“Kooky,” they say. “Crazy. Believing in superstitious nonsense.”
It’s alright. I’ve been called worse. I’m used to that attitude, being the daughter of an atheist physicist. And for me, it makes no difference anyway. The heron’s repeated appearance since my mother was dying could be a series of coincidences (extraordinary, I’d say. Why did it show up on her deck railing while she was dying, stay there until she died, reappear over Hedgebrook while we were burying her ashes, prompting the director to say, “Oh look, the heron. We haven’t seen it in weeks”? Why did it stand on the roof of my parents’ house the Thanksgiving after she died, turn to face me and dip its head in my direction, then turn again and fly away? Why did it fly onto the beach just feet away from Zeke and her friend, and chatter at them? Why those appearances and a dozen more to my sisters, my mother’s friend, me?) Or it could be synchronicities. The label doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s just what it is. How I interpret it is up to me.
I know the heron I saw on the deck while she was dying is not the same one that flew over Hedgebrook or that appeared in Ireland or that dipped low over Sadie a few weeks ago when she was on her first walk after her illness. It’s not as if my mother’s consciousness animates those lovely birds, not as if she is reincarnated in a single bird that flies all over the world. It is something else, something I see as a synchronicity that invokes the beauty and mystery of the world. And that a physicist would dismiss as just a coincidence doesn’t bother me, because coincidence or synchronicity, it is simply what IS.
What matters to me, to the four of us girls, is that the heron binds us. When I said I knew the heron’s appearance was a sign that the weekend would go well, the words represented my understanding that all of us, all four of us, watched the heron watch my mother dying. Because of that, and because of the heron that flew over Hedgebrook as her ashes were being buried, we all see that particular bird as a representation of my mother’s spirit. That it appeared once again the first time we were all together since she died, to look directly in at the table where we all were sitting, comforted us, allowed us for the first time to shed the anger and resentments of that difficult time.
Coincidence? Maybe. But who cares. What the heron does to us is real.
When I first started RCIA, almost three years ago, I was sure I would never finish. I went as a concession to my friend. A pamphlet handed out at one of the first meetings described faith in a series of steps. The first step is the fairytale world presented to children, with a literal personal God looking down on tiny humans in fatherly love and choreographing everybody’s lives. At the top of the journey towards understanding is the place where people like Jesus and the Dalai Lama and Gandhi reside(d). People who recognize that Buddhism and Catholicism and Islam and Shinto and whatever are essentially the same thing. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Catholicism puts faith in a personal God. They seem on the surface to be totally incompatible, but they are not. Atheism isn’t incompatible either, though most atheists don’t or can’t see it.
So when literalists laugh because I invoke the heron as the spirit of my mother, because I recognize that all four of us sisters understand the heron in different ways (Ruth May, right now, has a far more literalist understanding of it than I do), it doesn’t bother me. I’m not by any means close to the top of the scale of understanding. Not close to enlightenment, whatever that means. Not close to anything but my own understanding, which is clouded simply because I’m alive and human and filled with memories that get in the way of equanimity and fearlessness. But I do know I’m not crazy.
Warning: Those who abhor superstitious nonsense, read no further!
I didn’t mention, in the last few posts about the heron and my sister’s birthday, that on the night of her party, my mother’s friend pressed an envelope into my hand. “For you,” she said quietly. “Happy belated birthday.” The envelope contained a pendant from China, from where she and her husband had just returned. China is significant to me because I have a personal connection to it through my mother’s grandparents, who lived there for 40 years. Mum always wanted to go there, and she, Dad and their friends made plans for a trip the spring before she died. The tickets were purchased and the bags packed when the trip was called off because of SARS. A few months later the trip was rearranged for September and Mum began planning again. Only a couple of week before she was due to leave, she fell down in a hotel in Vancouver one night. The cancer had spread to a part of her brain that controlled movement and paralyzed her left side. Mum, Dad and their friends canceled the trip, and it was only this fall that my parents’ friends were finally able to make the trip they’d so looked forward to with Mum and Dad.
When I looked at the pendant, I saw a piece of green stone, jade I suppose, with Kuan Yin wrapped about it in metal. Between Kuan Yin warm against my chest under my dress, and the re-appearance of the heron just a few moments later at the birthday party, I knew everything was going to be just fine.