Cheryl was giving the presentation of her career when the Administrative Assistant interrupted to hand Cheryl a note as she whispered, “It’s about your mom.”
“Excuse me for just a moment.” She quickly looked at the note. Cheryl looked up with a stunned expression and said, “I have to leave.”
With that she gathered her things and left the conference room. The Administrative Assistant said, “There’s been an accident.” She then ran after Cheryl.
Cheryl sat in the family consultation room at the hospital. The doctor was there, a family services person and Cheryl. She heard words, “quick”, “sorry”, “next”. None of the words had any meaning. Her mind was focused on the one, dark word; Dead. That word was so powerful. One word changed everything. It caused a rush of emotion and pain and then nothing. Cheryl didn’t want to sit and listen to the questions about her mother’s organs. She didn’t want to decide on a mortuary. She didn’t want “to take some time to say good-bye”.
How do you go from giggling about your favorite show, planning your next big trip and talking about each other’s day with your life long best friend, to planning their funeral?
Cheryl agreed to the organ donations. It is what her mom would have wanted or so she reasoned. They never talked about these things, so all she could do was hope this is what her mom would have wanted. That’s all she could do about any of the decisions Cheryl had to make that day. All she could do was hope.
When Cheryl left the hospital, she carried her mom’s belongings, paperwork and a list of mortuaries to provide services for her mom. Cheryl was numb. The word echoing in her head: dead. In a nearly emotionless state, Cheryl went to her car, placed her mom’s things in the seat next to her and drove home to her mom’s place.
Cheryl pulled into their driveway, clicked the remote for the garage door and started to pull into the garage. She saw a speck of red out of the corner of her eye as the front of her car passed over the threshold to the garage door opening. She pulled the rest of the way in and parked the car. This time she didn’t immediately close the door. She went to see what the red speck was that caught her eye.
Just outside of the garage was a flower garden that contained a variety of flowers. The flower bed wasn’t perfectly designed by a landscaper or maintained professionally. It was designed with nothing more than a passion for bright colors and maintained with love. Cheryl’s mom only had one bit of criteria when buying flowers for her garden: they had to be colorful. For years Cheryl had thought her mom was borderline crazy for the way she looked after that garden. But today, Cheryl was struck by the beauty of the yellow, orange, pink, purple – a pure rainbow of colors. There was only one spot of red. And it hadn’t been there before today. But there it was. A beautiful cardinal.
Cheryl stared at the bird for a moment and then went back to the garage, closed the door and went inside to face the tasks that had to be accomplished. It was late, Cheryl was still feeling numb, but she knew she had to start planning.
She sat down at the kitchen table and read over the names of the different mortuaries. She had to pick one that she could call and get the planning started. She looked over the information again and again, without ever really seeing it. Her mind raced to her conversation with her mom that morning. There wasn’t anything significant about the conversation it was one they had just about every day. They checked in with each other before leaving for work and wished each other a happy day. A single tear trickled down Cheryl’s cheek as she realized tomorrow she wouldn’t have the call with her mom.
The night was long and Cheryl barely slept. She finally gave up on sleep around 5:00 am and got up to make coffee and start her day. She had decided on the mortuary to contact: Jensen’s. Now she just had to wait to call and schedule time to see them. It was going to be a long three hours.
Cheryl poured herself a large cup of coffee. She walked around the house. Every board, every nail, every brick of the house held a memory for Cheryl. This was the house she grew up in. This was the house, her mom and Cheryl had spent many nights watching TV, playing games, talking and just giggling. In this house, Cheryl saw her mom sitting in her favorite chair. Cheryl heard her mom’s voice when ever she went into a different room. It was all becoming too real.
In a little more than an hour Cheryl would call Jensen’s Mortuary and then her day and the next several days would be planned. As she went to the kitchen sink to set her coffee cup down she saw the cardinal sitting in the tree right outside the kitchen window. It looked at Cheryl and tilted its head as if trying to figure out what Cheryl was doing. Cheryl smiled at the cardinal. There was something peaceful about this bird.
Cheryl went upstairs and got ready to go make the plans for her mom’s services and burial.
Her mom’s funeral had been days ago. Extended family had stopped by, tried to help with their empty words. They offered much and nothing at the same time. These were the people who called themselves family, yet they never spent time together. Not even when Cheryl was younger. The typical family holidays would pass and nothing would ever be heard from this “family”. They didn’t have time for Cheryl and her mom before and Cheryl didn’t have time for them now. She politely dismissed them.
Throughout the day of her mom’s funeral and days after, Cheryl noticed the cardinal was around more. Cheryl didn’t recall seeing a cardinal around the house before all of this happened. It seemed odd that the bird was around now. Even when Cheryl was trying to ignore the “family” the cardinal was there, as if trying to help her get through all of this.
Cheryl returned to work, but spent her evenings at her mom’s. Nearly every night she was greeted by the cardinal. It usually spent it’s time split between the flower bed and the bushes along the back fence. Where ever it spent it’s time, the cardinal was always within Cheryl’s vision.
Cheryl knew she had to decide what to do with her mom’s house because Cheryl couldn’t maintain both her place and this house. All of her childhood memories where here. And all of her memories of her mom. She wasn’t ready to do anything about this yet. It was still too painful. She wasn’t ready to let this go. She hadn’t been able to tell her mom good-bye. Everything had happened so quickly, there just hadn’t been time. Now, time was all Cheryl had.
One night, after a difficult, emotionally draining day, Cheryl was again at her mom’s. She needed the comfort. Cheryl went into the kitchen, opened a new bottle of wine and poured a glass. She then went to the living room and got her mom’s favorite blanket from the couch. She took the blanket and the wine and went out onto the deck. The end of Summer was fast approaching, so the nights were cooler. Cheryl sat in the oversized deck chair and enjoyed the cool breeze. She noticed the cardinal wasn’t in its usual place by the bushes in the back.
This realization struck Cheryl hard. She felt the warm tears begin to flow. Other than a few tears the first night, when her mom had died, Cheryl hadn’t cried. She hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. Now, here, tonight, she couldn’t stop the feelings. The sadness, guilt, anger, disbelief; everything she had been holding back.
“Mom…” Cheryl sobbed. “Why? I can’t… do… any of this… without you… I … miss you… so much…” Cheryl continued to cry as the sun started to go down. She was startled by a sound near her. She wiped her eyes and cautiously opened them. Perched on the edge of the table was the cardinal looking at Cheryl. It started to sing. For some reason Cheryl felt comforted by the bird’s song. She leaned back in the chair, closed her eyes and just listened to the cardinal. This was the happiest and most at peace Cheryl had felt since her mom died. The bird continued to sing almost until the sun had gone down completely. “Thank you sweet Cardinal. Your song was beautiful.” The bird flew off into the shadows of the night.
Cheryl decided to stay at her mom’s house that night. She was exhausted and didn’t want to drive home. She slept in her childhood room. As she drifted off to sleep, she remembered hearing the story about the cardinal being a sign or a messenger from someone who had died. “Good night Mom.” Cheryl whispered into the darkness.
When Cheryl woke the next morning she felt more rested and at peace than she had in a long time. She made some coffee. As she looked out the kitchen window she saw the cardinal sitting on the deck table, just like it had the previous night.
“Yes. Mom. I will join you.” Cheryl said to the bird as she grabbed her coffee and went to sit on the deck.
While sitting there Cheryl decided she really needed to start taking care of her mom’s estate. She went inside to get a pen and some paper to write everything down. Back on the deck Cheryl started to list everything out and organize the tasks. She talked with the cardinal as she was writing everything down. Every once in a while the cardinal would chirp almost as if it was agreeing with the thing Cheryl notated. Sometimes it startled Cheryl and flapped its wings as if to show its disagreement.
Even if the cardinal was not the spirit of her mom, Cheryl felt better having it around.
The next several months passed quickly as Cheryl marked items off her list. She had decided to move out of her apartment and back into the house. The apartment had never really felt like home.
Cheryl did go through her mom’s things and only kept things that had significant sentimental value. Most of her mom’s things were in good condition, so Cheryl donated them to various places. It was a hard task. Cheryl often talked out loud to her mom, as if her mom were in the room and sometimes she would just cry. Cheryl had to face this emotional journey to try come to terms with the loss of her mom and to start a new focus on her life.
During these months, the cardinal would make appearances. In the beginning, the cardinal would perch on the deck or the window sill several times a day. By the time Cheryl had gone through everything, the cardinal became a rare sighting. On the day that Cheryl marked off her last task – getting settled back into the house – the cardinal spent a great amount of time watching Cheryl. At the end of the day, the cardinal flapped it’s wings and flew away. Tears welled in Cheryl’s eyes as she watched the bird fly off. But she knew, it was time. Her mom needed to go. And Cheryl knew everything would now be ok.