Cardinals Rule

A month ago, the cardinals returned to the backyard, the red males puffing out their breasts and the tan and red females flitting through the bushes.  They seemed busier than ever, flashing red, singing songs, chasing tail.  Last week, our large puppy Nimbus and I were sniffing around the backyard, further back than Nimbus had yet roamed.  Nimbus surprised herself as she discovered the back fence.  Sharp metal met curious snout, and a large cardinal flew towards the fence on the other side.  I was amused and surprised. Nimbus was afraid, and then curious, and then predatory.  The bright red cardinal looked as shocked as the overgrown puppy, and they each flew away as they could.  This little flirtation with my own backyard produced in me a much-needed belly laugh.

The next morning, I went to see one of my favorite people in the world, the person who cuts and dyes my hair and has done so for years.  This woman and my brother Matt are two of the most natural comedians I’ve ever met, and I have always loved that they crack themselves up as much as they amuse their interlocutors.  As I did the public disrobing—glasses tucked away, earrings out, sweater off–, I noticed a small, stuffed cardinal on the hairdresser’s station.  “What’s up with the cardinal?” I asked.  “Nothing, really.  They’re supposed to represent a sudden appearance of loved ones who have passed.”  Well, I had never heard that before, and I immediately thought of my friend/hairdresser’s loss of a dear nephew and how comforting the thought of a cardinal could be.

Now that I’ve googled “cardinal” and learned all the things the internet will tell me about the cardinal (for example, it is the state bird of several states, and its population is not in danger), I see that the sense of comfort for the loss of loved ones is a top hit on the search engine.  I’m always amazed at how not in the know I am.  The “All About Birds” website tells us this about the Northern Cardinal: “The male Northern Cardinal is perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird. They’re a perfect combination of familiarity, conspicuousness, and style: a shade of red you can’t take your eyes off. Even the brown females sport a sharp crest and warm red accents. Cardinals don’t migrate and they don’t molt into a dull plumage, so they’re still breathtaking in winter’s snowy backyards. In summer, their sweet whistles are one of the first sounds of the morning.”  I was only going to copy and paste a line of this, but the description of the sights and sounds of cardinals proved irresistible.  This idea that cardinals stay beautiful and stay put, whistling while they work, makes them close to ideal for representations of loved ones who have passed.

I’m not at all religious, don’t believe in the afterlife, and usually pooh-pooh signs and symbols that imply this kind of belief.  (I want to make clear that I admire and respect others’ engagement with these spiritual questions. I was not raised in faith and still find it an unnatural posture for myself.)  Not so last Thursday. I was all in.  I mean, how many cardinals do you come across in an 18-hour span?  The whole family, the surprise single cardinal, and then the stuffed fellow at the work station.  It was too much.  The cardinal at the back fence had to be my mother; he just had to.  He had to be telling me something, anything, so that I could make sense of three random but interconnected events.  But, nope, there was no celestial message, no pithy remark, no profound advice.  Just a fence and a laugh.  Maybe that’s all we get on some days, and it is enough.

I think my mother would find it deliciously ironic that we got a puppy, at my insistence, so that I could walk briskly for miles with a dog who wanted to walk, only to find that walking the dog ignited every arthritic wick in my shoulder.  Now I dutifully pee and poop the dog in the backyard, while the less enthusiastic amblers in the family are left to trot the energetic gal around the neighborhood.  I’m very much reminded of the one misbegotten adventure my family had with a dog when I was young.  My mother most assuredly did not want another critter to care for, especially not beyond the seven children (eight born in eight years) she was already bathing, feeding, chauffeuring, teaching, scolding, and shepherding.  The energetic puppy we adopted back then ended up, by our mother’s mandate, on seven daily walks—one with each child around our big block—to tire him out.  I imagine the first three or four spins around the block were fun and the last three or four were forced marches, but I don’t remember too well.  The canine experiment lasted under four months.  Back at my house now, I just imagine my mother shaking her cardinal head, thinking, “Well, kid, you wanted a dog.  Put your arthritic shoulder to the wheel.”  And then I pick up more poop, toss it in a can, and move on.

But what of this need to understand the cardinal as something?  The need to create the equation, cardinal = loved one. Of course, our reckoning with mortality inspires terror, sadness, nostalgia, tenderness—many of the emotions on the wintry side of life.  Last week, my Intro to Spanish literature students grappled with Miguel de Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr,” trying to understand a village priest who busily keeps his parishioners believing while he himself does not trust in the notion of the afterlife.  This week, we read many poems by Antonio Machado, digging into the sights, sounds, and textures of rural landscapes and their invocations of memory, longing, and death.  This poem in particular struck the students as stark:  Al borde del sendero un día nos sentamos / Ya nuestra vida es tiempo, y nuestra sola cuita / son las desesperantes posturas que tomamos / para aguardar… Mas Ella no faltará a la cita.  Loosely translated: We sat one day at the edge of the forest path / Our life is only time, and our only preoccupation / is the desperate position we occupy / to await… But She will not miss the date.  For my students, this frank confrontation with death at our door appears premature and unnecessary.  For me, there is something comforting about it, something that reminds us of the universality of passing, of the need to read into (maybe even over-read) the cardinal’s sudden appearance or constant presence.  Surely, with others’ recent losses heaped on top of my own, I feel more keenly aware of the collective fragility and beauty of it all, and of the eternal need for poetry.

On some days, you just let the cardinals rule.

Two Months and Five Days Later

My mother passed away two months and five days ago. (*See May, June, and July posts for references to this.)  The morning of July 14, Bastille Day, my friend Tanya’s birthday, the odd little contours of remembrance of a date, a number, that becomes too significant all too quickly.  In these two months, big, gulping tears of despair have overtaken me at certain moments, like when I suddenly come upon a photo of my mother at my house, or talk with my dad on the phone and he can’t pass the phone to my mom, or have a visual memory of holding my mother’s hand and whispering “goodbye” over and over (trying to convince myself it really was goodbye).  I have been taken by surprise by the force of my own body, bending over in its sobbing, slowly feeling relief in the humid release.  I have also been taken aback by experiencing what I call soldier days.  These are the days when I’m too occupied to feel the loss or at a loss, when work presses in and the kids need extra attention and dinner’s not yet made.

Many of my Spanish friends, when they expressed condolences, used the same phrase, reminding me to “crear un huequito para mi mamá,” to create a little space for my mom.  I loved hearing this phrase repeated by different people, all of whom were encouraging me to establish a new relationship with my mom, the reality of her absence, and my upside-down pyramids of memories of her.  The more I think about my friends’ suggestion, the more I understand the substance of that word “huequito.” A hole, a hollowed-out space, a gap, a place of time and space.  It’s all too facile to see this word as womb, but I do—a hollowed-out, protected space waiting for something to exist or grow there.  The gulping sobs on slower days and the secret rivulets of tears on busy days seem to come from and return to the huequito.  When I slow down enough to remember my mom, to think about her ghostly presence at her and my dad’s house, to wear a ring she gave to me, I don’t know, to just feel her around me, I’m so grateful for my heart and mind to have the huequito, a space sometimes left alone and sometimes filled to overflowing.

When my father’s mother died decades ago, I remember the wake and not wanting to go into the parlor to see my grandmother’s lifeless body.  Older relatives and priests were hovering over her body and chanting somber prayers in Lithuanian.  I wanted to remember my grandmother alive, with her big ears and dangling earrings, her mod glasses and dentures, and her interrogations about grades and musical instruments.  I was more interested in hearing the Lithuanian than paying homage to what seemed a lifeless form.  I was 23 years old.  When my own mother died, I was 51.  I no longer see the body as a lifeless form, but rather as a culmination of a full life lived and a memory that belongs forcefully in the huequito, alongside all the other memories of a body in motion and expressing emotions.  My sister’s insistence that we all share my mother’s little things—her rings, purses, scarves, and hats—helped me to understand how we fill the huequito and then visit it, with physical items whose texture and smell invite us to feel and remember.

I walk around every day looking at other people and wondering how they seem so impervious to loss, or so strong and resolute in the face of a loss.  I think, oh, my gosh, how many people have lost a parent and are successfully walking around here.  How do they do it?  And how do you carry on after losing your partner after a lifetime together?  How are people so strong? I imagine each of us has, to some degree, created the little space and spent time there, an intimate, private time that is a part of pain and, maybe, healing.

When I was quite little, my family and I watched the films “Death Be Not Proud” and “Brian’s Song” together.  I remember feeling unable to bring all that sadness into my body, unable to watch the whole film in the company of others. Over these past months, I’ve read Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death and Cory Taylor’s piece in The New Yorker titled “Questions for Me About Dying” (from Dying: A Memoir).  A few years ago, I also read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story.  I’ve been working on translating Rosa Montero’s La ridícula idea de no volver a verte (The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again).  What I understood before July 14th has multiplied, and the appreciation I have for these authors who have so poignantly described their own illness and approaching death or the loss of loved ones has multiplied as well.

I had planned to write about Betsy DeVos and Title IX two weeks ago, and then last week, and then this week.  But somehow I am just not up to the task.  Lexington-style turmoil at work and Trump-style turmoil for our nation got the better of me, and I turned to the small space, the protected space of the huequito.

(Photo from the credits of the Netflix series “Fire Chasers” [Executive Producer Molly Mayock thanks our mom])