I thought I'd be able to say good-bye to my husband at the very end.
Bird feeders hung all over my snow-covered backyard, but every single one was empty. It was up to me to fill them. If my husband, Bruce, were here, he’d tug on his red and black Woolrich hat with the huge bill and ear flaps. The one I always teased him about. Then he’d tend to every feeder in the yard while I made hot cocoa and muffins for when he came in.
Bruce was gone now, after a three-year battle with cancer. The bird feeders were my responsibility. So I pulled on my boots and trudged out to the garage for a stepladder to reach the highest ones.
Thoughts of Bruce filled my mind at every step. We’d always shared a love for birds, and landscaped our backyard to attract as many as possible. Friends called our place “Serenity Central” because of how peaceful it was. We even installed a big plate glass window to watch them while we had our morning coffee. During his illness, one of Bruce’s greatest joys was when the two of us sat out on the patio side by side to enjoy the birds.
I still watched our backyard birds, but it wasn’t the same without Bruce. From the moment we became a couple, we’d always done everything together. I was sure I’d be with him at the very end. But when the time came, I was sleeping. Bruce took his last breath with me just a few inches away. I didn’t get to say good-bye.
I propped the ladder next to a tree and climbed up. The snow made the rungs slippery. I had to hold on tight with one hand as I poured birdseed with the other. I heard a honking overhead and looked up in time to see a flock of geese pass by. Probably headed for Mill Pond, I thought. Their long necks and wing span reminded me of a great white heron Bruce and I had seen on vacation in the Florida Keys.
“Right there, up in the red mangrove tree,” Bruce had said, handing me the binoculars. The bird roosted regally on one spindly leg in the curly branches. Close-up its white plumage and deep yellow bill were even more beautiful. Beside me, Bruce snapped photos with our Canon camera.
I climbed down the ladder and checked the heater in the birdbath. The bath was an anniversary present Bruce and I gave to each other. “It’s worth the price,” I’d said when we set it up. “As long as there’s water here, we’ll have birds. Even in the winter.”
Next I moved to the platform feeder where finches and sparrows often gathered. I poured out a feast for them and remembered another vacation, this one to Hawaii. Bruce and I had dinner one night in a tiki bar. “Look at that!” Bruce said, pointing to another table.
My eye immediately picked out the deep green head, bright yellow breast and turquoise back of a parrot perched on the shoulder of another diner. Even without binoculars I could make out something like tiger stripes around his eyes. Perhaps the parrot—whom I later learned was called Charlie Boy—noticed us admiring him. He flew over, landed on Bruce’s shoulder and said, “Bbbbbrrrk! Hello!” Just thinking of the surprised look on Bruce’s face made me laugh now.
I dragged the ladder back to the garage and went inside. Through the kitchen window I could already see birds drawn to the feeders. A single blue jay swooped in, scattering the smaller birds. Once on a camping trip to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana, Bruce and I spotted a slate-blue wing in the trees during a picnic.
“Probably a blue jay,” Bruce said.
I put down my sandwich and checked my binoculars. “That’s no blue jay,” I said, handing the binoculars over. “Look.”
“You’re right,” Bruce said. “Its head is larger and its got a shaggier crest. And a white collar.”
We enjoyed puzzling over the mystery bird all throughout lunch. Later a park ranger told us it was a kingfisher. Our first.
Parrots, kingfishers, great white herons, I thought as I poured myself a cup of coffee. Bruce and I had seen some amazing birds during our 38 years together.
And yet we agreed that our backyard birds were the best. Those birds surrounded us and brought serenity to our ordinary lives. Blue jays, finches, chickadees and sparrows—and our favorite, the cardinal. These bright red birds always seemed to show up when it counted most. Birthdays, anniversaries, small surprises and good news. Each happy occasion was accompanied by a cardinal sighting. We even had a special feeder just for them. But there were no birds using it now.
I hadn’t seen a cardinal when Bruce died, of course. It was sometime in the night he’d slipped away without my knowing. I looked out at the cardinal feeder. My heart should have known it was time, I thought. I should have woken up. We should have said good-bye.
A flash of red caught my eye. A cardinal! I thought, but just as fast as he’d come he was gone. I missed him too.
Not one second later the cardinal circled back. He landed on a sprig of snow-covered pine right below the window. I held my breath, afraid he’d fly away, but he just looked back at me, so close that every detail was strikingly clear. I might have been looking at him with binoculars: his proud crest, the ruby feathers lying in a perfect silken row as if they’d been combed, and those dark eyes. If not for the glass between us I could have reached out and touched him.
“Oh, Lord,” I whispered as he took flight again. God had sent an angel, not with wings of white, but of brilliant, Valentine red. And I knew he would send me more beautiful, love-red cardinals from time to time, because when it comes to true love there is no final good-bye.
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