“Look,” Dad said. “A heron.”
Dad, Leah and I had just left a waterfront restaurant where, for the first time in the four years since my mother died, my three sisters and Dad and I were all together. Ruth May and Rachel had stayed behind for a drink, while Dad, Leah and I headed for the opera. And then, as we crossed the boardwalk bridge to the sidewalk, Dad saw the heron, not 20 feet away in the water in the dark at 7:45 at night, staring fixedly at we knew not what.
People passing by exclaimed too, as Dad pulled out his camera and tried unsuccessfully to get pictures.
“Oh well,” Leah said. “We saw it. All three of us.” Her words triggered something in me. I ran back into the restaurant and touched Rachel’s shoulder.
“Look,” I told her and Ruth May. When I turned to point out the window, I understood what the heron had been staring at. He was framed perfectly in the center of the window, looking at the table where we’d all been sitting together.
“It’s Mum,” Ruth May said, tears in her eyes. “I wish I had Liam here to see it.”
“She’ll be back,” Rachel responded, hugging Ruth May. “She’s always here.”
We had all been dreading this weekend. Actually, I hadn’t been, and Leah hadn’t been, but then again I don’t worry too much any more about family politics. Getting the four of us together might be a disaster, but I’m not going to go looking for trouble. If we can all just breathe and forget for a minute how hard Mum’s death was, we’ll be OK. But the Rachel and Ruth May? Well…. they dreaded it.
Leah was the one who insisted on the get-together. “I don’t want the next time we get together again to be at Dad’s funeral,” she said. “You know Mum wouldn’t want that either.” And she was turning 40, flying from Ireland for her birthday. She wanted us all there. When Rachel refused, Leah called on Dad, who called Rachel and insisted she come.
Now, looking out the window at the heron, Rachel leaned towards me.
“Even Dad knows about the heron,” she said. “Even if he doesn’t admit it in so many words. Did you know when he called me to insist I come to Leah’s party, he said, apropos of nothing, ‘oh, there’s a heron on the railing.’ Mum was there then, too, making sure I said yes, and he knew it.”
My parents had lived on the beach for nine years when Mum died. In all those years, we’d never seen a heron on the deck railing. Not till the one that showed up when Mum was dying and stayed there, watching her, till she died. And since then, at this time of year, the heron returns to the railing every year. I’ve never seen one on any of the other decks. Why our house? Why, for every meaningful event and moment in life, does a heron appear, sometimes to stay and watch us, as the heron last night did, and sometimes just to fly overhead, glimpsed for a second, then gone?
For me, it’s a sign that this weekend will go just fine. Mum’s back, uniting us again, reminding us that life is mysterious and inexplicable, and that she’ll always be here.
“If you four fight,” she said as she was dying. “I’ll come back and haunt you. You know I will. So don’t fight.”
I’m glad she chose the form of a heron, a flighted spirit, a natural inhabitant of these parts, but also usually aloof and wild. It’s perfect for her. For us.