I’ve never thought myself particularly superstitious, although surely some myths portending bad luck have passed down from my grandmothers to me. I’m always quick to move a hat I see lying on the bed, pick up only pennies that are heads up, and never walk under ladders. I’m covering my bases, just in case.
On the other hand, I see signs everywhere, and some are just too powerful not to buy into. For instance, I had heard the legend of the cardinal: When you see a cardinal, it’s a loved one visiting you. However, I had always shrugged off the story until my mom passed away. The week after Mom died, I was going through a particularly difficult time. It wasn’t just grief; an onslaught of parental problems and work was weighing me down, and I was tortured by horrid nightmares. I found myself waking extremely early, unable to go back to sleep. On those brisk winter mornings, I made it a practice to go outside to clear my head. As the sun rose against the leafless trees, I huddled in my bathrobe with a mug of coffee and wondered what the day would bring, what future days would entail. The first morning I did this, a cardinal flew over and landed on a bush near my chair. It didn’t move—just watched me, sitting with me, until I arose. Then it flew off, tracing spirals against the barren sky.
Of course, it may not have been the same cardinal every day, but it seemed that way to me. After a few days another cardinal joined in and the couple maintained a vigil beside me. When my coffee cup was empty, I would rise to go inside and they would fly off. Those of you who don’t believe in signs will argue it was all coincidence—that they were just random birds who had found a particularly cushy boxwood to perch on. But I prefer to see them as signs that somewhere my parents’ spirits hovered over me—that there is more to life than what we see and that our daily vicissitudes are mere footnotes in life’s grand encyclopedia. Choosing to view that cardinal couple as a sign made me feel loved; it gave me hope.
I have never believed in ghosts either, until I heard a story from staff at the memory care unit where my dad, Jack, passed away. Dad’s room was reoccupied almost immediately after his death by a woman in the final stages of cancer. Dad died in October and my daughter and I returned at Valentine’s Day to bring decorations to the residents whom we had come to know. We saw that Dad’s room was vacant and inquired about its former occupant. The staff exchanged telling glances before proceeding to tell us the story: gravely ill, the new occupant mostly stayed in her room. One day the staff heard laughter and entered the room to find the lady in bed, laughing. When they asked what was funny, she said, “Oh, Jack’s making me laugh.” Upon visiting one day, her children even asked to meet the resident named Jack whom she had befriended, since they knew no one with that name.
The story grows even odder, as the ill woman was looking through pictures from the past year and pointed to my dad’s photo. Goosebumps, anyone? As I said, I’ve never believed in ghosts but I do know there was no one funnier than my dad, and I also know he was the kind of man who would linger to help a sick woman transition. His presence was always a comfort.
A week ago, we attended a wedding. A sudden downpour occurred just as the couple was being pronounced husband and wife. We ran to our cars to head to the reception and, on the drive, noted a double rainbow. To me, there was no doubt from whence that natural spectacle came. You see, the groom had recently lost both grandfathers. They were the type of patriarchs who attended football games and soccer matches, who out-talked each other with tales from their days growing up as friends. They would have been celebrating louder than anyone at the wedding and I have no doubt they chose to make their presence known—as they lingered over the large boisterous families they beget.
Yes, I know, there is a scientific reason for rainbows. As light enters a water droplet, the light bends, because light travels more slowly in water than in air. The different wavelengths in sunlight get bent in different degrees, producing the colors.
But here’s the thing: it is incumbent on our eyes to see the rainbow. And for a rainbow to appear, the conditions must be perfect. The sun must be behind us and the clouds cleared away. It’s a matter of perspective, and isn’t that the way with all signs? In these worrisome times, perhaps we need to position ourselves to see cardinals and rainbows—to take them and all of the wonders of the natural world as signs of being loved, of happiness on the horizon… and even of that pot of gold that surely awaits us someday.