I welcomed the warm safety of being alone in my car and driving home. I was done crying, but my emotions felt raw. Two hours earlier, Mom had called to say Daddy had died. Since it was ten at night and our two small children were already in bed, my husband Arnie and I decided he would stay home with the children while I went to the hospital alone to be with Mom.
The late May midnight sky was awash with stars. A light sweater provided all I needed for comfort. The open garage door welcomed me when I pulled into the driveway. With the ease of habit, I drove into the small building and turned off the car engine. Taking my time, I walked out and stopped on the driveway to take a slow, deep breath. The rich, earthy smell of grass cut earlier in the day, freshly worked garden soil, and the sweet scent of blossoming lilacs made reminded me of my farmer father.
It was hard to imagine Daddy being dead. I yearned to be with him one last time. Was everything right with him now that he had left behind his sick, aging body?
A year ago, Daddy and I had walked in the orchard on his farm. He’d told me, “Kathy, I’m ready to die.”
I was 31 years old. Death was a frightening, unwanted thing to me.
Daddy, who was 78, answered my protest by gently pointing out, “I don’t feel well anymore and I’m lonely. Many of my friends have already died.”
As I stood remembering this on the driveway, some unidentified instinct prompted me to look up. Just as I tipped my head back, a huge bird silently swooped low over my head, then soared up to land on the house’s chimney. By the light of the star-studded night sky, I could easily recognize the bird. The long-eared owl looked down at me and hooted three times.
The bird wasn’t Daddy, but I strongly felt his presence with this nighttime visitor. For the next several minutes I stood staring up at the owl. Shakily, I spoke into the night, “Daddy, I love you.” After three more, slow, low hoots, the owl silently flew away. I made a special note to myself that the owl had arrived from downriver, but in leaving, it headed upriver.
Twenty-four years later, my husband Arnie unexpectedly passed away leaving me reeling in disbelief. Suddenly, his loving presence, his funny sense of humor and his knowledge of what to do whenever something broke or our temperamental wood pellet furnace acted up was gone.
One afternoon while I was in the basement working on the furnace trying to make it run enough to keep the house warm, I cried out to Arnie, “How am I going to manage this beast without your help?” Sinking down to sit on an overturned bucket to rest, I noticed movement outside the basement window. To my surprise, a large ring-necked pheasant was on the other side of the glass staring in at me.
Despite my grief, frustration and fear, the big, impressively marked bird made laughter bubble up and spill out into my ash and soot-begrimed basement. The sound of my laughter didn’t scare the bird, he continued to stare into the basement at me. Finally, I stopped laughing to dryly comment, “Arnie, if you sent Phil the Pheasant to cheer me up, it worked. But for your next trick, how about having him tell me what’s wrong with the furnace?”
For the next several days, whenever I went into the basement to do laundry or babysit my ailing furnace, I could always count on Phil the Pheasant to be a peeking tom. Seeing the bird always made me think about Arnie. I asked the bird, “Your behavior isn’t normal for a Pheasant. Shouldn’t you be looking for food?” He had that covered. One day I noticed Phil was visiting my birdfeeder.
Many people like to say that whenever they see a cardinal, it means a loved one in heaven is checking on them. We can’t prove it, but I can tell you that an owl and pheasant has visited me at the very times I needed them the most.