The Art of Snagging Angel Wings

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by Helen Baldwin |

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Is it possible that we might have a bit of input into how we snag our angel wings? It sort of seems like it.

Near the end of my senior year of high school, my maternal grandfather underwent an experimental procedure to reduce tremors. It did not go well. During my trip abroad that summer, one particularly memorable stop was at Rome’s Holy Stairs. I’m not Catholic, but I prayed on all 28 steps that Pal would somehow be able to hang on until the brief period between my return home and departure for college. He did exactly that.

After Pal’s death, my maternal grandmother moved into an apartment added to my family’s house. Grandmom had congestive heart failure, warranting increasingly frequent trips to the emergency room. She undoubtedly voiced apologies for being a burden, but she wasn’t.

One day, my parents were gone when Grandmom apparently felt a “spell” coming on. She called the fire department, donned her coat, walked up the hall to the living room of the house, and sat down on the couch. She did not unlock the sturdy front door. By the time the firefighters broke in, she had joined Pal — with a smile on her face.

Years later, after I had a little more experience with death, I reasoned that she’d intentionally left the door locked to ensure she had ample time for her getaway.


Fast-forward to 1997. Our third baby, Jeffrey, harbored a big surprise: SMA. The prognosis of probable death within two years left us reeling. Near the end of sweet Jeffrey’s life, the morphine failed to keep him comfortable. While perched on a pillow in my lap, his eyes begged for the angel wings that had dangled within reach since the diagnosis nearly four months before. No one else in the family was in the room. Once our tiny warrior heard, “We love you. You can go on — we’ll be OK,” he took just two more breaths.

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My parents retired to a house less than half a mile from us. Dad was soon diagnosed with “masses.” When the end seemed to be fast approaching a few short months later, our entire immediate family gathered around Dad’s recliner as he enjoyed a deep medicated sleep. We all said what we wanted to say and, based on how effective the permission tactic was for Jeffrey, gave him permission to go on. We all watched him, braced for his final breath. Nothing happened. So we all repeated our love for him and again gave him permission to go on. Still, nothing happened.

At that point, my husband, Randy, took our son Matthew and nephew Jonathan to our house down the road. Our daughter, Katie, and our niece Bethany decided to run a short errand, leaving Mom, my brother, Paul, my sister-in-law, Jaymie, and me with Dad. During that brief absence of the ones who really had not wanted to see Papa take his last breath, Dad did just that. As if on cue.


My mother-in-law, Nell, suffered a massive stroke and adamantly opted for hospice care. By the time Randy and I made it to the hospice facility in Texas, she was in a medication-induced deep sleep. Angel, the nurse, said she didn’t know what was holding Nell back. The family then held a small church service with communion in the room, notifying Angel when it ended. Incredulous, Angel said we’d released Nell and that she’d be free in 15 minutes. She was.


These past few months, my mother’s little remaining vision had become so foggy, my prayers for her to see “enough” were beefed up substantially. She worried what would happen if she lost all her vision, fretting over the extra duties I’d have. If anything bothered her over the years, it was the thought that she was a burden, mostly to me. I tried assuring her that God had set up an ideal situation (proximity of our houses, etc.) for me to do as much as she needed, but even my optimistic self began mulling potential scenarios. All required angel intervention. And it came through.

Just as Mom’s vision plunged to shadows and her hearing took a nosedive, COVID-19 hit. A curse to others was a godsend for her. Mom was admitted to the hospital, with all of her physical needs now taken care of by attentive, caring nurses. My brother, Paul, and I attempted to make her last earthly days as easy emotionally as possible.

Mom’s final breath came peacefully. Determined not to burden anyone, she chose Presidents Day, so Katie and our son-in-law, Paul, who had come up from Charleston, South Carolina, missed no work. And as Mom also loved a bargain, it came as no surprise that the thank-you cards Katie ordered for me that night were on sale.

Perfect timing for snagging angel wings.

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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