Two years ago yesterday, one of my dearest friends died abruptly of an aneurism. A year or so prior to that, when my husband and I were creating a will, we’d asked her and her husband to serve as guardians to our children in the case of our own untimely deaths. Rajna was beloved by many, but that particular truth – and the fact that we’d been neighbors for seven years — made it easier to excuse the ferocity with which our family swept in to comfort and stick beside hers. Now, two years later, the arrangement we first made to help alleviate some of her husband’s burden and give him some space for his own grief – to have her children with us for one night each weekend – still stands. As a result, I’ve had a front row seat to the constantly shifting ways her children’s hearts have broken and fought to heal. Though healing isn’t exactly what appears to be happening; like broken bones that aren’t reset properly, their hearts seem to have grown stronger around the indelible distortion of losing their mother at such a young age.
It’s hard to be around broken children and not want to fix everything and anything, instantly. But I’ve lived long enough – and have been raising my own children for long enough – to know that any instant fix for severe heartache is only temporary and might even prolong the pain by providing false comfort. So I’ve been treading carefully, but sometimes, I’ve found, foolish love gets in anyway.
Ever since Rajna died, I’ve had strange encounters with birds outside the two windows that are positioned behind and next to my writing chair. We live on the estuaries of San Francisco Bay, which is the soupiest of soupy lands, sure to instantly transform us all into a community of floating houseboats in the next big earthquake, but it’s also spectacularly beautiful here. It’s lush and vibrant and absolutely chock full of birds. Our children’s playfields are sometimes so overrun with goose poop that they are unusuable; in the spring, when the ducks and geese have their babies, they stop traffic by walking them across our many narrow streets the way birds of limited intelligence in protected communities will do. And on my biweekly runs, I’m treated to every manner of avian theater imaginable.
But what happens behind my chair is a little different. Hummingbirds, for instance, hover just at eye level, leaving the flowers they were focused on to embark on some strange errand of visitation. A sparrow tapped constantly on one of the windows for the better part of week. One time, a massive eagle perched on an overhang just three feet away and stayed there for a few days. “What’s should we name it?” I asked my younger son, thinking of my grandfather, Samuel. “Sam,” he replied.
Like any good recovering academic, at first I devoted myself to explaining it away. Of course, I’d see more birds behind my writing chair – that’s where I spend my longest moments of stillness. True. And I make more sense of them, because that’s where I do my deepest reflections. Also true. But after several months of these occurrences, reason no longer mattered as much. Hummingbirds, I learned, are symbolic of spirits that hover between two worlds, I’ve since read, as are sparrows. And eagles of the fierce beauty – and choice — of having a lonely heart.
After a year or more had passed, and Rajna’s daughter still refused to talk about her mother, in a moment of desperation I began to dip my toe into talking about the birds with her. She was ten when her mother died, incredibly impressionable and vulnerable. But then I remembered that grief has no good answers, and that sharing my own paltry reaches toward comfort was a way of sharing my own messy grief and hope with integrity. So last Mother’s Day, when a hummingbird blocked my path on a run, hovering at chest level right in front of me for the better part of a minute, I told her about it. And her eyes lit up. Since then, carefully, ever so carefully, I’ll share another moment when the time is right. And she smiles.
Maybe I am misleading her. But love is foolish, after all – and sometimes its foolishness can be a marvelous gift. It defies reason and fills our heart even when they have no business being filled. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s fool, in King Lear, the only soul who sticks beside the flawed and miserable king as he descends into madness, improbably comforting him along the way. Why should we expect love to be reasonable, anyway? Power doesn’t always come from the mind. And healing rarely does.
Which brings me to the latest installment. On Sunday, the day before this two-year anniversary, my daughter and Rajna’s – I’ll call her Anne — were investigating some beading I was working on while sitting in my chair. They were both leaning over me when Anne suddenly stood up straight, pointing out the window. “Is that a CHICKEN?” she exclaimed. My daughter and I whipped around. Sure enough, just outside, a bird I have never seen before, looking for all the world like a rangy chicken, was pecking its way around the lawn. We crept outside for further investigation and then, fearing we’d frighten it away, went back inside to frantically search the internet for an image that might match what we were seeing.
It was a grouse, also known as a prairie chicken. And the grouse, it turns out, is symbolic of the spiral of life and death, the false ways we see each of these events as hard stops or starts, instead of events interwoven into an ongoing process. And you know what? As we looked and talked, as I mentioned again how much I miss her mother and love imagining I’m seeing her in spirit, she smiled, and stood up straight, and together we basked in our foolish love.