The flash of red on the Scarborough side of Route 77 did not make for a convincing-looking lost hat or mitten. I stopped the car, circled around, stopped again.

It was a ruby red cardinal, lying on the roadside like a piece of vivid fruit fallen from a tree of paradise, like a lost jewel from a king’s crown, like a most perfect piece of origami, like found art … The metaphors swirled through my mind, that reached for any image to avoid the one fact: a dead bird.

I brought the body home, hunched over it on the back steps, marveling, mourning. The inky skin around the still-glistening eyes moved like silk. The body was still soft and fluid. The orange beak had suffered two small chips, exposing the chalky white beneath.

He was small enough to tuck inside my heart, and in my imagination I did so, commanding my cardiac muscle to push against his own infinitesimal one, squeeze against that tiny bird heart, resuscitate it, now, please!

I was back in time, a 5-year-old child, and in my hands I held a different bird. It was large and black, larger than my hands and heart together, blacker than my hair. I had just rescued it from the family cat, who ran away in a hissy fury.

The bird was still feebly alive, its beak opening and closing, pleading, “Help me.” Quickly, I took it to my go-to miracle worker – my mother.

Later, after a summer day of playing outdoors, I went back inside, glanced out a window – and witnessed my mother crouching behind a large bush, the bird in her hands, her hands gently placing it in a hole in the ground.

Afterward, I did not approach her with shocked accusations, but rather, a calculated question: “Where is the bird?”

The bird was fine, my mother told me. She had released it, had watched it fly away, to play with the other birds.

Instantly, I understood. My mother did not want me to be sad. In her eyes I was still too young to grieve. And so I pretended with her that the bird was not dead, because I did not know how to tell her how wrong she was.

For days after, I drew endless pictures of weeping birds, flying through a colorless sky, their tears dripping unceasingly to a colorless Earth. If I couldn’t be sad, the bird could be sad, and he was the saddest bird in the whole wide world.

Over 50 years later, I held a different bird, red instead of black, and already dead, as my mother is also dead. I never told her I knew the bird had died; later, I learned she had never forgotten the pictures I drew.

“Cardinal” stems from the Latin word for “hinge,” and symbolically it speaks to a doorway between Earth and heaven, where messages may pass. Quietly, with dry eyes and gentle hands, I buried the bird, and with a peaceful heart commended his spirit to my mother’s care.

 


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