The day was overcast and cold and a bit lonely, just right for a quiet date with a new book. I sprinkled a couple of handfuls of wild birdseed on the wood bench just outside the sliding glass door in an attempt to attract the company of some outdoor friends, and perched my open laptop computer on the coffee table with my email “inbox” displayed on the screen for the same reason. Finally, I settled myself on the couch for a day surrounded by fluffy pillows with nothing ahead but empty hours and 336 pages waiting to be read.
The birdseed mixture contained sunflower as well as a variety of other little seeds. It didn’t take long for a red squirrel to show up, lured by the big kernels. He flitted across the wood bench with jerky, puppet-like motions, quickly picked up the pointy black seeds, and held them to his mouth with his agile little paws. I watched him split, empty, and then drop the shells with frantic energy, one after another after another, all the while chewing like crazy. Meanwhile, his fluffy red tail blew ceremoniously in the wind.
The hours slipped by comfortably, the pages turned, and I refilled my quart water bottle and refilled my bowl of grapes. The book I chose to read had been written by an intriguing woman, a physician who eventually reached beyond the surface of life to touch something deeper in herself and her patients. Through the years, her own chronic illness and that of others led her repeatedly to a place of inner relinquishment. Here, all of life became something sacred, something too big to define. Her book seemed a gripping testimony to the development of her own wisdom, compassion, and personal growth.
Engrossed in her story, I was oblivious to the cold wind that whipped across the lake in front our our house, churning legions of white-capped waves that crashed on the seawall with a commanding force. Immersed in stories about the healing of body and heart and soul, I glanced up only occasionally to check the birds visiting my makeshift feeding station – the inevitable sparrows, a few cute little juncos, a dove, a female cardinal.
At one point I noticed a male cardinal as well as a female. Interesting. Surely they were a couple!
I dropped the book in my lap momentarily and thought, “Didn’t someone once tell me that cardinals mate for life, that they take their relationships seriously, that they pledge themselves to one another unconditionally?” The author of my book spoke to such a mentality of human commitment, even outside of family relationships where we might expect such closeness.
Hmmmmm. Thought provoking stuff.
Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted with a thud…no, a cracking noise sort of like the sound of an ice cube breaking free from the plastic tray when you twist it to force the cube’s release. Something hard, something sudden had crunched into the sliding glass door. Could the glass have split or cracked with the impact or a tree branch?
I jumped up from the couch and ran to take a look. There, flat on his back with his feet sticking straight up in the air, lay a magnificent male cardinal that had mistaken the glass door for open air. I gasped, sensing that most certainly his neck, or at least a wing, had been broken. A smeared spot remained on the glass to mark his impact with blood – or something. A wave of sadness, regret, and injustice washed over me.
But wait, wait, was he breathing? His little breast moved up and down, ever so slightly. I opened the door, stepped outside in my bare feet, and scooped him up in my hands with his skinny little legs still sticking straight up. I made an effort to move very gently in case there were injuries that I couldn’t yet see. He lay perfectly still, much like a limp, feathery cat toy. His feathers felt very soft in my hands, softer than I would have expected, almost cottony, and he lay so very limp – with beady eyes that blinked and stared at me as if to say, “What happened? Why has this happened? What does this mean? What can I do about this?” Not terrified eyes, just wondering eyes. Questioning eyes. Dazed eyes.
I carefully turned him right side up in my hand and tried to set him down on the deck with his feet underneath him. They refused to do their job; one foot stuck out as if paralyzed, or perhaps broken. He seemed to cringe and settle down, as if something inside his body was sinking. Still, he stayed upright. A tuft of downy feathers on the broad part of his back remained ruffled, but still, this was minor evidence of such a rude violation of his air space. Incredibly, a certain spiritedness shone through his eyes. I felt encouraged and stepped back inside the house to lament the whole thing. I had to hope for the best.
Every few minutes I opened the door to check on him. He tolerated my close-up observations, staring back at me with those same questioning, determined eyes. I wanted to reassure him, to give him some answers, but of course I had none. After several of my check-ups, he started nodding his head ever so slightly as if in response to my desire to help. Perhaps he wanted to tell me that he was finding his own way to resolve this issue, that some uncanny mega-dose of inner strength had just shown up to save the day – and that he thanked me for my support. I honestly wanted to believe in the possibility of more recovery, to trust in a happy ending, but doubt and caution kept me from wanting too much.
After checking on him a number of times, I opened the door yet once more to take a look and noticed that this time, his head actually turned from side to side in response to my presence. A major victory! Simultaneously, that gangly, seemingly disabled foot sticking out to the side suddenly disappeared underneath him to take its rightful position. With his feet truly supporting him, he sat up straighter, taller, and looked at me as if to say, “Well, what do you think of me NOW? Did you really believe that I COULD recover? That I WOULD recover?” Hope was becoming victory.
Eventually, he moved – slowly - walking in sort of a wobbly way, but still walking. I rejoiced with him as he tottered across the deck toward the yard. Settling back onto the couch with my book, I glanced up several minutes later to see a female cardinal walking across the deck, headed in the same direction. Had she been there as a witness the entire time? Had she been part of his suffering all along? Was she somehow sharing the whole experience and encouraging him to keep going, to overcome his pain and confusion? I wondered.
The afternoon wore on, and then the evening. I finished the book and continued to review its stories in my mind as I fell asleep.
I woke up this morning thinking about the cardinal and the book and all those stories and how big life really is. All through today I have continued to process yesterday - what I read as well as what I held in my own hands, what I saw going on in the emergency room and recovery room that was actually my weathered, wood deck. All the while I found myself wondering about my little injured friend, wishing that I could take a peek into his personal life and see how he was doing. I seemed to feel some kinship with him, as if grace had similarly held me in the palm of the Almighty during my own injuries – both physical and emotional. I’d watched friends and family deal with their own personalized trials, and I’d certainly known my own versions of pain…those challenges when circumstances seemed to slam me into camouflaged (and also very hard) places, sort of like the impact felt by the bird when he hit my glass door. We had something in common, that cardinal and I. But then, doesn’t all of humanity share tribulations that have the potential to lead to hope?? Like Paul says in Romans 5?
I wanted to communicate to that little bird (and anyone else who would listen) that I, too, have been stunned; I’ve reeled from life’s blows. I also have been picked up; set back on my feet. I have crawled again, walked, run. Even danced.
Just before dinner tonight, I looked outside at the spot on the bench that held yesterday’s birdseed, not expecting to see anything but a bench. But guess who was there? Of course! Who else but the cardinal couple! They both stood tall, she in a demure spot off to one side, and he front and center in all his blazing red glory. He suddenly flipped his tail at me, and stared intently right through the sliding glass door.
Our eyes met, once again.
Obviously, I can’t prove that this was the same bird. Maybe it wasn’t, but I want to believe it was. I want to believe that my injured friend came back to tell me that he is getting better, that healing is something deeper and more mysterious than quick fixes, that wholeness somehow incorporates and yet grows beyond pain.
As I watched, he began to hop energetically, to dance a little jig. He pecked a few times at the shells of sunflower seeds that were frozen to the bench (presumably the squirrel’s leftovers), and then flew away with something in his beak - up into the airy, elevated places owned by the big oak tree. He’s probably sitting someplace high above his place of trial, even now. I am grateful to be celebrating with him. For I have been healed and given new life, too.
copyright Beth Muehlhausen 2005
If you died today, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven? You can be! TRUST JESUS NOW
Read more articles by Beth Muehlhausen or search for articles on the same topic or others.