Intermittent rain drops fell, and where winter’s thick white blanket once covered the ground, wilted dull blades of grass withstood the poking and prodding of spastic squirrels searching for buried treasure.
The garden beds were littered with discarded and decaying branches. Scattered rusted relics, once supple and green, gathered in and around stubborn skeletal stalks of perennial plants, providing complimentary insulation through the cold winter months.
The only sign of Spring could be heard in the melodious songs of the birds who darted in and out of the tall hemlocks, hoping to find a seat at the grand dinner hall gracing our backyard. Chickadees, woodpeckers, finches, and sparrows, garnered our attention in the quiet moments; taking respite from feeding in the spiny stiff branches of the dogwood tree located close by. We watched the active scene, comfortably shielded from the elements, until a sudden burst, like that of an unexpected wind, gust through the room.
“I’m afraid I’ll forget him.”
It had been a little over a week since his death, and mere days since the funeral; a whirlwind of events and emotions. Our tears were few during that time; our hours filled with laughter and a slew of memories. We celebrated this great man’s full life now complete on this earth with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. We felt a strange combination of joy and sadness, and now that time was over.
“Fear steps in where there are hollow places.”
“Because he’s not here physically, it’s that much harder to keep him at the forefront of your thoughts, but we know his spirit is still with us; in fact, he’s closer to you now than ever before.”
“He’s at your disposal 24/7; you can talk to him whenever you want; confide in him, even accept solace from him.”
“He doesn’t want you to worry, like he did. He is full now; full of life, full of peace, full of contentment…he’s all that he was truly intended to be, and that’s what he wants for you, right now.”
“I’m afraid I’ll forget him,” still lingered in a breeze.
He shook his head, struggling with the guilt and worry, but acknowledging that he should agree.
A moment later, he took a deep breath, and as he exhaled he gazed out the window. Though the mid-march rain wriggled its way down and across the porch windows in a shoddy attempt to block our view, the dogwood tree was clearly visible. Suddenly he sat forward; his eyes fixed on the tree.
A vibrant red male cardinal bounced lightly on a barren dogwood branch; his gaze seemed deliberate. We had not seen a cardinal all day, not one until that prophetic moment.
“I’m afraid I’ll forget him,” left the room as quickly as it blew in.
“They say cardinals appear when an angel is near,” he blurted out, still leaning forward. We sat in amazement, staring at the bright red cardinal. He seemed so content; it was as if he was watching us watch him.
Is it true what they say about cardinals; I needed to know.
A symbol of vitality, importance, faith and power, the cardinal, with its vivid red coat, “reminds us to “keep the faith” though circumstances might look bleak, dark and hopeless.”(1)
“With his bright red color and powerful call, the cardinal tends to stand out from the crowd. There are times when it may be possible for a little red cardinal to get our attention when nothing else can, especially in times of depression and grief.”(1)
For Christians, the cardinal’s red color is tied directly to the resurrection, and the hope for life beyond this world, as well as the comforting thought that like the caring manner of the male cardinal father, “there is a father above who will always protect and care for us.” (1)
The cardinal’s connection to Christianity is plain to see, but understanding the male cardinal’s parenting attributes bound us even tighter to the moment we were experiencing.
The male cardinal was beyond a sacrificial parent; devoting himself to the care and training of his family, so much so, that his plumage would actually change, transforming his vibrant red coat to a dull brown color, until the day came that his babies were ready to leave the nest.
During his life, the man we had just lost was dedicated to his wife and children, and like the male cardinal, his color changed over the years in response to the sporadic highs and lows of life. But, unlike the cardinal father, he never stopped worrying about his babies even after they left the nest, and therefore, his color was never completely restored on this earth.
When we looked at this vibrant male cardinal, perched on the spiny dogwood branch at the exact moment the question, “I’m afraid I’ll forget him” was posed, we couldn’t help but think the bird and our dear father were one. It became apparent that he was there, his color fully restored at last, telling us that he was fine, and that worry was a senseless distraction.
Coincidence or fate, in those few minutes that the cardinal lingered contentedly in the dogwood tree, we heard his poignant message; do not despair, do not worry, live life to the fullest, and know that I am always with you.