Time still unfurls after a loved one passes away, the days spinning into years. And yet, there are moments the wound can still feel fresh. One of those times is the anniversary of your loved one’s death. It’s almost a shock to the system to realize that days stack upon one another and turn into years. And while the intense grief is tamped down with time, there is always a hole in your heart that doesn’t quite seem to narrow. Looking back at Facebook “On This Day” memories, it seems like there couldn’t possibly be so many years of posts marking both the day of passing and each subsequent anniversary, but there are.
It was seven for me this year, starting on May 1, 2011. Seven posts…the first one opening with, “This is a status I never wanted to share…” In each year following I posted a photo and perhaps an anecdote. One year early on I wrote that I felt guilty that I didn’t go to the cemetery, because I had my youngest son, Aidan, home sick, and I had to take him to the doctor. At eight years old, he was too small to stay home alone.
This year, I had Aidan home, as well. There was a violent threat at his school scrawled across the mirror in one of the bathrooms. It was too much of a bad luck day for me to send him. I told the school the truth about him, even if I didn’t mention my trepidation. He had a stomachache and anxiety, and they know he battles obsessive compulsive disorder. Some of his friends were staying home and we went back and forth, but in the end, I decided I’d rather be overly cautious, than sorry.
He could have stayed home while I went to the cemetery; he is thirteen and a half years old now, after all. But, he really wanted to go with me. I’m so glad he did. If he hadn’t, I may have thought I was going bonkers. And even if I didn’t think that, anyone I told what you’re about to read may have thought it, without another person as a witness to back me up… (Of course, I’m aware some of my readers may still think I’m bonkers – this isn’t for them, this is for those who take comfort in thinking that maybe loved ones who have passed somehow remain a part of our lives.) This may be my most personal essay yet…
“You’d be proud of Joshua, he really turned it around and is getting an award from school.” I said this to my father’s grave, so I added, “I don’t know if you can even hear me or know what I’m saying. But, I just wanted to tell you.” I paused. Aidan and I looked at each other. We smiled. “Send me a sign if you can hear me,” I said.
“Yeah, a crane fly or a spider,” Aidan added.
“Or a ladybug.” I paused. “But, I don’t know if that can happen,” I told Aidan. “How can a bug just appear?” There weren’t any crane flies nor spiders around us. And being that there weren’t any plants that aphids congregate on, I doubted we’d see a ladybug. A few large black flies buzzed around, I guess sensing a place of death and decay.
For some reason, I looked down at that moment to pick up a small white rock to place on my father’s headstone, even though we had already left rocks we brought from home.* And we even picked up more than a few at the cemetery, placing them carefully on the gray granite already crowded with stones left by my siblings and my mother, as well as my family, over the years.
When I reached down for the rock, I noticed another one out of the corner of my eye. It was in the shape of a heart and had a triangular base that lifted it up out of the dirt. “There’s our sign,” I said to Aidan. “Look at this – it’s a perfect heart.”
But then, something else caught my eye. A small spider quickly scurried up the side of the headstone, and quick as a flash crawled over the rocks. “Look, quickly – a spider!” I implored Aidan.
“Do you see that?” I asked. He did and broke into a huge smile. But, when we tried to follow it’s path as it went over and under the rocks, it simply disappeared. We checked the back of the headstone, and it wasn’t there. I peered under rocks. Nothing.
“That was definitely a sign,” Aidan said happily.
I couldn’t help it, I started to cry. I mean, a spider suddenly showing up out of nowhere on the headstone and then simply disappearing? Crazy as it may sound, it sure seemed like a sign to me too. I never really believed that the dead could communicate with the living. I figured once you’re in the dirt six feet under, that’s it. You can’t know how life has gone on without you. You can’t feel anything, and you certainly can’t send your loved ones messages. But, after my father passed away, I started experiencing signs that he was closer than I thought. You can read about that here.
Aidan said, “Okay, we’ll know it’s really a sign if we get in the car and there’s a song that relates to him somehow.” He said this, because right after my birthday dinner we decided to make an unplanned stop, and on the way back from there (at a time we wouldn’t have still been in the car) a song came on that meant so much to me, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Middler. I had danced with my dad to it at my wedding. It’s not a song that’s on often, and I got a bit teared up, thinking it was a sign from him on my birthday. Aidan remembered that.
At that moment, I looked down at the gray cotton cardigan tied around my waist. A black ladybug with two red spots had landed on the sleeve, a type I had never seen before. (A little digging around told me that these “twice-stabbed ladybird beetles” disappeared from the New York area for thirty years and first reappeared in a Brooklyn park just six years ago.) “A ladybug!” I exclaimed. And an unusual one at that.
“Another sign,” Aidan said. I agreed, especially when this tiny creature crawled into my sleeve and also simply disappeared. I opened the sleeve and peered in – nothing. I shook it slightly. It was empty. I didn’t want to put it on and accidentally squish it, so I checked carefully. As Aidan and I pondered what all this meant (“Can he hear us right now? All the time?” he asked), I felt something flutter against my upper back, above my tank top.
I swatted at it and asked Aidan, “Is there a bug on my back, I feel something.” He looked. There was nothing there.
“You know it’s Papa,” he offered. At that point, I was starting to believe that it could be him putting his hand on my back for guidance or even comfort. And I suddenly felt a sense of comfort – as if things would be okay. If he really was communicating (and I wasn’t crazy), then perhaps the wall of separation that immediately goes up at a loved one’s death was more permeable than I thought. Stuff could somehow get through…signs.
We lingered a bit longer, and then said our “goodbyes.” I slid into the car and turned on the radio. Aidan and I waited breathlessly to see if another sign would show up. I gasped… The song on the radio was “Daughters,” by John Mayer. That was pretty much a sledge-hammer sign. No subtlety. The next song was “We Stay Together,” by Andrew Galucki. This was all on a station I don’t listen to often, Coffee House. Somehow, something made me land on it when I turned on the radio. My mouth fell open when I heard the lyrics to “We Stay Together.” I had never heard the song before. Here’s a snippet:
“…The hours and days
The memories we made
Are yours and mine
The highs and the lows
The long winding roads
Are yours and mine
We stay, we stay together
We stay, we stay right here
We stay, we stay together
Oh we stay right here
Seasons will change
We will remain
Who we are
Simple and true
The old and the new
It’s who we are…”
At this point, we were still sitting in the car on the narrow road near his grave. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was practically bawling over the song (well, maybe a little embarrassed). It was more than a sign, it was an abundance of signs and it continued with every song that came on for the ride home. A cover of “Yellow” I had never heard came on next. I never noticed the overtones of death in the song until listening to the spare accoustic arrangement.
I felt better returning from the cemetery than when we left, which was pretty miraculous. But, what happened later on in the evening was even more miraculous… As many of you know, Aidan battles severe obsessive compulsive disorder. One of his great escapes, maybe his only escape, is playing hockey. He joined a “Dek” hockey league in March, and his championship game was that night.
While totaling about three or four assists during the season, he hadn’t scored a goal. Usually, he’s not a starter. But this game he was, and on his first shift – the very first shift of the game – he scored to put his team up 1-0 and on the path to a championship victory. After the game, despite his usual intense fear of touching any object someone else has touched (he wears a plastic baggie on his hand in school to open doors), he lifted the “Stanley Cup” over his head in celebration…after others had already done so.
After the celebrations died down, in a quiet moment as we were walking out, he said that he felt Papa was with him, helping him score the goal. I agreed. And as we pulled out of the parking lot he confided that he had a feeling that would happen…or at least he hoped it would. I turned on the radio, and Aidan and I started laughing.
“Yup, Papa was definitely with you,” I said, amazed. The song on the radio? “The Sign,” by Ace of Base. The next song was “Calling All Angels,” by Train. I had been singing that quietly at the cemetery when I asked for a sign… “I need a sign to let me know you’re here…”
I got the sign – we got it – and more. And although the anniversary of my father’s passing will always be a difficult day, this one was made a little easier.
I snapped photos of some of the songs that felt more like messages…
I did some research on spiritual communication and whether it’s a common phenomenon to feel as if your departed loved ones are communicating with you through signs, including music and the appearance of bugs (or other animals). Apparently, both are the most common signs reported. Below are two of the articles I stumbled upon…
*Jews place rocks on headstones, rather than flowers, for many different reasons. I wasn’t entirely sure how the custom started, so I also did a little research on this. There are too many reasons to list, but you can click below to learn a little more. My two favorites are that, unlike flowers, rocks last forever and that the stones keep the soul in this world.