I have always been doubtful, and envious, of people who believe they see signs—signs as omens, signals from other worlds, divine messages. I attribute their experiences to optimism, sadness, religious devotion, weed, or in some cases, mental illness. My religious tradition—I’m Jewish—provides for some believers a kind of numerology called gematria, which is a mathematical calculation of letters and numbers leading to interpretation and meaning.
There were times in my life when I counted numbers wishfully. I’d hail a New York City cab and imagine a good day if the driver’s ID added up to twelve. Why twelve? I believed that if I believed in lucky numbers, mine would be twelve.
People receive messages all the time in the genre of true crime, which I was drawn to after my mother died three years ago. These narratives, whether in film, television, or print, often featured people who were still grieving, and I felt a kinship with them. In some of the stories, a loved one marveled at what he or she perceived as a sign: a butterfly in a rock garden; a door slamming for no apparent reason; snowfall in May; a long-lost dog’s return; the mysterious blooming of roses where none had been planted.
I came to believe that one day I might also receive a sign, and I opened myself up to this possibility. In fact, I felt I was entitled to a sign: Other people were getting them, why not me? I would make this request of the universe. I would specify that a sign from my mother, from anywhere along her path on the spiritual highway, would be especially welcome.
Messages from the beyond had not yet occurred to me when I learned that my father died, on the day after Christmas, in 2017. He was living in a Florida nursing home, where he had moved to be closer to his second wife’s daughter and her family. I was getting my New York City apartment ready for sale, and on that day I was immersed in clutter and dust, shredding papers, emptying boxes of files, and stuffing bundles of clothing from closets into large black Hefty bags. Late in the afternoon, despite the darkening sky and near freezing temperatures, I felt an overwhelming urge to leave my apartment and go for a walk in Central Park. It was a gravitational pull away—from what, I didn’t know, probably the drudge of packing. The next day I received an e-mail informing me that my father had died. Only later did I consider that this sequence of events might’ve been a revelation, a cosmic tip-off.
My mother’s final struggle with a long illness began in late May of 2018 and culminated with her death three weeks later. I had planned my move out of Manhattan in part to be closer to her, and also to set up a small metalworking studio, which would’ve been impossible in the city. She died a few days after I signed the papers for a new apartment, and more than a year after that, I found my studio space.
It was my mother who had first shown me the building where my studio is now located—over the years she’d gone with friends to art crawls there—but I didn’t read anything into this until my fixation on signs began to take hold. It was then that I thought, Maybe my studio is the sign—the biggest sign of all, an uber sign, a meta-sign. That my mother was the one who brought me to this place, that her spirit arranged for the space to become available, that she was somewhere close, watching out for me.
On the last Sunday in May 2020, I went to my studio in the morning and worked until late in the afternoon. Exiting the building, I stepped into dazzling, shimmering light. There’s a small pond on the property, surrounded by a low stone wall, and on the near side—the side that abuts the parking lot—a grassy embankment. Geese and ducks gather there, honking and quacking, waddling around, pecking and poking at scraps of food. I’ve also seen a few large hawks presiding imperiously over the pond from the far wall. But on this day, poised on the concrete platform in the center of the pond was an attenuated white figure. It was startling, a sight I’d not seen before.
The creature—a heron—was elegant and statuesque, like a Brancusi. I heard the whispering breath of my gasp, and I stared while furtively rummaging around in my bag for my phone so I could take a picture.
Steadily, with no sudden motions, I stepped closer. The bird tilted and leaned forward precariously before it lunged, its neck grossly extended. With a splash it dipped its beak into the water and pulled up a small wiggling fish, which it ingested in one gulp. My phone ready, I slid one foot forward. The heron, alerted, became still. I raised the phone. I eyed the bird, which I knew eyed me while looking straight ahead, seeing me but not looking at me. Then it took off in a breathtaking moment of flight.
I saw a large expanse of white, a whirlwind of fluttering that hovered, so I felt its weight before it rose and became airborne. The ascending feathery mass looked gauzy and vaporous—ghostlike—its wingspan voluptuous, unearthly. It came to rest on the far wall, and in an instant resumed its delineated white shape, still as a soldier standing guard.
I waited. I wanted the diaphanous visage to show itself again. But the creature refused, insisting now on being a bird, and not a harbinger, not an angel, not the ghost of my mother, even though in that second or two I truly believed.
Barbara Livenstein is a participant in Susan Hodara’s classes and is working on a memoir.