Dad's Angelic Visitors

An angelic couple move in nearby and bring comfort to a man battling cancer.

- Posted on Apr 19, 2011

John Duckworth at the piano, ca. 1960

Could it really be over 20 years since my brother, Patrick, got married? Looking at the wedding album in his living room, it seemed like yesterday. “I always loved that blue dress you wore,” Patrick’s wife, Melissa, said, pointing to a picture of me in a tea-length gown with puffy sleeves.

“There’s Mom and me dancing,” said Patrick, turning the page.

“I almost expect to see Dad,” I said. “Even though he couldn’t be there.”

“You know who else it makes me think about?” Patrick said. “Winnie and Fred. Do you remember them?”

“I’ll never forget them,” I said.

We hadn’t talked about the couple in years, but hearing their names brought me back to that spring of 1983. My father had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He lived at home with Mom, who was a registered nurse.

She cared for him with the help of hospice nurses. That way Dad could still enjoy some things he loved. From a hospital bed set up in the living room, Dad could talk to Mom, read or play solitaire.

Some days he felt strong enough to play his organ. Dad was a professional musician and never liked to be far away from his Hammond B3.

I visited Dad in June. We chatted about Patrick’s upcoming wedding, which Dad insisted go on as planned. Before I left he wrote me a check for a new dress. “Look your best, kid,” he said as he handed it to me.

His voice, once so rich and familiar, was already so weak he barely made any sound at all.

Dad wanted us to focus on Patrick and Melissa, but all I could think about was him. I’d lost so much of him already: the brightness in his eyes, the sound of his voice. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard that belly laugh of his. What I wouldn’t have given to hear it again.

I chose a tea-length silk blue gown and took it to Dad’s house to model it for him. He gave me a thumbs-up from his hospital bed. I’d just finished changing when the doorbell rang. A couple I’d never seen before stood on the stoop.

“I’m Winnie,” the woman said. Her smile was so natural and friendly it was clear she smiled a lot. “This is my husband, Fred. We just moved into the neighborhood.”

I shook hands with them both. “We had to meet whoever made all the beautiful music,” said Fred.

I introduced them to Mom and Dad. Winnie complimented Dad on his playing. Within moments I saw Winnie’s smile reflected on Dad’s face.

Winnie and Fred were still there when I left, chatting with Dad about music. They seemed to have no trouble hearing his voice despite how weak it was. In fact, his voice sounded a little stronger since they’d come. “I’ll see you soon,” I said, kissing Dad good-bye.

 “Winnie likes cards as much as your dad,” Mom told me a few days later. “The two of them played for hours yesterday. Much longer than the other nurses or I can take. Dad absolutely loved it.”

Patrick, Melissa and I got used to seeing Winnie at the house. Sometimes she was with Fred, sometimes she came by herself. “Your dad’s telling me about his amazing career,” Winnie said one afternoon as I came in. Dad was at the organ taking her song requests. “I’m a nurse, myself.”

 Dad shrugged modestly, but his blue eyes sparkled, the way they used to before he got sick. “Winnie sure has a great effect on Dad,” I told Mom as we made coffee in the kitchen. “I didn’t know she was a nurse.”

“Even if she wasn’t a nurse she’d still be a big help,” said Mom. “Have you noticed the difference in Dad when he’s with her?”

 “It’s like he lights up whenever she’s with him,” I said.

Out in the living room, Dad laughed. The great big belly laugh I hadn’t heard in ages.

“Winnie’s the only one who gets him to laugh like that,” Mom said. “The other day she arrived at the door wearing a red clown nose she’d made out of a ping-pong ball. We thought we’d never stop laughing!”

That evening I walked Winnie back  to the complex of town homes where she and Fred lived. “I can’t get over hearing Dad laugh again,” I said. “I missed it so much.”

“Laughter is the most important medicine,” said Winnie. “I told your brother—find something to laugh about every single day.”

“That can be pretty hard to do sometimes,” I said quietly.

Winnie squeezed my shoulder. “I know it can be, with your father so sick. But humor keeps the soul alive and well, even in the darkest times. So I always try to find something to laugh about. Even if it’s myself!”

Winnie grinned at me and I burst out laughing. “All right, I guess I could try that,” I promised her.

She gave me a hug at the door of her town home. “I’d invite you in, but our furniture hasn’t arrived yet.”

“You don’t have any furniture?” I said. “That must be difficult.”

“Our things are on their way,” Winnie said, cheerful as always. “There’s no rush.”

I said good night, marveling at the joy Winnie seemed to find in everything. And the way she made our family feel that joy too, even at a time like this. Now when I talked about Patrick and Melissa’s wedding I was able to look forward to it.

“Maybe Dad will be able to make it to the wedding after all,” I said to Patrick one afternoon.  

 But it wasn’t to be. Dad died at home, surrounded by family and friends. We gathered at the house after the funeral. The space where Dad’s hospital bed had once sat was empty.

“Winnie and Fred arranged for it to be taken out,” Melissa said. “Wasn’t that nice?”

“They’re a miracle,” said Patrick. “How many nights did Winnie sit up with Dad so Mom could sleep?”

Across the room Winnie chatted with Mom. For the first time that day, she was almost smiling. Leave it to Winnie to give Mom something to laugh about today, I thought.

Patrick’s wedding went on as planned, just as Dad wanted. I wore my blue dress. I even found things to smile about, like remembering Dad saying, “Look your best, kid.”

I wasn’t ready to actually laugh much yet, but keeping on the lookout for happy things reminded me there was still joy in the world, even without Dad. Winnie had taught me that.

A few days after the wedding I drove over to see Mom. I brought flowers for Winnie. “Even if she’s got no furniture she can still have flowers,” I told Mom.

I had no doubt Winnie would appreciate the bright colors. I walked over to the town house and knocked on the door. “Winnie?” I called. “It’s Di. Are you in?”

There was no answer. They must be out, I thought. Then I noticed a sign on the sidewalk outside the house: Condo for Lease. I hadn’t noticed that sign when I’d walked Winnie home. Was there some sort of mistake? Were Winnie and Fred moving away already?

I walked over to the manager’s office. “That condo says it’s for lease,” I said, pointing to Winnie and Fred’s place. “Did the couple there move already? Winnie and Fred?”

“I don’t know anyone by that name,” he said. “That unit’s been empty for two months at least. Nobody’s even asked about leasing it, much less moved in!”

Twenty years later, looking at the old photo album, Patrick, Melissa and I went silent, each pondering the mystery of Winnie and Fred. We never saw or heard from them again.

“We don’t even have pictures,” I said. “It’s as if they never existed. But everything would have been so different without them.”

“They were angels,” Patrick said. “They came to help Dad, and they helped all the rest of us too.”

Was Patrick right? I guess I don’t know for sure. But when I think of angels now, I picture them wearing red clown noses. That certainly gives me something to laugh about.

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