What I learned from my guardian angel

My brother Oliver passed away 41 years ago from pneumonia in my mother’s arms. After bathing him in his bed with a sponge for 32 years, after feeding him with a spoon for 32 years, after lowering the shade every morning so that the rising sun wouldn’t scorch his tender skin, Oliver returned her last breath and my mother whispered, “Goodbye my angel.

When I was a boy, it was my job to feed Oliver’s dinner: a raw egg, baby cereal, sugar, and mashed bananas in a red ceramic bowl. My dad got a Christmas filled with plum pudding. I never needed a watch because I had this instinctive feeling that it was time to feed Oliver, and I never missed it. If I were playing baseball on the front lawn in the summer, or sledding up my neighbor’s hill in the winter, I would suddenly scream, “I have to go!” I have to feed Oliver! and give up my position at third base, or grab my sled and rush home.

Oliver was blind. I once doubted he couldn’t see, maybe thinking he was faking it, so I snuck up on him and waved my hand right in front of his face. He never blinked.

Oliver could not speak, read or sing. The doctors, after many tests, convinced my parents that Oliver had no intellect, no possible way to learn anything due to severe brain damage before he was born.

My brother was on his back in his bed for 32 years. His bed was against the yellow wall, and my dad built a wide swinging door on the other side so Oliver wouldn’t roll over. He never moved. He was rolled back and forth and bathed every day. He never had a pressure sore.

We never know how the sorrows of the past will influence us in the future. When Oliver was born, my parents were devastated. With each passing day they learned more and more of Oliver’s afflictions: unable to lift his head, unable to chew, or walk, or become the President of the United States. Instead, they just chose to call Oliver their son and they chose to love him.

Because of that one decision, I was given a Guardian Angel, and I didn’t realize it until many years later.

I loved how gently my father shaved Oliver and combed his hair. I loved helping my sister carry Oliver to the tub. I loved supporting Oliver with my hand behind his head as I gently touched the rim of the glass to his lips and watched him slowly drink the cold milk.

Oliver learned to do two things: raise and lower his crooked arms and laugh. That’s all. Sometimes in the middle of the night I could hear her belly laugh echoing in the hallway. My grandmother often said that Oliver laughed with the angels.

A lot of times when I’m tired after a long day, I rub my face and think of Oliver’s deep brown eyes. When I pour a bowl of cereal in the morning before I go to work, I often think of Oliver’s red bowl that I took to his room all those years as a kid.

Remember that lovely movie “As Good as It Gets”, where Melvin, played by Jack Nicholson, says to Carol the waitress, played by Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better man”?

Oliver made me a better man. I have been a father, teacher and writer all my life. Through my brother’s helplessness, he taught me how to help children in need. By his silence he showed how to be a poet. Through Oliver’s hunger he showed me, like Merlin, how to mix life in a red bowl. Oliver was my guardian angel.

Islamic tradition speaks of the raqib, the observer, an angel who protects humanity throughout our life. Buddhist lamas teach that devas are ethereal, angel-like beings who applaud our goodness, rejoice when we are well, and rain flowers on us as we struggle throughout our lives.

In Judaism, the angel Lailah protects pregnant women at night, and serves as a guardian angel for all in life and guides their souls on their paths to heaven.

Christians believe, as Pope Francis said in 2014, that “no one walks alone, and none of us can think that he is alone”. And he recognized that the voice of our Guardian Angel is always within us, whispering wisdom and comfort during our times of distress.

I wish everyone could rub the sponge on Oliver’s tender skin, feed him from the bottom of the red bowl, and give him milk. I wish we could all stand together outside his bedroom door as a midnight civilization in these times of distress and hear Oliver laugh.

On my brother’s gravestone at the Benedictine Monastery in Weston, Vermont, my mother wrote “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” May your guardian angel help you see God, Allah, Buddha, Abraham, Christ. May we all sleep in peace and laugh at midnight.

George Eliot, in his novel Silas marner wrote: “In the old days there were angels who would come and take men by the hand and lead them away from the city of destruction. We don’t see white winged angels now.

Maybe Oliver could guide us all out of the Cities of Destruction this Christmas. I wish I could take Oliver to Bethlehem, Mecca, Western Wall, Buddha, temple, mosque and church and let the world touch Oliver’s hand.

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