February 6, 2014
Twelve years ago today, my father died peacefully as the rosary was said over the intercom at Our Lady of Good Counsel Cancer Home, a residential hospice (now Our Lady of Peace) in St Paul. In the midst of our grief, my nine siblings and I found great comfort after his death and less than 3 months later, when my mother died, whenever we observed what I call ‘thin place signs.’ Thin place experiences are meant-to-be moments when we feel as if the veil between this world and the next one is very ‘thin.’ Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the most common after-death thin places is seeing rainbows after a loved one died.
In my first book, Thin Places: Where Faith is Affirmed and Hope Dwells, I wrote about how my soul friend, Terry, (who I call “Beth” in my book), also lost her father, George, on February 6, the year after my dad died. As you can read in the excerpt from Thin Places below, we both were comforted after seeing vertical rainbows we call “sun dogs” that eventually formed a rainbow, on the day after her dad died. This morning, as we do nearly every February 6, Terry and I were to meet at 7am mass, in memory of our beloved Irish-Catholic fathers. Today, just like 11 years ago, I was late for mass. Despite knowing I’d likely miss the entire service, I went anyway to see Terry. After saying a silent prayer together at a side altar, we wondered aloud if anything exciting would happen on this significant day. I silently asked God and my deceased dad for another sun dog ‘sign’ to reassure me of my father’s continued presence in my life. Later that morning, my prayer was answered.
Less than a half hour after we’d left the church, Terry called and said she had seen a vibrant sun dog in the shape of a single vertical rainbow as she drove to her office. I told her I wasn’t able to go outside to look at it just then, but if it was “meant to be,” I would see a sun dog later. When I first left the building I was in, there was no sign of a sun dog or rainbow, just a brilliant sun in a cloudless sky.
About two hours later, I stopped for coffee then decided to exercise at the YMCA. For some unknown reason, I drove right by the “Y” that was a half-mile from Caribou Coffee shop and headed south on Robert St. in West St. Paul. As I crossed into the adjoining small town of Inver Grove Heights, I happened to glance to my left. There there they were: two curved sun dogs that looked like they either had just been a rainbow or were about to join to create the familiar half circle. I quickly took a photo, shown above, then the sun dogs vanished. As I composed an email to send with the photo to Terry, I realized her dad had been mayor of Inver Grove Heights many years ago. Because of the coincidence seeing the sun dog while driving in his hometown, I interpreted this comforting thin place sign as coming from both her father as well as from mine. George must have known I’d tell Terry, so the sign was for both of us. Maybe our two fathers were now soul friends, in heaven, just as their daughters are now on earth. Seeing the partial sun dog rainbow reminded me of a nearly identical experience I had eleven years earlier. Below is an excerpt from Thin Places, the story of a “meant to be” thin place moment that also involved a sun dog:
The Celtic Rainbow
From Thin Places: Where Faith is Affirmed and Hope Dwells
There are only two ways to live life:
One is as though nothing were a miracle.
The other is as though everything were a miracle.
February 5, 2003
I anticipated my friend Beth’s call moments before the telephone rang. When caller ID displayed her familiar number, my intuition was confirmed. I had just been thinking about Beth—praying, actually—knowing what she was facing in the days ahead. Her father was dying, just as mine had been, this same time last year.
“Oh, Beth, I was just thinking about you,” I said as I picked up the phone. “How are you doing?”
“It’s hard—as you know. It won’t be long. The doctor said Dad could go at any time, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. But because of the Alzheimer’s, I almost feel like we lost him long ago.”
“I’m so sorry you have to go through this.” I hesitated, not entirely sure how she would react to what I was about to say. Yet from our many soul-searching conversations, I knew Beth is deeply spiritual. She, like me, looks for ways God is present in our daily lives. She, like me, often finds the good in even the most difficult situations. So I said what I was thinking. “You know your father will be at peace. And if he goes tomorrow, it would be like a sign, wouldn’t it? As sad as his death will be for you, don’t you think it would be significant if your father dies on the same day as mine did? Then maybe our fathers will be spiritual friends, just like you and I are now.”
“I like that thought.” I could hear the smile in her response.
February 6, 2003
Beth’s father did die the following day. The coincidence of losing our fathers on February 6 comforted both of us. Maybe they were together now and would become soul friends, just as their daughters had. Perhaps they were already communicating as Beth and I often did: without words.
Beth (not her real name) is my anam cara, a Gaelic term that means “soul friend.” One of the many gifts of our soul friendship is that she has helped me become closer to God. In his book of the same name, theologian and poet John O’Donohue describes an anam cara as “one of the most beautiful concepts in the Celtic tradition … a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” With an anam cara, “your friendship cuts across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul.”
Beth and a few other special friends had given me emotional and spiritual support during the sad events of the past year. Now she would experience her own loss, grief, and sorrow as her father’s life came to an end. My heart ached for what she was going through, and for the grief that still lay ahead.
Thank God she still has her mother, I thought. I wish I still had mine.
The past year and a half had been filled with bittersweet memories for me; some brought comfort and others brought tears. The final visits with Dad in the hospital, and later at the hospice, were both touching and sad for our family. After he died, all of us tried to, but really could not, help Mom adjust to living in a house that seemed more than empty without her husband of more than fifty years. Then, before we could recover from Dad’s death, we lost Mom. I still cannot believe they’re both gone. I still pick up the phone to call them before the futility of the effort dawns on me.
Yet in the months after my parents’ deaths, when tears still came uninvited, our family had several experiences that affirmed what we believe: that our parents were happy, at peace, and still with us in spirit. On their birthdays and anniversaries, we saw rainbows and heard their favorite songs. Many such incidents occurred, it seemed, to help us heal. Whenever these signs appeared, we felt connected to the God who, we believed, orchestrated them. I hoped that Beth’s family also would experience these signs that brought so much comfort and peace to ours.
A few hours after Beth’s call, my family gathered for Mass and a dinner to honor the one-year anniversary of our father’s death. During the meal, one of my siblings asked if anyone had noticed anything unusual during the day. Since Beth is also a friend to several of us, we mentioned her father’s death. But other than that, nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
As I lay in bed that night, I mentally visited with Dad, as I often do. This time, I made a request: Dad, will you ask God to send us a sign to let us know you’re still with us? Oh, and please ask for one to be sent to Beth’s family, so they will know their father is OK too. I didn’t know whether he could hear my thoughts, but I felt close to him in saying the words.
February 7, 2003
At 6:40 the following morning, I awoke suddenly—startled, as when you think your alarm clock didn’t go off. Instantly, I felt I must go to Mass at the church where we held Dad’s funeral Mass. The feeling wasn’t a direct command, but I knew what it meant: Go to 7:00 a.m. Mass today. Yet I argued with my instinct: But it’s not even Sunday. And it’s too cold outside. A second later, the masculine radio voice that typically wakes me proclaimed a temperature that was harsh even by Minnesota’s standards: “It’s fifteen below zero today. With the wind chill, it’s about twenty-six below. Bundle up, folks.” I snuggled even further under the covers. No way am I going out in this freezing weather.
But when the intuitive feeling persisted, I knew I had to go. Over the years, I’ve learned to trust my intuition. So even though I would be late for Mass, I threw on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, grabbed a jacket, stuffed my pockets with a pair of gloves, and drove to Assumption Church in downtown St. Paul.
Entering the church as Father John Malone lifted the communion host over his head to consecrate the body and blood of Christ, I hoped he wouldn’t see me slip into Mass so late. Why am I here? I asked the question like it was a prayer. Maybe Father Malone will say something especially profound in his homily. But then I remembered he doesn’t give a homily at his weekday Masses. The services ended just minutes after I had arrived. I whined to God as if I were a petulant child: What was the point of dragging myself down here?
Driving home, I noticed what seemed to be a vertical rainbow, a single tower of iridescent colors—a phenomenon some call a sun dog. I instantly dialed Beth on my cell phone to tell her to look out her window. Beth views rainbows as a sign of the Divine, as I and countless others do. She and I had heard stories of how rainbows often appear after someone has died. Rainbows validated our belief that nature often is a manifestation of God’s gracious design. Maybe seeing the resplendent light would comfort her at this distressing time. I felt certain that this was the sign I had asked for the night before.
When Beth didn’t answer, I left a message, hoping she would retrieve it in time to see this beautiful sign of hope. Wanting to capture it in case she missed it, I headed home to get my camera. Driving around my neighborhood, I tried to find just the right vantage point. At a pond near our home, I noticed something unusual about the sun dog. Instead of radiating far off in the distance, the filaments of color were shining directly in front of me. Tiny particles of bright light flickered in front of nearby shrubs, not behind them, as you would expect with a rainbow. Later that day, my sister Maureen said she too had noticed this phenomenon.
I took a few photos, then drove to another spot near a small, snow-covered lake and marveled to see yet a second rainbow of the same size and shape, now parallel to the first. Next, at a park where Beth and I often walk, I saw that the two erect beams of light had joined, forming a more familiar rainbow shape. The sun shone brightly in the middle of the half circle created by the arch. I had never seen a rainbow that framed the sun. The radiant light was too much for my camera, which refused to work. Trying for a better angle, I noticed a bird feeder on a pole. Thinking the pole might diffuse the brightness, I positioned myself so the sun was behind the feeder. With one eye squinting through the viewfinder, I was thrilled that the entire rainbow could be seen in the tiny square. In the past, when I had photographed a rainbow, I could never fit the whole scene into the picture (shown above).
I dropped off the film for one-hour developing and went home. Beth called, saying she had received my message forty-five minutes after I left it. “I was disappointed because I couldn’t see the rainbow out my window, so I assumed I had missed it,” she said. “But I was wrong.” Minutes after listening to the message, Beth left her home to go to a final meeting at the nursing home where her father had died. Within a mile, she saw the sun dog shape I had described. It was in the distance, in the direction of her destination. As she approached the nursing home, the vertical rainbow hovered over the building. The base of it appeared to touch the ground in front of her. The sight of it comforted her, and reassured her that her father was at peace.
“I think I got it in on film,” I told Beth. “At least I got a picture of the rainbow I saw. If the photo turns out, I’ll bring it to you later.” Ordinarily, my photos are never as beautiful as the real-life scene. But this one not only turned out, it proved to be especially poignant. I had captured the entire rainbow, end to end, on the four-by-six-inch photo. Inside the rainbow the sun was not its normal round shape. With the bird feeder in front of it, the diffused light appeared in the shape of a cross. Knowing Beth would love this image, I made a copy for her, and for her mother and siblings.
Later that day, when I brought the photo to her house, Beth found it as comforting as I did. We chatted for a few minutes, then she quickly rose from the sofa and dashed out of the living room, with a quick “I’ll be right back.” When she returned, she held a Celtic cross, the symbol those of us of Irish descent know so well: a cross whose center is surrounded by a circle. “Look, this photo looks just like the Celtic cross!” Beth said excitedly. “And wouldn’t it just be like our two Irish fathers to send us this sort of sign! I’ll bet they’re both looking down on us right now, smiling.”
“I just got goosebumps,” I told her.
“So did I!”
We realized that the bird feeder also was significant. Our fathers had loved watching birds at their many backyard feeders. When I told Beth the cardinal was Dad’s favorite bird, she said, “My father loved them too. He would often whistle and call to the cardinals and they would sing back to him.” (As I write these words on a cold December day, a male cardinal suddenly lands on the branch of the tree outside my window. There’s no feeder on this small bare tree, yet the songbird is in no hurry to leave. He looks at me through the window for several seconds. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that my father’s favorite bird lingers in front of me as I write about his love of cardinals. Maybe not. But I feel as if God and Dad are here with me at this moment.)
For me, the appearance of the “Celtic rainbow,” as my brother Paul has named the photo, was a sign, a thin-place experience, and for several reasons. First, I’m convinced that nature is filled with thin-place phenomena, examples of God’s artistry on earth. Second, had I not responded to my intuition and gone to Mass that chilly Friday morning, I never would have seen the rainbow. The experience validated the importance of listening to the voice that speaks within my heart. The event reaffirmed that incredible gifts and spiritual lessons often become apparent when we obey an inner command, especially without understanding its meaning or purpose. Third, seeing the rainbow reminded me how connected we are to family, friends, and even strangers who have died. Just as scripture promises, love is eternal.
DO YOU HAVE A “MEANT TO BE” /THIN PLACE STORY TO SHARE? PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT HERE OR EMAIL ME AT MARY.TREACY.OKEEFE@GMAIL.COM IF YOU’D LIKE TO HAVE YOUR STORY CONSIDERED FOR MY NEXT BOOK, MEANT TO BE: DISCOVERING WHAT WE ARE CALLED TO BE AND DO.
TO ORDER A PERSONALIZED COPY OF Thin Places: Where Faith is Affirmed and Hope, please visit my website www.marytreacyokeefe.com.