Angels of a Feather May Flock Together

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by Helen Baldwin |

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yo-yoing | SMA News Today | main graphic for column titled "We're Not in Kansas Anymore," by Helen Baldwin, depicting a blue wave offset by green nature scenes

Just over two years after our baby Jeffrey died from spinal muscular atrophy, my brother-in-law, Steven, passed away.

My husband, Randy, our two children, Matthew and Katie, and I made the long drive back to our old stomping grounds in Texas, for our first funeral of a loved one since Jeffrey’s. I dreaded it.

Upon our arrival, I was impressively fine around the entire family, making sure my mother-in-law, Nell, wasn’t alone for long. I felt strong, in control, and helpful, thanks to our SMA assignment.

Stepping into the family section at the funeral home just before the service changed all that. I dissolved into tears as soon as I walked in, and couldn’t stop.

Steven wanted everyone to sing his favorite hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.” I may have fumbled to the page in the hymnal, but that’s as far as I got.


April 14, 2018. Nell rested, comfortably sedated, in a hospice facility. She hovered so close to death that her primary nurse, Angel, said she didn’t know what Nell was waiting for.

After clearing out Nell’s assisted-living apartment with a niece and nephew that afternoon, I had an epiphany on our way back to hospice. It was Saturday, the day of the week that Nell had worshiped on for years. Excitedly, I shared the brain spark: She was waiting for church.

That night, the loved ones in attendance had church. It wasn’t anything fancy — prayers, a few Scriptures, communion, and some songs. Included was “How Great Thou Art,” a favorite she’d wanted sung at her service. To keep things as easy as possible, she’d printed out copies for those who might want them. There were eight copies.

Eight of us were gathered that night.

Randy dabbed communion bread and juice on his sleeping mama’s lips, knowing it would be the very last time.

Angel, aware of the church plan, came into the room to check on Nell when we finished. She spoke quietly and a bit incredulously.

“I don’t know what you did, but you’ve released her. It will be about 15 minutes.”

Sure enough, shortly after midnight, on Sunday, April 15, Nell snagged her wings and flew away to greener pastures.


After moving from Texas, Randy and I returned only a handful of times. Nell came to see us on a few occasions. Nine days after she visited shortly after Jeffrey’s birth, SMA upheaved our lives. She wasn’t able to visit again.

When I finally began picking up on the extraordinary signs popping up after Jeffrey’s death, I shared them with everyone, including Nell. After my father died a few years later, I wrote about his special visit in one of my dreams.

Nell’s life goal was to follow biblical Scriptures as closely as possible. I wasn’t sure what she’d think about my sign reports; maybe she’d think I was just making of them what I wanted. And then came the “Papa tomato” — the tomato from the garden Dad supervised for mere days before ditching his earthly shoes. The tomato with the heart inside.

The stunning “Papa tomato” plucked from the garden of Helen’s father after his death. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)

Nell lamented that she wished she could experience signs, too.

She might not have recognized signs when they appeared, but she didn’t waste time sending them.


Down the road from our old farmhouse in the mountains of North Carolina is the New River State Park. The past couple of years, several neighbors have reported bald eagle sightings at the river about a mile from our house.

When taking that route on errands, I spied a bald eagle. On another occasion, I watched two eagles follow the tail end of a third bird into the tops of towering pine trees across from the river.

Last summer, as I washed dishes and gazed out at our pond, a bald eagle flew out from the nearby pines, passing by the kitchen window. It took my breath away.

Herons, Canada geese, ducks, turkeys, hawks, groundhogs, deer, possums, raccoons, and more are familiar visitors here, but seeing them never gets old. Two weeks ago, Randy and I looked out to see a stunning newcomer: a bald eagle.

It was the third anniversary of Nell’s last day in the earthly sense.

A bald eagle indulges on a huge catfish from our pond. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)


On April 15, Nell’s third angel anniversary, feathers were flying! Hummingbirds appeared again, a mama robin moved into the resident nest at our “other house” down the road, where our son and his family live, along with my mother, and an eastern kingbird planted herself in her newly finished nest on a post outside our door. Red cardinals were everywhere — one even danced all over our porch.

Although I’ve deemed feathers Nell’s special sign, the day more closely resembled a field trip from all the angels in the family.

“I’ll Fly Away,” indeed.

I’m thankful you also come back.


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.

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