Staging for Scenes: Water bugs become dragonflies, so says the story intended to console the children when their five-year-old friend died. In the tale, a water bug could not keep his commitment to come back to his familiar waters after he climbed the stem of a water lily. They had seen water bugs ascend the stem; they never returned. He had committed to his water bug friends that he would return to tell them what he was experiencing. When he reached the top, he discovered that he had become a dragonfly. He now had “four silver wings and a long tail.” He could fly. He went “swooping and dipping in great curves…He felt exhilarated in the new atmosphere.” Alas, when the dragonfly tried to return to his friends, he bounced back when he hit the water.*
Scene 1: I shared this story with Ken and his son, Jesse, during their retreat last July. Ken was 79, Jesse was 40. Ken was limping along the last lap of his journey with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jesse was walking with him, especially as they shared five days together. They remembered past events. They visited sites from Ken’s college days. They laughed. They talked about what happens when we die: Do we move into a joyful state? Do we lapse into nothing? Do deceased persons stay connected with their loved ones on earth, even communicating with them in some way? Ken and Jesse cried—in gratitude, in grief for the separation they both knew they would have to face soon. They soaked in the natural beauty and healing power of the surrounding lakes and woods. They were together; they were immersed in precious time alone and in quiet.
Scene 2: Later, the story of the water bug-to-dragonfly made its way several times into conversations at their family home. Dragonflies appeared often—on the deck, on the lawn. They and the story became part of the family lore.
Scene 3: Ken died two months after my encounter with him and Jesse. His death was peaceful. He left his family with a sense that he believed his work was complete. He’d seen and talked with people significant to him. He had passed his projects with the ALS Association into the competent hands of like-minded people who would champion his vision. However, he hadn’t answered his questions about death—an answer that could come only by climbing the stem of the water lily. It remained to be seen whether or not Ken would communicate in some way with the loved ones he left behind.
Scene 4: While driving to a doctor’s appointment, Jesse’s attention was caught by a flurry of dragonflies over a grassy patch of land. He stopped and walked toward the dragonflies. They were swarming. He had never seen so many dragonflies at one time. Dozens, perhaps hundreds. Jesse turned on his video camera, hoping to take the experience with him. He anticipated revisiting the dragonflies after his appointment. Alas, when he arrived at the hoped-for scene, they had disappeared. Later Jesse realized that the swarm of dragonflies he had met occurred during the time his dad was being cremated.
Scene 5: After Ken’s death, a warm note of condolence arrived from the PT/OT team at the VA hospital where he had received care and where he had died. When Jesse opened the envelope, a metal dragonfly slipped into his hand.
Backstage—Another Scene: Wondering continues. Do people who have passed through death communicate to us with signs that we can recognize? If so, what is their purpose—to let us know they are still with us and care about us, to give us messages? I wonder…Maybe…Certainly…?
Mary Reuter, OSB
Photo: A dragonfly, taken by Sister Nancy Bauer