Laying in that hospital, she knew she had to change her life. Her grandfather told her so.
Something brushed my hand and I stirred awake. There was my beloved Grandpa Kegg beside me. He was holding my hand.
"Honey, wake up," he said. I glanced around. I was in a hospital bed. What was happening? I felt panic until I looked at my grandfather's face. He always made me feel better, no matter what.
Family meant everything to me. I learned that growing up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I had love and support from my parents, my three brothers, and especially my grandfather. I believed Grandpa Kegg knew everything, and he didn't mind a bit that I thought so.
He lived right next door, so we kids were often at his house. Grandpa took a morning walk and sometimes we'd trail along. He had a favorite hat–a red plaid hunting cap–and he wore it year in, year out.
"Guess what's in my pocket?" he'd ask. He might have had gum or a shiny nickel or a stone he'd rubbed till it shone. If one of us was worried about homework or trouble with a friend, he'd make silly noises to get us laughing.
"Quack, quack!" he said once when I was feeling low. My mood brightened instantly. Whatever was wrong, Grandpa had that effect on me.
Still, I had trouble with my moods. My teenage years weren't easy. I was changing from a girl into a woman, and I didn't understand what I was feeling. Happy one minute, sad the next. Excited to be growing up and afraid of it at the same time.
I was confused and somehow uncomfortable in my own skin. What was happening to me? Was I normal? In some ways my family all felt like strangers to me. I could talk with Grandpa Kegg about almost anything. But these feelings were something I couldn't express–to anyone.
I kept everything bottled up. Kids at school made fun of me because I was withdrawn. I felt different, and I thought it was all my fault. I didn't know the word for it back then, but I was depressed most of the time.
"Something wrong with my little girl?" Grandpa Kegg asked one day. "No, I'm okay," I said, and turned away. Grandpa put his hands on my shoulders and pivoted me back around.
He could see that I was too old for silly duck quacks to cheer me up, and that my troubles these days were more serious than a tiff with a friend. "Oh, honey," he said, and hugged me tight. God and his angels could see me from heaven, but more than anyone on earth my grandpa understood me. I felt close to heaven in his arms.
As soon as I graduated from high school I decided to strike out on my own. "I think I'll go live in Florida," I said to my parents. "Just for a while." They thought maybe a change of scenery would do me some good. I flew to Tampa, found a job and a room to rent. I liked the Gulf Coast and the warm, tropical air. One morning I walked along the bay, thinking of Grandpa in his red plaid cap. Life seemed very different here in Florida.
Maybe I can be different here too, I thought. More like the little girl who used to laugh at Grandpa's silly duck quacks.
But I hadn't left my depression back home. Being on my own only made it worse. I looked for friends to fill my time between working. "Let's party!" a girl said to me in a bar one night. Turned out she was as troubled as I was, but she knew how to escape–alcohol and drugs.
"Come on," she said. "Try it." I did. What would Grandpa Kegg think of his little girl now? I wondered. Before I knew it, I was "partying" every night. Instead of an escape from depression, my new lifestyle became another kind of trap.
By this time I'd become an expert at covering things up. I learned to hide my drinking just as I'd hidden my depression. No one knew the real me. I found a new job whenever I lost one, and got through my 20s. But I couldn't hide from myself. I missed Grandpa. I missed my family. Finally I went back to Johnstown. But all the old insecurities waited for me there. Moving to Florida hadn't cured my depression, and it looked like moving back home wasn't going to cure my drug and alcohol addiction.
Grandpa could see I was in more trouble than ever. I was grown up now, but the little girl in me still struggled for help. One night I drank myself to the lowest point I'd ever known. I didn't want to go on with my life. I stumbled into the bathroom and opened the medicine chest. A full bottle of pills stared back at me. I filled a glass of water and swallowed every last one.
I lay down on my bed. "Please, God, I can't fight anymore. Let me go to sleep and never wake up." I hoped the people I loved would forgive me. Now, with Grandpa Kegg there beside me I wondered how I'd wound up in this hospital bed. Grandpa was wearing his red plaid cap. He's out for his morning walk, I thought. But why am I here?
Grandpa looked very sad, and kept patting my hand. "Honey, you have to wake up," he said. "Your life isn't over yet." Then I remembered what had happened. I was so embarrassed. Did Grandpa know what I'd done?
I wanted to tell him everything. I knew he'd understand. I knew he'd still love me. And that–more than anything else–made me want to change my life. Looking into Grandpa's loving face, I knew I could do it. I had so much to say to him, but I was so tired...
I must have drifted off to sleep. Mom was holding my hand when I woke up again. My whole family was there, everyone except my grandfather. "Where's Grandpa?" I mumbled.
"You've been asleep for three days," Mom said softly. "Your grandpa's been so afraid you'd never wake up, he hasn't left the house once."
I didn't argue. I knew in my heart that Grandpa had come to comfort me. As soon as I was discharged from the hospital I went to see him. He hugged me so tight he took my breath away. It was heaven to be in his arms again.
"Your visit to the hospital changed me," I said. "I'll be the Kristine you've always known and loved. You'll see."
Grandpa looked at me with tears in his eyes. "But, Kristine, I didn't go to the hospital," he said. "I just couldn't."
"You must have gone during your daily walk. You wore your favorite cap."
"You know I couldn't have walked all the way to the hospital," Grandpa said. He was quiet, trying to make sense of what might have happened.
"I know it was you, Grandpa. You told me to wake up and I did."
Grandpa's eyes twinkled, as if he'd found an answer to our riddle. "Heaven wasn't ready for you," he said. "I suppose God sent an angel to tell you so."
Chills ran over me. My grandpa did know everything. And he knew that the heavenly angel who appeared to me in the hospital was meant to remind me of the earthly angel I'd loved and trusted all my life. And the angel was right. My life wasn't over. In fact, every day feels like a brand-new beginning.
This story first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Angels on Earth magazine.