We sat on the steps of the old farmhouse, Shayne and I, the first ones up at a family gathering, on a soft and sunny summer morning. It was less than a year since her dad, my brother, had died. I was telling her about the butterflies I kept seeing. They hovered. They lighted. They flew, over and over, onto the windshield of my moving car.
“I have decided to take them as a message, as a token,” I said. “I’ve decided they mean that Dennis is all right.”
Shayne sighed in the gentle sun of a sunny summer morning.
“I wish I’d get a message,” she said.
And in that moment, a butterfly: hovering just in front of her, long enough to be seen, to demand her full attention.
And, “One turned to two,” says Shayne, “and two turned into…dozens.”
Huh. Probably, you know, just a big year for butterflies.
As we headed down the hill for our nightly constitutional Mark asked me about a friend who, post-retirement, is not always in town. A story she shared not long ago popped immediately into my head, and so I, in turn, shared it with Mark.
My friend’s daughter and her family live in a southward state; my friend splits her time between that state and this one. One day her daughter was explaining to her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, that Grandmother was at her Ohio home that week.
Little Will considered this news about his grandmother solemnly, my friend said, and then he made a pronouncement.
“Her,” he stated, “has two houses. Her is a lucky duck.”
Something about that story just tickled me, and it seemed to tickle Mark too.
“A lucky duck, is her?” he said, and we rambled, on a night of cool breezes, down the hill, under a cloud-scudded sky.
We turned at the corner of Normandy and began marching up Englewood.
“Well, hey,” said Mark. “Lookie there.” On the dashboard of a shiny new Mustang, there was a large mallard duck bobble-head.
“Hey,” I said, “SPEAKING of ducks…”
Just like that our evening stroll became a duck walk. Go figure.
And what are the odds that, wandering through a land-bound neighborhood, we’d come upon a park-like stretch of long green grass, long enough to ripple in the wind, and wide enough that the duck sitting contentedly in the center looked tiny indeed?
“What???!!!” we both said, and I joggled my phone out of my pocket. By the time I pulled up the camera app, the duck was on to me; he was waddling away as fast as his flat webbed feet would take him. I snapped the picture anyway; his back was to me, and his back was far away, but still: documentation of our duck walk.
And then, the next night, I took young James to Kohl’s to buy a new vacuum, and on the way out of the parking lot, we had to stop for a family of ducks. The mama didn’t look much older than a teenager herself, slight and still a little downy, and her six fuzzy little charges–well, they were all over the place, on the curb, in the street, veering and waddling. Mama was beside herself. She was back and forth, across the street, up on the curb, flapping and quacking; she was back in the street and herding.
The car approaching us stopped. We stopped. The cars behind both of us stopped. And then the baby ducks disappeared. We peered over and around the hood of the car, but they were just gone. Gone UNDER the car? In front of it? Mama bobbed and weaved and quacked, and there we were, a line of frozen cars, wondering what happened to those fuzzy little ducks.
So James opened up the car door to see if he could spot them for me, gingerly putting one foot down on the blacktop. That was all they needed. An explosion of ducklings ran across the street, little wings flapping, raucously yelling, WOK!WOK!WOK! They clustered around the little mama, and, in a scrum, they headed over the grassy hill to safety.
I imagine them years hence, telling the story: “And then this giant MAN put his foot down on the hard top and we RAN out from under the car…”
What a week it was. What an adventure of ducks. Why did it feel so poignant?
Why did I feel so sad?
An old, old memory came back to me–a memory of writing, for Mrs. Halsey in second grade, my first research paper. We had drawn slips to get our topics, and mine said, in Mrs. Halsey’s spikey, perfect, Catholic school script, “The mallard duck.”
I carried that paper home like a treasure or a sign. This, after all, was REAL homework! This was, finally, the big kid times.
I remembered the dull old encyclopedia, red cloth cover faded to rose, and the wonder of finding the article about mallards within. I remembered my mother patiently telling me how to take notes; I remembered her showing me how to record where I got my information. Because it was cheating, she informed me, to learn from someone else but to claim that knowledge as always having been our own. I nodded, serious and alert, and I carefully wrote the title of the article and the name of the encyclopedia at the very bottom of the page. (That may have been the moment my fate as English teacher was sealed.)
I learned about downy feathers that lined ducks’ nests and the oil that gave the ducks their buoyancy and protected them from frigid waters. I learned about habitat and migration, about eggs and natural predators. I drew a square on my lined yellow page and inside it, I copied the encyclopedia photo of a nesting duck. I copied it in pencil; the picture was black and white. I drew a shiny glint spot in the eye, but, not being able to envision the colors, I did not get my crayons.
When I was done, my mother told me I’d done well. “Well, this is what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll just write papers all my life.”
Ducks, I remember. And research.
And why not a little research now? I think.
So I pull my iPad toward me, touch the Safari app, and pull up Yahoo. “Ducks,” I type, “symbolism.”
I get thousands of hits, and pick a promising one.
If a duck has waddled across my path, spiritanimals.com suggests, I should take note of my surroundings; a new opportunity is being offered. “You will have to move forward swiftly,” the page’s author advises, “so your new ideas can take flight.”
I like the sound of that and I read on. “Alternatively,” reads the text, “Duck may be reminding you that today is a day you should spend exploring your emotions.”
And just like that another memory surfaces, of being at Mark’s parents when Stephen and Patty come in, drenched and dripping from the rain.
“How are you?” someone demands, and they laugh together and say the words that were their mantra: “Just ducky.”
Ever after, when I asked Patty how she was, she would tell me she was just ducky. She said it the first time she beat cancer back. She said it when it returned seventeen years later, and she beat it back again.
But cancer is vile and clever and invidious, and it was waiting; it was working out a way around her strength. “We’ve got to be stealthy and quick to conquer this one,” it must have said. It must have, for Patty to be up and doing laundry of a Monday, and dead at cancer’s hand that Sunday, surrounded by her family, on that ironic Mother’s Day.
It struck so quickly she didn’t have time to fight it off, to be just ducky again.
When a dear one who lives far away dies, you can pretend there’s nothing wrong. There’s no big gap in your everyday life. You tamp down that sadness, and you pretend it’s just not there. You plunge into the whirlwind of daily routine, of Things That Must Be Done, and you deny, deny, deny.
I’m not listening, you say, and you plug your ears against the persistent whispers.
But the hurt of Patty’s death was there with me, waiting to be acknowledged.
Some folks believe that when God or Nature or Spirit has a message for you, it will get through. It will come in a dream that carries through to daytime awareness. It will emerge in a passage from a book that speaks so clearly, so strongly, it must be acknowledged. A horoscope, read just for fun, will have sudden, deep-seated meaning.
Or it may come as a symbol, showing up over and over until it cannot be ignored.
Despite the feyness of my Celtic roots, I’m a smart, sophisticated, educated, objective woman. I know that God has much, much better things to do with Her time than to send us image after image after image, to meet us at every corner, to suggest to us in certain terms that, although Patty may be gone, she is all right.
No, the ducks were just a coincidence. The ducks were what I call the ‘New Car Phenomenon’: I get a new car, and suddenly, I see that make and model all over the darned place.
I had my duck lenses on.
And so, I saw ducks.
I’m much too objective to think that we were getting a cosmic message, but I am glad, anyway, that those ducks were my catalyst to awareness. I can hear a message even if they weren’t sent especially to carry one.
Here’s the message I hear:
Remember (the ducks remind me) the blithe and blessed spirit that was Patty.