I've often thought our ancestors believed that angels have wings, not because they saw an actual angel (although I certainly don't discount that possibility), but because they saw birds. Before airplanes, what was there that could soar heavenward but these winged wonders? In the last decade of my life, birds have appeared at most interesting times, and some of their most interesting, inexplicable appearances have occurred after someone I love has died.
At our mother's graveside service, the field behind the cemetery was full of crows. When I say full, I mean packed--little patches of grass barely visible through the jet black. Not a sound came from one of them. They stayed silent and still as long as we were at the grave site. The next day, my family and I returned to the cemetery to find a group of crows flying above our mother's grave in a vertical circle, as though they were on a Ferris wheel. They cawed incessantly. I said to my father: "It looks like they're having a celebration." He smiled.
Within about two weeks, a crow couple established a nest near my parents' house. I never saw exactly where. They became a daily presence, however. My father walked two miles every morning, and every day for the next 12 months, the crows accompanied him on his walk. They would fly ahead of him, light in a tree and wait for him to catch up with them, then fly to the next tree station until he caught up with them again. My parents had lived in the same neighborhood for more than 30 years and never seen a crow there before.
Three important people were missing from my son's wedding: my mother and my maternal grandparents, all having left this earthly life. In a transom-like window at the highest point of the sanctuary, three pigeons sat on a narrow ledge--quiet and looking in toward the sanctuary. I wasn't the only one to remark on their presence, how peaceful they seemed and how intent on "watching."
On my sister's last night on this earth, a lone mockingbird perched on a street lamp outside her hospital room, singing all night until late into the dawn. Its music was exceptional--even for this well-known song bird--clear, crystalline notes trilling, turning, soaring into the night air. Only now as I write this, I remember giving my sister a photo of a mockingbird, its face to the sun, paired with one of my favorite lines from Tagore's Fireflies: "Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark."
I've had more experiences with birds as what I believe are signs of presence, celebration, accompaniment and reassurance. I've talked to others who have also had such experiences. Our experiences usually have common elements: birds doing things they don't normally do, birds "hanging out," unafraid, staying with you; surprise--seeing birds where you don't expect them or where they rarely go. And then, of course, the comfort that comes simply from their music, flight, and natural beauty.
On Valentine's Day 2012, I had dinner with my sister's husband. It would have been their 20th wedding anniversary the next week. We ate at the same restaurant where we lunched with my sister the day after she received the diagnosis of the illness that ended her life. As we talked, a tiny plump bird lighted on the wobbly, wind-tossed stalk outside the window next to our table and stayed awhile--cocking and turning its head as though it were listening to our conversation. In those moments, it felt to me that there were once again three of us, that the bird was a messenger, not filling in for my sister, but telling us that the universe knew we were still missing a third of our trio, and in response, was sending us a breathing, heart-pulsing creature, lively, inquisitive, and looking happy.
There's an old Gospel hymn called "His Eye is on the Sparrow." Jessica Fenlon's poem below reminded me of that line and of the importance of where we direct our own vision. I believe there are times when God grants us our own "sparrow"-- a winged creature from the sky pointed in our direction, serving as a witness for and sign of Presence, giving us something, other than our grief, at which to wonder.