In real life we see and know angels. Andrea (an-Drey’-ya), as she preferred to be called, was such an angel. For those of us who knew her, we experienced her bright light.

Corey, Andrea, and Courtney, Hope Family Village Dinner,Jimmy’s, December 13, 2018Photo: Dave Ress, Daily Press

Two qualities distinguish angels. They exhibit an uncommon kindness and thoughtfulness that is beyond everyday humanity. And, they are mischeviously fun.

While I knew Andrea but three years, from the moment I met her, from the podium of giving a speech on Fairweather Lodge and Hope Family Village to NAMI Hampton Roads/Newport News, no one could have forecast our life together.

Our meeting began with this concluding remark :”I am very excited to start a Fairweather Lodge (a home in a neighborhood, of mutual support and interdependence, for people living serious mental illness) in Virginia. Anywhere in Virginia. Maybe here in Newport News. All we need is a house.”

At the time, three of us were meeting in a place called The Coffee House (Williamsburg). Every Saturday morning at 8 AM. We operated what we called a “Virtual Lodge.” We’d have coffee. Discuss our respective weeks: The good, the bad, the indifferent. Discuss life goals, including seeking employment. Plans for the upcoming week. My role: Part coach, part undiagnosed participant. Our meetings would last no more than one hour.

Immediately after my podium request, a woman raised her hand and said in a soft but confident voice, “I have a house.” And so, we began.

Average people cannot comprehend serious mental illness. What it is. How it changes life. Dreams. Routine. They also miss the beauty and creativity that conjoins the mystery. I, too, was uneducated. Until it was personal and good fortune came my way. Andrea, and others, who lived with a diagnosis, patiently painted a picture of a hidden world.

Andrea shared her NAMI Peer-to-Peer Course Manual with me. She wanted me to understand peers. Also, help me to understand my son, who she would always ask about. She’d make suggestions for creating engagement. The next time she saw me, She’d ask the result and provide further feedback.

She understood what it was like to be a caregiver. She took care of her mother for some years, in their home, as she lived with Alzheimer’s disease until she died. Andrea was both caregiver and peer. In fact, only two weeks ago, she told me that her psychiatrist had asked Andrea to move in with her Mom, a dementia sufferer, to live there and care for her. She speculated that her son, Nathan, who she lived with in the same house she grew up in, might do the same for her.

Naturally thoughtful, Andrea would honor my birthday. Every holiday event. With a card. A small gift. Accompanied by an enveloping, mandatory hug. If you did not hug, she would fake a punch, as if a boxer. Before her illness, she had trained in marshal arts and he informed me that she did have skills to use in case I had to be brought in line. Just kidding, she’d giggle.

Her most recent gifts. A picture frame that featured golf balls and tees. A driver from the 1960s. A leather handkerchief dispenser for my car visor. She thought it looked cool. I will now be ready for Cornovirus.

Since Andrea’s passing, this tribute has come deliberately. Grief interrupts us. Another ingredient needed – attending her funeral service in Portsmouth with a fellow Coffee House lodge member. There, we learned that we were not the only ones she loved. Her unconditional love clearly reciprocated.

Sitting in the pews were family members, churches, lifelong friends, and our community – NAMI, Fairweather Lodge, Hope Family Village. You could feel people stealing glances at one another from their pews, wondering who these strangers were who had come on a Friday at 5 PM to a funeral service amidst rush hour traffic, in a most populated part of coastal Virginia, with few bridges and tunnels. A difficult journey. Some arriving just in time.

Charismatic leaders bear the gift that the people who they are communicating with are the only ones in their lives. These leaders appear to hang on one’s every word. Sincerity and authenticity hug them. Surprise, surprise. Andrea shared her life with others. Many friends. She made each feel unique and special, even the ones she had only known a month. Like her new church, the pastor for the service.

One day I came close. She giggled at the thought she had an influence.

Two days before the service, a single cloud appeared in the sky on my sojourn around the 9-hole course where I play. Andrea would often call me on these jaunts. Through the magic of mobile phone technology and earbuds, we would talk as I played. She’d ask me to send her pictures of where a ball landed on the green. Urge me to make a hole-in-one. (I never have, nor been playing in a group that did.)

On this day, maybe she’d help me. Even better, I watched as this single cloud, alone in a sea of blue, morphed into the image of a snow angel, the kind we’d make as kids at the first snow. It disappeared before I could take a picture. And, I thought … Andrea. I now realized who she was. Could finally write.

Andrea was an angel in this plane and now in Heaven. As I have thought about her life throughout the week, Couldn’t our world do with more angels?

With her life, Andrea showed us that angels exist on earth. Their presence masked by current events, disagreements, traffic, electronics, judgement, the madness of civilization in a perpetual rush.

I never witnessed Andrea in a rush. She was calmly there or would let us know she was stuck in a tunnel on her many trips from Portsmouth to Williamsburg. Steve and I re-lived this potential on Friday’s drive.

Three years ago, when she first asked me if she could join our Coffee House meetings, I was nonplused and concerned. What time would she have to get out of bed to meet us?

Sometimes she would request I call her as the alarm clock. Other times she depended on Chewie, her dog to wake her up.

Andrea was a faithful participant in the Williamsburg Fairweather Lodge. We took our first lodge field trip to see the house she was proposing. Hers. She helped facilitate NAMI Williamsburg Peer Support Group meetings at 7 PM on Tuesday nights. She came to Hope Family Village dinners on Thursday nights.

She suggested, help plan, and participated in Fairweather Lodge events. Bowling, birthdays, dinners, NAMI Walks. It was her idea to celebrate Thanksgiving; she brought and cooked the dinner.

Among the wealthiest people on our planet, no one was more generous, thoughtful, kind and cheerful than Andrea. She is the model for humanity. (Note: I did not say she did not have opinions. She knew her mind.)

Not quite a year into knowing each other, she asked to visit with me at The Coffee House. Just the two of us. She had written her story on paper and wanted to share it with me. She told me, I cannot verbalize it, because I will wind up in the hospital.

We had coffee. She loved an orange drink they had. They sold it at a great price, she said. And it was good! Then, she handed me the paper and asked me to read it later and tell me what I thought. She forewarned me that she was not a good speller, owing to a learning disability.

I would start reading her story and have to stop. Weeks would go by and she would make inquiry. Show good natured disgust when I said, I am not done yet.

Some stories you wish you never knew. You see the story, not a person.

When I finally finished, I told her, I don’t know what to say but thank you. She responded with her characteristic, muffled, A-hm. We did not speak anymore than that, but she asked for it back because wanted to share it with her beloved psychiatrist. Who she once introduced me to at The Coffee House.

Not long after I returned her work, she began talking more openly about that part of her life. She triumphed through difficult times and dates of the year. Memories of tragic events. Reminded me when they were.

Never did she complain, seek sympathy. Never the victim. Again, we experience an angel. In large measure, maybe we know God through each other.

In our virtual lodge, as we developed our house rules and spoke about house philosophy, we realized that our pioneering members had faith in God as a common denominator. At our first diner together, it was Andrea who prevailed in saying the blessing. Surprise, surprise.

When we finally found a house, could see financially how to make it work, Andrea backed out. Up until this point, she was so excited. I was very discouraged. She had been such a prime mover.

Again, not until the service did it sink in that she had lived in the same community her entire life. She delivered papers here at 10. Her doctors were all there. (He heart, both a strength and congenital weakness, failed and led to her passing. She also lived with two forms of cancer. Nothing could hold her down.) Her church. Her childhood, work, and church friends. Her son. Her dog. The home that she offered to us as a prospective lodge. She was where she belonged.

Andrea and I shared quite a life. How she managed to make and keep all these connections can only be explained by her angelic qualities. I will miss her frequent but brief phone calls to check on me. Will glance skyward a little more often, hoping to catch a glimpse of that angel.

What I know, for certain, she has found home, the Big Lodge in the sky. And, if I ever do manage a hole-in-one, I will know that she had something to do with it.