Grandma Sybil called them red­birds, and of all the song­birds that vis­it­ed her West Virginia gar­den, they were her favorites. Whenever she saw one, she’d point excit­ed­ly, eyes bright with child-like glee. “Birdie, birdie, birdie,” she’d sing in an uncan­ny imi­ta­tion of her fine feath­ered friends.

Watercolor & acrylic painting by Adra Fisher
Watercolor & acrylic paint­ing by Adra Fisher (Click to enlarge)

Throughout her long life, my grand­moth­er revered all liv­ing crea­tures, but none more than her beloved red­birds. To this day, the mere glimpse of one unleash­es in me a tor­rent of memories.

When “Gransy” died in her 90s more than 20 years ago, she was still delight­ing in her win­dowsill bird feed­er, thrilling at the sud­den flash of red that is the majes­tic Northern Cardinal.

The offi­cial state bird of Kentucky, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio, the pop­u­lar Cardinalis car­di­nalis lives year-round in our region. Particularly active in spring and ear­ly sum­mer, these hard-to-miss rel­a­tives of gros­beaks and buntings are a sight to behold in any sea­son, par­tic­u­lar­ly the flam­boy­ant male of the species.

Decked out in dra­mat­ic scar­let and black, the male car­di­nal defends his ter­ri­to­ry with style, swoop­ing fierce­ly and spar­ring with even his own reflec­tion. Watching from a near­by branch or shrub — and often cheer­ing him on with a series of crisp vocal­iza­tions — is his small­er but no less beau­ti­ful mate.

Female car­di­nals, while rel­a­tive­ly under­stat­ed in plumage col­or and size, share the same dis­tinc­tive sil­hou­ette as their male coun­ter­parts, thanks to their perky head crests and heavy con­i­cal beaks.

Legends and folk­lore abound regard­ing these regal red birds, and the sto­ries span mul­ti­ple cul­tures and belief sys­tems. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the name “car­di­nal” came from ear­ly set­tlers who thought the birds’ col­orations and head crests resem­bled the robes and head­gear of Roman Catholic Church officials.

Native Americans, as well as many ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Maori, Irish, and Hindu groups, believed car­di­nal sight­ings to be signs from our deceased loved ones. I am not a super­sti­tious per­son, but this bit of mag­i­cal think­ing I find par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant and com­fort­ing, espe­cial­ly lately.

I attend­ed anoth­er funer­al recent­ly. This one was a long time com­ing — a cen­tu­ry, in fact — but that didn’t make it any eas­i­er. It was actu­al­ly hard­er, in a way, because I had known and loved this per­son for such a very long time.

As the body count ris­es around me, I find myself think­ing often about death. In the past 14 months I’ve said good­bye to my moth­er, broth­er-in-law, an old flame, a friend since child­hood, two high-school class­mates, two elder­ly neigh­bors, two sib­lings of close neigh­bors, a beloved neigh­bor­hood dog, and a good friend’s lov­ing feline.

And these are just the souls to whom I felt per­son­al­ly connected.

Add in the numer­ous acquain­tances, world­wide covid vic­tims, and Ukrainian war casu­al­ties, and we’re talk­ing about a boat­load of death. No won­der I’ve got mor­tal­i­ty on my mind.

You prob­a­bly do, too, espe­cial­ly if you’re over 60.

The cen­te­nar­i­an who died recent­ly often told me that stay­ing busy, look­ing at pho­tographs, and remem­ber­ing the good times helped her cope with the death of her hus­band. This strat­e­gy served her well.

But stay­ing busy has nev­er been my thing; I thrive instead on still­ness, or at most, a low lev­el of unhur­ried activ­i­ty. To oth­ers, this may appear unpro­duc­tive, but it works for me. I need time to think.

Long ago I learned that push­ing away uncom­fort­able thoughts and feel­ings even­tu­al­ly back­fires, so please don’t request a wel­fare check when I say that noth­ing cheers me up like think­ing about death. Talking about it helps, too, but for me, think­ing is much more cathartic.

Don’t mis­un­der­stand: I love my life, and I plan to live to a ripe old age. I’m not sui­ci­dal, neu­rot­ic, or depressed. I’m just expe­ri­enc­ing what we all go through if we’re for­tu­nate enough to live a while: loss.

And we all han­dle it differently.

Me, I’ve been spend­ing a lot of time in the yard late­ly: weed­ing most­ly, but also prepar­ing my spring plant­i­ng beds and sow­ing cool-sea­son seeds. This is my favorite time of the gar­den­ing year because it’s not hot, the grow­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties are end­less, and the chig­gers are even less active than I am.

I like to work slow­ly and qui­et­ly, sift­ing through the soil on my hands and knees, lis­ten­ing and some­times talk­ing to myself — cry­ing, even, if I’m feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly verklempt.

With sun­shine on my back and the breeze in bare branch­es, gar­den­ing becomes a form of med­i­ta­tion, prayer — call it what you like — dur­ing which my mind relax­es and can roam. Difficult thoughts and feel­ings gain space and light. It feels good to air them out.

I rem­i­nisce about those I’ve lost and won­der where they are now. I review our rela­tion­ships, what was good about them, what wasn’t. I think about how con­nect­ed we once were; I wish I could call them up and chat.

The tim­bre of their voic­es, the col­ors of their eyes, that fun­ny thing they did with their eye­brows… I snatch at fad­ing details, try­ing to keep those, at least, alive.

None of this is unique or pro­found, but I treat these thoughts and feel­ings as if they were. I let them bub­ble up, expand, and fall away on their own. I encour­age and con­sid­er them. I grant them their due.

The holes in my heart are acknowl­edged and count­ed. I wal­low in self-pity, scold the depart­ed for leav­ing me. I visu­al­ize them at their bests, at their worsts, in the throes of dying. I imag­ine their bod­ies decom­pos­ing or burn­ing to ash, feed­ing tree roots, cir­cling the earth in the jet stream.

Eventually, my mind turns — as it always does — when giv­en enough leeway.

I think about my own death, the deaths of my liv­ing fam­i­ly and friends. I run through var­i­ous sce­nar­ios, spec­u­late on time frames and odds. After a while, I arrive at famil­iar con­clu­sions: we’re all going to die; life is a mys­tery, fleet­ing and precious.

Obviously more plat­i­tude than epiphany, this is news to no one, myself includ­ed. But an hour or so of absorb­ing con­tem­pla­tion has passed, and I feel bet­ter. Plus, the weed­ed area looks phenomenal.

By this point I’m pret­ty spent, so I often set down my trow­el and review my progress. There’s always a dis­placed earth­worm or bee­tle to assist, a square stem of hen­bit to roll in my fin­gers and admire. If I’m lucky — and very still — there may also be magic.

Usually, the male car­di­nal appears first, a bril­liant flash in my periph­ery. Alighting on the bird­bath rim, he waits expec­tant­ly — he is not alone. Within sec­onds, his ele­gant mate pulls up and begins splash­ing nois­i­ly in the sun­lit water. He scans the yard while she frol­ics, turns his head in my direc­tion. I am seen.

I meet his gaze, and ten­der mem­o­ries well up inside me. They are soft­er and smoother now, more twinge than stab­bing pain. Mostly I just watch though — with grat­i­tude and delight — as these patient, vibrant red birds show me once again how to live.


Note: In a soci­ety in which death talk and thought are often mis­char­ac­ter­ized as mor­bid, per­verse, or patho­log­i­cal, it’s worth not­ing that this is not the case world­wide. In Sogyal Rinpoche’s spir­i­tu­al clas­sic and inter­na­tion­al best­seller, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, the for­mal prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion on death and dying is dis­cussed as an essen­tial part of life.

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    Adra Fisher grew up in Winchester, moved away in her ear­ly 20s and returned a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry lat­er. She enjoys all types of art and encour­ag­ing oth­ers to live creatively.