Waiting for Cardinals

95 days separated the deaths of two people who were instrumental in making me who I am. One was completely unexpected, the death of a friend who probably never knew how much she influenced me. Gone, at 31 from an aortic dissection. I spoke at her funeral (click here). The other I was in denial about, although I could have read the signs of my grandfather’s days coming to an end. In and out of the hospital for months, and a little less “him” every time I saw him. I spoke at his funeral, too, recalling memories that made me feel so special, and the certain way he always smelled of coffee when you hugged him. 
            Both deaths stung in the way that grief does – utter sadness just for the plain fact that you will miss them. Denial in the fact that you won’t see their smile or hear their laugh. But like a river, life rolls on. My daughter is growing more and more aware of my subtly expressed grief. She recognizes when I am sad and pats my back and wipes my tears and tells me, “Don’t cry mama, it’ll be okay.” She and my husband keep me busy and keep me from melting down on days when the grief is too real to bear. I suppose in some ways my family is simply a distraction from the truth.
            The truth is, I’m incredibly sad. When I am alone it is palpable…coursing through my heart so hard I get sick to my stomach and find it hard to function. (I am not alone very often, which I am grateful for. My daughter keeps my spirits high and my heart and mind busy most of the time.) It is still unbelievable that I will never see these two people’s faces again. When the realization hits, mourning comes full force. It comes at work when I’m shutting off the lights of the shop where I work, or in the mornings when I’m alone doing my paperwork in the spring sunlight. I feel their loss so plainly.
Some nights I wake from dreams of memories, or worse, plans that will never come to pass and weep in the darkness. Sleep comes irregularly after those dreams and I find myself desperately hoping to see their faces again in slumber. But when I long to see them in dreams, just as I long to see them in real life, they do not come.
Instead I look for their signs, subtle and probably completely erroneous. But it helps me get through my days of grief. I talk about my loved ones and their signs constantly. My daughter does too, probably because I have introduced her to the signs each person holds for me.
For my friend Lindsey, signs are songs we shared together. Pink clouds. Sour candy, especially when I just find the wrappers. Anything Lord of the Rings, and our random early 2000's pop culture favorites. I was gifted some of her clothing and when I’m feeling particularly needful of her courage and closeness, I wear them. I dream of her constantly.
For my grandfather, the main sign is cardinals. Red birds that dotted his yard when I was a child, appearing there even on cold winter days. His other reminders are fruit trees, hymns he loved (they are sometimes in my head when I wake from dreams), piano music, and the smell of coffee. His vegetable garden is close in my memory as I run black dirt through my hands planting with my daughter. I hear his voice distinctly when I do something for or with my grandmother. In a breeze or through the wind, I hear him thanking me.
 I find myself waiting for cardinals and pink clouds, searching my pockets for sour candy wrappers and scanning the radio for something that tells me they’re nearby. Clinging to something that will help me remember what it was like when I had them both fully. Waiting for signs of their existence as now all proof lies in photographs and memories. Waiting for a laugh that echoes through my head. Waiting for someone to tell me they understand, but the truth is, no one possibly could. My relationship with both Lindsey and my grandfather were my own, and no else knew what it was like exactly. That is why I have chosen to write about them. In some way it is to help me figure out what I do now with all of these feelings. In other ways it is to just simply tell everyone that I’m still hurting, and I don’t know if I will ever be completely the same.
I am beginning to define my own meanings of birth, life, death, and the afterward. I hope my afterward is a place where it is always June. Where, when the occasional thunderstorm rolls in, I can turn on my memories like I'm in a movie theater, in perfect clarity. The rolling thunder becomes words of those I loved. The lightning flashes of laughter. Memories I had forgotten play – perfect, alive.
And maybe if I’m lucky, the ones I loved can find me after I’m gone, wandering in my summerland full of clover meadows, waiting for the next passing storm. Or perhaps my spirit will choose to come back some day, whisper a message, leave a sign for someone who loved me, watch a little, or become a wind in their hair. I don’t fear death for myself. I only fear it for those around me. I love my people, and when death comes again, I know the burden of the sadness that will come with it. That is the only thing I fear.
Out of my open window I can hear the redbird in my yard. The thing about signs is that when I need them, they’re always there for me.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Jillian. Grief is so difficult. And I am realizing that it comes in so many forms...death, disease, life-changes and more. And it doesn't get easier the older I get. In someways, I feel like it it gets worse. Maybe that is because we have so much more of it piling up. But, I do think that speaking about it opens the doors for all of us to share the hurt. We all need to share the hurt and know we are not alone -- even in those times when we are melting down. We are not alone. Keep looking for those cardinals and if I can ever be an ear for you, please let me know, my friend. Sarah Brooks


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