‘Go with the Angels’

Learning about God: A Personal Story

Part 4 of 6

Editor’s Note — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my wife, Eleanor, who died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in South Africa. For all of those 20 years I have tried to support people walking the grief journey as I was supported in that crisis time.

It is only in the last few months that I have been able to write something I can share with others about the many crises of that experience and what I learned about God in the midst of grief. This article is part of that series. I pray it will be helpful to others walking the grief journey.

By Bob Terry
Editor, The Alabama Baptist

With the greatest of reservations, Eleanor’s tending physician at St. Augustine’s Hospital in Durban, South Africa, signed the papers releasing her for the trip back to Birmingham. He warned us — the Medjet medical team, our children Brent and Jean, and me — that Eleanor would not survive the trip.

He was almost right.

Shortly after we landed in Namibia, Eleanor had a massive brain seizure. I knew nothing about this because I had been taken to the terminal for a bathroom stop. When I returned I was left on the tarmac, ostensibly to get some exercise.

I had no idea that inside the plane the three members of the medical team were fighting to keep Eleanor alive. For a time it seemed they lost the battle. At some point the pilot messaged the Birmingham office that Eleanor had died.

That message was communicated back to Durban and someone told Brent and Jean their mother had died en route.

Neither Brent nor Jean were surprised by the message.

There is a lot about death we do not know. Death used to be defined as the irreversible stopping of the heart and respiration. Then the definition became the irreversible cessation of brain waves. But stories of near-death experiences have complicated human understanding of death. Can the spirit leave the body before actual death or are they bound inseparably until physical death? And is the current definition of death accurate? How does one explain or understand out-of-body experiences? These questions continue to be discussed and debated.

While Brent and Jean waited for their flights at the Durban airport, they received a second message. Eleanor was still alive. The aggressive treatment of the neurologist and other team members had brought her through the crisis. She was still in a deep coma but alive.

Only a matter of time

When the physicians at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Hospital examined Eleanor after we arrived home, they told us it was only a matter of time before she had another seizure and this time they would not treat her as aggressively as she was treated on the plane.

I knew none of this at the time. I was caught up in my own crisis of determining my response to the alluring song of the spinning propellers that promised relief from all my pain.

In part 3 of this series, I shared that I stepped back from that edge. I chose life over death, hope over despair, trust in God over helplessness.

When I did, something miraculous happened. I saw the angels.

I stepped back from the tip of the plane’s wing assured that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” — even face Eleanor’s death. I looked toward the plane and was astounded to see two angels hovering above the fuselage.

They faced each other as if in conversation but I heard no sound.

Yes. They were dressed in white robes and, yes, they had wings like depicted in countless pictures. And they hovered suspended in air over the airplane without a single movement I could detect.

I saw arms but not feet, only white robes draping downward. I saw faces but don’t remember seeing halos.

When I shared this story with a spiritual adviser a few years ago he asked for details of the angels that I don’t remember noticing or could no longer remember. I am not sure he believed my story.

Seeing angels hovering above the plane startled me. I actually looked away and rubbed my eyes. Seeing angels is not normal, at least not for me. When I looked back they were still there. It was more than a momentary glimpse. I stared at them from less than 50 feet away.

It was not an illusion for illusions are based on an acknowledged desire such as one seeking water in a desert. I had never thought of angels.

I stood frozen and watched them fade from my sight. But before they did they both seemed to glance my way.

At that moment I knew that not only could I do all things through Christ but so could Eleanor. She could even face life’s final enemy in the confidence of God’s ultimate victory — even over death. After all, God had sent His angels for her.

As fast as I could I walked to the door of the plane and looked toward the cot where Eleanor lay. The medical team members were bent over her. I could feel the intensity but had no idea what was going on.

With a voice as loud as I could muster I yelled back into the plane, “Eleanor. It is OK. Go with the angels. Go with the angels.”

The doctor looked at me like I was crazy and barked for me to get away. He was not going to let Eleanor die, he said. Not now. And he did not.

Deep sense of peace

Weeks later Brent, Jean and I pieced together the timeline of events — when the plane landed in Namibia, when they heard she had died, when I saw the angels. I learned that about the same time both the children had their own experiences of a deep sense of peace spreading over them. It was the first sense of peace either had had since a nighttime call telling them of our accident.

Often I have wondered why there were two angels. Was one there for me in case I had succumbed to the siren song of death or were both for Eleanor? Do we each have a guardian angel and God let me see both mine and hers as reassurance of His never-failing presence for either of us? I don’t have an answer.

Neither do I have answers about the relationship of the body and soul. I know God made us one — body and soul. The resurrection promises the restoration of that oneness. But until that great day the believer’s identity is with the Lord.

How God created all of that I cannot explain.

I do know one thing. I saw the angels, whatever their significance.