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I’ve just this afternoon arrived back home in south Louisiana from 10 days in the Netherlands and Belgium. It’s time to eat some fresh tomatoes and then go to bed. But first, I want to tell you a story.

As regular readers know, I went to Holland to visit my old and dear friend M., who is fighting a tough, tough battle against cancer, which is in her liver, her brain, and her bones.

I visted M. for a couple of days after I arrived, and then headed to the south of the country with her sister, to visit other friends. M. is in very good spirits, but has to take care with her energy. Houseguests can be a drain, so we worked out in advance which days we would see each other. I would double back to Amsterdam towards the end of my trip, stay in an apartment in the city she secured for me, and spend a long morning with her alone. The last stop I made before heading back to Amsterdam was to toddle down to Brussels to visit my Louisiana-born friend K. and her husband.

Over dinner at K.’s place, we talked about folk superstitions. K. recalled her grandparents living in the Caribbean, where her grandfather managed the island branch of an American concern. Her ancestors were good Protestants, and could hardly abide the superstitions of the native folk.

“Once a servant went to pieces when a white moth fluttered into the kitchen,” K. said. “In their culture, a white moth symbolizes death.”

Isn’t that amusing? Aren’t people odd? seemed to be the reaction around the table. That was my reaction, anyway.

The next day, I was sitting on a train platform in suburban Brussels, talking to K. as I began the last leg of my trip, the jaunt back to Amsterdam, and my last meeting with M. My Brussels friend K. is a serious Christian. As we waited for my train, I asked K. to please pray for M.

“Let’s do it right now,” K. said.

“Now? Here?”

“Why not?” said K. “I don’t like it when people put off praying.”

So we closed our eyes and K. prayed aloud for my sick Dutch friend. She prayed for healing, and courage, and faith, and wisdom, and blessing. It was beautiful, and deeply heartfelt.

When we opened our eyes, I was observing the train tracks. There, bobbing up and down over the rails, was a large white moth. This, in the early afternoon (moths are nocturnal).

“Look!” I said to K., and pointed. She saw the moth, and gasped. We looked at each other with wide eyes.

“Are we really seeing this?” I said.

K. nodded.

Suddenly, a dark bird swooped down, took the white moth into its beak, and in three gulps, swallowed it.

That didn’t just happen. It had to mean something. But what? I thought about that all the way to Amsterdam. Was the white moth a harbinger of death? That seems likely. But what do we make of a bird devouring death? Was this a hopeful vision, or one portending a grim fate ahead?

I didn’t know. I wondered whether it would be meaningful to M. What would she make of it? Would it frighten her? Would it give her hope? Since her first cancer diagnosis seven or eight years ago, M. has been a spiritual seeker, and has cobbled together for herself an amalgam of beliefs combining elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and shamanistic religion. Though I am an orthodox Christian and she is not, we both take things like omens seriously. I wanted to share this story with her, but not knowing how she would interpret the ambiguous event, I was afraid of upsetting her.

On the morning we spent together, we sat on the sunny terrace of a café on the Westerstraat and ate apple pie. I had been talking with M. about the people I know back in Louisiana suffering from cancer, and suddenly had an insight about how I could float the white moth story indirectly.

“A strange thing happened to me on the train platform near Brussels,” I told M. “I think it’s meaningful, but I’m not sure what it means. May I tell you about it and get your opinion?”

She said yes. So I told exactly what happened, but left out the part where the sick friend I was praying for was in fact M.; I made it sound vague, as if the sick person was someone back home.

After I finished, M. had some speculative remarks, but said she would have to know what kind of bird it was before she could settle on an interpretation. I told her I didn’t know, because we don’t have that sort of bird in Louisiana, but it looked quite distinct. I described it as best I could.

We finished our pie and walked back to the apartment. As we strolled down a narrow side street, we passed a boutique. The window display consisted of large white butterflies (see photo above), which – call me a superstitious West Indian butler if you like – seemed rather significant. I took a photo of one of the white butterflies; if you look closely, you can see the reflection of M.’s shoulder (look for her yellow sweater) in the window.

As I wrote the other day, M. and I spent an intense hour talking about her condition, her spiritual journey, her suffering, her fears, her hopes. She wrote me later that that hour was “golden,” and I couldn’t agree more. It made the whole trip worth it. One thing that compelled me to be as open-hearted as I could be was the suspicion that I had seen a bad omen about my friend’s future. This might well be the last time I would see her on this earth, and maybe God, or someone, was trying to tell me that in symbolic language. Don’t laugh it off or dismiss it easily, I thought. Use this time with M. wisely.

Later in the day, after we had parted, M. e-mailed further thoughts about the bird, saying that if it was X. sort of bird, then she had a sense of what the event meant. I had to know what sort of bird it had been. Googling around, I typed in “birds of the Netherlands,” or something close to it. And there the bird was: an ekster, or, in English, a magpie. I wrote M. to tell her, then started looking up what lone magpies symbolize in folk religion.

It isn’t good, at least not to the English. A lone magpie is though to symbolize sorrow or danger. This was unwelcome news to me, and I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I would wait to see what M. thought.

She wrote shortly with her own interpretation. I won’t get into the details of why she read the event the way she did, but her conclusion was this:

Your friend is going to find/meet “a way of life, a method, an insight” that will make her live on.

This “something” is eating death for her right now. It has to be close because she (your friend) already doesn’t take “reality” for granted but has her own wisdom and thoughts which make her look beyond.

I’m sure it means good news.

When I read that on e-mail, I wrote back to say I’m so relieved to hear that, because she was the person for whom K. and I were praying. She responded:

Wowie! I was hoping it would be ME!

So grateful!

Take all that for what you will. Me, it’s been a long day of travel, and I am going to sleep.

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