Yes. This is a true story…
Back in 2001, I was at the University of Michigan in the MSW/Ph.D. program. My life had been in major turmoil for several years, and I was desperately hanging onto what remained of my sanity.
That December, I was asked if I would go to Ground Zero for the week before Christmas to offer counseling services. I did, and it was an interesting time, to say the least. I’ve not spent that much time in NYC, but there was a pall over everything. The whole city was still in shock and mourning. The air still smelled of death.
What I experienced while there still haunts me, both the terrible aftermath of 9/11, but also the beautiful, magical, inexplicable Christmas miracle that has stayed in my heart and mind for nearly 20 years now. A true tale that I will now share with you.
Part of my time in NYC was spent at Ground Zero, counseling coroners, firefighters, police and volunteer rescue workers. You could still smell death in the air, and it’s a smell I will NEVER forget. Windows were blown out for blocks around. Businesses were gone: You could look right into restaurants and see where people had run out and left their lunch behind. It was exhausting, but personally rewarding, but with so much grief hanging over everyone and everything, I found myself wondering by the end of the week if I was making a difference… If what I was doing mattered at all.
The rest of my time in NYC was spent offering counseling at a nearby church. We had a sandwich board outside, and counseled folks who walked in off the street. There were several of us there to handle this service, ready to greet those in need when they entered the church.
My last day in the city, I was serving at the church. I was sitting there that morning asking myself the “am I making a difference?” questions, when in walked a young man. He was obviously in crisis. He had no coat, and his face was an image of total despair. The pain and sorrow poured from him in palpable waves. I greeted him gently, and he walked into the interior of the church, sat in a pew and began to pray. I waited a while, then approached him to see if he would like to talk.
The words poured out of him… He had beaten a crack addiction. His lover had left him. He had no job. He had been out of touch with his only family, his father, for several years, as the new stepmother didn’t like him. And now that he wanted to try to re-connect with his father, he couldn’t find him anywhere. He told me that he was ready to give up. That he had no more to give and that there was simply nothing left to live for or care about.
Now you have to keep in mind that I am NOT a religious person, but I am very, very spiritual. We talked about having faith, and about finding the strength to go on. We talked for about an hour. He asked me what he should do. I thought for a minute, and all of a sudden I heard myself saying, “Your hardships have built in you the strength you need to continue, but it’s your faith that will take you where you need to go. You need to believe you will find what you seek. I believe it. I believe what you seek is just around the corner.”
We hugged, and I let him know that I would be leaving the city the next day, but that he could always return to the church and talk to others. I watched him leave, but couldn’t get him out of my mind.
Right before 5 PM, I heard the church door open. None of the counselors were busy right then, so I didn’t even look up, as I knew someone else was greeting the person who had entered. I heard my mentor and co-counselor Pat say, “Yes. She’s right over there.” I looked up, and saw someone walking towards me, tall and straight, his face literally glowing with a beatific smile. I stood to greet the man, and was gathered in an embrace.
He was talking a mile a minute, laughing and crying at the same time, and I finally realized it was my client from early morning! He didn’t look like the same person at all! He was wearing a warm coat, new clean clothes, he was freshly showered and OH! That SMILE!!!!!!
And here is what he told me: He had left the church after our morning talk, thinking about what I had said. He went around the corner to a little diner and sat down to have a cup of coffee. As he sat there, he heard a familiar voice. He turned around, and there was his father. At first, he thought he was delirious… that his father wasn’t really there. But all of a sudden, the man he spotted hurried towards him and wrapped his arms around him.
It turns out that the evil stepmother was no longer in the picture, dad regretted his actions, and had been trying to find his son in the city for months. With the young man’s life in such upheaval, he had had no phone or permanent address for quite a while, so was impossible to locate.
His father took him Christmas shopping, took him to the hotel where he was staying so that he could shower and get into his new clothes. They were now on their way to dinner, but the young man asked his father if they could stop by the church in hopes that I would be there. He had bought me a gift, and he wanted to tell me what had happened, and to let me know that he would never, ever lose faith again, no matter what transpired in his life.
I was flabbergasted, to say the least. All the other counselors and I had been discussing the young man all day, hoping the best for him, but being very concerned about his well being. They were all watching this exchange with amazement, to say the least.
As the young man hugged me goodbye, he said that I had saved his life. I told him that I hadn’t, but perhaps had just shown him that he already possessed what he needed to save his own life.
As he was opening the door to leave, I said to him, “I’ll always remember you, but I don’t even know your name!” He turned and looked at me, the evening light glowing around his head, and softly said, “My name is Angel, and I will never forget you.”
This experience changed my life. I think of Angel often, but especially around Christmas. I hope he is doing well…
All images: © 2001 Deborah “Tink” Martin