I saw my first bluebird of the season the other day on our farm. Not a blue jay, which is kind of a tyrant in the bird kingdom, a bluebird. Blue jays are pretty enough but have an ugly squawk and an even uglier disposition. But bluebirds are another story. They, too, are beautiful, but in that wholesome, girl-next-door kind of way, busily living their best lives, swooping over open fields, popping from one fence post to the next, singing their quizzical, melodious songs. When a bluebird takes flight and the sun catches its wings, its iridescent blue color is dazzling. One can’t help but gasp aloud with joy, “Oh! It’s a bluebird!”
Seeing a bluebird at the end of February is a good omen that spring is nigh. That, and all of the sudden, I am hearing the cardinals sing again, from the tippity tops of the barren trees. Cardinals always remind me of my parents, especially when I see them in the late winter and early spring because that’s when each of my folks went to heaven, 13 years apart. My dad loved nature and after he died, it seemed we were always seeing cardinals at just the right times. It’s as if his angel was a cardinal and would make surprise visits to give us encouragement or just say hello (though I’m not sure Big Jack would ascribe to this pantheistic viewpoint). Once, when we were having a heavy family meeting after my dad died, my mom, siblings and I were all over at the homestead, huddled in Mom’s back room, deep in weepy, emotional discussion. All of the sudden, there was a pecking at the window on the large, sliding glass doors looking out onto my dad’s backyard. We stopped talking and looked up to see a fat, red cardinal, hovering in the air like a hummingbird, frantically tapping at the window. “Let me in! I have something important to say!” It was the darndest thing.
But none of the bird/angel visits was more dramatic than when my mother was in the long, painful process of dying. It was a cold, blustery late winter day. An old family priest friend stopped in to give Mom her last rights. The group of us huddled around her, tearfully getting ready to say good-bye, praying The Hail Mary and Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The psalm doesn’t mention a cardinal, but in this case, it should have.
Mom’s bed was directly in front of a window on the second floor of the facility where she was staying. All of the sudden, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and instinctively looked out the window. There, just above Mom’s head was a bright red cardinal on a tree branch, looking right into the window. A calm came over the dimly lit room. I felt the presence of God and of my dad, beckoning my poor, suffering mother, “It’s ok, Marge, let’s go.” Just as I was focusing on that beautiful, bright red male cardinal, in swooped a female cardinal, who lighted right next to him on the branch. I signaled to my siblings what was happening right outside the window and we all continued praying, holding hands and laugh/crying at our little avian miracle. The cardinal couple stayed there until we were finished with our prayer and then silently flew away. Our priest friend was amused but didn’t seem too surprised. I got the impression he’d been witness to all sorts of quirky visitations and miracles.
Since Mom left to join Dad, I now see both male and female cardinals at opportune times: when I’m in despair or troubled especially. I had a health scare a few years back and was praying in the car as I drove. All of the sudden, there they were, cardinals swooping on the road in front of my car, just letting me know Mom and Dad are near, God hears you, all will be well.
I’ve discovered that I am not alone, that the cardinal is widely known as a sign from loved ones who have passed on, a symbol of God’s love, an angel visiting. The backyard of our home is often filled with cardinals, nesting in our arborvitae, singing one of their distinctive, piercing melodies from the treetops. That song is so optimistic, so beautiful and self-assured. And it is said that cardinals mate for life, which makes their sightings all the sweeter.
I will keep looking for bluebirds on our farm and will delight in their rare, precious beauty. But I will never get tired of seeing cardinals anywhere, any time. How could I? When the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, I look for my cardinals.