I remember having a love/hate relationship with September while I was growing up. It brought with it the start of a new school year which was always exciting for me, but it also often spelled disaster for my siblings who suffered various broken bones, sprains and concussions in the Septembers of our childhood – results of bicycle mishaps and falling from trees, and that was no fun. A few years later, our mom died on the last day of September, and for several years after, it became just a sad, sad month for me. On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a friend posed this question on Facebook: “Where were you when the world stopped turning?” I can tell you exactly where I was on 9/11/2001, but I can also tell you where I was when the world stopped turning.
The day was 9/23/2005, and my husband and I were walking up from the house to the barn to prepare for Rita, the hurricane making landfall later that day. Our son Kevin’s voice stopped us, alerting us to a telephone call. You know the one; the one no parent wants to take. It was then, at that spot in the middle of the pasture halfway between the house and the barn, that the world stopped turning. Our older son Keith was dead.
Dear friends who had been through this ordeal a decade before were at our sides in seven minutes. For a while, it was just the five of us, holding each other and crying, paralyzed with pain and unable to make a move. But phone calls had to be made to those who also would not want to receive them. People came. Somehow, they got to us. I dreaded the onslaught and welcomed it at the same time, for the faces of my friends and family as they walked through the door both devastated and sustained me. The day was the most excrutiating of my life, and finally, at the end of it, I fell back on the couch and reflected on the events of the day. That morning, I woke up with two living sons (or so I thought at the time), then this amazing thing happened with the birds, and then the phone call. I sat straight up. The birds. The birds! I realized. Of course. We had our answer.
My morning routine begins by looking out a huge window at the view behind my house and down the hill. The scene – the woods, the open pasture land with spreading oaks and ponds and grazing cattle – is a magical place for me, and I never stop feeling grateful for it. I start my day praying, looking out this window. This day was especially in need of prayer. Hurricane Rita was bearing down on our coast just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina beat-up on New Orleans. Houston had opened its arms to those fleeing that storm, and now Houston was being threatened. People poured out of the city the day before, not wanting to repeat the mistakes of Katrina, and each had a story to tell about the horrors of the evacuation. It took six to eight hours to get through a traffic signal to cross under the freeway, thirteen hours to travel what normally takes an hour. Gas stations ran out of gas. Stores ran out of water. Arteries out of the city were clogged, and traffic stood still halfway to Dallas and Austin. And all of this happened in record-breaking temperatures. This was a new day, though, and it needed prayers. So I prayed from my window.
From the left side of the window, a brilliantly colored robin flew directly in front of my face and landed on the fence a few yards away. It was startling to see it fly so close to me, and I was instantly confused and thought, “Wait a minute! Is this robin season?!!?” Before I could really get the question fully formed in my mind, a bluebird flew from the same direction right in front of my face and landed on the fence next to the robin. They began chatting together, and I shook my head in wonder. Do those two really fraternize? Isn’t this a bit too far south for this bluebird? I thought, “Hurricanes can make animals do strange things, so maybe…” Then something happened that can only be described as a thought being pushed into my head: I could feel the pressure of it, almost as if someone’s hand was pushing hard against my skull. The thought was, “No. The hurricane did not make this happen. Watch.” So I watched. I felt something wrap around me like a cocoon, drawing my arms up next to my body, and it felt as if my head was being pulled upward in a sort of spiral vortex into the unknown. Only my eyes moved. I knew – oh, brother, did I KNOW – something spiritual was happening to me and in front of me. A third bird appeared, a cardinal. Then came a fourth, a woodpecker, both flying in from the left. All four sat in squares where the wires of the fence cross – two on top and two on bottom. They chatted and exchanged squares and chatted from their new positions. And then the most beautiful bird I had ever seen appeared – one I could not identify then, nor have I been able to identify it since. It was completely yellow from top to bottom, and I struggled to see anything that looked like eyes or beak or feet – anything other than yellow. This bird didn’t just fly in. It barreled in, and as it came just in front of my face, it turned a flip. I felt my eyes fly open wide, thinking “Birds can’t turn flips!” but just to prove me wrong, this one – with what seemed like sunlight reflecting off every inch of its body- soared and dipped and flipped several times, from my left to my right and back to my left again before lighting on the fence with the others. It communicated with each one but only stayed a moment, and then it soared again, dipping and flipping its way out of my sight to the right. Again and again and again through this, the thought being pressed into my skull was that something very spiritual was happening, that it was WONDERFUL and that we would figure it out. These phrases-not words I would have chosen for myself-continued to be pressed into my head, “You have been uniquely chosen to see this. You are supposed to tell.”
Once the yellow bird flew away, that wonderful, comforting, loving feeling of being wrapped and pulled also fell away, and I ran to find my husband. I grabbed his hands and pulled him to the living room windows. He pointed at what had joined the birds. Below the four on the fence, a circle of wrens and sparrows on the ground formed a perfect circle. A second beautiful woodpecker had joined the group and was sitting on a stump next to the fence. My husband remarked that, not only was it incredible that they were all there together, but each was the most brilliantly colored one of its species he had ever seen. I told him he missed the most beautiful one of all – that it flew wildly in, stayed just a minute, and flew out as wildly as it had flown in. I shared with him the things that were pushed into my head – that something very spiritual was happening, that it was wonderful, and that we would figure it out and also the strange phrase that I had been “uniquely chosen” to see the yellow bird and that I was supposed to tell.
I woke Kevin up so he could help us get the barn ready for the hurricane. As he sat up and tried to get the cobwebs out of his brain, I reminded him that as a seventeen-year-old, he was supposed to think I was weird but that I had something I felt strongly I was supposed to tell him. I described to him what I saw and felt and what his dad and I saw together, and I gave him the message I was supposed to deliver: Something very spiritual was happening. It was WONDERFUL. We would figure it out. I had been chosen to see this so I could tell.
Laurence and I left for the barn, and Kevin was slipping on his shorts to follow us up when the phone rang, and the world stopped turning.
As I sat on the couch that evening reflecting, I remembered the birds. I sat up straight and said, “The birds! The birds! The yellow bird!” People stopped their conversations, and they stared at me. I looked around wildly for Laurence and Kevin. From different parts of the living room and kitchen, I heard my family’s voices and my own say, “Keith,” and “The yellow bird was Keith,” first in quiet realization, and as we repeated the words to each other, realization became jubilation, and we laughed as we shared the story. We all knew the beautiful, undefinable bird that flew wildly in, stayed a short time, and flew out as wildly as he had flown in was our own Keith.
Something spiritual had happened that day, and it was a WONDERFUL thing for him. For us, it was comforting to know we were being cared for before we knew we needed to be cared for, and it was humbling to know that my boy was a part of such an amazingly beautiful and spiritual display. For the family and friends gathered at our house that night, we had figured it out.
In the midst of our greatest tragedy came the most amazing gift. Maybe it is how God chose to carry us when we couldn’t walk on our own. Maybe it is how God chose to give those of us who love Keith some peace about this tragic loss. There are so many unanswered questions, but I have not been burdened by them. I received the gift of the only answer I really needed when that yellow bird performed his antics for me while I was praying. The rest can wait until that day when I see all things clearly. Until then, it’s enough to know that my boy is in good hands, and so are we.
“Yellowbird” written and performed by Texas High Life in honor of Keith
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