The first time it happened, well, perhaps the first time I was really certain it was happening, was the week before our son, Theodore, was born. It was August 2005, a sweltering summer, and my ankles were so swollen from the heat and the pregnancy that I’d long since given up trying to wear shoes.
I was in our bedroom, folding tiny socks and organizing onesies, when I heard it. A soft but persistent tapping at my bedroom window.
I looked up. There, staring at me from the other side of the glass, was a bright red Cardinal. He was perched on one of the branches of our enormous Maple tree, looking at me, his head tipped to one side. Time froze for just an instant while we observed each other, then he took to flight and was gone.
A coincidence, I thought to myself. But a gift nonetheless.
My Dad, after whom our baby boy would to be named, was a lover of nature. After the last flake had found its place following a Michigan snowstorm, he’d head out with a snow shovel to clear the driveway. Most of the time, I’d follow him with my kid-sized version. I loved to be around him. His corny sense of humor made me roll my eyes, but his laughter — even at his own jokes — was infectious. And besides, if I worked really hard, there was always the potential of a hot cocoa at the corner Big Boy when we were done.
Often, before he’d begin clearing the first path, he’d stop for a moment, lean on the handle of his shovel, and look all around him. Sometimes, he’d even pull his camera out of his pocket, snapping photos of branches bending under the weight of the ice, or of the fluffy, milk-white flakes like sleeves of a down-filled winter coat over the boughs of our pines. I’d stand there in silence, beside him, seeing the world through his eyes.
My Dad was a bird lover and had taught me to recognize the calls of all the varieties that chattered in our treetops, from the Red-Winged Blackbird, Mourning Dove and Blue Jay to his favorite, the Cardinal. It was always easy to pick out the Cardinals in their cherry red coats after a newly-fallen snow.
If we dawdled too long, we’d hear the side door open. “Are you two just going to stand there, or actually get to clearing the driveway?” my Mom would call out to us. Mom was very practical-minded and couldn’t understand for the life of her why my Dad needed to stop and stare at the snow-covered pine trees in our front yard, not just once, but every single time it snowed. But in them, I believe, he saw miracles. What nature was capable of, each and every snowfall. What was all around us, powerful in its silence.
One of the greatest joys I’d experienced during my pregnancy was learning that I was to give birth to a boy. I’d always wanted a boy — one that I could name after my Dad, and I was glad that during his life, I’d been able to tell him in the definitive way that only a teenager can, that that was exactly what I was going to do. My sister Julie remembers the hot summer day that I turned to him in our garage and declared, “Dad, someday I’m going to have a baby boy. And I’m going to name him after you.”
There had never been any question after the ultrasound, the one that confirmed I was carrying a boy, that he would be named Theodore, which means Gift of God. Somehow, some way, I’d been able to make good on that promise, even though my Dad had not lived to see it.
One of the greatest sorrows was that my Dad would not be there to hold his namesake in his first hours of life, to throw him up and onto his shoulders for a piggy-back ride, teach him how to catch a baseball. My Dad, my hero, a tall, blue-eyed blonde who’d played ice hockey on the “Over 30” league well into his 50s, had been taken from us in 1995, after an 18-month battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He was only 59.
That was the thought that was weighing on my mind that hot summer afternoon, as I worked to get every last detail in place before the baby came. “If only Dad could be here to meet the little guy,” I thought more than once, brushing tears from my cheeks.
As if in answer, that Cardinal showed up not just once, but three times in that week before Theo was born, each time finding me on the other side of the glass as I readied the bassinette, stacked diapers and folded receiving blankets.
Still, I wouldn’t allow myself to believe that it was more than just a coincidence. Until. Until the final time, when at the very moment that the Cardinal appeared at window, the clock radio on my nightstand clicked on. I was at least ten feet away when it happened. And then. And then the song that was playing. It had been a favorite of my Dad’s and I’d often heard him belting out the chorus when he was working around the house. “Me, me, me, me and Mrs., Mrs. Jones…”
What were the chances that, as I prepared for the baby who would be named Theodore, that the Cardinal was tapping at the glass, the clock radio turned on to a station I never listened to and was playing one of my Dad’s favorite tunes?
This is the miracle of Cardinal red when I’m blue. It hasn’t happened to me many times since, but it has indeed happened. A bright red Cardinal crosses my path seemlingly out of nowhere when I’m facing one of life’s toughest battles — my Stage 4 Breast Cancer diagnosis — or just crying quietly to myself, missing them, my Mom, my Dad. A bright coat of feathers swoops past me, or taps on the glass, reminding me that I am not alone, that there is far more going on all around us at any given moment than we can see or truly absorb.
On this Memorial Day, I remember my Mom and my Dad — two people who loved each other, me and my two sisters with all they had, who gave selflessly and sacrified deeply so we could become the people we were meant to be, people who are full of love and who, yes indeed, believe in miracles.
Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson