Angel Sightings and Invisible Gorillas
I met a man who saw an angel. I’ve never seen an angel. But then I didn’t see the gorilla either.
“My name is Dean,” I said. He took my hand, a strong grip and didn’t let go. “And you are…?” The Family Promise coordinator had given me a name, but I didn’t remember it exactly, and it turned out to be incorrect anyway.
He was dark-skinned (a product of Portuguese and African-American roots I would later find out) and wore a fedora with the narrow brim, like Frank Sinatra back in the day. He had thick-rimmed black glasses and looked like he was strong, over six feet tall with broad shoulders, a strength that may have faded with late middle age. His grip still proved that he was no one to trifle with. His left eye bored into me, his right eye wandered.
“You could call me that,” he said. “My mama christened me Najee Abraham, so you could call me Najee or Abraham or…”
“What do you prefer?” I asked. I wanted to know what to call him; we were both planning on spending the night on the same church floor, him because it was the best choice for his wife and eight grandchildren, me because I was trying to be a nice guy. They could stay at the church if they had an overnight chaperone.
“You can call me either one, or you could call me captain, because I was a captain in the New York City Police Department, or you could call me pastor, because that’s mostly what I do now, or you could call me Marine, because I used to be one of those, or sniper for the same reason.”
I think when a man is newly homeless, humbled by his current circumstance, he likes to introduce the successes of his history early in the conversation. He still gripped my hand and held my gaze.
“I’m not calling you sniper,” I said.
He released my hand. “Not sniper,” he said and laughed, now my friend.
Najee (we settled on that) and I sat down to dinner, and he told me more of his story, his music career, where to find his recordings on YouTube, his poetry, where to find the book that was still in print, and how he and his grandchildren had become homeless.
The two daughters of his second wife had six children between them, but they also shared addictions and the consequent inability to adequately care for children. Five years ago Najee and his wife stepped in, vowing that their grandchildren would stay together as a family and not be sent to foster homes. About a year later, they adopted another infant grandson.
Then, in 2015, Najee suffered a series of injuries and illnesses which included a severe injury to the bones, muscles and tendons of his right arm, diagnosis and proper treatment unfortunately delayed, and a ruptured appendix, diagnosis and appropriate treatment also delayed, with consequent widespread infection (septicemia) and respiratory failure requiring two months of ICU care during which period he was mostly unconscious on a respirator. He was home for less than two weeks when he had a relapse and another several weeks in the hospital. He said that though the treatment was hard, the hospital was so compassionate, always making him feel like he was a precious person deserving the best of care.
When patients are that sick, their care that intense, the experience for both providers and patients tends to become necessarily mechanistic and dehumanizing. I asked which hospital, and he told me Grady Memorial in Atlanta, a place famous for its trauma center, care for the poor, and residency training programs, but not for its compassion. I was surprised and I told him so.
“He was a nurse,” Najee said, “His name was Bob. Every day he would come into my room and hold my hand and tell me it was going to be okay. He had the most amazing smile, and I believed him. Then one day, he didn’t come. I asked the other nurses where Bob was. They said they didn’t know any Bob. I said, ‘I’m pretty sure he’s the head nurse.’ They shook their heads and said their head nurse was a woman named Helen. I didn’t know what to think. Next day Bob was back, same amazing smile. I said, ‘Where you been?’ He said, ‘What? I don’t get a day off now and then?’ It took me a while to realize he was an angel.”
The day before I met Najee I had been reading Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. Jordan reminded me of the research done in perception psychology that had produced what is now a fairly widely seen short film of two teams of three passing a basketball back and forth. One team is dressed in dark clothes and the other in light. The audience, in my case a room of about two hundred physicians taking the mandatory course in risk management and error prevention, is asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed. We’re a high performance group, we paid attention, we counted well. Most of us got the answer right. Fifteen passes per team for total of thirty. Only one doctor at my table of nine thought that there had been someone else in the film, but couldn’t describe him. Since he was only a podiatrist, we ignored him.
Then the leader asked how many saw the gorilla. No one raised their hand. He replayed the film. A six-foot tall man in a gorilla suit came onto the screen within the first minute, stood in the middle of the basketball players, scratched himself and beat his chest. It wasn’t subtle. But no one saw him. We saw only what we expected to see. We took this as a cautionary note about broadening what we expect to see in the office, the hospital, and in surgery.
Peterson took the implications further. He broadened that experiment to include others that demonstrate we register in our consciousness only about ten percent of what is presented to our visual fields. We see only those things we are searching for, only the things we believe are there. Only when a new visual cue interrupts our search do we notice (the gorilla never stepped in front of the basketball players). We ignore all else.
I’m pretty sure that had I visited Najee in the hospital ICU, I would have checked his pulse and blood pressure and oxygenation levels and maybe some reflexes, and, like his doctors and nurses, I would have seen no angels. I would have been counting basketball passes again, oblivious to the miracles happening around me.
Najee is not the first person I have heard describe an angel sighting. Those who have shared their experiences with me have usually had some things in common with Najee: they are going through a time of great stress and fear, they are helpless to change their circumstances by their own efforts, and the angel always gives them the same message. Don’t be afraid. I have good news. Be at peace.
Shortly after Najee returned home after his long illnesses, a daughter showed up at the house with a new grandson, now fourteen months old. But something was wrong. He couldn’t walk, he looked thin, ribs showed beneath his skin and his belly stuck out. Then his mother, without announcement, went to the bus stop and left him with Najee and his wife.
But now Najee couldn’t work. They took in the little boy, and he thrived with food and love. He shared dinner with us that night in the church, too, remarkably bright and well-behaved for a three-year-old. His big brothers and sisters take care of him and each other. They are gentle with each other, respectful to their grandparents, and polite to strangers.
A few months ago they moved to Jacksonville with the promise of help from friends or family, but the help fell through. They lived, all ten, in a van, washing at public parks and buildings, driving to eight different school drop-off and pick-up points each day, sleeping elbow-to-elbow in the van each night. Then they took their last cash reserves and rented a room for eight nights.
But Najee was not afraid. He expected good news. He was at peace.
On the seventh day they got a call from an angel, this one working for Family Promise of Jacksonville, and they started living in churches. As of yesterday, they have found affordable housing.
I don’t know if I’ll see any angels this side of heaven, but I’m going to keep my eyes open and believe they are there when we need them. In the meantime, I want to look for opportunities to be an angel. I know just what to say: Don’t be afraid. I have good news. Be at peace.