When my mother The Betty (may she rest in peace), was ill with Stage 4 small-cell lung cancer, I asked her to send me recognizable signs that she would still be with me after the unavoidable happened.
Smiling the best she could, she squeezed my hand and said she’d do better than a dirty feather or invisible wind chimes. Even when heading to the great beyond, my mother had no intentions of being basic.
“You’ll know I’m with you, honey,” she promised. “You’ll know.”
The two of us always had a synchronistic connection. I’d pick up the phone to call her and it went to voicemail because she was trying to call me. I’d buy a sweater at Macy’s and an identical one would come in the mail the same day with a note that read, “I saw this and immediately thought of you.”
Of course, there were also instructions in her unique penmanship on how to hand wash it in cold water, what product to use, how to fold it over a drying rack so it wouldn’t lose shape, and a stern warning to reinforce the buttons before I wore it.
Damn, I miss that woman.
Always true to her word, my mother had a heavenly hand in the game when Mellie, the Portland Phoenix director of barketing, came into my life. A rescue from the deep South and no stranger to this column, the dog has brought me nothing but happiness. Mellie has a hybrid work schedule and growls softly at the newspaper home-delivery guy who shows up in our complex on Sundays. Even on her day off, she’s loyal to the Phoenix.
And how do I know my mother was behind Mellie’s arrival?
I was cleaning out a junk drawer of tape measures, nails and screws, and random old pictures the night before I had to decide to adopt Mellie (decisions are often agonizing for me). On top of the pile of stuff was a faded 1980s Polaroid of The Betty holding her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Tippy. A small dog with a big personality, Tippy was The Betty’s solution to being empty nested. My parents loved that dog and although faint, in that photo was the same smile as the day she told me I’d know for certain that she was with me.
Today, as the pandemic drags on, we’re yearning for moments of joy that would have otherwise been considered status quo. If we’re feeling brave, we may mask up and go out to dinner or attend a live performance. While it isn’t a crime to venture out socially, most of us have a nagging feeling that we might bring harm to ourselves or others. It may not ruin the experience, but the sensation or feeling is there anyway.
Kind of like the tiny coffee stain on that sweater The Betty bought me. Maybe no one else can see it, but it’s strategically hidden under a broach and it bugs me.
My old friend Carolyn was talking about similar unnameable feelings when she told me her deceased father came to her in dreams.
“It started about two years ago or so when the pandemic was new and to be honest, I didn’t recognize his voice at first,” she said. “I sat up in bed and called my brother, but before I could say anything, he blurted out that dad was speaking to him. He didn’t remember much at first, but it was dad’s voice.”
Less subtle than The Betty in the signs and signals department, Carolyn’s father gives her words of encouragement. Her brother occasionally hears stern warnings about masks and vaccines, even though he’s boosted and rarely leaves his house. The dreams freak out Carolyn, but she has come to welcome them. Not wanting to “look like a kook” to her server co-workers, she wouldn’t go into further detail except to say she’s lucky.
“Really?” said another friend with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “Signs from the grave telling someone to wear a mask? That’s his conscience speaking to him through an authority figure in his mind. Hearing words of encouragement in a dream? Doesn’t that sound like someone who has self-esteem issues?”
Although I asked him when he became Sigmund Freud, I must admit I half-agree with him. But that’s not at all the case with my mother’s moments of reassurance.
While walking past my neighbor’s bird feeder I saw two bright red cardinal feathers. Having never seen them on the ground before, I picked them up and immediately thought of The Betty. Cardinals represent luck and are messages to keep pushing toward a goal. They also represent comfort after a loss.
There will be no dirty, ordinary feather for The Betty. So, none for me as well.
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].