Gabriel Carlson drifted into my life unexpectedly as a mystery of God and then disappeared — for just a little while at first — only to miraculously and dramatically reappear. Then, like sand through an hourglass, he slipped away. This is the story of how God used Gabriel to change my life, though he would say it is how God used me to save his.
The stroke had stolen most of his words, but my brother still had the communicative prowess to let it be known which foods were acceptable or, as is often the case with the Seawel siblings, which foods were unacceptable. I was dispatched to the nearest Sonic from Little Rock’s Baptist Hospital for an Arkansas staple — ice cream and a big Coke. Chester wanted, with his Coke, a Reese’s Blast with no funny stuff.
Back at Baptist, I happened onto an elevator with a young guy with an unruly fro. As my curious eyes involuntarily squinted in trying to decode the calligraphic tattoo on his forearm, an extra sense kicked in as I felt his eyes on me. With a playfully mischievous grin, he was judging my armloads of Sonic ice cream and drinks. Momma Susan raised us right, so Seawel offspring don’t choose either a Coke or a dessert — we get both.
The young man feigned offense. “Hey, brother, you went to Sonic and ain’t bring me nothin’?”
I laughed, then replied, “You should’ve asked me, I would have been glad to.” “I’m just playin’ with ya, bro. I’m just bored up in this joint.”
The matching navy-blue clothing he had on looked to be hospital scrubs, but he had a bandage in the crook of his non-tattooed arm, so I asked if he was a patient or an employee.
“Man, this damn sickle cell.”
“Ah, man, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, we all got our cross to bear. I’m sure you got yours.”
“You’re an old soul wise beyond your years, huh?”
“I ain’t gonna lie. Sickle cell done made my body weak, but it’s made me strong in spirit.”
I flashed a knowing smile, but it was premature. I didn’t know. I hadn’t truly digested his words, but I was chewing on them when the elevator bell interrupted me at my floor. “I’m James, by the way.”
“Bible name. I knew you was saved.”
Laughing as I stepped off the elevator, I turned and asked his name before the close of the door.
“Call me Gabriel.”
“Like the angel,” I replied. He beamed back at me with a kindred-spirit smile as the metallic doors of the elevator closed like the lid on a casket and transported my new friend away.
I returned to the room with enough calories to power a Pontiac just as the techs were about to begin some kind of supposedly therapeutic rigmarole. Their blank stares and silence induced the intended discomfort in me that they desired, so after my brother appreciated my handiwork of forbidding the whipped cream, I was dismissed. I snagged my hand-me-down paperback copy of The Shack off the windowsill and headed for the lobby.
With my drink and book in hand, I found a somewhat cozy nook; that is, as comfortable as a hospital waiting room can be. An old, gray gentleman sat slumped over, his head bobbing as he fought out a nap while his gum-smacking wife flipped through a glossy-covered women’s magazine, opening her Juicy-Fruited mouth to lick a finger to turn each page. Fox News was on mute, thank God for the little things. I slurped my drink and placed my feet on the chair across from me, wondering if the old woman would scold me with her eyes, but not looking up to check. Ahh, back to this story where God was a big black woman. Normalcy.
Just as I was settling comfortably back into the story, I couldn’t help but notice, in my peripheral vision, the young man, Gabriel, walk by. It was nothing spectacular, just the recognition of my new acquaintance. But he wouldn’t leave my mind. Thoughts about anything or anybody at this juncture were as uninvited as they were annoying. Would it be too much to ask to just escape into someone else’s world just for a chapter or two? I wondered. The Shack is not a hard read, but I found my eyes scanning the same passages repeatedly with no recollection or comprehension whatsoever. The Narrator in my head was ever louder and overpowered the words on the page. In my first attempt at Christian fiction, I couldn’t concentrate. The Author of my faith kept interrupting me. God can be so inconsiderate that way. All I could think about was Gabriel. I suddenly had a burden to pray for him. The Holy Spirit would not be dismissed. He was insistent that I pray for Gabriel.
So I prayed that guy up one side and down the other. I pled the blood of Jesus over him, his family, his finances, his health. I claimed favorite Bible verses for him: Dear Lord, let no weapon formed against Gabriel prosper. Be his refuge and his strength. Guard and protect him from the evil one. Place a hedge of protection over him and shield him from all harm. Let the fiery darts of the enemy toward Gabriel be turned back on he who launched them. I thanked God for his life, and speaking things that were not as though they were, as Scripture teaches, I thanked God for his health and well-being. I asked the Lord to watch over him and to dispatch angels to protect him. Once I had begun praying, I couldn’t stop until it was finished. This is difficult to explain to those who haven’t walked with God like this, but I know this sudden urge to pray for a stranger wasn’t of me. I was tired and wanted rest, and as evidenced by my brother down the hall needing his own miracle, I had my own prayer priorities as well as a selfish will to just chill and relax. When the pressure to pray was lifted, only then could I return to my book, the irony being lost on me at the time that it was a story about a man learning to hear from God.
Later that evening I offered to give Shelly, my sister-in-law, a break. Ever the advocate, she felt she needed to stay close and keep watch on the hospital staff and to make sure her husband was at least passably well-behaved. She took a few minutes to find some sweet tea and use her cell phone to update family and check on her babies, and then she came back and told me I should leave and see about them the next morning.
I was staying at my friend Cameron’s place down in Riverdale in northern Little Rock. From Baptist, I could have taken any number of the north-south routes that bisected midtown between the Wilbur D. Mills Freeway and Cantrell Avenue. For no particular reason that I could have identified at the time, I opted for Mississippi Boulevard. The street was not busy on this late, dark night. I traversed the boulevard, cresting and descending the steep hills of Midtown, paying no particular notice to the oncoming headlights, but exactly as the car was directly beside me, my ears were bombarded with an indistinguishable combination of ominous noises. Checking my rearview mirror as I reached the summit of the hill just nanoseconds afterward, I saw an explosion of lights as the car hit an electrical pole. It spun around, flipping multiple times until its final resting place, where smoke hovered like ghosts in the air. I called 9-1-1 and gave dispatch the approximate address while I parked and then ran to the scene. By this time a couple more cars had approached as startled neighbors began appearing on their lawns, wearing nightclothes and surprised, squint-eyed faces.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for what my eyes were about to see. A light pole was snapped in half while electrical wires were shooting out sparks as they whipped around violently like snakes on fire. Perhaps because I had witnessed this accident and thus somehow felt a part of it, and no doubt because I was on a God-high, I didn’t have the hesitancy to approach as did the gawkers from the other cars and the homeowners whose yards were now playing host to general passersby and nosy neighbors. The movies do not exaggerate the hodgepodge assortment of people from all walks of life who assemble from seemingly out of nowhere in these moments. I dismissed a voice from someone in a nearby yard who called out for me to stay back.
A white guy was sprawled out on the pavement, his limbs twisted up under and behind him crudely, as if put together by a deranged dollmaker. His haphazardly arranged form conjured images from a horror movie. As I drew near I noticed a girl running away through the bushes into the shadows of darkness, painstakingly avoiding any light. My attempt to comfort the man splayed out on the asphalt by assuring him that an ambulance was on its way was welcomed. I misled him to believe I could hear sirens approaching, hoping my lie would help him to hold on just a little longer. He wanted to know if his girlfriend was all right. He wanted to know why he couldn’t move or feel his arms or legs. He wanted to know a good many things I was ill-prepared to answer. His face was frozen in stillness, his neck unable to turn. When he looked up at me with his dilated pupils from under his upraised eyebrows, my mind raced at the recognition of the surefire expressions of shock. I felt I had to engage him somehow. He readily agreed to allow me to pray for him, which is what we were doing when we sensed movement from the overturned car, followed by a frightened voice.
“Help! Somebody get me out of here. Please help me.”
The voice was familiar. It was from the elevator. Gabriel. Oh, Lord, this is why You had me pray. My heart sank, thinking of him stuck in the smoldering wreckage of the remains of this unrecognizable car.
I approached the mass of mangled metal and walked toward the smoke and broken glass, bracing myself for whatever condition in which I might find Gabriel. I talked him out of the car. He kicked the spider-webbed glass out of a back-seat window, then positioned himself headfirst to emerge from the dark and narrow space. His face wore the innocent expression of a newborn. He crawled, then stood and walked toward me. Amid the faces in the now-growing crowd, he identified me immediately as “the dude from the elevator.”
“How’d you know to find me here, dude?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a God thang.”
I couldn’t disagree with his declaration. We shook our heads in disbelief and embraced as he began audibly to process.
In stream-of-consciousness fashion, he wondered aloud how the car had wrecked and then, answering his own question, remembered the wheels locking up and brakes not working. He wondered what had happened to the girl, how long he had been “out,” when had I shown up, and just how, again, had I known to be there. By this time the first ambulance arrived, and the paramedics were tending to the man on the pavement and asking us to not approach. Gabriel called reassurances and promises to visit, but his friend was too deep in shock at this point to respond.
“I gotta call my momma.”
He looked at the ground and saw, among various CDs, DVDs, books, clothing, an odd assortment of canned goods, and millions of shards of glass, the remnants of his cell phone.
“Man, can I use your phone? I gotta call my momma.”
Having a mom of my own and knowing that Gabriel was shaken, I made him promise me that he would say to his mother slowly and calmly, “Mom, I’m okay,” three times before telling her of the accident. He did so and the change in his demeanor was visible as he listened to his mother’s voice of reassurance. He gave his mother his location. Meanwhile, the second set of paramedics beckoned him to them for his ambulance ride to the ER. Childlike, Gabriel inquired as to whether I could accompany him. When the lady gave him the “Are you being serious right now?” face, I told Gabriel I would remain at the scene to talk to his mother and would check up with him later. This satisfied him and he was back to Baptist.
A newer model pickup truck pulled up to the scene with a middle-aged black man at the wheel. He put his hazard lights on, parked astraddle the curb, and introduced himself to a police officer. The woman riding passenger let her window down and surveyed the scene with her eyes while she clasped both hands to her chest. I walked up to her and introduced myself to Gabriel’s mother, Ms. Robynne, who appeared very tired and weak under her church-lady hat. She was not who I had imagined, though I was certainly not disappointed. She had just met two ambulances on the road and assumed her baby was on one of them, so I reassured her that he was, but without a scratch. Naturally, she wanted to know what had happened. Sensing that she was a woman of faith, I asked her if I could start at the beginning.
I shared with Ms. Robynne the unlikely story of how I had met her son earlier that day, then how the Spirit had been relentless with me to pray for him. She cried tears only a mother who has fought spiritual battles on behalf of a child can cry. I felt so undeserving and self-aggrandizing as I unfolded for her my version of the account until she stepped down out of the truck and wrapped her arms around me and thanked me for being there and for having “ears to hear.” Like Gabriel had been on the phone, I was relieved by the soft and smooth yet definitive voice of this strong woman.
“Listen to me. All my baby’s life the devil has had a plan against him. Honey, I’m talking car wrecks, medical issues, house fires, accidents, more close calls and near-misses than I care to remember. That’s why I’m not surprised to see you here, dear brother. You don’t know how often this has happened. God’s got His eye on my baby boy, and I thank you, honey, for knowing His voice. It was God who saved my baby, but He used you. He used you.”
As promised, I checked on Gabriel later that night in the ER. He had already been released when I arrived, but he had not left as the waiting room had become temporary headquarters for his support group. He welcomed me into his circle. His family and friends were celebrating his miracle and praying for his friend, who I learned was a down-on-his-luck regular at the video store where Gabriel worked. Gabriel regularly brought groceries from his church’s pantry to the man and his girlfriend, and sometimes, as was the case this night, if they waited around until close, he would take the carless couple home, wherever home might be any given night.
That night, leaving the ER, I said my goodbyes and never saw Gabriel face to face again.
We kept up on Facebook, and through a few phone calls, we prayed together and discussed everything from girls to God and other mysteries that have confounded men through the ages. No Gabriel conversation was complete without covering his two other passions: music and politics. Already a volunteer for local campaigns, had he lived to complete his major, he was hoping for a career in political science, though having a side gig in music would have brought him much satisfaction.
Perhaps there is no gift in dying young and having the foreknowledge thereof, but if there is an earthly silver lining before Heaven, then it must be embracing the time one has left. That’s what I saw Gabriel doing. As only one who knows his days are numbered can, Gabriel knew the precious value of time. He could no more turn back his clock than he could wind it up again. I believe he valued his hours and days more than most. In being robbed of the average 20-something’s perceived immortality, he was given a foretaste of eternity. Alive to his spirit, he knew his days with flesh and blood were numbered. As a result, he was more free with tears and laughter and expressions of affection to his friends and family. He packed a lot of experience into his years, sensing that his allotted time on this planet would soon end.
I refuse to write or even think something so defeating as “Gabriel lost his battle with sickle cell anemia.” I think such obituaries and eulogies for a spiritual warrior like Gabriel are utter bullshit. I think Gabriel kicked sickle cell’s ass every day of his life, and that his last earthly breath was his gateway to glory, his harbinger to heaven. Maybe it’s easy for a distant survivor to say, one who still has breath and skin and dates on a calendar and other things of this life, but I say Gabriel didn’t lose a thing but gained it all. After all, it was Jesus (John 11:25-26) who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Gabriel embodied this verse; Gabriel believed.
I don’t know why God’s presence was so tangible that day, yet one man became paralyzed and died weeks later. I don’t know why God showed me the power of intercessory prayer for a person I didn’t even know while my brother’s healing has come so gradually that fulfillment thereof at this pace will last well into eternity. I don’t know why Gabriel came out of that car unscratched, only to die a couple of years later. I don’t know why Ms. Robynne died as a result of the cancer she had fought for years, nor why her aged mother lost a beloved child and a grandchild within the span of roughly a year. I don’t know why I felt the presence of God so strongly then and yet find myself with watered-down faith on other days.
Gabriel wouldn’t have known either, but the popular maxim of “God works in mysterious ways” could not be ignored by either of us as our very friendship was a result of something we knew to be more than a chance encounter. Sometimes I futilely demand answers, but today I’m comforted by the words of the old song: “Farther along we’ll know all about it, farther along we’ll understand why . . . Soon we will see our dear, loving Savior; Then we will meet those gone on before us, Then we shall know and understand why.”•