100: To Fly with Herons

100: To Fly with Herons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

To Fly with Herons

Sadness flies on the wings of the morning and out of the heart of darkness comes the light.

~Jean Giraudoux

The ringing of the telephone rudely interrupted my first sip of coffee. The night before had provided little rest, and I was feeling puffy-eyed and groggy. I looked at my husband. Which of us was going to answer? I picked up the receiver, greeted the caller, and heard the voice on the other end giving me information I did not want. I listened, made a few replies, and hung up the phone.

“They just took Jennifer off the ventilator,” I whispered to my husband. “It won’t be long.”

We looked at each other and felt our connection to the living world, to our two young sons who sat on the couch watching cartoons, to our beautiful, young friend in a hospital bed 20 minutes away. Then we felt the heat of tears, as we had for days, but now they felt changed, a different kind of tears: aching, instead of hopeful.

Jennifer lived her life with cystic fibrosis. She was an incredible example of how to live a loving, kind, caring, nurturing, fun, humor-filled life—with or without a debilitating, breath-snatching disease. Tiny and adorable, with a huge, Pepsodent smile, she uplifted those around her. And now, at age 30, she was leaving us.

The morning wore on, the hands of the clock seeming to be mired in glue—slowly, so slowly the seconds turned to minutes. I made a few calls, checked in with friends, had the same conversation with all.

“I need to do something,” I said to my husband. “But I can’t figure out if I should go running or go to church.”

He gave a funny, but sad, little laugh.

“What will make you feel better?”

“Well,” I replied, “I don’t feel like I can put any make-up on right now, so the run is probably the better idea. I’m going to go look for my heron.”

The Great Blue Heron is an incredibly majestic, enigmatic bird. During my solitary runs along the banks on the Tualatin River, I often see a Great Blue (sometimes two of them), on the other side, seeming to hover on the edge, white-capped water rushing by. The stature and grace of the Great Blue has always held an allure for me. A friend of mine feels the same way; we have talked about what we see as a spiritual quality that emanates from a heron in repose, or even more strongly—in flight.

The sun darted in and out from behind the clouds as I gained my rhythm along the sidewalk. It seemed that even the sky could not decide how it was feeling on this Sunday morning. My cadence evened out, and my breathing settled into its comfort zone. How easy, just to take a breath when it was necessary. Such an irony on this day when my friend could no longer take any more breaths of her own.

Late in May, Oregon is lush, verdant, and in full bloom. Camellia blossoms littered the stretch of road I followed. From somewhere to my left the smell of daphne was lifted on the breeze. Azaleas and rhododendrons lined my course as I approached the path leading down to the river. The water was high, and I could hear it from the crest of the hill. I checked my watch as I descended the path, a subconscious part of my running pattern—how many minutes out, how many to get back home. 11:24 a.m. A man with his two black Labs passed me on my descent and I gave a halfhearted smile.

Thoughts began to haphazardly fill my already bruised and tired mind. They crashed and collided in a cacophony of noise and sound with no rhythm, rhyme, or melody. I ran and cried. Cried and ran. Stopped to stomp my feet and sob a few inappropriate expletives. What will friends do without her optimistic outlook, her deep faith? How would her parents go on with only memories of their lovely daughter? How does a man find the words to tell his kindergartner and preschooler how much they are loved, even thought they have been left? What about evenings drinking lemon drops and playing Pictionary, and days splashing at the fountain, laughing and sharing stories of our sunscreen-covered children? We need more time; we need more experiences; we just need more....

Then I saw it. Across the expanse of sun-dappled water, the Great Blue Heron sat, as if ready to answer all of my unanswerable questions. My bottomless well of tears seemed to dry for just a moment. I slowed my steps and wiped the sweat off my brow. Leafy green branches moved to hide the heron and expose it in the next second, like a trick being played on the eyes. But it was no trick. There it was in all its long-necked, silvery-blue glory, looking across the water at me, taking in my pain with patience and stillness. As I took a deep, lung-filling breath, the silvery figure glanced away, then back at me, before the flu-fluup, flu-fluup, flu-fluup of those mighty wings commenced. It took off low across the water, gaining altitude slowly, but surely, with purpose, before arcing gracefully over the treetops and out of my line of sight. The clouds broke open and a golden cast shone over the river. I looked at my watch—11:31. I took off back up the hill, not sure what would greet me at home.

The early afternoon was spent cocooned on the couch, the wind picking up force outside, the rain falling. We sat under blankets listening to Josh Groban sing to us that a breath away is not far from where you are, and Bette Midler harmonizing that God is watching us from a distance.

Later in the day, a friend called to say that Jennifer’s spirit left her earthly body at 11:30. I already knew it. I was there to see it happen. Not at her bedside, holding her small, well-manicured hand. But at the edge of the water, as she took off, gaining altitude slowly, but surely, with purpose, before arcing gracefully over the treetops and out of my line of sight.

~Antonia C. Everts

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