Tombolombo. That is the word for "dragonfly" in Chichewa, my son Vasco's native language. It was one of the first words Vasco taught me when he came from his native Malawi to live with us while he underwent lifesaving heart surgery in 2009.
For as long as I can remember, dragonflies have fascinated me. They look so otherworldly, like nymphs or sprites or the tiny vessels fairies might ride when they travel long distances -- incandescent, filigreed wings holding colorful, twig-like bodies in flight.
When I was a child, August meant it was time for a long visit to my Aunt Patti's house in Southampton, Long Island. August at Patti's -- she was an artist, a world traveler, a free spirit, and my mother's best friend -- also meant dragonflies. Tons of them in every shade of blue, green, purple, and red. Mesmerized, I could watch them for hours as they danced across her garden and traveled toward the nearby marsh.
It wasn't simply the beauty of their design and the whimsy of their appearance that captivated me. Dragonflies hold a kind of magical quality for me, like envoys from the other side that cross through the thin places in the veil that separates what the Celts called the "now" from the "more," carrying a message that makes us pay attention to our lives.
Dragonflies tend to turn up at times in my life that I would describe as liminal -- threshold moments when you stand in the doorway between what your life was before and what it will be. A pastor friend of mine talks about how God reaches God's hands into the world through that gossamer veil to touch us directly.
Sometimes it's a gentle tap on the shoulder. Other times it's a slap across the face. Sometimes God just peeks God's face through the curtain and nods. You could call that grace. I do.
That's why I have a tattoo on my left wrist to remind me lest I forget. It is a black stenciled dragonfly on the bottom, its wings fashioned from Celtic spirals, and on top of my wrist, a single spiral and one word: Grace.
Dragonflies have a way of turning up at threshold moments in my life, like God's early warning system for amazing grace. One of my best friends, Jen, calls such appearances "God nods." She swears I get more of them than anyone else she knows. I don't know if that's true, but lately I have been spotting more than a few dragonflies at unlikely times and places.
In April, while I was visiting Jen and her family outside Chicago, I learned that my beloved book editor was leaving the publishing house that makes my books. I was mid-manuscript at the time and the news was upsetting. I panicked and then moped around in a funk of resentment and anxiety for the rest of the day.
Late in the afternoon, three of Jen's four kids came running through their front door, breathless and yelling for me. "Cath-a-leen!" Maisy hollered. "You have to see what we found. You won't believe it!"
Jen's son, Ian, gently opened his almost-man-sized hands to reveal a large, perfectly formed dragonfly the exact shades of azure, turquoise, and spring green as the one on the cover of a book I'd written a few years before--a book about grace. This dragonfly was dead but seemed to have met a peaceful end, legs folded gently beneath its body almost in lotus position.
"See?" Jen said. "God nod."
A few weeks later, my family traveled to Malawi to complete Vasco's legal adoption. As we are one of the first families in the world (after Madonna, bless her heart) to adopt internationally from the tiny African nation, the outcome was terrifyingly unpredictable. The day we were summoned to Malawi's high court to hear the judge's ruling, I waited nervously, pacing and praying and trying not to have a panic attack.
That's when I saw them. Two tombolombo. Powder blue and black, hovering gracefully like a pair of sentries waiting with me. God had sent yet another nod: a tiny winged advance team to reassure me that it was going to be fine.
And it was.
Vasco is legally and forever my son. He's also terrific at spotting dragonflies.
Cathleen Falsani is author of Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. This essay originally appeared in Sojourners Magazine August 2010.