In May of 2004 I underwent tests to determine if there was a medical reason why I had choked on a piece of food a few weeks earlier and nearly died in a restaurant full of staring people. On this day in May, I was sitting alone in a waiting room in the radiology department of Barnes Jewish Hospital, reading a book I’d brought along on the Contemplatives. I had just closed my book, propped my elbow up on the armrest to my left and rested my head in my hand. I was praying that the Lord would calm me down, that if there was something wrong, the doctors would figure it out, and that I would be able to accept whatever diagnosis the tests revealed.
My eyes were shut, and I probably looked like I was resting or even sleeping. Something made me open my eyes. I looked up to see a young man standing in the hallway. There was nothing special about him, nothing definitive that I can even remember. Late twenties, maybe. Thin. Plainly dressed in a nondescript shirt and pants.
He looked down the length of the intersecting hallways and then crossed the threshold into the waiting room. He took the empty seat at my right and promptly reached for my right hand. He did it with such purpose that I was shocked into silent acceptance.
We were alone in the waiting room, and the hallways remained vacant. I don’t even remember hearing any distant voices. He sat quietly for a moment and just held my hand. Initially, I considered pulling my hand away, wondering if this guy was a pervert. Something made me hesitate, though, and I looked at him. Really looked at him. There was such an innocence in him that I realized he definitely hadn’t approached me with evil intent. So, now I thought, maybe he’s mentally disabled.
All this happened in the space of a second or so. Before I could pull away, he started speaking, saying something that ended with, “not to be afraid.” I was still wondering about the mental state of this guy when he repeated the words don’t be afraid.
I thought, okay, Lord, I won’t pull my hand away - on the outside chance this is your handiwork.
We sat there together, in silence for a few seconds while my mind raced to figure him out. He seemed completely at ease, so I asked him a question. “Are you afraid?” It was a lame response on my part, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I simply wanted to know who this guy was and if he was here for testing himself or on some divine mission. Of course I should have just asked him that question, but all I could get out were those three little words. Are you afraid?
His face broke into a smile that spread across his face, and with the emotion of one who had seen the Rocky Mountains and just been asked if the view was in any way boring, he said, “No! Oh, no!” His words were spoken softly, but full of awe and assurance and peace.
Now, I couldn’t help staring at him with countless unspoken questions. We sat in silence a moment or two longer as I racked my brain for something to say.
Still holding my hand in his, he said the name of a town. Of all the towns that make up the Greater St. Louis Area, he named the town I had been in when I choked on March 21. He nodded his head and said, “Fairview Heights—O’Fallon area.”
At that point, a nurse came to the doorway of the waiting room and said my name. Now, I slipped my hand from his and gathered together my purse and book. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to know more about this man.
When I walked to the doorway, just before turning the corner and leaving him behind, I looked back. He was still sitting there, head bowed reverently, hands clasped together tightly in front of his face, and he was praying.
I never really believed in guardian angels before that. I guess I was burned out on the angel mania of the 1990s, with all its secularization of the heavenly hosts. But now, having experienced something so strange as this, I must say that I do believe in guardian angels – and I even talk to mine now and then.