Bluebirds from Heaven

Looking back at this illustration of Ann and my son Rob, must be where my bluebird connection with her first began.

My 1984 illustration of Ann and my son Rob must be where my bluebird connection with her first began.

“I’m always looking for cosmic rhymes.” – Bono

Today is the anniversary of my younger sister Ann’s death. She died suddenly, of an undetected heart condition on October 9, 2008. It hardy seems possible that she’s been gone for seven years. When she made her transition she left a huge hole in my life. We spoke every day and spent as much time together as we could. The two youngest of unstable parents, we clung to each other growing up. Survivors of a shipwreck of a childhood, there was no one who nurtured and supported my recovery more than her.

Life without Ann was hard. It’s not that I didn’t believe she was in a better place. I just missed our daily connection. I yearned for proof that she was still near me. The summer after she left, my heart ached as I packed for my family’s annual vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. Truthfully, I didn’t much feel like going. A friend had told me about seeing a red cardinal after her father passed in times of trouble or when she missed him. She believed they were sent by her dad to let her know all was well. To give my trip a sense of purpose I asked Ann to send me a bluebird when I was there to let me know she was alright. Although they inhabit the island, I had never seen one. If a bluebird crossed my path while I was there, I decided it would be a sign that she was near.

When we arrived on the island, even its beauty couldn’t fully cheer me up. Everywhere we went my eyes scanned the trees for bluebirds without any luck. When my sister Laura brought me to her friend, folk artist Ashley Medowski’s gallery, I began to rethink the perimeters of how my bluebird would show up. On the gallery wall, with a red sold sticker on it, hung the most enchanting piece of art with a little bluebird on it. It was entitled, The Family Tree. A box with a door, made from a victorian photo album, opened up to a tree. Hanging stairs were attached to it to symbolize our assent to heaven and the rejoining of the loved ones who went before us. Laura knew how much I missed Ann and bought it for me. That gift opened me up to being flexible as to how the bluebird was going to manifest on my trip. Real or fashioned by a human hand, it didn’t matter. I accepted it as an assurance from Ann.

The Family Tree

The Family Tree

Later that week, I went to visit my friend, artist, Margot Datz. She wanted me to see an image she had painted with me in mind. Inspired by the profundity of my loss she had named it, My Blue Heart. I couldn’t believe when I saw a bluebird holding a heart in its beak at the center of its design. Margot knew about my younger sister’s death but not about my quest for bluebird signs. I’ve glossed over many coincidences in my life, but it was hard for me to believe this was just happenstance. It had to come from Ann, through Margot’s paintbrush, to me. Today the painting hangs in my studio next to my drawing table.

My Blue Heart

My Blue Heart

Me with Margo that summer.

Me with Margot that summer.

After I returned from Martha’s Vineyard, bluebirds were on my radar. It seemed like everywhere I looked I saw one and was reminded of Ann. I had let go of any hope of ever seeing a real eastern bluebird in my suburb of Chicago. Like me, no one I knew had ever seen one in our area.

That all changed Sept. 29, 2014. That day I was feeling discouraged about launching my children’s books and said a prayer for help. Not a minute later, I glanced out the window and saw what looked like an eastern bluebird! I couldn’t believe it. I went and grabbed binoculars to make sure it wasn’t just wishful thinking. Looking through them, I could clearly see a small cobalt blue bird with an orange breast eating seeds under our bird feeder. Then, as if to clarify my vision, it flew toward my window and soared away. Ann, one of my biggest supporters, had to let me know that everything was going to be all right.

Of course there is no way to prove my bluebird assurances scientifically. Some may say my sightings are a product of an overactive imagination, but I know what I know. As the years move on, I no longer yearn for Ann like I did. Over time, other relationships in my life have deepened. The hole has been filled. I am at peace. I’ve found that no matter how much faith you have there is always an adjustment period when someone you love dies. Missing their physical presence takes time to come to terms with and be healed.

“Death is just life’s next big adventure.” – J. K. Rowling

Today, I’m happy for Ann. She is still with me, behind the scenes, supporting my journey. I know she is experiencing a world my mind can’t even begin to comprehend. I wish her Godspeed on the new adventures she traverses. She never was one for sitting still.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

American Hope


“Children are hopes” – Novalis

I began work on the above illustration in 1999 through the advice of my then agent. It was all over the news at the time, that an immigrant family had named their newborn “America” in hopes of not being deported. The baby’s parents desperately wanted to give their child a better life than the one they had fled. My rep thought it would be a great way to capitalize on the event and draw attention to my art. I am a follower of directions and immediately began work on the illustration. Shortly after that, I parted ways with my rep, realizing we didn’t share the same vision for marketing my work. I didn’t abandon my drawing, though. I finished it knowing the baby wrapped in the flag wasn’t specific to one child but symbolized all of America’s children.

“See, there’s the land of America…which you have to defend. But there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea.” – Bono

True, our nation’s physical beauty is vast. And although magnificent, it’s not what makes America, America. My ancestors didn’t leave County Cork, Ireland, during the potato famine to find a more striking landscape. What brought them here were the intangibles. They were under the thumb of English landlords and came to a new world that promised freedom for their families. Freedom meant opportunity and most of all hope. And like their sons and daughters, it must be cherished and protected at all costs.

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”Ronald Reagan

On June 9, 2014 a boy from the village of Mokena, Illinois, where I live, was killed in Afghanistan. Private Aaron Toppen was only nineteen and died serving the country he loved. He left behind a mother, sisters, a girlfriend and countless others. With him he took a piece of all our hearts. He was laid to rest in a casket wrapped in stars, stripes and the love of our community. In my mind’s eye, I can see Aaron’s spirit joining the ranks of a heavenly guard appointed to keep watch over our children. Once a soldier, always a soldier.


Aaron Toppen’s mother adjusts a medal before her son’s Turning Blue Ceremony.

Mokena honors Aaron Toppen

Mokena welcomes Aaron home.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.