January 2015

The story of a pink cloud

by Rebecca Bricker on January 24, 2015

When I hear the news that someone dear to me has died, I go outside and look at the sky. I memorize the way it looks and each time I see a sky that’s similar, I pause to remember that person and send up a big hello.

For my wonderful mother-in-law — a war bride from Trieste, Italy — there was a full moon on the night she died. When I see a full moon shining over Italy, I smile and call out, “Ciao, Lily! Come stai?” I feel her smiling. I know she’s there.

On a January day some years ago, when I heard about the death of a former editor of mine whom I adored, the sky was bright blue with streaks of wispy white clouds. For me, it’s Frank’s sky. A few weeks earlier, he had sent me a touching message, upon hearing of sadness in my life, and said he, too, had been having a rough time. He didn’t mention he was dying.

I wouldn’t describe myself as religious. But I am spiritual. I think about the afterlife and previous lives. I believe in destiny and happy accidents (that aren’t really accidents). I’m fascinated by stories that take place in parallel universes. In my own life, I’ve had some experience with this.

I had a close friend named Rebecca. We had been Cub Scout den mothers and active volunteers at the school our young sons attended. When I met her, she was recovering from breast cancer and for the next couple of years appeared to be in remission. But then one day, she said to me, “I went to the doctor last week — the cancer is back.”

She had 30 tumors in her liver. Her doctor put her in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug that seemed to have a miracle effect. Within a few months, the tumors were gone. When she got the news, we were sitting at my dining room table finishing a quilt for her sister for Christmas. She and I danced around the table.

And then she did something surprising to me. She essentially threw away the list she had made of the things she wanted to do before she died — like making that quilt for her sister (which we did end up finishing).

“I’ve been given a chance to live my life again,” Rebecca told me. She wasn’t dying anymore. She was alive.

A talented artist, Rebecca began giving art lessons to young people in her home studio. She camped out on her roof one night to watch a meteor shower. I slept through it, but she told me all about it the next day. She was living her life each day with joy and zeal.

The drug’s cancer-quelling effect lasted almost two years. Rebecca knew, as the results came in from other women who had started the trial before her, that her cancer would likely return. And it did, with a vengeance.

On the night she died, just a few months later, her husband called me to tell me she was gone. I walked outside and looked up at the sky. The moon was bright, with Mars twinkling just above it. A billowy pink cloud slowly filled the sky. The air was still, not a breath of a breeze from where I stood. But as that pink cloud swirled around the moon and Mars, blown by a wind I couldn’t feel, I knew she was there. I envisioned her at heaven’s special-effects board playing with the buttons.

A few weeks before Rebecca died, she said to me, “I’m not leaving for good, you know. I’ll be back to visit you. I promise.” These conversations always took my breath away. I couldn’t bear to think of life without her sunny face, her mirthful laugh, her joie de vivre.

The summer after her death, I took myself to France to celebrate my 50th birthday. I felt Rebecca’s presence on that trip. She sat next to me at the Basilica of Sacre Coeur in Paris and wandered with me through villages in Provence. As I stood knee-deep in lavender one day, she assured me this was as close to heaven as any place I would find on earth.

On the flight back from that trip, I awoke from a nap and lifted the window shade. Next to the wing was a big puffy pink cloud.

“There you are,” I whispered.

A few days after I got home, I had dinner with a friend, who had known Rebecca well. My friend said to me, “I had the strangest dream last night about Rebecca. She came to me, asking me to massage her feet. Isn’t that odd? She said her feet were so tired.”

I smiled. “That’s because she’s been with me.”

In my travels, Rebecca is with me often. She always wanted to experience the places I’ve been so fortunate to visit. Every time I see a pink cloud hovering, I smile at her and say, “Isn’t this amazing?”

A month ago, when I got the call that my mother had died, I went out on the terrace of my Florence apartment to look at the sky — sunny and bright. It was a Sunday, the first day of winter. That evening, at twilight, I walked around my neighborhood. Church bells rang. I looked over my shoulder and noticed the sky was streaked with pink.

And I knew all was well. 😉