The 22° halo is not a rare phenomenon. It is simply an atmospheric optic caused by the sun’s rays glinting through the millions of ice crystals in wispy cirrostratus clouds three to five miles above the earth. These rainbow-colored halos can be seen circling the sun any time of the year in any region of the world. Or so the internet tells me.
I saw my first one seven years ago, the day after my dad died without warning at age 58.
Above all else, my dad wanted me to be happy. If he ever saw that I was down or troubled or upset, he’d tell me–beg me, really–to smile. I, in turn, never wanted my dad to be upset or disappointed or unhappy with me, so I always tried to put on a cheerful face when he asked. At the worst of times–when he held me as I cried over my grandmother’s death, in a comforting email he sent me during the horrific days after 9/11–Dad would tell me to smile and somehow I would find the strength to rein in my emotions and do as he asked. His request could not take away the pain from tragic events, but it did help to balance the overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, and confusion by giving me a different focus. For above all else, I wanted my dad to be happy.
On April 16, 2006, driving back to my parents’ Maryland home after a quick trip to Virginia to pack some clothes, numb and nauseous as I tried once more to absorb the reality of the previous day’s news that my dad was gone, GONE, I saw a 22° halo as I neared the Potomac River. I had to pull the car over while I gave in to deep, keening, hiccup-inducing sobs, because I just knew that halo was my dad’s way of telling me that he was okay, that I would be okay–and that he was asking me once more to smile for him. I’ve never had to work harder to regain control or put on a brave face, but as the halo slowly faded, some of the knife-sharp despair started to drain away too. Dad’s final message was the only thing that helped me get through those first terrible days after his death, as well as the series of further trials and tragedies that seemed destined to bury me in the subsequent months.
The second time I saw a 22° halo, about six months ago while sitting in a friend’s back yard, I immediately sensed it was my dad just checking in. I watched the colors brighten as the sun sank behind a neighboring roof, and I realized what a comfort the echo of his ritual request has been in the years of his absence, even though his deep voice and warm hug no longer accompany it.
“I got your message, Dad,” I whispered. And I smiled.