dulled and lost through years of hopelessness and unrelenting disappointments. The thickening of middle age shortens her natural stockiness and adds to the poverty draping her like a faded curtain. Worn-out shoes, baggy pants, a hideous blouse that apparently doubles for party wear. Even so, she's grinning, obviously very happy to see us.
I remember the Gail I loved as a child. Rollicking, full of laughter, always thrilled to see us, and I determine to meet her joy for joy and hug her over the scraggly hair. Peering at me through outdated glasses, she immediately asks, "Wanda, can you give me a ride home?"
I'm aghast. Is this the only reason she's come over? Something clicks and I realize the courage it has taken for her to just show up, having become what many would call a failure amongst her family of peers, most of whom have done well and are successful. She is not. What is her home? Can she even drive? I doubt she has a license and know she doesn't own a car.
"Sure, Gail," I say, "Let's go." Telling Mom I will be back shortly, we walk to my car, me shivering in my heavy winter coat, her not even noticing she doesn't have one on. In the light of the inside bulb, she thrusts a folded paper at me. "He just died," she says. "His funeral was yesterday."
I look down to a memorial brochure, the florid face of a once handsome man smiling at me. "We were going to be married," she added. "He loved me."
Dear God. What can I say to this woman who has just lost the last hope and security of her life?
"I'm so sorry, Gail," sounds shallow even to me, but she passes over it as if I have not spoken and begins to talk about what they had planned together, how they were so happy and looking forward to being married.
I drive the streets to her intermittent directions and pull up at what would be a darling gingerbread house if only it was kept up. Two windows flank the door, square in the center, with piles of old bicycles and trash littering the porch.
My fingers itch for a paintbrush as we push inside the room, to a home crying for care. Bare sheetrock, smoke and water stained, is nailed to the walls. Sporadic pictures, making a brave effort to produce cheer, hang crooked on its surface.
In the kitchen, days of dishes holding the remains of past breakfasts and suppers sit dried and hardened, stacked askew on every counter and overflowing to the metal table, while pots with unrecognizable contents fall off the burners on the stove.
A path, somehow shoveled through the living room, ends at a chair, remarkably empty, which Gail sinks into with the familiarity of old friends. Although there is only one ancient couch, totally covered with boxes, pictures, clothing, books and a miniature organ, the kind of which I last saw in 1964, Gail waves her hand and tells me to sit down.
Oh, Gail! My heart cracks as I continue to stand in the midst of the disorder, wondering how on earth I could do so. How did this happen to you? What could we have done to save you?
Gail picks up a skein of yarn, tosses it aside and announces without preamble, "I had a vision once. I saw angels."
My thoughts sprang back to her. Gail? Angels? Her faded blue eyes hold mine with complete openness and honesty. An arm drops to her lap. "I was about fifteen or sixteen years old and I'd gone out to milk the cows. It was at Aunt Sannie's, at night."
Excerpted from "Angels Among Us"
Copyright © 2017 Wanda Whitmer Rosseland.
Excerpted by permission of Worthy Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Grandma Massar 25
Grandma Strutz 51
Mary Anne 71
Questions for Book Clubs 199