Interpreting Signs of a Feather or Two

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by Helen Baldwin |

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Our sweet third baby, Jeffrey, arrived on a sunny May morning.

Two months later, spinal muscular atrophy barged into our world. Hearing the prognosis of death before kindergarten was akin to being pummeled by a raging bull on one side and a tornado on the other.

It snatched the proverbial wind out of our sails … and everything else.


While our SMA assignment left us reeling, it also provided us with some stunning opportunities to witness prayer and faith at work. The trials during my teaching stint at Brockman School, then a self-contained school in South Carolina for students with orthopedic and multiple other conditions, came in handy, and our extraordinary hospice nurse made sure my husband, Randy, and I could keep Jeffrey comfortable until the end. We remained upright most of the time and even laughed on occasion, thanks to our older children, Matthew and Katie.

I’m (thankfully) an optimist in general, but because losing a child defies description, I had to look hard and fast for the blessings. Although grief is brutal, it was actually almost easy to hone in on something that continues to provide immeasurable comfort.



Jeffrey’s brief earthly stint enhanced at least some of my “Oooh, look!” skills, although I’m not sure what I may have missed after the twinkling star the night Jeffrey donned his wings. My mother saw two lights after my father’s death. The mind-boggling “Papa Tomato” and the special feather that appeared after the unexpected demise of a family member also serve as examples of divine connections.

These welcome assurances that our loved ones aren’t so far away come in a variety of forms. Some signs are fleeting, some fit in your hand. Some you can keep.

And some you can’t.


My mother-in-law, Nell, lived halfway across the country from us. When she realized she needed substantial care, she moved to an assisted living facility. Given her grumblings in previous years of “junk food” served in such places, we were floored to hear that she enjoyed her new home and especially the meals!

Just as the family breathed a collective sigh of relief, however, Nell was taken to the hospital with several serious health issues. When the issues were resolved “enough,” she was transferred to a rehab facility.

It wasn’t long before a questionable decision at rehab landed her back in the hospital, where she suffered a life-altering stroke. Sufficient recovery was deemed virtually impossible. Without a voice but blessed with a clear head, Nell adamantly opted for hospice and was moved to an incredible center. Her primary nurse was aptly named Angel.

Randy and I dropped everything (well, everything but our new grandbaby, James, my charge on school days) and made the long, rather frantic drive from North Carolina to Texas. We dragged into the hospice center at midnight looking like we’d ridden in on brooms, but we made it “in time.”

Randy went straight over to his mama, comfortably medicated in a deep sleep. After he said what he wanted, it was my turn. I assured Nell I would snag her old Adelle Davis book, and that she’d soon see Jay (her husband), Steven (her son), and Jeffrey. She flinched. As she hadn’t demonstrated any signs of awareness for a couple of days, I chose to interpret it as a sign that maybe she’d already seen them. Or maybe at least Jeffrey.

Nell had said years before that she was sorry she hadn’t seen any signs from departed loved ones like I’d reported. I asked her to please send a sign, knowing she’d have an eager teacher or two.


Nell took her last breath a little after midnight, two nights later. With so much to do, there wasn’t much time to process the family’s hefty loss. One decision that had to be made was choosing her going-away dress. The fabric of the selected dress was covered with tiny feathers, perfect for her Cherokee ties.

It would be perfect, period.


Before we knew it, it was time to check out of the hotel for Nell’s funeral. As I walked toward the door in our room, I spied a little white feather on the floor. I smiled and showed Randy. Nell apparently did have good “sign” teachers (a bit of irony: Nell had been proficient in sign language and often served as an interpreter in earlier years).

The “Nell feather” found on the floor of the hotel room just before her funeral. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)

Giddy, I then turned around and spied something on my shoulder. My eyes teared up when I realized what it was: a tiny white feather, almost too small to be noticed.

My eyes are tearing up now.


While I very gently placed both feathers in my pocket, only the bigger feather made it home. I was crushed.

I’ve lost one more little feather since then; I decided that if I couldn’t keep up with them despite my efforts, they weren’t meant for me to keep.

Maybe someone else needed them more.

Two baby hummingbird feathers found on the hummingbird feeder after I misplaced two other tiny feathers are a reminder that signs, in all shapes and sizes, tend to come when we least expect them. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


JoAnn Derden avatar

JoAnn Derden

I think each new article by Helen Baldwin is her best yet! This one is no exception. Helen has a way of combining facts and feelings like none other. Another BRAVO!

Helen Baldwin avatar

Helen Baldwin

Thanks, Mom :)

I'm pretty sure I inherited more than a little writing ability from you, whether you admit it or not!

Glad you liked it!


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