Sunday, February 7, 2010

Look Homeward, Angel...

It was 1997 and I had just lost my private investigation business. It was a great run but it got away from me and became too much to handle. We were living in a rented house in Dearborn, Michigan and times had become tough. My mother was laying in our back bedroom hooked up to a feeding tube in her stomach; I just couldn't put her in a nursing home.

Denise's parents were both dying slowly. Her mother had breast cancer that had spread to her bones and her aging father's organs were slowly shutting down. In addition to caring for my mother, Denise would go to her parent's house daily to take care of them; cook, clean, medicate, bathe and comfort. The rest of our family had little to do with it all, a situation that was much too common we came to understand.

It was all very stressful but we had learned to keep a smile on our faces and faith in our hearts so we were able to deal. The kids - our daughters, 12 and 14 at the time - handled it along with us. They had learned about the vagaries of life early on and were pretty tough little characters. We met each day as it came and took solace in the laughter we could create.

It was early fall and the leaves had yet to turn colors. I was out washing my car in the driveway one day, enjoying the sunshine and the act of caring for my ride. All of a sudden there was a rush of wings and a mourning dove landed on the hood. I stood there, stunned, with the hose hanging from one hand and a sudsy glove on the other. It was hard to believe as the dove just stood there watching me, head cocked, one eye gleaming in the sun.

When I recovered, I put the hose down, dropped the glove and began to walk slowly toward the front of the car, thinking this bird is gonna fly. It didn't. Just stood there placidly watching me as I moved, never budging an inch. I thought to myself, 'this is pretty weird but very cool, too.' Then I decided to ignore the whole thing as a hallucination and go back to washing my car. I picked up my hose and glove and started washing toward the front of the car, top to bottom, as the manual says. My spectator watched with obvious interest as my hose and I moved closer.

As I reached the front of the car and started washing the hood, the dove flew but only to the top of the car. It stood there quietly amused, I thought to myself. I finished washing and got the towels. Surely this bird is going to take off when I start throwing the towel around. Nope. It just stood there, moving only when my towel and I got too close. It would slide sideways, hop a little and flap it's wings to get out of the way so I could dry a new spot. I remember thinking, 'man, this bird better not crap on my clean car!'

When I was done, I put my supplies away and looked back at my car. There was the dove, still sitting on the hood. I shook my head and went into the house. The kids were gone and it was just Denise and I. I explained the situation and she just smiled. We looked out the front window to see that the dove hadn't moved. We kept going back to that window every few minutes, not believing what we were seeing. Finally, after an hour or so, the bird took off, flying high into the trees at the end of the block. Wow, we thought, we just witnessed something totally cool. We were nature, bird and animal lovers and to us, this was a very special experience.

That night we told the kids about it. They laughed and thought it was the greatest thing in the world. But they were also upset that they missed it. Understandable. When I told my mom about it, she just smiled a too knowing smile and kissed me goodnight. We went to bed that night, light in the heart and wondering at the nature of nature.

The next afternoon, Denise was doing some weeding and gardening in the back yard. It was another beautiful fall day and I was upstairs working in my study. The kids were out with their friends and it was quiet in the neighborhood. All of a sudden I heard an "aaah!" from the backyard. It wasn't very loud but it was distinctive. I looked out the window to see Denise bent over at the waist with a spade in her hand. She was looking back over her shoulder at the dove, who had landed on her butt. Afraid to move, she just stared at the bird who seemed as placid as it had the day before. Finally, she had to move and the dove flew off, back toward the trees down the block.

When she came into the house, we just looked at each other and started laughing. This is too nuts, we thought. What is the deal with this bird? We couldn't wait to tell the kids and when we did, we got the same reaction as before only with more disbelief. Emphatically, they swore that they weren't going anywhere until they got to see this dove. We all laughed some more and agreed that this was just some kind of anomaly and that they just weren't destined to see it. There was a lot of discussion that night about the possible motives of the bird, even looking in the encyclopedia to see if there was an answer about doves. Nothing matched our experience.

The next morning, Denise and I were sitting on the front porch having our coffee on another beautiful day. Cool and crisp, we could feel fall coming on strong. We could hear lawnmowers in the distance and there was activity on the street. Our neighbors were stepping out on their porches, smiling at the day. We sat, enjoying our coffee and taking in the world around us.

Suddenly, there was the distinctive sound of a dove: "whoo, whoo" and a flapping of wings. With a great rush of air, our dove landed directly on top of Denise's head. Her eyes went wide and she sat there still as a rock. My eyes went wide as I looked at this dove less than 2 feet away from me. The dove, on it's part, just sat there looking at me as if this were the most normal thing in the world. A couple of pecks to Denise's head and it settled in as if her head was an egg. She was afraid to move and I started giggling softly. Soon, Denise couldn't help herself and she, too, started laughing quietly. Pretty soon we broke out into guffaws while the dove just sat there, bothered by none of it.

An elderly couple took that moment to walk by, looking over at us. Two adults, laughing and sitting on the porch with a large dove on the head of one of them. Never blinked an eye. Just kept walking as if they saw this everyday. It was amazing. I don't know how long we sat there before Denise moved to get up. It was only when she started in the door that the dove took off. Of course she checked her hair for droppings, found none, and went into the house.

Later that afternoon, we bought some birdseed and poured it into an old coffee can, took it out to the porch and set it on the sidewalk, thinking that we would spread it around shortly. We sat back in our chairs to enjoy the day. Soon, we heard "Whoo, whoo!" and the flapping of wings. The dove landed on the sidewalk in front of us, looked around and hopped over to the can. Upon arrival, it looked into the can just as if it had been put there just for her - or him - we didn't know how to tell the difference. After a moment it hopped up onto the top of the can and looked down.

Suddenly, the dove disappeared! Looking closely, we could see two little pink claws clinging to the top of the can. The rest of the bird was inside! This was just getting too crazy! After a moment the bird reappeared, looking around and checking around, then dip, back inside for more. This continued for about fifteen minutes. Apparently it had had enough. With the flapping of wings, it took off back toward the trees. We sat there in wonder. How did that bird know there were seeds in that can? We left it on the porch and went about our day, shaking our heads and laughing together whenever our eyes would meet.

Later, we saw the dove in the can again when it tipped over, spreading seeds on the porch. Unshaken, the bird continued to eat the seeds that had spilled.

This continued every day for the next month or so. Who - we named him "Who" in honor of the noise he made coming in for a landing. We decided that he was a he because of the way he defended his seeds. Should another bird get close to that can, Who would jump up and down and flap his wings in an angry demonstration of sole entitlement. We even watched him drive away a gray squirrel one day, a feat we thought was prodigious.

As the beautiful fall colors began to drop from the trees and temperatures began to drop, we spent less and less time out on the porch. But Who was still there, like clockwork morning and afternoon. He would sit on the porch next to his can of seeds and observe the goings on of the neighborhood, head tilting one way then the other, craning his neck around to watch us in the window watching him. When we did venture out onto the porch for coffee, Who, seemingly much more familiar now, would sit on our knee while we sipped. He wouldn't let us touch him, though. For some reason that was verboten. If we tried, he would move just far enough away to avoid our fingers.

My mother-in-law grew worse as the days wore on. We had brought a hospital bed into their living room to make her more comfortable and to make it easier for Denise to care for her. Denise's father would now wander around, confused, and unable to deal with the sickness in his wife. She had cared for him their entire marriage, making his breakfasts, lunches and dinners. He couldn't even make a bowl of cereal by himself he was so dependent upon her. It was heart wrenching to watch.

For her part, Denise's mom made a valiant go of it, understanding just how difficult it was for her children and her husband. She would attempt to take control of the activity around her and we could see that the charade made her feel better just for the trying. Every so often, Denise's sisters would come by, taking over just by their presence. My wife was the youngest of the four, coming ten years or so after her closest sister. She was always treated as the baby who couldn't possibly know what she was doing. It was exasperating to watch. Denise had seen tougher times than any of them could comprehend, but she kept it to herself. I loved her for her humanity, her kindness and generosity and for the beautiful spirit that dwelled within.

Back at our house, my mother grew worse as well. She was listless and uninterested, resigned to watching her soaps and game shows on TV. If she needed anything, she would ring the little bell we gave her. To tell you the truth, that bell became a symbol of stress for us; we would be waiting for it to ring 24 hours a day. It was impossible to totally relax waiting for that little tinkle to start. Our one release was still Who, who had taken up residence on our porch. He was the rock to which we clung, knowing that we could walk out onto the porch and he would hop up onto our knees.

The days grew colder and there was no doubt winter was just around the corner. One morning it began to snow and we knew for sure that Who would be gone because of it. Resigned, we kept up our vigil over our parents as their health continued downhill. We felt so guilty thinking it but a part of us wished that their suffering would end - for us as much as for them. It was absolutely agonizing to watch and our guilt at their pain and ours wrapped us like a heavy blanket.

One afternoon, sitting in the living room, we saw movement at the side window. It was Who, hopping around on the ledge outside. He was peering in and he looked so cold. We didn't understand why a mourning dove would linger in the snow. This went on for a half hour or so until I couldn't stand it anymore. We had three cats and they, too, were watching the window with interest. I got up, walked to the window and slid it open. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect what happened next.

Who hopped over to the opening, stepped inside and looked around. The cats were absolutely mesmerized, unmoving and obviously wondering just what in the heck was going on. Who ignored them. He looked around, stepped inside a little more and with one little "whoo" took off and flew to the back of my chair! The cats - and us - were completely stunned. Who, with his patented equanimity, just settled right down on the top cushion like he owned it. The cats just sat there, eyes wide, but making no attempt to move on the bird.

I shrugged my shoulders, looked at Denise and the kids, and sat back down in my recliner. Who never moved, rocking back and forth as the chair settled, obviously in for the long haul. I turned my head and looked up, right into the cocked head and the eye looking right into my soul.

Denise's mom had taken a turn for the worse and she was over there most days, all day, just being there for her and to support her dad who was having a very hard time of it. My mother-in-law was semi-conscious most of the time, her eyes moving around as if she were watching something. She only reacted to outside stimuli infrequently and the doctors told Denise that it wouldn't be long.

Back at home, Who kept me company every day, appearing on the windowsill every morning and waiting to be let in. The cats paid him no attention now and I would sit in my chair, reading and feeling him looking over my shoulder. In the early afternoon, Who would fly over to the windowsill and wait for me to open the window. More often than not, he would come back for a while before it got dark and Denise came home. It was as though Who wanted to be near her for a while before he flew off into the trees for the night.

I went with Denise to visit her mom and dad one day and many of her relatives were there. Some were in the kitchen cooking, some were just wandering and some were in the living room with me holding up the walls. I looked over and Denise's face was mere inches from her mom's. They were looking into each others eyes with a fierce focus I had never seen before. They stayed that way for interminable minutes and a couple of times I heard her mother speak and Denise would speak softly in return. I couldn't imagine what they could be talking about.

Then I saw her mother smile and it was as though her entire face was suffused with a lovely glow. Denise smiled back and slowly relaxed as her mother's head lay gently back into the pillow and her eyes closed. With an effort, Denise stood up and walked over to me and whispered "later." She then turned back to the others in the room and announced, "Mom said that she talked with Jesus and that all of you were loved." I smiled and watched everyone as they looked around at each other as if they were saying to each other, "delirious." I had been watching carefully and knew better. Denise told me later that her mom was talking about seeing her relatives and friends and that they were waiting for her in a warm and beautiful light.

We went home that night to find the kids in the living room with Who, both of them sitting in my chair with the dove perched up on the back cushion. They were both looking at the bird in wonderment, smiling. When we came in, they said excitedly, "Who was walking back and forth between us!" Denise and I smiled at each other and sat down to enjoy Who's presence. We stayed that way for quite a while and all of a sudden, Who flew over to Denise and landed on her knee. He sat there for a while, head cocking back and forth, looking up into Denise's face. It was a beautiful sight.

Finally, Who flew up to the windowsill and waited for me to open the window. As I did, I heard him say softly, "Whoo, whoo" and then he was gone. We all sat around, not making a sound because we sensed something different; the fact that Who was no longer there. We didn't understand at the time that that was the last time we would see him, the last time he would sit with us in the living room watching television and talking, part of our family.

The next day, they took Denise's mom to the hospice and she died the day following that. Who didn't come back those days and we wondered what had happened to him. Had he been killed? Was he hurt somewhere and needed help? It was anguishing not knowing; we had become so used to his presence, so gladdened when he would show up on the front porch or the window ledge. It had been like a dream those past couple of months. But it was also like he had deserted us in our time of need. How could he?

It wasn't until a week had gone by that we finally understood. Denise told me that she had seen him, sitting up on the roof of the house when he first showed up, and that there was a beautiful golden glow around him. She hadn't mentioned it because she thought that it was just the sunlight playing tricks on her. Now, she said, she knew better. Who was an angel.

We had both seen angels before, Denise one night in bed when she awoke to see a vision standing at the foot of her bed. Me, in the garb of real people who had saved me from certain death and who had disappeared after the incident, beyond my capability to find them.

Who had come to us in our time of need and spent his time lightening our spirits through an unbelievably tough time. Then, when his job was finished, he was gone. We were able to sail those stormy seas because one mourning dove chose to keep us company, leading us through to the other side, and every time we think of him and speak in terms of wonder, we know that our life has been blessed.