…about the heron. I saw it some weeks ago, flying above the walkway. It was early in the morning, after we’d fought about the paper route. You were disappointed in yourself for not waking up. I knew you couldn’t help it, pulling all-nighter after all-nighter to finish your thesis as one does in graduate school. You were dead to the world, to phone calls and window-banging in the pre-dawn light. But still, I felt let down, having to call my friends and tell them their substitute paper boy wasn’t going to make it, and so I was cold to you, and you were upset. I walked the dogs with tears on my face, feeling terrible about my anger towards you, knowing that you felt bad enough anyway. I didn’t want to hurt you. But I wanted my friends to like you. You’d been a secret for so long, and afterwards, you’d been the man who broke my marriage. I wanted you to be part of my world, to fit in it and be accepted, and this not-showing-up, this flakiness, didn’t look good to professionals, to me.
So I cried and walked the dogs and then saw, above me, the soaring silhouette of the heron. He was far off, his wing span massive against the pale sky. I thought at first he was an eagle, but his shape against the blue looked wrong. His back end was too long, the motion of his wings distorted. No, his long legs trailed behind him, and his wings lifted and fell in long, cumbersome flaps, heron flight.
He circled me, encompassed me, drew a line around my place in the world, and then flew back to the river. As he left, attenuating down and down till he was just a dot and then nothing at all, the tears dried.
Still, it could have been a coincidence. Sometimes I feel bad, feeling comforted by the heron like some sentimental, superstitious, irrational, stupid person, but he always shows up at the times I need him most. I think of all the milestones: His presence on the deck for my mother’s dying; his flight overhead during the burial of her ashes at Hedgebrook; his quiet vigil for weeks on the beach after her death, perched on the house itself; his appearance on Thanksgiving day, when he turned and bowed to me from the roof, and then flew away; the way he landed not five feet from my daughter and her friend on the beach, talking to them as they talked back; the way he and my mother’s dog, Shiva, would call to each other in the early morning over Christmas. I think of the way, in the years since my mother died, he has showed up on meaningful days; anniversaries and birthdays and deaths (rustling out of the darkness and crying out from just a few feet away the night Ruth May lit candles on the deck for Shiva’s death). Another time he showed up at dinner the night she was preparing to walk in the 3-Day-Walk-for-Cancer. She was sick, coming down with a nasty cold, coughing and miserable and dreading the next day when she would set off on the walk. The heron perched outside the restaurant where she and my father and Rachel ate, regarding her calmly. The next day, she was fine, strong and healthy again, and she finished the walk three days later in good time.
It is not, of course, the same heron. It has appeared hundreds of miles away from the site of the original heron. It has even flown by in Ireland, intent on distant dreams. But it holds my memories. It holds the spirit of my mother, manifest in the birds she loved. It comes out of light, shedding light in the darkness. It circles me, and the air warms, drying tears, flooding me with stillness.
Yesterday it flew by again, as we were sitting in the grass by the walkway. “Look,” you said. “A heron.” And then I told you about seeing it all those weeks ago.
And then I am reminded that what I wrote yesterday, about loving you because of the texture of the world, and because what we have together feels possible in this world only, is a lie, the way everything is always both the truth and a lie. It is only true under the world of tangibles and textures. But there is another world, where what is true here holds a different kind of truth that becomes a lie viewed from there. It’s the truth of Nagarjuna’s Two Truths,** the conventional truth rather than the ultimate truth. In the world of conventional truth, I love you because the world has texture and you are part of the texture. But in the world of ultimate truth, you and I are the same. The texture is irrelevant. The stories we tell about love are just stories, convenient for a moment and ultimately meaningless.
From the first day I met you, something broke through from that place, carried on the back of the heron. We glimpsed it together, and you have given me permission to recognize it as real. There is no word for it, but there is a feeling, one that can be spoken in a word. Faith. Faith is what you have given me. It is why I love you.
**And even what I know about the Two Truths comes from you. It’s not like I’ve read the Mulamadhyamakakarika myself, except the bits and pieces you’ve shared, except the parts I’ve read in your thesis, in your exploration of three different translations of The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I have to take what you say about the Two Truths and Emptiness as an accurate interpretation — that is to say, a meaningful one. And for me, it is meaningful, because it lies in accord with what I’ve experienced, and so I shall take it as a conventional truth that works for me, here, now. And more.