The popular actress puts her faith and her lasting love for her Dad into action.
Posted in , Feb 17, 2012
When you play an angel on television you’re often mistaken for one. I should know. For nine years and some 212 episodes, I was Monica on Touched by an Angel. Again and again people would stop me on the street and say, “You’re that angel!”
“No,” I wanted to correct them, “I’m an actress who plays an angel.” I loved the role of Monica, but I didn’t want anyone to be confused about who I really was, an Irish girl from Derry.
A girl who dreamed of being an artist. But what kind of artist? I loved to paint and draw and there was inspiration all around in the ever-changing sky and sea of Northern Ireland, turbulent gray, deep blue, turquoise, celadon...I wanted to capture all the drama with my brush.
I was the youngest of six. My mother died when I was only 10 and our father raised us. He was a schoolmaster, a reader and lover of poetry. Small and white-haired, he looked older than he was.
One day he came to pick me up at school and a classmate asked if that old man was my grandfather. “I don’t know who he is,” I said, embarrassed. Later I found my father and confessed what I’d said. I burst into tears, I was so deeply ashamed.
“Did you say that because of my white hair?” Dad asked. I nodded sheepishly. “Don’t worry darlin’.” Then he hugged me. “It’s only hair. At least I’ve got some left!”
Dad led us in prayers every night around the dinner table. He always stressed that it was how we showed our faith that mattered. “Kindness is everything,” he said.
We were expected to reach out to others, whether it was reading to someone with failing eyesight, helping an elderly friend with errands or bringing soup to an ailing neighbor.
We didn’t own a car and certainly didn’t have luxuries like a dryer. Yet we were rich—and certainly richly blessed—as long as we could give.
Those were the times of “the troubles” in the North. Gun battles and bomb scares were all too common. Sirens wailed. Soldiers patrolled the streets.
Several times we had to evacuate my school. Once we had to duck behind cars to avoid flying bullets. (It was years before I could hear a loud noise like a slamming door without diving for cover.) Dad made our home a refuge, a place of peace and protection.
He knew I aspired to be an artist. “If this is your dream, Roma, then you should go to the very best college of art.” The very best would take me far away. Sure enough I was accepted to an excellent school in England.
I dreaded leaving home. I wouldn’t see my father for months at a time. I didn’t know if I could accept that. Dad was all I had.
One night I came to him teary-eyed. “Dad, I’m going to miss you so much,” I sobbed.
He took my hand and led me outside to our garden. A full moon bathed the grass and bushes in silver.
“Look to the moon,” he said. “Wherever you go, this same moon will be shining on you and on me. I will leave a message for you there. When you miss me, just look at the moon and you will see how much I love you.”
Sure enough I was dreadfully homesick in England. One night I was carrying groceries back to my boarding house and a passing car backfired. I immediately hit the ground, apples and cans rolling out of my bag.
People stared at me as though I had lost my mind. You’re far from the troubles, I told myself, but my spirit was unsettled. I longed for the sea and the sky of Ireland and the reassuring sound of Dad’s prayers.
I wasn’t even sure anymore that art school was the right choice. Lately I’d been thinking of other ways to express myself.
Then I looked up. The moon had slipped out from behind a cloud, its brightness three dimensional. My father’s message was etched in the heavens: “I love you, Roma. I love you.” I could always find comfort there.
One day I read a line by Van Gogh that spoke to me. “I no longer wanted to be the painter,” he’d said. “I wanted to be the paint.” A light came on inside me. Acting seemed closer to being the paint for me.
With my father’s blessing I transferred to acting school. I hoped to use my skills to tell moving stories, appearing in roles that would make my father proud. The training was thrilling, but did I have the will or stamina for the challenges of an acting career?
I’ll talk to Dad about this, I thought. Soon we’d have a break and I’d see him.
The night before I left I called him from the pay phone in the hallway of my boarding house. “I’ll be home tomorrow,” I said.
“I’m getting your room ready, darlin’,” he said. “I’ve put out your favorite sheets. The yellow flannel.” Everything holds the dampness in Northern Ireland and I knew he’d hung them on the kitchen clothesline to air.
Early the next morning the ringing of the pay phone woke me up. I put on my robe and dashed to it. It was my brother and he had terrible news. My father had a massive heart attack during the night. He was dead.
It seemed so cruel and impossible. Lord, how could this happen? I demanded. I flew home in a daze. I trudged up our front steps. One of my sisters greeted me at the door. My father was laid out in the sitting room, as was our Irish custom, but I wasn’t ready to go in there.
“Come into the kitchen for a cup of tea,” my sister said. I followed her to the back of the house. There, next to the stove, were my yellow flannel sheets, hung out to air, just as Dad had left them.
“We should take these down,” my sister said.
“No, please don’t.” I held the flannel to my cheek. So soft and warm, my father’s last message of love. “Lord, help me accept this,” I whispered.
My father would not have wanted me to give up on my dreams, and certainly not because of him. I returned to London, finished my studies and then threw myself into acting.
My work took me from England to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to New York’s Broadway and eventually Los Angeles. Far-flung places where I could still look to the moon and feel my father’s love with me, and hear him say that we must always be kind.
One day in Hollywood I was asked to audition for an unusual TV pilot about two angels. I liked the script and assumed I needed to do the part in an American accent.
“Wait,” someone said at the audition, “aren’t you from overseas?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m Irish.” I was worried my accent was too exotic.
“Do it Irish,” they said.
And so I did. It worked. I was cast as the angel Monica.
My father would have loved Touched by an Angel. All those acts of kindness, all those answered prayers. The people on the show were wonderful, especially my costar and fellow angel Della Reese, whose wisdom I came to rely on.
We were flooded with letters from viewers and I got invitations to visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools. I got to put my faith in action, just as Dad had taught. More and more it felt like he was still with me.
Still, I was shocked when people wanted to believe I really was an angel.
One day I visited the children’s ward at a hospital. A woman came out of her daughter’s room, obviously grief-stricken. She looked at me in tearful amazement. “Monica!” she said. “I prayed for an angel and you’re here.” She threw her arms around me. “At last you’re here.”
“Yes,” I murmured, not sure how to handle this. I prayed with her, of course, and tried to comfort her as best I could.
But I was unsettled by it all. I called Della and told her the story. “Don’t be upset, baby,” she said. “You were there for her.”
“I feel bad. This woman asked God for an angel and she thought he sent me.”
Della paused and then said, “And who says he didn’t?”
Indeed. God could do anything. God could send me places and give me roles I never expected. I had to step aside and let his grace flow through me.
I’m not an angel. I’m just a human being. But if the moon can hold a message of love for a homesick daughter, then anybody can be an angel delivering comfort in a time of need. Kindness is everything, just as my father had said all along.
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