After my mom first got cancer, she and I talked about what might happen after a person dies. She was a long-time church member and often read serious books by diverse theologians. However, she did not pretend to have the answers to this age-old question.
In the last few years, we both had read a couple of books about signs from the after-life by Dr. Janet Amatuzio. Amatuzio was a county coroner who dealt with families who had lost a loved one. They told her of the mysterious and not-so-mysterious signs they experienced after the loved one died. She and I also enjoyed Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven. His book tells of his intense, near-death experience (NDE) when he was in a serious coma. As a neurosurgeon, he had previously disbelieved that there might be consciousness after death. However based on his experience, he feels that the real world is what he experienced during his NDE.
During our conversations, I asked my mom several times to send me signs after she passed away. She told me she would try to do so, if it was possible. At the time, I didn’t realize that if I did receive signs from her, how hard it would be for me to believe in them.
The signs began shortly after my mom passed away. My mom had had a special connection with birds. She admired their beauty of flying flocks, fed them in her backyard and found them comforting. The morning after she died, I went for a walk in the bitter January, Minnesota cold. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that a hearse had actually backed into her driveway the night before. Hearses went to other people’s homes, not hers. I wasn’t supposed to be the person answering the door when it arrived either.
At the same time, I was relieved that the waiting was over. I could now leave her home, have some freedom and get some exercise. As I returned to her house after my walk, the large tree in her front yard had a number of birds in it. They were sqwuaking and would not be ignored. The temperature was in the single digits and unfriendly, not bird-gathering weather. I looked up and down the street to see if I could see any there were any other birds. None. Hmm. Could my mom be sending me a sign so soon? I wasn’t sure. I went inside and numbly got ready to go to my morning appointment at the funeral home.
The next morning was another sign. My mom had loved dogs all of her life. One year, when my parents were newly married, my dad wrote in their Christmas letter that she knew the names of every dog they would see on their regular walks in Monterey, CA.
It was sharp-as-a-knife cold. I wore every layer of clothing I could find on my walk, including two pairs of mittens, socks beneath my boots and a parka that went to my knees. As I was exploring neighborhoods that were new to me, I noticed that on every block, a few dogs were outside in their yards and were barking. It was unusual. The weather was painful. Why were they outside? I was wrapped up in my thoughts, but kept being interrupted by their barking. Perhaps this was another sign?
The signs continued. Exactly one month after my mom passed, I was especially heartbroken. I said to the air, “Okay, Mom! You’ve been gone long enough now. It’s time to come back.” A few days later, I prayed and pleaded for a sign from her. That morning, much to my astonishment, there seemed to be three.
The first happened as I stood in our neighborhood dog park in southern California just minutes after my prayer. A hummingbird flew up to me and did an intricate and graceful dance in front of me for minutes. It would not leave. Hmm.
Shortly thereafter, I was walking home and looked up at a nearby mountain that has a large cross on it. There are hiking trails that lead to it and people frequently hike to “the cross.” The cross is made out of wood and is painted white. Except this morning, the cross was ablaze in neon pink and orange. I stopped walking and stared. I realized the cross’s unusual color was caused by the reflected light from the sunrise. It looked like it had been covered in neon lights during the night and now they were all turned on at maximum wattage. Hmm.
Later that morning, I was with a friend on our regular Friday morning walk. We ran into an older woman we both knew from yoga. I hadn’t seen her since 2012. What made it remarkable is that she is from my mom’s hometown: Duluth, MN. When she and I used to see each other regularly, we would talk about Duluth: how beautiful it was, where my mom had lived and the majesty of Lake Superior. It seemed like quite a coincidence to run into her that morning, the morning I had begged for a sign, especially since I had not seen her in over four years.
The unusual happenings have continued. A few weeks ago, I was visiting my sister and there was a particularly heavy thunderstorm. During the storm, we talked about how much we missed mom and how we still needed her. I mentioned that before mom had died, I had told her I’d be alright after she passed. I didn’t know what I was talking about.
When I got to my hotel that night, I looked out the window and saw a gorgeous rainbow. I took a picture of it. The next morning, my sister texted me and asked if I had seen the rainbow? She had taken a picture of it too.
I thought this rainbow may or may not be a sign. It seemed like a cliché or too obvious. But it did make me wonder.
One week later, my husband and I flew to Geneva, Switzerland to see some relatives that I (and my mom) love. She would have been thrilled that we were going to see them, something that doesn’t happen often enough.
After we arrived, we took a steamboat across Lake Geneva to the tiny village in France where we were going to stay. While sailing, it began to rain. As we approached the dock, there was a magnificent double rainbow framing the dock, welcoming us to Yvoire, France. The rainbow was 180 degrees from one side of the dock to the other. I thought that perhaps it was commonplace, but the locals and ship staff were excitedly looking at it, pointing and taking pictures. It was an audacious and joyful display.
All of these signs could be easily explained away as coincidences. I’m aware of the “confirmation bias” which happens when people look for information that confirms what they believe and ignore the rest. As humans, we are very good at drawing conclusions from completely unrelated bits of information. We want to find meaning, to make sense out of our lives. We are experts at this. Perhaps this is what I’m doing now.
But here’s the irony. I asked my mom to be in touch with me after she dies. I’ve noticed many possible signs from her. And then I wonder if they really are signs. I discount them; I think I could have an over-active imagination. But how else would my mom give me signs, if not through nature, animals and people?
When I was applying to the University of Chicago to go to business school, I wrote in one of the application essays that I wanted to study there to become a clear thinker. The school did teach me to ask good questions, analyze situations and tear apart assumptions. However, I don’t want to use these skills to talk myself out of something that may be one of life’s biggest mysteries. I don’t want these tools to make me blind to the wonder of life.
Instead of questioning and doubting, I want my default attitude to be one that believes that my mom is in touch with me. I want that approach to replace my questioning attitude. Why not? Doubting and questioning are easy. I want to believe. And I will continue to look for signs.