Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Unsuspected Angel

Every now and then, an angel visits our home over the Christmas holidays. His name is Tom. Our boys always ask for a visit from Uncle Tom (my husband’s older brother) for Christmas and when he comes, all the way from Vancouver, he is their favorite gift of all. Standing six-foot-four, wearing rock-band tee-shirts and worn jeans, this mid-life rocker hardly fits the image of an angel. This is a guy who drives a Harley, has a few tattoos and a gruff voice that could make you shudder. He’s the quiet brooding type with a powerful presence; Marlon Brando comes to mind.

Tom is a rebel of sorts, singing to his own tune and steering down his own path. He has worked many jobs over his life, from chef at a remote mining camp, to cab driver, to car salesman, to entrepreneur, to ski lift operator. He works when he needs to and quits when he’s had enough—a shrewd man who knows when to save money and when to spend. For leisure he plays poker with his buddies and goes on motorcycle rallies across the continent. One time, when he was between jobs and taking a road trip on his bike, the customs official at a US border crossing took one look at him and refused him entry.

So what makes Uncle Tom an angel? The signs have been there over the years, but every time I encounter him, they become more and more apparent.

I got my first glimpse when both his parents were suffering from various life-threatening ailments. His father had had several strokes and had become confined to a wheelchair, while his mother had a serious heart condition and was legally blind due to diabetes. Having lived in their home for over thirty years, the thought of moving was inconceivable. But their health’s continuing decline made it necessary to consider an assisted-care residence—a devastating prospect.

Watching his parents struggle for too long, Tom quit his job to become their full-time caregiver. He took them to doctors’ appointments, did their grocery shopping, helped manage their medication, looked after the house, and kept them connected to the outside world. My husband felt helpless as he heard about the trials from afar. Tom never complained, never relented, and never faltered in his mission. For well over a year, he devoted his days to his parents’ comfort and well-being. When they finally succumbed to their illnesses and passed away (within nine months of each other) Tom was devastated.

But there is more to tell about this ‘biker angel.’ When he is in our midst, his goodness presents itself in unexpected places. During one of Tom’s visits we took him skiing for the day, and when we stopped for lunch he noticed a little tot struggling up a long set of snow-covered stairs to get to the chalet entrance. Tom took his small hand and helped him up the rest of the way. I smile when I recall the image of that giant glove reaching out to the tiny mittened hand.

Next came the towing incident. My husband, our two boys, and Tom went shopping downtown for the afternoon to check out some specialty shops. When they came across the latest video game, ROCKBAND, which was difficult to find at the time, the boys tried to figure out if they had enough money saved between them to buy it. To their utter delight, Uncle Tom bought it for them. With the massive box in hand, they all trudged back to the car through blowing snow. But when they got to the spot on the street where my husband had parked, there was no car. The maximum limit had passed and because it was rush hour, the car had been towed.

If you’ve ever been towed, I don’t need to explain the searing anxiety that burns your chest when you realize that your car has vanished. Finding a cab and locating the car pound with two young boys, not to mention carrying a huge, heavy, awkward box to boot, was not my husband’s idea of a fun! Frustrated with himself for losing track of time, for throwing money out the window, and for putting his brother through such aggravation on his first day in town, he tried to keep his cool.

The car pound was not a friendly place. Angry voices dominated the scene as people retrieving their cars yelled at the attendants. When my husband approached the counter, Tom followed. Sensing the tension and eying the clerk’s dour expression, he said something to make her laugh. He ignored my husband's protests and handed over his own credit card; sympathizing  with the woman for her tough line of work, he paid the fine and wished her a Happy New Year. According to my husband, her rigid face quickly transformed into a soft, warm smile.

My favourite side of Tom is revealed through his interaction with his nephews. He can talk to them man-to-man and play with them boy-to-boy; he makes them feel important, treats them with respect, and makes them laugh. One time, our then ten-year-old son asked Tom if he believed in heaven; for a man who’d lost his faith long ago, that should have been an easy question to answer. But he couldn’t bring himself to say no, so he subtly changed the subject. Such an irony to behold—an unbeliever who doesn’t see his own wings!

Whether or not angels come from heaven, I don’t know, but what I do know is that Uncle Tom, with his tough, burly outward appearance, has the inward qualities of an angel. I wish everyone had an Uncle Tom in his/her life; or better yet, I wish we all had a little more ‘Uncle Tom’ in us.


  1. What a beautiful personal 'portrait'. So great to read about the angels amongst us particularly at this time of year. Merry Christmas to you and yours from me and my folks here in France.

  2. Thanks, Christine! Cheers to all of you in France and the very best for 2010! I hope you have a wonderful, relaxing holiday and lots of delicious meals.

    Joyeux Noel et Bon Appetit!

  3. He really does sound like an angel. I love it when we see kindnesses from unexpected people and in unexpected places. I'm sure he made that clerk's day. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Hi Carla; I couldn't agree with you more. We are fortunate enough to be blessed with Tom's presence on a regular basis being in the same jurisdiction as him. He has always been there for us, never let us down and been nothing but supportive for our whole family. Thanks for writing this article and articulating how we all feel about him. I hope you and your family are keeping well this holiday season!

  5. Couldn't have said it better myself! Our boys are so lucky to have him in their lives. Hope you had a wonderful Christmas and all the best for 2010!

  6. Thanks for writing down how My family feels about Tom. He is an angel to many.With far too many things to mention. I remember him sitting with me at the hospital when my husband had to work.Well, we know what Tom thinks of hospitals.Or what a special relationship he has with my son Brian.We are so fortunate to have him in our lives...Shirley

  7. Hi Carla,
    I wanted to comment on you Globe & Mail article regarding the world of duplicate bridge. Bridge is a wonderful challenging game and not necessarily dominated by the octogenarians. Indeed it always gives a fascinating incite into human behaviour. Your experience, with the intimidating "DIRECTOR!!!!!" - call, is what normally results in the novice player leaving promptly and never returning to the duplicate table. The description was perfect, and indeed, your opponents were truly happy to pounce on the tiny infraction. Keep playing, and soon those master points earned will mean almost as much as your golf handicap. And besides, in bridge, you can always call your partner, your handicap!
    Best of luck at the tables,
    Jan Fox-Howlett