What a dragonfly taught me

Lessons learned from a strange set of coincidences

Published on December 4, 2012
— Telegram photo illustration/Thinkstock images

Forty years ago, I was standing on my neighbour’s lawn on Bell’s Turn when a dragonfly helicoptered its way onto my shirt sleeve. Although exquisitely beautiful, the dragonfly terrified me. And when I couldn’t shake it off my arm, I screamed.

That’s when a boy with a tough reputation came over. He gently pried the dragonfly off my sleeve and then proceeded to pull off its beautiful translucent wings, leaving its colourful body useless. I will never forget the mixture of relief and guilt I felt that day. Relief because the monster insect had been removed; guilt because my scream was the reason for its demise.

I learned two things that day. I realized I had no reason to be afraid of the tough boy (I had heard that he stole pillow cases of candy on Halloween night) and I had no reason to be afraid of dragonflies.

Someone — I don’t remember who — explained that dragonflies were the good insects, like spiders, who rid the world of bad insects, like mosquitoes, who suck our blood.

I hadn’t thought about the dragonfly whose murder I inspired in a long time. That is, until last week, when Surprise Baby went on his first kindergarten field trip to the Fluvarium.

The memory came floating to the surface when Bob, who has been a Fluvarium interpreter for decades, gave the children a blue camping tarp and instructed them to make a makeshift pond. Bob poured a bucket of water into the pool releasing dragonfly babies at the same time. Next Bob gently picked up one baby and let it crawl up his arm. The baby was sort of creepy-looking, wet and black with six jointed legs. Most people present were relieved it was on Bob’s arm and not theirs.

Bob assured the children both he and the dragonfly nymph, who did not have a name, were fine. He put the nymph in a plastic cup of water and moved him underneath a Micro-Eye, a machine sort of like a microscope except you don’t look down through the top. It transferred an image of Mr. Dragonfly Nymph to a screen so we could see his body close up. I have to say it was pretty cool to see his wings growing under his exoskeleton.

Bob explained that when the baby is ready to become an adult, it climbs out of the water and the exoskeleton splits, exposing the never-used wings. The dragonfly leaves its exoskeleton behind and flies away.

It was pure science. I felt like we were on a Magic School Bus field trip with Miss Frizzle.

That evening, as I sat with my mother and siblings in Mary Queen of Peace Church, I thought about the fact that just that morning I had been celebrating the beginning of life with my youngest child’s first field trip and now, here I was hours later remembering the end of my father’s life with a candlelight mass. Many other families were there to remember loved ones who have died in the past year. Declan has asked me lots of questions about Heaven since his grandfather Dee passed away.

“Does heaven scratch your back?” he asked one day, round eyes looking up at me.

“Oh yes, heaven scratches your back,” I answered.

“Does heaven have all your favourite things?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” I answered. “Heaven has ice cream and video games and spotted cats.”

It wasn’t until months after that I realized Declan thought heaven was a person, not a place. So once I explained that God is the person and heaven is the place, he said: “When we go up to heaven we’ll be happy to see people who are dead, like Dee and Terry Fox, won’t we, Mommy.”

“Yes, I said, we’ll be happy to see Dee and Terry Fox.”

I was thinking of this as I sat in the pew drifting into my warm church meditative state. My ears perked up however when Father Francis Puddister started his sermon.

It was the classic rebirth story, although I swear I’ve never heard it before. My surprise lay in the coincidence of topic. Twice in one day I was brought back to a summer’s day on Bell’s Turn when a dragonfly alighted on my arm and shortly thereafter lost its life.

I will use my words to tell Father Puddister’s story, as I can’t quote him exactly.

A young dragonfly is swimming around at the bottom of the pond, Father Puddister explained. He’s having great fun with his friends and family. The sun is shining through the surface and there’s lots to eat.

Every now and then the young dragonfly notices that a neighbouring dragonfly or a member of his own family goes to the surface and disappears above. This worries the dragonfly a bit as once these other guys break on through to the other side, he never sees them again. His family assures him they are OK and he doesn’t need to worry — that life is different on the other side, but beautiful in its own way.

Still, the dragonfly is not totally convinced. Every now and then he goes up to the surface and nudges the top of the pond, but he can’t seem to cross over to see what has happened to his friends.

Until one day, the young dragonfly — older now, and more mature — heads to the top of the pond and this time breaks through the surface of the water. And without knowing how it happens, he sheds his exoskeleton and opens his wings and takes flight.

He is suddenly able to breathe air and, above the surface, witnesses the most amazing things. He sees all the other dragonflies who have gone before him. They are basking in the sun, well-fed and happy. He frolics with them in the grass, ecstatic to know that those who have gone ahead are not dead, but very much alive and content.

I sat there stunned. In one day an interpreter, a priest and a dragonfly had taught me more about the circle of life than a book ever could.

So that’s it, folks — Susan’s stolen sermon on dragonflies and life after death.


Susan Flanagan has concluded that for spiritual guidance she doesn’t need an ashram in India when right here in St. John’s she has Fluvarium Bob and Father Puddister at Mary Queen of Peace. She can be reached at



Red Cliff feedback

Jay Stephens from Bear River City, Utah writes: “You don’t know me, but some really great friends that I have in Newfoundland sent me your article. Because in 1955-1958 I was stationed in Newfoundland at Red Cliff. … Your article gave so much information that I wondered about for many years such as what caused Red Cliff to be there in the first place and that it went back to (the Second World War).

“After I received it I was really excited about the information and history of Red Cliff. I think it was great that you spent the time to explore and find out some of the information. … I never had much to do with (the Pinetree Line site) but some of the people that were there when I was, but had been there longer, referred to it as the L-site.

“If you are interested I think I have some pictures I could send to you of what it looked like in 1955. Anyway I just wanted to thank (you) for brightening my day.”