On a flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg, I sit beside Hugh, a young man who shares with me before the plane takes off that he’s going to visit his family whom he hasn’t seen for almost a decade.
The reason? He has just spent the last several years in jail for drug trafficking. In fact, he informs me, I am the second woman he has spoken to since his release from prison the day before.
I am instantly drawn in,
I can tell by the smile in his eyes that he is relieved I haven’t judged him, but I sense he is still nervous. I make some small talk about the weather and our shared destination in the hopes that he feels a little more relaxed.
Hugh does, indeed, open up. With trembling lips and a sweat-soaked brow, he begins by sharing the deep terror he feels about flying. I tell him I used to feel the same way, but I have sought out many tools that now allow me to enjoy the entire experience of flying, including meditating at the beginning of each flight, calling on all angels to bless and protect the plane, the crew and the passengers.
He sits up straight at the mention of the word “angels.” He probes me about what I do for work.
He is enthralled with my tales of the Other Side and I am caught up in sharing with such an attentive listener. For 45 minutes, I deliver a one-woman show to my one-person audience until I look outside the window beside him and realize we are in the air and according to the flight attendant have been for over 25 minutes.
This high-flying conversation has transported us somewhere in which the laws of time and space as we know them have collapsed, evidenced by the fact that we did not realize we have moved off the tarmac, down the runway and into the air.
Hugh looks outside the window to confirm we are sky-born, jumps out of his seat, his hands slapping the armrests hard. He looks at me with as much as intensity as he can muster, proclaiming out loud, “You are an angel.”
I laugh at his words. However, Hugh refuses to let me so casually brush off what we have just experienced. He leans over the middle empty seat, whispering in my ear, “I know you are an angel. I had another angel visit me in prison the night I was going to kill myself.”
A lump instantly grows in my throat and tears spring to my eyes.
For thirty minutes, he tells me the relevant details of his life and how he drifts into the dark world of drugs. He was a child when he immigrated from Vietnam, feeling disconnected from others because of a language barrier and his own low self-worth over not feeling smart or good enough—too short, too Asian, too stupid—in his words. He has experienced abuse in many forms about which he doesn’t delve into too much detail, but I can tell by his pain-filled eyes, he’s still hurting, still remembering.
In his early teens, he finds connection and community by joining a gang. His status in the gang is low-ranking, but he doesn’t care. When he is with his “brothers,” he no longer feels alone. When his family shares their drugs with him, he willingly accepts and enjoys being high. He feels braver and stronger he tells me. He begins to commit bolder and bigger crimes to find the money to buy the drugs he is now hooked on. When his “brothers” ask him to start delivering some small packages around town, he doesn’t blink an eye. Over the course of his high school years, he graduates into higher levels of trafficking until a police crackdown takes him down, eventually sending him to jail for a lengthy prison sentence.
In prison, he grows depressed. He spends much of his time caught in a painful loop of thoughts that relentlessly plays the tape of what a bad person he is and how he has shamed his family. A lifetime of unchecked, unexamined and undigested pain catches up to him and he begins to feel as if he is drowning in his unworthiness and his despair.
He has contemplated suicide often, believing that if he is no longer on the planet, he no longer has to feel the pain. He tortures himself with this one terminal possibility for his life.
One night in his cell, he has come to a dark, dark place where he has decided to kill himself. He tells me how he begins to sob in part with the relief of making the decision but still a part of him doubts this course of action. In a desperate plea, he cries out for help and asks God to please send an angel to help him.
Moments later, a flash of light appears outside his prison cell. Hugh looks up to see a figure whose light is so bright that Hugh has to cover his eyes. He cries out with outstretched arms, “Are
Hugh’s angel is the prison chaplain who has heard Hugh’s cries and has come to offer him comfort, mercy and hope. He addresses Hugh as “my son,” asking him why he is crying. They talk for some time, Hugh seeking answers for why his life has been so hard and how he can move through his pain and shame of a life that he can no longer endure.
Hugh notices the chaplain holding a small green book in his hand that he hands to Hugh to read. The book? Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.
I haven’t heard of the book, but a quick Google search later reveals that millions of others have, making it the best-selling non-fiction book in history for over a decade.
The nightlong conversation and the book that the angelic chaplain gift to Hugh are so impactful that Hugh’s plan to kill himself changes course. He will dedicate his life to finding meaning in his life and sharing with others what he learns.
At the end of the flight, Hugh takes my hand and kisses it. He thanks me for my time, says he will write a song about his experience with the angel lady on the plane and I will know the song is for me because it will have the name of our airline flight. He then incredulously hands me his book The Purpose Driven Life. I refuse it at first because this book has been his lifeline. I know his tears have soaked these pages. He has underlined it and written in his mother tongue. But he insists and I take it.
Writing about Hugh now, I choke up. I suspect that his life has been blessed not just by one angel but many. The police officer who arrests him. The judge who sentences him. The man who writes the book that affects Hugh so deeply that he learns to forgive himself and those who have hurt him while committing himself to a life filled with meaning and service. It’s been four years and I have no idea how he’s doing, how his reunion with his family has unfolded, if he’s still feeling inspired to be a living example of the God of his understanding.
Like Hugh’s story, over the years I have listened to children and adults tell me how they were tortured and abused on every level imaginable and do not know how to move through the memories. I understand their pain, even empathize on some personal level with what they are sharing and how they often think of ending their life—some have tried, some have succeeded. In those precious hours with them, I can cry and try to connect them with the professional help they need while offering them a modicum of comfort, maybe some insight and some tools to address the pain. However, they are the ones who go home and struggle with their thoughts, making choices moment by moment how and if their life story will move forward.
Angels abound, we are still in choice every moment of the day whether we live or we die, whether we give or whether we take, whether we hate or whether we forgive, whether we isolate or whether we reach out.
I am not sure of the exact steps to heal this tragedy of despair and potential loss of life. I do know we have to become a more deeply caring and compassionate people that give and give of ourselves to others, taking the time to reach out to those who are struggling and create the space to have the hard conversations. Maybe we stumble with our words and we are awkward with our gestures, but soul to soul we do what matters most—love.
It’s been one of my most heart-wrenching challenges in working with people. No neat and tidy “how to” lists could ever begin to address the nightmare ripple effect that abuse and suicide inflict, but I do have this one story in which a young man’s life was saved by some divine intervention and that gives me some comfort and some hope.
Please, I invite you to before you leave here to share any resources (like Hugh’s chaplain did) that you have for people who may be in a similar place and might need some direction and hope themselves. What stories do you have or books you know of that might inspire those who need to hear about those from you? Thank you.
So much love and hope,
Love Letter #16
April 24, 2017