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Trains, Feathers and Butterflies: What does it all mean?

Updated on July 30, 2015

Trains, Feathers, & Butterflies

Trains, Feathers, & Butterflies

It all started with a hummingbird. As a child and even now into my adult life, my family in some amount will gather in and around PismoBeach for a vacation. Whether it is just two of us or the whole Irish Catholic lot, a weekend or a week, it is still a great place for family to meet and re-bond. As I grew up in a small town, Yucaipa, Ca. my father found himself working and living 300 miles from his home which was Fresno, Ca. Every summer, we would pile in the car and drive up the coast and stay with family in the next small beach town over called ShellBeach. Originally, my father’s youngest sister started this summer exodus. On some occasions, it was the entire family. My father, mother and myself would stuff ourselves into a one room, one kitchen, one bathroom, beach house for 7 to 10 days along with my Aunt Marianne and Uncle Scott. We called it the cottage and we loved it! It was yellow. It had a huge front yard and was about half a block from the beach. When my parents needed their time alone Scott and Marianne would take me to dinner and practice their parenting skills in preparation for their own family. Soon, Scott and Marianne added Jacob, then Autumn, Toby, Noah, Micah, and Ian. This little beach house was filling up quick! Add Aunt Teri and Uncle Joe with their creations Brigid and Maire. Actually, they were the smart ones. They stayed at a motel up the street. Sometimes Nana and Grandpa showed up, Aunt Marylyn and Uncle Dale were also smart enough to stay at another hotel up the street. We’d all have dinner at McLintock’s and then go bowling. It was a grand time full of laughter and memories.

The point of this little set up here is that early on in the annual trip, I remember seeing a hummingbird. He or she was doing hummingbird things yet it got fairly close to us humans which seemed odd and also stirred up a minor commotion about Grandpa Dave. What? Who the heck is Grandpa Dave? Where is Grandpa Dave? First off, all I see is a hummingbird and secondly, my Grandpa’s name is Harry! So, what’s going on here? Have my relatives gone crazy? Or should I say crazy-ER? Well, as it turns out, Grandpa Dave is Uncle Scott’s dad and he was a fan of the hummingbird. I don’t know why or how it came about but after his passing, the sighting of a hummingbird was a special event for Scott and his family. For them, it was Grandpa Dave’s way of making his spiritual presence known. It meant they weren’t alone. It meant that they were being watched over by something greater than themselves. It meant they were comforted and had something tangible to help accept the great mysteries of faith and the beyond.

That was my first experience with something like that and it didn’t take. I believed in God and Jesus and interestingly enough, I could get my head around Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, but Grandpa Dave showing up as a hummingbird at random was where I drew the line. I guess I needed more proof. Maybe 81 proof and I’ll see Grandpa Dave in a piece of burnt sourdough toast. But I digress. Point being, I didn’t buy it and I never understood how that could be possible. Perhaps, I just wasn’t open to it because I didn’t need to have it. What was in it for me? I was a little kid. Santa Claus brought me presents if I was good all year. So based on that concept, I’m in. The Easter Bunny, same only better candy. Again, I’m in. The Tooth Fairy? Well, I’ll admit it, I was a little suspicious, but there was money involved, so I looked the other way. I had no concept of death and life beyond. The infinite was way beyond my reach and when you’re a little kid you’re going to live forever. When my mother’s father had passed, I was shielded from it and all I remember about Grandpa O’Neill’s death was not being able to say good-by as he lay in his hospital bed. I didn’t understand what a heart attack was or how or why; and to me it was like he was asleep or on a long trip. The reason I couldn’t go in they said was because I was a kid who had germs. Like all kids, I had germs and they did want him to get sick. What? The man was dying from a massive heart attack! He’s not going to recover. As if he’s going to worry about catching a cold when this is all over! “Oh, doesn’t he look peaceful! “ They’ll say at the funeral. “Yeah, but I think his nose is running…” Give me a break, the man’s got one foot in the grave. Let his grandson say good-by! Let him say good-by to his Grandson! But I’m not bitter… really. Point being, I was shielded from death, as most kids are.

I grew up so far away from my family that when one died it didn’t feel the same to me as to those who lived close. Granted no one lived very close, so my first real experience with death, I think, was a goldfish.

When it was Grandpa Harry’s turn though, things changed for me. A lot changed. I was in my twenties, I had Santa figured out, and had lived a little. I had also lost one of my best friends in a horrible accident. I had experienced true loss. When my buddy Jeff died on July 4th, 1994, it didn’t make any since. Here he was in the prime of life, a true tragedy. My friends and I were rocked to our very core. After his passing I tried to feel his presence, connect with him, but there was nothing. Mostly, my fault I believe. I wasn’t open to it. I had clouded my connection with infinity in the blue smoke of marijuana (right now, if you’re thinking,”Pot smoke isn’t blue!” you’ve been smoking the wrong stuff). I had also messed around with cocaine and a few mild and not so mild hallucinogens. All the while thinking I was expanding my consciousness. The reality of it was I was disconnecting myself from reality and self medicating my pain. The flip side of the coin is that in a way, I did expand my consciousness because with out the experience, I wouldn't be who I am today and certainly not open to what I am about to go in to.

So, a little about me and then into Grandpa Harry…

My entire life I’ve looked into history and the past. Before my time were era’s I wished to visit. You show me a working time machine and you got a passenger! Times that were simpler, more innocent, more naïve, more slow. As I entered my mid teens I fell in love with the first half of the 20th Century. It was the end of Victorian living and the birth of Edwardian and into Modernism and Neauvo. Art Deco fascinated me beyond belief. The Roaring 20’s were a far greater revolution than anything the 60’s brought. At least that’s what I believed. And the harbinger of this obsession with all things not of this era? Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca. On top of that, Bogie reminded me of Grandpa Harry. I don’t know why. Well, yes I do. As I had mentioned, I grew up far away from my family. I knew my family from a distance. When we would visit Fresno, there was Nana and Grandpa’s house. It was old, not modern. Fresno was old. Especially that neighborhood. It was like stepping back into the 30’s. Only I didn’t recognize it as such. There were lots of black and white photos of old people I never knew and worlds that this lonely only child longed to visit. These were places where I somehow wouldn’t be alone and where I could be strong and tuff instead of small and weak which is what I was. I learned about The Great Depression and what people went through. Nana told me about the struggles of World War II. Since it was so rare, going to Fresno made me feel different and special instead of the weak kid who got picked on and beaten up. I could be myself and still be loved by my family. At school, the kids were mean and nasty, they picked on the small, fragile, weak, white-boy. In Fresno, I could be a celebrity for a while. Kind of nice. However, it was only for a while and I never connected with Grandpa like I wanted to. Nobody did really. Not like my father wanted to. So I made my own connection in my imagination. Like everything else. The reality that I’m not Han Solo was too hard to bare so I would retreat to my imagination and for Grandpa Harry, that was Humphrey Bogart. God bless him. God bless them both. Smooth talking, hard boiled, don’t take crap from no one. That’s the guy for me! Where do I sign? Smoking is bad for you? To hell with that! Smoking is cool. Bogie smokes, they all do. Me too. Grandpa smoked cigars. Used to smoke cigarettes. Close enough! Bogie smoked a cigar with Sidney Greenstreet in the Maltese Falcon! So, good enough for me!

Bogie brought me close to a world I longed to live in. The cars, the buildings, the clothing. All better than now… Bogie brought me closer to Grandpa. Bogie had cancer. Grandpa had cancer. Coincidence? I think not! Grandpa Harry, even though I didn’t know him like I wanted, was the leader of our family. He was the maker, the creator. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I looked up to him. I loved watching him read from the Bible during Mass. I loved hearing his jokes, his laughter. I loved him. He was strong. He provided for his family and was a model of a man. Respected by the community and the church. A man’s man. That was my relationship with Grandpa Harry.

Grandpa Harry’s relationship with his father was cut short. Grandpa’s dad worked on the railroad and when Grandpa Harry was only 12, he lost his father to a train accident. Grandpa’s dad was crushed between two train cars. Horrible way to go. Kind of romantic, but I’m morbid. You got to admit though, if your death can get plugged into a blues song, it’s a romantic way to go. Either way, it was a great tragedy for Grandpa Harry and the entire Bradley family. A tragedy that can affect a family for a few generations, as it has ours. Accidents like that reach into generations and change the course of the whole family dynamic. Grandpa suffered. On a lighter note, when I was a kid I thought Grandpa’s dad was 12 when he died, not Grandpa. Imagine a 12 year old fathering a son and employed by Union Pacific! When your 6, that makes perfect sense.

So, Grandpa’s got the cancer. God is calling. Time is running out. Nana’s there and the whole family rallies around the leader as the clock counts down the inevitable.

Last call.

Act IV.

Whistle’s blowin’…



Knock, knock, knockin’ on… well, you know the rest.

Trains to Grandpa Harry were a subtle reminder of his father and the sacrifice he made for his family and in his mind the sound of a train or a whistle blowing was Great-Grandpa Vernon saying hello to his family.

The real deal though was that at the exact moment of Grandpa Harry’s death, like something you would only see in a movie, as if the timing of Mother Earth could not be any better, A TRAIN WHISTLE blows in the distance as the man leaves his flesh. As if he’s being greeted, escorted, and welcomed home. The family pauses. His battle with his flesh is over. No more hugs and kisses, no more conversations, just peace for him and loss for us, but everyone’s speechless and stunned because of the whistle blowing and for me with the Bogart connection, it became extra special because of what Lauren Bacall told Bogie in “To Have and Have Not,”

“You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.”

Just whistle… Grandpa justs whistles. Grandpa just whistles at some pretty odd times. When I’m worried about money, he’ll whistle. If I’m sad, he’s there. When I could really use his comfort or counsel, I hear a train. And I’m not the only one here. This happens across the Bradley Family board. Does that mean he’s communicating with me and the rest of the Looney bunch? Is he reaching out to us from beyond the grave?


Let me say that again. Yes. Absolutely, positively, yes. And while you’re shaking your head thinking about how impossible this is and how if anyone was going to figure it out it would have been Houdini so where does this guy get off saying his grandpa whistles at him from the great train beyond? It’s all coincidence and the human imagination putting two and two together and further more there is no great beyond! Why? How can I say that? I have no tangible proof, no evidence, nothing. So, how can I say that? Because I just did and it’s true! Because I said so, that’s why! There is no proof and that is why it is so! Silly, isn’t it? Not really.

Feathers Abound

Looks Like It's Not Just Me...

Now, on to my dear sweet mother.

This is a similar situation with a very high special factor. My mother passed on June 18, 1998 at 11:15 or so in the morning. She had a lot of cancer. The experiencing of losing my mother to cancer was one of those life changing events where an individual’s entire outlook, character and moral framework is shaken and challenged to the very core of human being.

During her last months, the cancer had moved into her brain. Her biggest fear was that she would loose her mind. She didn’t want to be construed as “crazy”. The harsh reality of it was that as it progressed, she ultimately lost her mind.

Before my mother and father met, Mom was a Nun and a school teacher. She served God with all her energy and brought love and knowledge to God’s children. She left the Convent because they were too conservative, not because she stopped loving God. My mother taught me more about God and love than anyone I’d ever known. What was so hard for me to understand and accept was that even God’s faithful servant, my mother, was not granted her last request. In my mind, God could have stopped the cancer if he wanted to, instead he chooses to allow my mom suffer and loose her mind and life to her worst nightmare. I was really angry about that. Angry at God and at the situation. I still wrestle with this to this very day. However, what I am coming to realize is that since death is more about transition and what awaits on the other side is infinite and glorious beyond anything our fragile human minds can tackle, death no matter how ugly is really a transition, like a roller coaster. At first you’re scared, you’re terrified, you’re in the seat and the lap bar is down, can’t turn back now, and you’re off. After the initial fear, it’s fun. Hopefully, death works in a similar fashion.

When we all realized that there’s no getting out of this one. Meaning, mom’s going to die very soon, she decided she wanted to be at home instead of in the hospital. We rigged a hospital bed and set up a hospice nurse and battened down that hatches, so to speak. Even Nana came down to be with her son and help him though this ordeal. It was a rough ride full of ups and downs… again the roller coaster thing.

There were some magical moments. One was when she asked to hold me and I laid my head on her stomach and just felt her presence. Another was when she slept and I watched over her at night moving in and out of sleep. Physically, it was just mom and I in the room, but spiritually, there were a lot of folks in that room. It was the first time since my buddy Jeff’s passing that I truly felt his presence. It was as if he was there for me and to let my mom know it would all be OK.

There were a few terrible moments as well. Sometimes, when we tried to feed her, she thought we were trying to poison her and would fight us tooth and nail to not take her food which also had her morphine in it to help with the pain. She was so paranoid and terrified that I would rail and writhe at God. I would remember my Grandfather talking about not wanting to “despair” because of his cancer and pain. That it was a sin. I was too angry not to. I despaired.

About a week or so before mom “passed”, my father was in the backyard gardening to clear his head I guess and he found in the yard a giant brown feather. My mother loved autumn and the colors of fall, so he saved it thinking he or she might need it.

Sure enough, later the next day my mom says, “Vern, can you bring me a feather?” Well as luck would have it, we had a feather. My dad and I threaded a needle and thread and ran it through the base of the quill and hung it over her bed so she could see it.

Shortly after mom passed we started finding feathers in places where you just normally wouldn’t find a feather. What do you mean, you ask? Well similar to the train situation, but only a little more… well… blatant, for lack of a better word.

Examples? No problem…

My first feather.

A couple weeks after mom’s funeral, my dad had “found” a few feathers. Nana had too. A lot of family members were finding feathers, but not me. What was going on? I think I was having a problem believing that I too deserved to receive a feather from beyond the grave. I missed her so much and so much of me was stuck on the “gone forever” idea that I think I interrupted to flow of energy. I was getting frustrated with the whole thing and got to a point where I concluded that it’s all coincidence, nothing more. I went to bed one night with a real “to hell with this crap” attitude. My dad wasn’t home. He left me with the place to myself so he could go clear his head. And I think it helped me too. The following morning, as I stepped out on to the porch to smoke, lo and behold, on the step leading down to the patio, as if it was placed there, was a feather. It was grey and black and white. A medium sized feather. There was nothing too special about this feather. It was a little dainty and very simple. I had a pretty quick and immediate change of heart.

Since receiving that first feather, I have had feathers “blow” into my car window in a moment of sadness. I have seen feathers sticking to the side of my car door. Feathers on the back of cars in front of me on the highway. Feathers will show up… ok, here’s a good one. This one is a doosie. At one time, I reached a level of sadness so acute that it disrupted the very course of my being. I think I had so much grief bottled up that eventually, I just popped. Shortly after the pop, while I was at work, I went down stairs to the break room to get a bag of peanuts. The vending machine was one of the kinds with the snacks are in the little spirals and when you buy something, the thing spins and your little treat falls down into the bottom. The vending machine also was located in the basement, far away from the outside world.

While reaching in the vending machine, the peanuts had jammed them self in there and I was trying to get them out and happened to look down into the bottom of the vending machine, where the chips and nuts or candy falls and guess what’s in there next to my snack? That’s right, a feather. A tiny little feather. That was mom saying hi. Saying I love you and you're going to get through this. I have no doubt about that and nothing you can say will ever change that moment for me.

My mom speaks to me in feathers. I’m sure a whole lot gets lost in translation, but it doesn’t change the fact that even though I can’t hug her, she’s still with me. You too, if you’re open to her. Or anyone who’s passed on. Catholic’s get a lot of grief for “praying” to saints. I don’t get it. What’s wrong with asking John the Baptist to put in a good word for you before a road trip? First off, that’s not “praying” or “worshiping”. That’s connecting to spirit. Big difference… and a whole other topic.


My Nana. Sweetness and wisdom beyond measure. Nana left us with an eye for the White butterfly. Nana and I really got to know each other when she came down to help with my mom. By this time her lungs were weak with age and she was using a nebulizer a couple times a day to get medicine. She would sit in the kitchen with the sun in the afternoon shining in; she looked like an old Native American chieftess. She would talk about the cycle of life and the Blessed Mother and tell stories of her youth always imparting a little wisdom and comfort as we went through the process of my mother keeping her appointment with infinity. Wayne Dyer coined that phrase and I just love it. “An appointment with infinity.” Why is there so much death in this essay? Believe me dear reader, this is more about living than you may realize. We’ve all got a ticket for the Spirit Train. You can either connect with it now and ease into it gently or go out Casey Jones style. I prefer the scenic route myself.

If you’re skeptical, I understand. If you’re not receptive to it, that’s ok. You don’t have to be. But I will tell you this, when I moved into an apartment shortly after Nana died, I was cleaning out the bathroom and moving myself in. This would be my first “non-roommate” apartment. The toilet seat cover had been up the whole time or at least I never noticed the top of the seat cover. In a moment of wondering if I could do this on my own, wondering if I could support myself 100% and feeling a little unsure of myself, I lowered the toilet seat cover to stand on it so I could hang a mirror on the wall and do you know what was designed on this white toilet seat? Yup! A butterfly! I felt comfort in that apartment always and still think of it fondly.

Many times when I need reminding of the greater good or that I am on this earth for a purpose greater than myself a little white butterfly will flutter on by and I’ll thank Nana for the spiritual kick in the pants.

So what’s the message here?

I’ll tell you what this all means to me. Take a moment from this busy life and reflect on those who have gone ahead. Once that sensation sinks into you, ask yourself, where did I come from? Go deeper than just a sperm and an egg. Deeper than DNA. What keeps that double helix connected anyway? What makes that up? And what makes that which makes that? Look at it as pure energy. The same energy that created everything is the same energy that is in you and me. We are all part of the same energy. Infinite energy. Your awareness of your existence is one small piece of a very large puzzle. We are all one. Just like particles of matter, we’ll clash and collide, bond, attract and repel but we are all part of the same energy. Now what if that energy has on some level a consciousness of its own? God made man in his image, right? Some Bibles say, “let us make man in our image” implying there’s more than one consciousness. Other religions have the gods wanting to experience flesh. Others have the gods being flesh but returning to the sky… ashes to ashes, dust to dust. A central theme to a very old and very basic idea. Who is God? He’s got a handle on that and we don’t have to. However, in our current state of being, that’s human being, we have the ability and a choice to open our minds and our hearts to be able to connect to and commune with this great energy. Just how much we connect and commune is up to us and maybe finding a feather on the doorstep or hearing a train whistle when you’re down or seeing a butterfly and a hummingbird zip by when your soul is being challenged is simply the universe’s way and the consciousness of those that went before us, letting us know that when it is our turn it won’t simply be lights out. There is more out there... And thank God for that because I’m really looking forward to finding out if Oswald acted alone!

What's your connection?

I feel a strong connection to "the other side?"

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