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Eric ClaytonApril 01, 2022
A red ladybug crawls up the white petal of a daisy.The ladybugs buzz and click and collide into one another and into me and it is a joyful cacophony. And I know Nana is all right. (Unsplash/Greg Rosenke)

It’s hard to keep your attention on the road when there is a 5-month-old wailing in the backseat.

I mean the-pacifier-is-lost-and-will-never-be-found-again wailing. Tears, big globby things, dripping down her cheeks. And those sobs—three sickly gasps and a long exhale.

I take the closest exit and park the car.

My wife and I stumble out of our S.U.V., fumbling for the backseat doors. Through one door we unleash our toddler and through the other, we give that wailing infant some fresh air.

As it turns out, we have stumbled upon a lookout point on our way to Western Maryland and our weekend getaway in the woods. It is hotter than I like, but we do the family thing and march our small brigade down the path, our eyes set on the pinprick of light in the distance: the lookout. This will be our brief road-trip respite.

It is beautiful, a vista of green and brown and red and all the other colors of fall. Maryland forest at its finest. The sun is high and hot, and our 3-year-old has forgotten her sunglasses. So have I.

We head back to the car.

“What’s on your back?” I asked my wife. Three—no, four—black blots were on her shirt.

“I don’t know,” she says, brushing at them as best she can, doing that little dance you do when you can’t quite reach an itch.

The ladybugs made me think of my Nana and feel her presence. I feel her with me, not in a reincarnated sense, but I sense messages—or messengers. Little winks.

“They’re on my legs, too,” I mutter. Then, “Wait. They’re—” I looked closer. One lands on my bare arm. It crawls onto my outstretched fingers, red with black spots. “They’re ladybugs.” I gasp. “And there’s a lot of them.”

•••

My grandmother did not like bugs, as far as I know. Nana liked a clean house. Bugs usually signify the opposite.

Still, the ladybugs made me think of her and feel her presence. I feel her with me, not in a reincarnated sense, but I sense messages—or messengers. Little winks.

She was a holy woman, devout, never missed Monday Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. She never failed to drag my grandfather along with her either. She belonged to the Catholic Daughters and never missed a pancake breakfast in the church basement. She and my grandfather said their prayers daily, religiously (no pun intended).

And she passed on that faith—a faith she had received from her parents—to us, most tangibly in the form of a miraculous medal, given to each of us cousins not long after our births.

So, maybe she had an in with God. Certainly, she had an in with Mary. And maybe that is why she knew she was going to die.

I visited her in the hospital after she had been rushed to the E.R. for her failing kidneys. “This won’t be it,” she assured me, sitting on the edge of that hospital bed a few days later, her hair just so and her lips pursed together in frustration at the mediocre hospital food. “But soon.”

“Oh,” was all I said. We were navigating the ins and outs of dialysis, so I, too, assumed death had been thwarted, at least for the time being.

“I’ll have more time to take care of your grandfather,” she assured me. She assured herself. And we nodded to each other. And we prayed the Magnificat, and then I left.

We never got around to asking her how she would let us know all was well, that she was home with God. Still, I wanted a sign.

And she did—she took care of my grandfather until the end. She prepared meals just the way he liked and kept their new apartment at a temperature well above what any of us thought was comfortable because he was always cold. She laid out his clothes just so, and he looked his best.

Sixty years and more. But all things come to an end.

The plot twist was this: It wasn’t her kidneys; it was a stroke.

And even though we had a month to prepare, a month of agonizing hospital visits—where we clung tenaciously to hope—and then hospice visits where that hope transformed into something else, we never got around to asking her how she would let us know all was well, that she was home with God.

Still, I wanted a sign.

•••

Ladybugs tend to gather in the fall, as I understand it. Something to do with capitalizing on the waning warm weather and the need to mate, to shore up all things before the cold, cold winter.

Typically, I am not one for asking God for signs. Too many signs and wonders and faith turns into certainty. After all, what was it Jesus said about signs?

“This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11:29,32).

Miracle after miracle and they still hung him on the cross.

But as we spent those latter days of October preparing for Nana’s funeral, my mom and I got to talking: How will we know Nana is all right? That she is with God? That she is watching over us, even now?

“There were a lot of ladybugs in her room,” my mom said. “All over the windows.” Then, a chuckle. “She would’ve hated it.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. “That’s the sign.”

We said it in jest, two heartbroken people grasping for anything to mend that inner brokenness.

God is in all things. And yet, in moments of pain and tragedy, we want that extra wink, that hand of comfort.

Yet, here I stand, in an utterly random cluster of Maryland trees, picking ladybugs off my pants, off my wife’s back, out of my daughter’s curly hair.

“I just need to go back,” I say, already turning around, eyes darting toward the lookout point. “I need to look again.”

I am the only person at the lookout point, standing on those polished wooden beams, the sweeping expanse of forest below me, the sun still high and casting sparkling light on every inch of this grownup treehouse.

But I am not alone. I stand, slowly spinning, in a swarm of ladybugs, a cloud of red and black chaos. They land in my hair, on my cheeks. They seek out my outstretched hands and crawl over my fingers. They buzz and click and collide into one another and into me and it is a joyful cacophony.

And I know Nana is all right.

•••

God is in all things, so we might say there are literally signs of God at work everywhere. You do not need to name it; you just experience it. You just go out into the world, and there is God, smiling at you, delighting in you.

And yet, in moments of pain and tragedy, we want that extra wink, that hand of comfort. We want to know it will all be alright, that God still has things under control.

My grandmother never liked ladybugs anymore than any other bug—if at all. Prior to that moment, I knew it only as a meaningless insect. But there we were surrounded by these bugs in a seemingly meaningless stretch of highway, in a seemingly meaningless grove of trees, overlooking a seemingly meaningless part of the forest. And it was in the midst of all this that we found deep meaning and connection—at this spot that we would have completely overlooked had my daughter, named in honor of that same grandmother, not started to cry.

Does God give us signs because we ask for them? Maybe. But I think if we are on the lookout, if we are attentive to the world around us, we will not need to ask for signs—we will only need to recognize them.

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