The Angel in Bagel Heaven
It was a magical week, where little bald girls with mouths full of chemo sores could dress up in pretty sun hats and fancy white gloves to have tea parties, while pretending to be elegant Southern Ladies. Small, one-armed boys in cowboy outfits could run and have squirt gun fights, without their nervous parents hovering over them. Children with bulging, portable chemo-catheters implanted in their upper chests, could swim in regular lake water, without adults fussing over the potential for germs. Every year we had a local band come for “The Prom” where all of the campers could dress up for the big dance that might be the only one they would ever attend. Our special campers did not pay money to come to camp, because the price of admission was a confirmed diagnosis of cancer.
Camp Fun Times (The name of the camp, and the personal names in this story have been changed. Other than these necessary changes, this is an accurate retelling of what actually transpired.) was a special camp, where kids with cancer could just be kids for one week each summer. For the other fifty-one weeks, the camp was a State owned, university supported, educational facility. This amazing one-week-camp was started by a passionate woman who loved children and wanted to help them and their families get through the darkest hours of their lives. It was completely staffed with volunteers and some of the unpaid workers were the same nurses and Drs. who treated the children in their fight against cancer. Others were college students and professors on summer break, business people, lawyers, religious leaders, social workers and people from all walks of life. We even had two stunningly beautiful fashion models that the children irreverently named Frick and Frack.
The regular lives of the campers were marked by helpless family members fearfully watching over them as they underwent radical treatments for cancer. Most were used to being over-protected from every potential thing that could possibly affect their already weakened bodies. Some were rendered permanently child-sized, when radiation and chemotherapy that was intended to kill cancer cells, also stopped their body’s normal growth. Others were dissected; irreversibly losing limbs, facial features and even their private parts in frantic attempts to defend their lives from the relentless progression of cancer.
They all came to Camp Fun Times so they could pretend to be “normal” for one week. For one week, the focus was not on their illness. They just wanted to be with other kids who knew what it was like to live this way. They wanted to experience a little bit of childhood, before it all ran out.
Each year my eyes were filled with images of laughing children with missing limbs, as they were dropped off by parents showing the effects of endless fear. Excited campers arrived with tiny bodies ravaged from disease and poisonous cancer treatments. Horrible-wonderful images would flood my waking hours as I carefully hid my tears from the campers.
Each year I would look around knowing that some of the children wouldn’t be back the following year, or ever again. I would lie in my bunk at night, begging God to spare the children and eradicate the horrible diseases that were consuming their bodies and the lives of their entire families. When everyone else slept, I would wander the campgrounds in tears, begging God to heal the children. Some were healed, but many died.
The sun was just rising as we sat on the dock in the early morning South Carolina heat. It was the in-between time when you could still hear frogs and crickets, but the birds remained quiet. The bright yellow corks floated clearly on the still Santee lake water. The boys laughed deeply with unfeigned joy as they simultaneously pulled in two tiny fish with their wooden cane poles. Mark and Jeff, twelve year old boys, barefoot and wearing cut-off jeans, joyously fishing on a South Carolina dock in the fading days of their childhood. Like best friends everywhere, they teased each other over whose small fish was the biggest. I was in charge of the fishing dock and I took an iconic picture of them that that morning that now hangs on my office wall. Looking at that picture, you’d never know it was taken the last summer of their lives.
I knew both boys, but I was especially close to Mark, who suffered from various forms of cancer until they ultimately consumed his body. He was one of my regulars each year. He loved to fish and he became my very special friend. An unusually small, shy boy, with radiant black skin, he had a short, thin Afro and huge brown eyes. He’d first been diagnosed with cancer at age six. Over time, it got better, then worse and it finally worked its way into his brain, while simultaneously metastasizing into his bones. Like the other special children at the camp, he came every year to have some “normal” fun while dealing with the ravages of this horrible disease.
Over the years, I also became close to his mom and dad, as I would take Mark on small make-a-wish type adventures throughout the year. They were Christians and we often prayed for his healing, seeing some periods of brief remission, but the cancer never completely left his body. He was sick and in pain for so many years, that the medicine would no longer stop his pain. His parents used to read him the Psalms every night and miraculously, the beautiful words would ease his suffering long enough for him to sleep.
The last week of his life, Mark’s mother called and said, “Pitts, Mark is still in the hospital and they’ve told us he’s not going to live much longer. We are going to take him home this weekend and let him “pass” at the house with the family around him. If you want to see him again, you better come by the hospital before we take him home.”
Devastated, I prayed with her on the phone and told her I would come by, but I put it off for most of the week.
After all the years of praying for his healing, it was unthinkable to me that Mark was really going to die. Knowing it would be the last time, I delayed going to see him. I knew he was supposed to leave the hospital on Friday to return to their home town, so Thursday morning I got up and prepared to go. I showered and cried in the shower as I thought about how his long struggle was about to end in death. I ached for the emotional suffering that his young parents and siblings had endured. Resolved, I dressed, but my eyes kept filling with tears as I left the house by myself, planning my drive to the hospital.
My emotions were so unstable that I needed to get myself together before going to the hospital. I pulled into a local bagel place near my house called, Bagel Heaven. It was a hole in the wall shop in a small strip center. The entire place, including the kitchen would have been about the size of a typical dining room and kitchen in an average American house. They had three small tables in the entrance area and one bathroom shared by both sexes.
When I drove up, I sat out front trying to get myself together and I saw a short bald man and a woman enter the shop and approach the serving counter. I got out and fell in behind them in line. As each person entered, the door chimed. When I came in, the woman behind the counter looked up, recognized me as a regular and smiled.
Then she said the strangest thing, “Wow, He looks just like you.”
I looked around and there was nobody behind me or sitting down. In fact, the only people in the place were me, the short bald guy, the woman in line between us and the woman working behind the serving counter. I looked the short bald guy over, while I was waiting my turn in line and decided that he looked nothing like me. The man, then the woman, got their orders and both left.
When I stepped up to the counter to place my order the woman asked, “Where is your brother? He looked just like you.”
I replied, “Who the guy that just left?”
“No, the man who came in with you. He must be your twin brother.”
Confused, I said, “Nobody was with me when I came in.”
“Come on? He looked just like you and he was dressed just like you.”
I said, “Honestly, I don’t have a twin and nobody came in with me.”
With a sarcastic emphasis, she said, “Sure, maybe he was your angel?”
With those words, “maybe he was your angel“, every hair on my body stood up, just like they are doing as I write these words. What a strange thing to say!
Stunned and confused with her words, I realized she was absolutely convinced that a man who looked like my identical twin brother, dressed exactly like I was, had entered the almost empty Bagel Heaven with me at the same instant I did. What?
Confused, but now curious, I tried to question her about what she thought she saw. She apparently thought “my twin brother” and I were playing some sort of practical joke on her. Quickly, the broad smile on her face was replaced with nervous glances at the rest room door, as if to say, “I know this is some kind of trick and he must be hiding in the bathroom.”
Her friendly welcome evaporated completely as I tried to press her for information on what she saw until she shut down, refusing to comment on the matter any further.
Placing her hand on her hip while scowling at me, she said, “What do you want?”
Puzzled at the chain of events, and her odd mention of “my Angel“, I ordered a plain bagel with cream cheese and a coffee and left. Working through my bagel, I considered the whole episode on my way to the hospital. It was VERY odd, but I couldn’t make any sense out of it, so I mentally dropped the subject.
When I walked into Mark’s hospital room, his mother was on one side of his bed and his father was across from the bed in a chair. They weren’t talking or looking at each other. Mark was laying quietly in his bed with his eyes closed. I took his little hand in mine and his mother whispered to him that I had come to visit.
His eyes fluttered open and focused on me and he greeted me, “Hi Pitts.” He closed his eyes and after a little time elapsed, he unexpectedly stopped breathing. I noticed he didn’t seem to be breathing, put my hand in front of his mouth to confirm and told his dad, “I think Mark just slipped away.”
His frantic parents called for help and the staff went into emergency mode, but it was too late. My face was the last thing he saw on this side of eternity and my name was the last name he spoke.
The rest of that day was a blur, but I’m sure we cried over Mark and for each other. If you have never left the empty body of a dead child behind in a hospital, you can’t understand how I felt driving away. It seemed like I was betraying the little person who trusted me and his parents to somehow protect him from death. My words to his parents kept playing over and over in my head, “I think Mark just slipped away.” Even though I knew he was saved and with Jesus, it felt like total loss and total defeat. A week or so later, the funeral was held and presided over by his uncle. The entire huge, extended family attended, along with many other children with cancer and a lot of the medical staff who had treated Mark over the years.
The preacher had a classic opening to his message that I will never forget. “Everyone here knew Mark was sick. He’s gone now and not sick anymore. Everybody knew the boy loved Jesus and Jesus loved him. I’m sure that he is with Jesus right now, but how about you? Do you know Jesus like Mark did?”
He then proceeded to give the strongest, most fire and brimstone filled funeral message I have ever heard. Judging by the volume of the wailing and tears, it had tremendous impact on all in attendance.
Time went by and my life went on. I thought of the boy often, but was comforted in the knowledge of his salvation and the end of his suffering. One day I was reading a story in my Bible found in Acts 12. It talked about Peter being let out of prison by an angel and going to a house where a prayer meeting was being held. When he knocked on the door, he called to those inside.
A servant girl came to the door and recognized his voice. “When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” (Acts 12:14-15, NIV)
I suddenly noticed that they said, “It must be his angel.”
The thought immediately struck me, “Why on earth would they think that “Peter’s angel” could be mistaken for Peter and sound like him?”
Looking in various commentaries on Acts 12, I found that many first century Jews believed that people had guardian angels who not only sounded like them, but looked like them! They were taught that each of us has an angel watching over us, who looks like us. Apparently, the people were more than willing to believe that Peter’s guardian angel had appeared at their door, but unwilling to believe Peter had gotten out of jail and showed up himself!
As I sat and thought on these things, I remembered the day Mark died and my odd episode with the “Angel” in Bagel Heaven. I recalled the woman saying a man who looked just like me, dressed just like me, had come in with me. I remembered her sarcastic words, “Sure, maybe he was your angel” and the power of God once again hit me like electricity. “Maybe she did see an angel who looked like me, but why?”
Trying unsuccessfully to make all of the puzzle parts fit, I prayed asking the Lord what these things meant. God said these words to my heart, “Pitts, he was just a frightened little boy. He loved you and trusted you. The reason I let the lady see the Angel in Bagel Heaven, was to tell you he looked like you. Your face was the last face Mark saw on this side of the grave. When he crossed into eternity, an Angel with a face that looked like yours was the first one he saw when he opened his eyes on the other side.”
It’s been over 25 years and I still feel the presence of God whenever I think about this story. Of course, there is no way to prove an angel appeared in Bagel Heaven. I didn’t even see him myself. And I have no way of knowing for sure, if Mark saw the same Angel or any Angel on the other side of eternity, at the time of his passing. This story is full of conjecture, but it’s sacred to me. It struck me as being so kind and so like our loving JESUS to send an angel with a familiar face to welcome a small boy to heaven. After all of these years, I’m still convinced in my own heart that’s what happened.
When Mark died, his parents and I felt total defeat. We had prayed faithfully for his healing for years, but he still died from cancer. It was emotionally devastating and heartbreaking. But, in retrospect, I think much of our pain resulted primarily from our lack of understanding. We thought Mark was no longer part of our lives. We tend to think that our loved ones who die, become only memories in our past. Biblically, that’s a lie. Our loved ones in Christ are waiting for us in our future.
Perhaps, you have had a similar experience of losing a child or someone close to you after asking God to heal them? It hurts deeply. In our humanity, it is painful to be separated from those we love by sickness and death. But we need to consider God’s perspective. Our loved ones who die in Christ (and babies and young children) are safely transferred into our future. They are safe and well. They are waiting for us with JESUS on the other side. They are not lost to us, just inaccessible for a season until we join them. This perspective is both comforting and it’s based on reality.