I looked for a sign that I should write this story, and it arrived in the form of a quasi-celestial event. A news story reported that a swarm of California ladybugs was so large it could be detected on weather radar. What was thought to be “light rain” turned out to be a “bloom of ladybugs” a mile off the ground and 10 miles across.
That was the sign I needed. It brought me back to Feb. 11, 2017, the day a single ladybug put on a show for me in a small church outside of Atlanta. Is there such a thing as a male ladybug? Of course, there is, so I will name my ladybug Jamie after a young man whose death was being mourned that day, and whose life was being celebrated. While there are no Gentleman Bugs, per se, Jamie, you’ll discover, was as close as you could get.
I first noticed the ladybug in question sitting on shoulder of a man named Tim Franklin, dressed on a Saturday in his workday business uniform: blue blazer, blue button-down shirt, Hoosier red tie. He had traveled from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Atlanta in support of Katie Hawkins-Gaar, our colleague, whose beloved husband Jamie Hawkins-Gaar had collapsed near the end of a half-marathon race and died. His heart had a defect, but only in the medical sense. In every other sense, his heart was perfect. He died at the age of 32. He and Katie were about to adopt a baby. She has been recovering from that devastating double-loss ever since.
When I saw Jamie the Ladybug on Tim’s shoulder, I watched with curiosity as the red bug with black markings slowly climbed from the suit jacket onto the collar of Tim’s shirt. I started to worry. I saw a narrative arc in which the ladybug would hop onto the human’s neck at which point Tim would smack it like a mosquito.
“Pssst, Tim,” I stage-whispered. He looked up. “You’ve got a ladybug on your collar.” He gently brushed at it, and I was about to write that the bug flew away, but that doesn’t quite get it. To me it looked like it levitated, a flying saucer in an old sci-fi movie. It rose, paused, then drifted away, landing on the pew in front of us.
That’s where things get interesting. Sitting beside me was my daughter Alison, who worked in theater production at a place called Dad’s Garage, where Jamie had developed a knack for improvisational comedy. In front of Alison sat a young woman in a gauzy grey and black dress, a frock you could wear at a wedding or a funeral. She looked to be about 30 and sat at the end of the pew, an unattached mourner.
Just before the service began, I noticed that the ladybug had resurfaced, snuggled now in the frilly folds of the young woman’s dress. I pointed this out to Alison, who understood without words her assignment, to call attention to Jamie the Ladybug. The young woman caught the spirit of the moment, reached down so that the bug could crawl on her hand and make its way to a perch atop her index finger. She held the finger up, like you would spin a basketball, and the ladybug ascended again, taking a diagonal route toward the church window.
Before I get to the heart of this story, I offer a few words on behalf of the ladybug. On a personal note, I will declare it among the most sympathetic of bugs. I have swatted flies, poisoned fire ants, smacked mosquitos, shoe-smashed roaches, and run from spiders. Never once has it occurred to me to do harm to a ladybug. And why should I? It has no fangs or stingers. It carries no disease. It bears no poison.
Maybe its serene and beneficial persona derives from its name, ladybug, or ladybird in England, named after the lady honored by Christians as Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the 20th century, Mary is often portrayed in art wearing blue and white. In earlier centuries her imagined garb was red, and it was that color that gave the ladybug its name. The seven black spots were said to represent Mary’s seven joys and seven sorrows.
It turns out that this little bug has – in many cultures – an oversized reputation, beginning with its scientific name Coccinella magnifica – or Magnificent Scarlet. Although they can be pesty when they swarm, particularly in agricultural areas, they are generally considered friendly and helpful, as they devour smaller pests, such as aphids.
Children love them, an affection made manifest in a nursery rhyme that begins, “Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home.” In some cultures, kids have been known to blow on the ladybug and make a wish while they are reciting the poem.
I love the Ladybug. I love the Ladybug that was in that church that day. And I love the memory of young Jamie Hawkins-Gaar. I was probably in his presence fewer than a dozen times, but each time clings to me with static electricity. One quality of a saint, I once read, is that if you meet him, he changes the nature of your day. Every time I was with him, Jamie changed my day for the better.
That’s how it was with Jamie. I know nothing about his actual religious beliefs, but I can conclude from his passions that he was Brewish. Not Jewish, mind you, but like other millennials, Brewish. From morning, when the brew was a special coffee, to the evening, when he was a hoppy fellow, Jamie enjoyed his life, and worked as a barista in a place called the Craft Kafé. He took a chemist’s interest in what made a drink interesting and different.
He had a boyish affect, in spite of a dark growth of hair on his face that inspired my nickname Beard Boy. “He is the Beard Boy,” I would one day sing in his honor, “and such a Weird Boy.” He was an inch or two shorter than the statuesque love of his life Katie, which gave him the air of someone who could achieve anything, because he had already achieved the most important thing, winning the love of this amazing woman.
I’ve seen videos of Jamie from Atlanta where he looked a bit overweight, but in an antic and athletic way, Jack Black’s manic and sweeter younger brother.
I brought my 10-year-old grandson Donovan to one of Jamie and Katie’s holiday parties. I worried when I noticed that Donovan was that only kid there. He looked a little uncomfortable. Before I knew it, Jamie and Donovan were sharing their mutual obsession with Hamilton the musical, including the swapping of long passages they had both memorized. “This guy would make a great dad,” I thought.
It was at another such party that I said something to Katie about my wanting “to adopt a new attitude” about this or that. The living room where we stood was crowded, but Jamie overheard us, but not accurately. “Did you tell him we’re going to adopt?!” he asked Katie. No one was supposed to know yet, but suddenly I became a confidante. They had gone through an elaborate and expensive process to adopt the child. They were ready to go. They were brimming with joyous anticipation. They already adored the child they had not yet seen. And then, with Jamie’s passing, that child too was gone.
Katie stood bravely at the lectern, honoring his life and their love, and bearing the weight of a loss – of a husband. Of a child. There was laughter in the remembrance, how could there not be, but more and more a suffocating sense of loss.
We’ve all experienced collective and vicarious grief. It can come slowly in a theater, at the movies, when we hear a sniffle or see a flash of hanky. It gathers sorrowful energy as more and more in a congregation improvise – a word he would have liked – off each other’s pain.
In the little church, it reached a crescendo of sobbing near the end as opera singer, Reginald Smith Jr., whom Jamie admired for his Christmas performances at the Columbia Presbyterian Church, performed the Josh Groban anthem “You Raise Me Up.” Smith rendered the song in a great baritone voice that almost shook the rafters and pulled from each one of us every gasp of grief.
We were all sobbing, and holding on to each other for support.
Except for the woman sitting in front of us. The one sitting alone. The one who lifted the ladybug. She was now folded into herself, barely able to sit without falling off the edge of the pew. I nudged Alison, who reached across the top of the pew to console her. They embraced. Her name, we learned, was Lyndsay, a friend of Katie and Jamie. She had just months before suffered the death of her boyfriend, a young man named Matt. They were talking about marriage.
On Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, Jamie Hawkins-Gaar, male ladybug in hiding, would have turned 35, serving great coffee in the morning and beer in the evening, maturing in his great marriage and celebrating the joys of fatherhood. On some days I believe in ghosts and re-incarnation, or at least want to. Some part of Jamie’s spirit inhabited that ladybug that day and helped people come together in their grief.
How do we remember the dead? How do we do it in a way that fills us with gratitude rather than a sense of unbearable loss? Katie is working on that in many ways, especially through her writing. She reports that Lyndsay is working on it too, and that they continue to be a comfort to each other.
One morning at a yard art store on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, right down the street from our favorite coffee shop, where they serve Buddy Brew, I saw something in the window. Among the metal sunflowers, pelicans, flamingos and roosters, there stood a sprightly metal ladybug, about the size of a saucer. Minutes later I was quite the sight, smiling down the street, with an icon of my new patron saint under my arms.
My wife and I stuck it in the ground, just between the front door and the garage. We chose a place where we could not fail to see it. When I leave the house, when I return home, I see the ladybug and smile and think of Jamie. And I’m a better man for it.
(Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. He is the author of several books, including Free to Write and the recent Murder Your Darlings.)