My mother passed away on August 27, 2013. I had been with her all day, rarely leaving her side or hospital room. At about 6 PM, a good friend stopped by. My mother had lost consciousness earlier in the day, but I still spoke to her and told her I was going down to the chapel with the friend for a few minutes. I left her in the good company of one of her nieces and a long-time friend of hers.
I guess I just didn’t have any prayers left at that point, because we went instead to a peaceful garden outside the chapel and talked – about nothing. No ravaging illness, no impending death. Just normal friend talk for five or ten minutes. I even laughed. While we were sitting there, a brilliant red cardinal landed on this massive black stone fountain in front of us. At that moment, I knew I had to leave. When I stood up, my mother’s friend was racing through the chapel. They had been paging me on the hospital system. The cell phone that had been glued to my side and my nightstand for the past two years was upstairs in my purse. I had inexplicably forgotten to take it with me.
And while I was sitting on that garden bench, my mother passed away…
It took me a long time to forgive myself and to get over the guilt of not being with her when she died. I felt like I should have held her hand when she took her last breath, told her I loved her one last time, prayed for her at the end. Instead, I was downstairs laughing with a friend.
The reality is that a seasoned hospice care professional could have told me that this is quite common – that people in transition often need quiet and that they sometimes do better when their loved ones are not in the room. A counselor later said to me, “Lisa, maybe your mother knew you needed to be out of the room or maybe she just wanted that for you.” In other words, maybe that was her last act of care as my mother – to spare me from seeing her die. It’s a heartbreaking, but beautiful, notion, if true.
Later when I was going through her things, I found a porcelain cardinal figurine. I’m not sure what significance it held for her – something she chose or if it was a gift. I now keep it in my home office as a sort of reminder of her.
I moved into a new house that I had been building at the time she died. I was sitting in my living room in the middle of what we consider winter in Texas (grass turns brown, few leaves on the trees). The season aptly matched my grief. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, something flashed by my back window. Perching on one of the young wax myrtle bushes was a beautiful red cardinal. Although cardinals are native to this area, I had never attracted one to any home where I lived. I had never really been a “bird person” before or had just not paid attention. I watch birds now and feed his little family all year long.
I know there is a lot of lore out there about cardinals. For the record, I believe that my mother went to Heaven the second she took her last breath. I do not believe her spirit is lingering on this earth – in a bird or elsewhere. However, the little red bird (or succession of birds) in my backyard has given me such comfort over the years. I do not have children to remind me of her smile or mannerisms or to carry on her legacy, but I have this sweet little bird that watches over my backyard and occasionally reminds me of her.
It’s enough – for now.
“It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months and three days to do it – without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness of grief, I found my own way out of the woods. And I didn’t know where I was going until I got there on the last day back…It was my life–like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred….How wild it was, to let it be.”Cheryl Strayed, Wild