Comfort and Joy

Bald eagle
Bald eagle behind our house/Photo by Brad

The winter of 2015, Alzheimer’s took away my Mom’s ability to speak. That same week, a pair of cardinals, her favorite bird, built a nest in the tree right outside our bedroom window, and they were the first thing we heard every morning for months.

I thought, “So that’s where her voice went.”

After she died the following summer, the sound of cardinals always brought a smile to my face, like Mom was still saying hi. It reminded me of the tale Zen master Soen-sa wrote in “Dropping Ashes on the Buddha”, when a little girl asked about the death of a cat:

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any questions?”

Gita said, “Yes. What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”

Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”

“From my mother’s belly.”

“Where does your mother come from?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”

“What are they?”

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’ So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”

“I shouldn’t use words.”

Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”

Gita was silent.

Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.”

”What is Buddha?”

Soen-sa hit the floor.

Gita laughed.

Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is God?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What is your mother?”

Gita hit the floor.

“What are you?”

Gita hit the floor.

“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”

Gita smiled. 

Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”

“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.” 

Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”

Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.

I love the notion that we’re connected to everything else on earth, and nothing can change that — not even death — and that the people we love are always present if we know how to look.

But that belief couldn’t stop me from being distraught when Dad died unexpectedly two days before Thanksgiving. I needed something to focus on for solace, but his counterpart in nature had never revealed itself to me, as Mom’s had. I felt severed in a way I never thought possible. Logical or not.

The morning after, I cried while getting dressed in the bathroom, thinking, “Dad was so majestic and honorable like an eagle. I wish ours would come to me now. Then I’d know I could still see him.” But the bald eagles that often hunt behind our house had been a no-show for a while.

At that moment, Brad yelled from the next room, “Hey, Jenn! The eagles are calling! I think they’re landing in the tree out back!”

Much to my husband’s confusion, I threw open the door and ran sobbing through the house, pulling on jeans and socks as I went, while he yelled, “What’s wrong?” over and over. From the top of the deck, I saw not one, but two eagles sitting in the oak over the river — a nesting pair. Tears streamed down my face, and all I could say was, “Thanks, Dad.”

Dad firmly believed that everything had a soul, whether you were talking about a human, an animal, or even a house. (“Don’t believe me?” he would say. “Just watch how fast a house dies when its family leaves.”) So I think he would get a kick out of knowing that, for me, his soul will always be tied to a creature that represents everything he stood for — strength, grace, and man’s relationship with the divine.

With every camping trip, every feeder filled with birdseed, and every evening in the porch swing watching the moonrise, my parents passed down their profound love of nature. Though I grieve, I take comfort in knowing it will always connect them to me. I guess they really did give me the gift of life.

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