Seeing Red

(Art: Christine McCloskey Chittenden)

(Art: Christine McCloskey Chittenden)

I missed the cardinals.

Certainly I’d seen my fair share, growing up in New Jersey.

They always surprised, with a flash of red so often shot through bare branches, laden with snow.

But a move to North Carolina brought more frequent sightings, just as the first few months there also ushered in a rush of loss and grief.

With October came the final passing of my father – a man tormented by alcohol who’d seemingly died years earlier to me, only to return lifetimes later with apologies and an onset of Alzheimer’s.  

November followed with the loss of a college roommate – pastor Jenny with the big smile and the southern drawl – dead suddenly from a heart attack at 52.

On Christmas Eve, we said our goodbyes to the family dog, and a few weeks later, mourned the loss of a close neighbor who last we’d heard had been winning his fight with skin cancer.

And before February closed, an in-law lost her father and a best friend, her mother.

Always though the red birds came around, now bringing comfort along with delight.

Thankful for that, I told a colleague, because lately I’d felt surrounded by death.

Not a coincidence, she said. There’s a reason the cardinal is the state bird.

But did you also know that some folks consider a cardinal sighting a visit from someone special in your life who’d passed?

(Art: Christine McCloskey Chittenden)

(Art: Christine McCloskey Chittenden)

That changed everything.

Hi, I’d say quickly, before the red bird flitted away. 

Who are you?

Stay for a minute. Let’s talk.

Sometimes they came in pairs, and my heart sang.

When I returned to New Jersey a year or so ago, the cardinals didn’t follow.

It wasn’t that I just wasn’t noticing. I’d been looking for them.

I couldn’t shake the sense of abandonment. Or perhaps they didn’t know I’d moved?

Months passed and January set in, gray, biting and harsh, along with an acceptance that my avian friends had forgotten me.

Until today. 

As I bristled and shivered my way into the old brick building that now housed a gym, my eye caught that flash of red.

My heart jumped.

Hi, I gasped. Who are you? Stay a minute?

As always the cardinal quickly set off, staying in sight just long enough for me to remember.

Today is Dad’s birthday.