Chapter One

Agnes’ Gift

Through the sea was your path; your way, through the mighty waters, though your footsteps were unseen (Psalm 77:20).

Warm inside her living room and safe from the bitter cold that comes with a December night in Boston, Jenna was lying under the artificial tree that had been part of Christmas in her family for as long as she could remember. She found comfort in the familiar colored lights and the various handmade and store-bought ornaments that faithfully found their way onto the tree each year. With all the changes taking place in her life, the tree’s glow not only brought warmth to the room, but it also seemed to permeate her heart, bringing a sense of well-being that was a welcomed relief from the unrest that had become a familiar companion.

Every year, Jenna looked forward to unpacking those ornaments and allowing the memory each one carried to comfort her with a sense of tradition and stability. Each was like a thread that weaved together the good times of her past, bringing them into the present like a warm blanket covering and protecting her.

Jenna was halfway through her junior year in high school. This year in particular she welcomed that connection to past years, which reminded her who she was and where she had been. It brought with it the feeling that she could face the uncertain times ahead and maybe even find her way in a world that felt increasingly unpredictable and out of control.

As Jenna scanned the Christmas tree, her gaze settled on a seashell hanging in the center, a souvenir from Cape Cod where her family rented a beach house each summer. She thought back to those endless summer afternoons the year she and her older brother, Justin, had learned to windsurf. They spent more time crashing into the water than standing on the sailboard. Just below the seashell was an ornament cut out of felt that she made in first grade, hanging next to the one Justin made. Jenna’s was a lopsided red bow, while Justin’s was a perfectly proportioned snowman. Seeing the two side by side made it obvious that Justin was the artist in the family. On the other side of the tree was the wooden angel that her grandpa carved for her when she was little. He had glued a photo of her four-year-old face on the face of the angel.

When she spotted the glass slipper from Disney World, Jenna could not hold back her smile. She and Justin had accumulated so many ornaments over the years that their parents limited them to one per vacation, so they fought over which one to buy. That time, Justin gave in. Next to the glass slipper was the chapel at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, where her parents went to school and were married twenty-two years ago.

But her favorite, by far, was a glass ornament with a painting of the Swan Boats and the Boston Public Gardens, because it reminded her of one of her favorite days of the year — when her family would play tourist in Boston. The Swan Boats were powered by a person peddling at the back of the boat, and every year Justin boasted that he would one day have that job. With the way things were going with him, it seemed that dream would remain a childhood fantasy.

After looking at each ornament and giving sufficient thought to the memory that accompanied it, Jenna’s eyes found their way back to a small gift under the tree, wrapped in different paper from the rest. It was Christmas Eve, late in the evening, and normally Jenna would be eager to open her gifts, hounding her mother until she let her open at least one before bed. But that small gift under the tree made this year different than in past years.

Two short weeks before, Jenna lost a very special person in her life. Agnes was an elderly neighbor whom Jenna had befriended. She was a simple, warm-hearted old woman with more life inside her than could be contained in one soul and a gaze that pierced through to the heart of whatever matter was at hand. She was always tuned in to the needs of others, without letting on how much she suffered in her own body.

Just before Agnes died, as if she had known that she would spend this Christmas in Heaven, she came knocking on Jenna’s door with a gift. “There’s no need to give this to me now,” Jenna protested. “I’ll come by on Christmas Day, and we can exchange gifts then.” But Agnes insisted, so Jenna gave in and accepted the early present.

When Agnes passed away, Jenna’s mother asked her if she would like to open that gift early, but something deep within Jenna’s heart told her it was not yet time. It was a mysterious knowledge, not unusual in her relationship with Agnes. Jenna somehow knew she was not yet ready to receive the gift, so there it sat under the tree until Christmas Day.

Jenna picked up Agnes’ gift and slowly ran her fingers along the red ribbon that decorated the tiny box. Her thoughts drifted back to the first time she met Agnes.

***

It was sixteen months before, and Jenna and her mother had just moved into their new home, right after her parents divorced. She had just returned from her first visit with her father in his new apartment and was settling in to unpack the endless pile of boxes in her bedroom. Although the room was filled with her furniture, it still felt as though she was in someone else’s house.

Her stomach turned at the thought of starting a new school the following week. As she halfheartedly uncovered the boxed items wrapped in old newspaper, she came across a framed photo of herself with her brother taken fourteen years before. Justin was five and Jenna was two. They sat huddled together, too little to fill the oversized gold armchair that sat in the corner of her old living room. That chair — like Justin — hadn’t made it to the new house.

After he got involved with a new group of friends in their old neighborhood, things quickly went downhill. The constant fighting between Justin and their parents made home feel like a war zone. Justin’s behavior eventually became more than their parents’ already strained marriage could bear. When they announced they were getting divorced, and that Jenna, Justin, and their mother would have to move, because they would no longer be able to afford their large home, Justin vanished. It was shortly after his eighteenth birthday.

The doorbell rang, and Jenna jumped up, happy for an opportunity to put off her unpacking. She arrived in the living room to find an elderly woman with a warm smile handing her mother a large serving dish piled high with stuffed shells, meatballs and sausages. The aroma of the steaming hot food filled the room and awakened her appetite.

“Good evening. I’m Agnes from next door,” the woman said, gesturing toward the small, yellow cape that sat next to Jenna’s grey-blue ranch. “I thought you might be too busy unpacking to cook dinner.” With Agnes’ presence, the air in the room seemed to grow lighter.

Her mother gratefully accepted the plate. “Thank you. I hadn’t realized it was almost dinner time. We were just about to take a break. Can you stay for some tea?”

Agnes glanced at the boxes that lined the living room. “I’d better get home,” she said with a wink. “I still have laundry to get done before it gets too late.”

Jenna was disappointed when she left so soon, but Agnes made her promise to stop by for a visit once she got settled in. “I’ve lived here for more than fifty years, so I can tell you anything you’d like to know about the neighborhood.”

***

Tears stung Jenna’s eyes as she carefully placed the gift back under the tree. She had grown to love Agnes so much in such a short time. One visit had quickly turned into another, until Jenna was spending a good chunk of her free time with Agnes, who happily put aside whatever she was doing when Jenna would visit. She found herself wandering over when things were difficult or when she was down but didn’t quite know why. A short visit with Agnes could change her perspective and lift her mood. When she felt herself slipping away, somehow Agnes pulled her back.

If, on the surface, Agnes’ age made her seem a bit out of touch at times, Jenna didn’t have to probe too deeply to discover that there was a quality about her that made her ageless. She was connected with something far beyond herself. Her eyes seemed to contain the fountain of youth, even if her face and hands revealed the number of years already spent on Earth. At times, during their conversations, Jenna would see things in an altogether different light and would get the distinct sense that she was the one who was out of touch and not Agnes. She didn’t know how she was going to get by without Agnes in her life.

It was nearly midnight, but Jenna was still wide awake, because she was on school vacation and had slept late the past few mornings. She had just returned from spending Christmas Eve with her father and his side of the family, and she’d come home with bags full of opened presents. She hadn’t eaten much of the elaborate Italian feast that was a Christmas Eve tradition in her family. Her depression over losing Agnes surely contributed to her loss of appetite, but she also sensed there was more to it. Even deeper in her heart than her grief was a feeling of restlessness, a sense that a significant change was beginning to take place inside her, but she was unable to perceive what it could be.

In the time leading up to Christmas, Jenna had been bored. Christmas had always been her favorite time of year — the anticipation of gifts, her family coming together, vacation from school — but this year seemed different. Jenna was becoming aware of a longing for something more meaningful in her life, and she sensed that this had something to do with her friendship with Agnes. It felt as if something in Agnes had rubbed off and begun to work inside her. It was like a spark jumped from Agnes’ heart into hers and was moving around within her.

As Jenna sat beneath the Christmas tree, her gaze kept returning to that unopened present from Agnes. As long as it remained unopened, it was somehow as if Agnes were still alive, as if there would be one last conversation, one last precious word from her. Knowing that Christmas Day was almost there, Jenna began to dread opening that gift, and for the first time in her life, she dreaded the arrival of Christmas Day.

Just after this anxious feeling came upon her, peace gently washed over her coming to her like a surprise visit from an old friend. It brought with it a sense of well-being that reminded her of the peace she once knew as a young child, surrounded by a loving family and before turmoil had entered her world. At first, she thought she could feel Agnes present, sitting right next to her. This feeling put her at ease, then faded as she became aware of an even deeper peace.

While Jenna sat resting in this sensation, she saw a bright light next to the Christmas tree, out of which stepped the most exquisite creature she ever saw. He was tall and slender with long wings that ran from well above his head to the base of his back. His white garment had gold trim around the collar and base of the sleeves, and he wore a golden rope tied around his waist. His entire being radiated gentleness, and a soft hue, barely perceptible, surrounded him, giving him a consoling quality.

Although there was a softness about him, his eyes burned with a love that seemed to purify all he looked upon. As she gazed upon the angel, she felt as though she was standing before the most beautiful sunrise. The experience absorbed her whole being.

The burning question in Jenna’s heart jumped out from her lips, so that the sound of her own voice took her by surprise. “How are you so beautiful?”

The angel smiled in a way that drew Jenna out of herself, and she could feel her grief melting from her heart. “God made me this beautiful for you.”

With those words, she felt love envelop her entire being so profoundly that she did not know if it rose up from within or embraced her from outside, but a feeling deep in her heart told her that she was looking upon her guardian angel.

The angel moved closer with an outstretched hand, carrying a white rosary and offering it to Jenna. It was brighter than any white she had ever seen. He looked expectantly toward Jenna, who sensed he would not proceed until she accepted the rosary.

She hadn’t prayed the Rosary since she was a young child, but many times when she would stop in to visit Agnes, her friend would be slowly moving the beads through her fingers, deep in prayer. Although Jenna took it for an old-fashioned habit that she didn’t want to waste a precious visit with Agnes asking about, there was one time that she inquired.

Jenna could still see the expression on Agnes’ face, as though she longed to share something meaningful and close to her heart. “This prayer is my gateway to Heaven.” Jenna often wondered about those words but could never quite figure out what they meant. How could such an apparently monotonous prayer bring Agnes so much joy?

Strengthened by this memory of Agnes, who seemed so close, Jenna took the rosary into her hands. She didn’t dare speak, but rather stood watching for what the angel would do next. It was the first time in nearly two weeks that her heart didn’t ache from losing Agnes. Jenna felt alive in the angel’s presence and every care, every anxiety, melted away. He had come from the place that is the source of every consolation, and Heaven’s residue accompanied him. It was as if pain was not permitted into that moment.

“Jenna,” the angel said, “Come with me on an adventure through time, and indeed beyond time, into the eternal. We will enter the mysteries that are the source of all life and that possess the power to make your heart whole. In your hands, you hold the key. Let us go together on this unforgettable journey.”

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