I was alone for dinner tonight, and ended up in a restaurant in a small town near here that I’d been to before, where I knew the food to be decent and the bar atmosphere friendly. I figured, half hour, forty-five minutes, in and out. I left my dog, who had recently had knee surgery, in the car.
A gentleman, about my age, came in and sat at the bar next to me. I recognized Bill from the last time I was in; he was a local guy, a regular, a bit of a wiseass, and had given me unsolicited menu guidance about a week ago. Nice enough guy. That night, he’d started asking me questions about myself that I wasn’t in the mood to answer, so the conversation had been short.
Tonight, the book I was reading was less interesting, or at least I was less interested in it. Plus, I thought I might at some point interview this man, though it was too noisy in the bar. We started to get into it on classic bar topics: how much more difficult it is to grow up these days, how he’d grown up in that small town, had known everyone, everyone helped one another out. Now, all the old guard had died out or left, and the newcomers weren’t interested in each other; there was no community.
There was more: in our day, in Bill’s estimate, if you were willing to work, you could make a decent living, you were needed. Now, kids get out of school and there’s nothing for them to do. And, they’re distracted through their childhood by screens and various forms of entertainment – “no one has any imagination…” His daughter, 24, was getting her Masters degree in psychology.
Bill was interesting, and had a story. But the really interesting part began when he introduced me to Keila. Or rather, when I’d smiled when she and Bill said hi, she’d introduced herself to me.
Keila, blonde, early 50s, a small town Irish Catholic girl, married for 33 years. Two sons, 24 and 22. It all started when she told Bill “My son and your daughter should get together. He’s an old soul…”
Wait, I asked. Why do you call him an old soul? What does that mean? I’ve been called an old soul at various junctures, and I’ve never really understood what it meant. At first, she just repeated the statement: “he’s an old soul.” I kept prying. Finally, she told me the story.
Twenty-two years ago, Keila and her husband had decided that two kids were enough. So Keila was on two forms of birth control (“you remember the foam that you squirt up there…”). Nonetheless, she had become pregnant. Her husband, Nick, had not been so sure… maybe after two sons she had wanted to try for a girl and missed a pill or two? But no, Keila had been diligent; the pill is only 99.9% effective, so this was one in a thousand.
Five months into the pregnancy, she knew something was wrong. Her OB had tried to reassure her, but her intuition was strong, and she went up to the hospital in Albany to be checked, intending to come right home. There she learned devastating news: her baby was indeed a girl, and would be dead within 48 hours. She needed to be induced for her own safety.
So, 48 hours of Pitocin later, she finally pushed out a tiny baby, no bigger than your hand. I was not clear if the baby was stillborn or had died soon thereafter, but she died. Keila remembers the doctor baptizing the baby and giving her rites, then placing her in a crib in the nursery, even though she was dead. Keila lay there, deep into the night, and suddenly heard a pop inside her. She had sustained a hemorrhage, and was “bleeding out.” She knew that if she did nothing, she would bleed to death, but in her grief, she was not sure she didn’t want to join her baby in “with God.”
A nurse came in to check on her. According to Keila, there was no sign of the blood she had lost, until you lifted up the blankets that covered her. For some reason, the nurse lifted the blankets, saw the blood, and screamed. The OB, who had been sleeping in the next room, came running in, saw what was happening, and jumped on top of Keila, pushing on her abdomen to induce contractions that would stop the hemorrhaging. According to Keila, she essentially had to go back into labor for the bleeding inside her to stop.
Eventually, the drama came to an end. But “how do you sleep after all that?” Keila was wide awake. Eventually she felt someone crawl into bed and snuggle up beside her, and she immediately fell into a deep sleep. This all had happened on her 30th birthday.
One year later, to the day, Keila was in the car with her two sons. Martin, the elder, was now three. “Mom,” he said, “angels are white, right?” Kelly asked him, what do you mean? He just repeated, more and more insistently: “Angels are white, right?” And finally: “She comes in my room every night to tell me she loves you, and she loves Dad, and she loves me and my little brother.”
Keila felt the hair on her arms rise and a chill went through her body. Martin said, “you saw her, right? She was just here. You saw her!” Keila had seen nothing, but felt something.
There were other details. Twenty years later, she was at a party in the very bar in which I was hearing her story, and she felt a tap on her shoulder. “I was there that night,” the woman said. She was the nurse that had saved Keila’s life. Keila asked her if she had been the one who had gotten into bed with her. The nurse assured her she had not. Keila never found out who had. She also had never found out why her baby had died inside of her. She assumed it was because she had conceived in spite of being on birth control, that the doctors had been vague about it for fear of being sued.
Someone she had told this story to had recommended a book to her, called Angels In Your Hair. Kelly, not a big reader, had read it, and had learned that there were “thousands of unemployed angels” about, waiting for something to do. Anytime you needed one, you simply called upon the Archangel Micheal, and he would dispatch one for you. One morning, two years ago, she had been climbing the stairs in the school in which she worked, when she’d had an overwhelming urge to call upon an angel. Normally, it would be her younger, more troubled son who she would think to seek aid for. But this time it was her older, more responsible son, the Old Soul, Martin. Several minutes later, her phone rang. It was her husband, Nick. “It’s bad,” Nick had said. “Martin and me, we’re both okay, but its bad.” As they were crossing a bridge in the larger of the two dump trucks owned by Nick and Martin’s business, it had collapsed. They were both uninjured, but the $108,000 dump truck had been destroyed. The accident had happened at the exact moment Kelly had stopped to pray.
I never really did find out why she thought of Martin as an old soul. Coincidentally, Martin had walked in while she was telling the story. He hugged his mom hello, chatted for a few minutes with some other regulars, hugged his mom again, said “I love you,” and left. He was a tall, strapping man of 24, bearded and calm. He looked me in the eye as he shook my hand, polite and attentive. If I had to guess, I would say she had probably called this one correctly. Whatever an old soul is, Martin, who’d seen angels as a toddler and had his life saved by one as a young adult, seems to be one.
Why does this story belong on this particular blog? I did not interview any of the people I encountered, did not discuss this project or record anything they said. But I loved their stories. I loved that they were about love, and faith, and survival. Keila, as it further turns out, is one of nine siblings, and a twin at that (she and her sister were numbers six and seven). Her twin, with whom she shared a deep psychic connection, died four years ago, suddenly, of a brain aneurism. Keila had known when the phone rang that it was about Tracy, and that she was dying.
She kept repeating “every word of this is true! My sister used to embellish everything, but I don’t. Every bit of this happened exactly as I say it did.” I reassured her that I believed her, but I also told her that it didn’t matter. True or no, it was a great story. I asked Keila if she told it a lot. “ All the time…” Still, I was honored that she’d chosen to tell it to me.
Here, by the way, is the book she referred to. I'll tell you after I read it.