Taking Flight ~ October 10, 2012
My mother’s call came on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, one year ago today, to be exact. My three-year-old son and I were enjoying a sun-drenched afternoon at Houghton’s Pond outside of Boston, and we’d packed a picnic of miniature sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies (a picnic added just the right dollop of adventure for a three-year-old). After tossing a ball around, we planted ourselves on a blanket, unwrapped our cellophane bundles, and indulged, letting the sweet raspberry jelly melt deliciously on our tongues. Later, we baked birthday cakes of sand topped by pebble candles and sang “Happy Birthday” to each other. I have a picture from that day, the sun lighting his small frame bent over the water (see below). A day to be grateful for.
When the sun started to slip away, we packed up our things and headed home. I hadn’t brought a cell phone, wanting to avoid any temptation to check e-mails. But waiting on the answering machine at home was a message from my mom, asking if I could please call her. It was easy to discern something was the matter, but what? When she told me that my sixty-nine-year-old father had died of a sudden heart attack, I collapsed in a puddle. My dad had been a lifelong runner, ate well. How was it that the coils of his heart had given up on him so easily, so abruptly? And on a day that had held such splendor, such peace, just a few moments earlier?
My mom and I looked for ways to make sense of his death in the weeks that followed, but it was hard to come by. There would be no funeral; my dad had donated his body to medical research. Instead, we worked with the minister to compose a memorial that would honor all that had made him so dear. We nixed including Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” one of his favorite songs, but chose quotes from Maya Angelou and Thoreau, other favorites, for his service. Meanwhile, I searched for signs that dad was up there, somewhere. If anyone could figure out how to get us a message he was all right, I figured it would be him. When a few days later Theo Epstein got traded to the Cubs, my dad’s beloved team, I felt a flutter. But I wanted something bigger, something more.
The next morning my mom and I sat at the kitchen table, our usual spot, watching the sun rise over a swath of trees off to the east. Coffee steamed up from our mugs. A big thunderstorm had rumbled through the night before, and rain still lay thick on the deck outside. As we sat and talked, we noticed a small flock of birds begin to take flight from the trees beyond. The sky was pink, just warming into the day. And suddenly, an entire army of birds emerged from the woods, heading our way. It was as if they’d detected a chill in the fall air and were on wing, if not quite South, to warmer pastures.
My mom and I watched spell-bound, as thousands upon thousands passed overhead. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she whispered. We marveled as they continued their flight pattern for a good fifteen minutes. It was breathtaking. And as crazy as it sounds, it felt as if my dad was sending his thumbs-up sign as only he could, in a place he was sure to find us.
You might say it had a lot to do with the night’s heavy rain, all the worms that crawled to the surface, a bird’s easy breakfast. Or with the migration afoot across the nation. But to us, for those precious, awe-inspiring moments, we couldn’t help but feel we were connected to some greater presence, my dad shooing the birds from the trees, saying, “Come on, I’ve got to give them a big show, something to let them know it’s from me.”
For me, it was my dad, taking flight.