Grief can take many forms. In the case of this week’s guest author, Noelle Bickle, it took the form of a ladybug, after her mother’s cancer death, just after Thanksgiving last year.
By Noelle Bickle
Two days before my mother died, the issue antagonizing my family was ladybugs. The untimely infestation of them — an unusual dilemma for Canadians in October — threatened the success of our annual Thanksgiving photo.
Their evacuation was non-negotiable. Masses of them were becoming a nuisance while we were getting ready to strike a pose, and because they were the “ones that bite”, according to my sister, who, in my experience, was normally right about these kinds of things. We swept, scattered and sprayed until the lot of them had vacated the porch so that we could accomplish what had become our autumn ritual for more than thirty years: a reluctant fashion event captured on film before we feasted on a meal worth waiting for.
The family photo shoot tradition started in my teens but stuck for decades at my mother’s insistence. While the rest of us were still in summer mode and summer gear, my mother would be scouting upcoming colour trends. She even bought coordinating spares — an extra shirt; scarf; even a pair of mitts on occasion, just in case anyone tried to sneak into frame without a splash of that year’s palette.
We grew accustomed to this annual expectation, though we grumbled about having to take repeated photos; the endless change of positions and poses; trying to look both natural and relaxed while not looking annoyed at the kids or the other half in regards to mentioned mandatory photo shoot. Always coordinated colours, always collective grumbling, and always a meal worth waiting for. The Bickle Thanksgiving.
I admit though, entirely due to my mother’s insistence, postcard-perfect photos now time-stamp decades of crazy hairstyles, oversized glasses, and partners who came and went in each of our lives. Evidence of what one might call the interesting evolution of our family. It’s a tradition I won’t ever discontinue though. I’ll make my children grumble for decades too.
That past Friday — just heading into Thanksgiving weekend, my mother had banged the gong — literally. A cancer centre ritual reserved for and justly earned by cancer patients that triumphed through treatment. My dad and sister were there with her, as they always were. Both had an unwavering capacity and dedication to nurture and support her daily in the four-year wave of cancers. I lived with my kids in another town, more than two hours away. That physical distance and the commotion of kids somehow legitimized my required effort as minimal in terms of the heartbreaking hard labour that comes with struggling cancer. Instead, I’d travel down to her to drink tea, spin everyday life into stories, and laugh. The distance also encouraged lengthy and cleverly crafted emails to make her smile. And because I commuted almost an hour to work each way, we’d use the time for ridiculously long phone calls where I talked her ear off over the air waves too. Packaged differently than the years before, when I lived only ten minutes from my parents’ home, these conversations were just a continuation of more than four decades worth of my endless stories. My mother delighted in words. My constant narratives — filled with improvisations and embellishments — she called effervescence. Probably the best compliment I’ll ever receive. What writer wouldn’t feel grateful to have an eager listener and reader to encourage a lifetime of storytelling?
That Thanksgiving Monday, the entire family felt appropriately grateful. By Wednesday though, we were sideswiped by grief. I braced myself for that two-hour drive home to tell my kids that she had died. It was pouring rain. The kind of torrential downpour that keeps sane people from driving without good reason. I hadn’t moved more than three car lengths before my own water works began. The kind of sobs that suck your breath out of your chest and leave you simply wilted. A downpour rivaling the one outside.
Somehow, distraction came with the smallest flutter of movement. A ladybug — fixed firmly on the driver’s window — meandered a path back and forth directly at my eye line. It seemed my mother was channelling through that little ladybug with a message only she would give.
Stop driving, stop crying, breathe. Centre yourself so you get home safely. Cry then.
Lady bug, lady bug, fly away home, your house is on fire and your babies are alone.
I stopped crying. I started breathing, centred myself and drove home. Every time I started to cry again — each time I felt grief coming like a tidal wave — that ladybug caught my eye.
I drove home, and sat in the driveway stunned. Fear-frozen with having to speak the words, even with the hours of rehearsing what I’d say, how I’d say it, what their reactions would be, and how I would handle their reactions. There is no roadmap for delivering devastation while devastated. I don’t know that I did a good job of it. The memory is blurred, like much of the days, weeks, and months that came after. Hours after talking to my kids though, the realization hit me. I’d lost track of the ladybug.
Distracted from my distraction, I’d spun in worry before coming into the house, and brain blipped, I just forgot. I wasn’t mindful of the little bug. She’d kept me company, keeping me both centred and safe the whole ride home, but I had no idea what happened to her. I might’ve set her free when I opened the drivers’ door; I might have carelessly stepped on her; she might have crawled into my bag. I really had no idea. But I’d lost track of her and paid greatly for it all night, angry at myself for being so thoughtless with what felt like a sign from my mom. I’d hadn’t respected or recognized the fragility in either, and lost both of them before I was ready.
Exactly one week after our thanksgiving feast, we gathered again — this time at a celebration of life for my mother. My memory registers only a blur of that day too, other than the lineup of people weaving out the door and around the corner waiting to pay respects to my family. Equally heart-warming and overwhelming. Somewhere though — in the few hours of the service ending, the crowd dissipating, and kind-hearted friends and family leaving with hesitance — every ounce of energy drained from my body. Foreseeable options were to curl into a ball or simply fall to my knees. I hadn’t experienced grief like this — the all-consuming kind. Not at all prepared for the depth of it, I felt completely paralyzed. Needing direction in terms of simply putting one foot in front of the other.
I headed to the city to hide at my girlfriend’s downtown condo. More than six million people creating an invisibility that suited me — my devastation could go undetected. Jessie, intent on getting food into me and ensuring I finally rest — fed me sushi and reminded me to swallow when I got lost in aimless chewing.
I finally did eat, and slept, but woke up late morning flooded with guilt at not staying in town with my daughter, or going home to my two teenagers. The boys had left afterwards with their dad — the weight of my sorrow affected them daily, so I could tell myself the break from me would be a welcome relief. My daughter though — I should have stayed to support her with this enormous loss. Heather, almost 30 years old, married to her high school sweetheart and I could count on him being there to comfort her. But she was more than simply my mom’s granddaughter. I’d been a teen mom, and luckily for her and I both, my parents were an integral part of her upbringing. We lived with them several times throughout the years while I got on my feet or went to school. My mother — who Heather always called Didi — served as a second mom to her. The impact of that loss would be enormous, and yet I had left her alone in her grief. I texted her before my feet hit the floor and apologized in a novel-length text.
Should have spent time with U after the service. Sorry kiddo. Dealing with a “put the oxygen mask on myself first” situation. You’re grieving too — sorry to leave you alone in it. I had nothing left. I’ll come back & bring dinner. U okay? Xo.
I hit send.
While I waited for her response, I decided everyday tasks would be my best attempt to feel any sort of normalcy. We grabbed a dose of caffeine and took the dogs out. Walking a few hours in the warmth of the sunshine proved to be good medicine. I could breathe somewhat. That feeling of trying to gasp air through a sea reed while under murky water had subsided, thought only slightly. We rested on a park bench while the dogs burned off energy running in packs with the other city pups. Though they were beyond happy to frolic in the masses of scattering leaves, the evidence that the carefree ease of summer had escaped me pooled around my feet in shades of yellow, orange and red.
I heard Jessie suck in her breath. “Noelle, look,” she pointed at the small strip of park bench between us. Mid October and another ladybug had arrived.
“I have to take a picture,” I said. “I’m not going to get all obsessed about ladybugs now,” I assured her — or perhaps assured myself. “I decided if ladybugs come to me from now on, I’ll just take a picture of them.”
This being the solution I came up with to avoid any further smack-downs about the matter in my often scattered brain. A simple photo and the moment would be captured forever. Problem solved.
I grabbed my phone — five text messages sat waiting for me.
Hi Mom. Please believe me when I say I’m okay. Korey’s here & I’m doing what I need for myself. Had lots chats with Didi about this — came to a place of understanding. Death is by no means my friend, but I don’t fear it. A great read — Tibetan Book of Living & Dying. Changed my perspective on death & how to accept it.
Put the oxygen mask on first! U just lost your mom. I’m okay. Everyone’s okay. Do what you need for yourself. xo
She hadn’t curled into the fetal position in grief or at my abandonment of yesterday. I felt relieved. Heather has always been grounded. A Pisces. Warm and nurturing. Put the mask on yourself, she’d reiterated. She’s like my mother that way — compassionate and selfless. Do what you need, take what you need, take care of yourself first and foremost. So I did, now guiltless.
We rounded up the dogs and headed to Rabba to grab groceries for breakfast. I stayed outside to answer the rest of the text messages while Jess went in to get supplies. Pulling my phone out again, I realized in my eagerness to read my daughter’s response at the park, I’d forgotten to take the picture of the ladybug.
She might still be sitting on that bench, she might have flown away. Like the little red one who’d helped me make it home the day after my mom died, I’d done it again. I’d lost track of another one, and hadn’t taken a quick snapshot of her, even after I’d devised a brilliant solution to my losing ladybugs.
I berated my brain for its monkey-mindedness. I begged and bargained with my mom or anyone out there in the universe — just send me another one. I wouldn’t forget, or get distracted, or make light of it. Send me one more ladybug today. I promised — I’ll be mindful of the message.
My phone rang. The too-loud sing-song chime shook me out of my spinning. My son calling. A field trip form had to be signed and returned the week prior, and with all the chaos it hadn’t gotten done. The school needed verbal confirmation before they’d let him on the bus to go that morning. Balls dropping all over the place as life goes on, even when your own world stops. We sorted it out on the call, and I hung up with time to take one deep breath before a woman walking past asked if she could pet my dogs.
A petting request isn’t that unusual in the city, especially with my guy. More common downtown are condo-sized dogs, so my hundred-pound golden retriever always got ample attention with dog lovers. The woman, average and pleasant looking, lavished both dogs with petting and praise, and then said something to each one individually. Another language, one I didn’t recognize, but the same chant-like words to each dog. She stood, thanked me for the dose of puppy-love, and started to leave.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what did you say to them?”
“It’s a Tibetan prayer,” she said. “You say it as a blessing of sorts…” She spoke more but the words blurred because my tears came. Not wipe-away tears with little sniffles, but giant, gasping sobs with an accompanying flood of grief. We stood right downtown, the morning barrage of people bustling past — a stranger consoling a stranger falling apart at the seams. Both dogs weaved nervously between my legs as she explained it was nothing bad, just a positive blessing for animals. I choked out a response, assuring that her kindness had evoked my overwhelmed response. I rambled that I wasn’t at my best, that the day before was a service for my mother who had just passed and that I felt particularity vulnerable and weepy, so she should just ignore me and my embarrassing blubbering. Silently I begged, please move along from this train wreck.
The woman gently rested her hands on my shoulders. “I don’t believe the dogs are my purpose in meeting you today,” she said. “I don’t know what faith you practice, but I’m a Buddhist and I have two things I strongly feel you need to know, timing is very important. Can I share them with you?”
I wasn’t into street preaching, and seldom took opinions from those who’d likely prove to be complete whack-jobs. But I had no reserve of energy to resist while still in full breakdown mode, so I just nodded and listened to the things she felt I needed to know.
“First and foremost,” she said, “it’s really important that you don’t attach her to anything earthly. She’s beyond that now. If you cling to the hope that she’s in or part of something earthly, she won’t pass easily to the next part of her journey. Do you understand?”
I did understand, and I didn’t. The ladybug came to mind of course, but the woman had no knowledge of this or the flogging I’d given myself for repeatedly losing my mother sent in the form of a ladybug.
“She’s part of you, she’ll always be a part of you of course, but she’s not part of any earthly things now. Let go of anything you’re attaching her to, okay?”
My mother is not a ladybug. Her spirit did not morph into an insect making way to heaven. I didn’t know if I could accept it, but I nodded anyway. Letting go — not something I’d ever mastered successfully.
“The other thing is very important. A book that will give you clarity and comfort called the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.”
Heather had mentioned that very book in her text to me less than an hour before. Re-reading her text later, she clearly encouraged me to read the book. But I hadn’t received the intent in Heather’s message. I only read that she was okay, that I hadn’t failed her, that she was feeling strong enough and that I could take time to take time to get stronger too. Chances are, I wouldn’t have given the book she mentioned another thought. I hadn’t received the wisdom in her message, only the relief in her response.
The rest of the story with this Buddhist stranger isn’t nearly as important as the message I took from it. Something to let go of, and something to reach for. Both would give me comfort and clarity.
Over the last few months, I’ve been reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The woman was right — albeit a weighted read if you try to absorb and understand every chapter or page — the book does indeed give both clarity and comfort in grief that is entirely capsizing. The forward, written by the Dalai Lama, ensured that it had wisdom worth reading. I used colour coded post it tabs while I made my way through it — green for glossary of terms, yellow for information I wanted to read over again, orange for passages that resonated in case I needed a quick shot of re-grounding. The read became more of a task than a journey though, which probably accounts for the fact that, six months later, I’m still making my way through it.
Further to a completely unfamiliar person spreading wisdom though, a woman recently stuck up a conversation about the book in my hands and commented on the multitude of coloured tabs sticking out the side. The book had impacted her greatly, though she’d read it only once, years earlier. She said if she didn’t understand something, it clearly wasn’t the wisdom or lesson she needed at that time. She suggested I just read it rather than try to fully digest it; read rather than study, and that I could get what I needed from it that way too. As it happens, if you’re open to opportunities the universe brings to you, getting schooled by a stranger can have great impact.
As for the ladybugs, I still have them visit me on occasion. The last one came the day after I started writing this very piece about my mother’s death. It casually walked up my bathroom wall while I brushed my teeth. A blustery winter day — perfect ladybug weather. As much as I confess that the little bug made me smile, and maybe even validated that writing this piece would be a good thing, I don’t believe that bug was in fact my mother walking up my bathroom wall, or that she sent me a message via insect carrier — and that’s a good thing. As much as I want her here with me, in body or in spirit, attaching my mom to a ladybug presents a plethora of problems.
What if I stepped on a ladybug — crisis. Or squashed it in my car door after having her ride shotgun on the driver’s window — chaos. What if I found only half a ladybug nestled in my sandwich — which is not unrealistic considering that very thing happened to me, albeit it half a fly dangling from my bite mark in a deli-fresh tuna salad sandwich. As gross as that was, it was also hilarious. Finding half a ladybug though — catastrophe.
What would result if I had a ladybug infestation, which, worth mentioning, started this whole thing in the first place? Would that convince me my mother was sending me an important message? A visit to chime in on the happenings in my life at the time of the infestation? Would I alter decisions or question my own instinct or judgement every time one landed in my line of sight? Without my Buddha-stranger intervention, I would have bought into that because I needed to.
Understandably, I could cling to any signs or remnants of my mother because I desperately did not want to let her go. Even if it meant deciding her spirit or image had been reduced to that of a polka-dotted pest. I needed something to hold onto that represented her. But — that would’ve been a most unfortunate decision.
My mother accepted and loved me unconditionally in what I stood for, who I had become, and the life choices I made in in terms of parenting, partnering, and in dealing with work, life and play. Always invested in my happiness, she strategically stood at arm’s length to guide me without influencing decisions about my life. She believed in mapping your own journey in mind, body, and spirit. She respected decisions I made, even if they were in contrast to what she would have chosen for herself or for me. She’d mastered the skill of letting go of things that simply weren’t hers to carry.
My mother embraced my character flaws as much as she admired my strengths, but she’d always challenged the nasty habit I’d acquired over the years of being ridiculously hard on myself. She’d be stomping the cloud floors at the thought of me beating myself down over mere insects. Instead, she’d want me to journey through the storm of her death the same way she encouraged me to live my entire life — reasonably, kindly, compassionately, fearlessly.
Sometimes, a ladybug is just a ladybug. Even if it is making its way to the heavens.
About the author:
Noelle Bickle took almost as long to write her bio as she took to write her Conversations on Dying contribution. A writer who hasn’t been writing in the seven months since her mother’s death — and frankly for quite some months before that time as well — she is now shaking off the ink-dust and reminding herself that stories are much better penned on paper than racing through one’s head. She is also reminding herself that she is a writer, writing instructor, former president of the Writers’ Community of Simcoe County (WCSC), and former program director of the Canadian Authors Association. She is currently working on a non-fiction project exploring a woman’s worth, and is represented by the extraordinary and ever-patient, Carly Waters, VP and Senior Literary Agent of P.S. Literary Agency. Author photo by Sam Vessios at www.vessiosphoto.com.