September: A Month for Remembering

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

Keith’s Dad Talks About Keith

Blake Kelley and Keith’s Boys Talk About Keith

Cousin Christopher and Uncle Terry Talk About Keith                         Karrie and Emily Talk About Keith    Texas High Life Sings Keith’s Favorite Song, “Sweet Carolina”  The Pastor Talks About Keith


14 responses to “September: A Month for Remembering

  1. Donna and Laurence — Anita shared this site with me to remember the spirituality of that September…can it be eight years already? I remember when we first met you when we came down from Houston to experience “shearing” at Blue Bonnet Hills Alpaca Ranch on April 1, 2004, as we had purchased alpacas and needed to “learn the ropes”. I don’t remember ever actually meeting Keith, but I remember you sharing the story of seeing the birds and the spiritual message you and Laurence received from them. I enjoyed “Keith’s Dad Talks About Keith” and remembering Laurence’s heartfelt remarks at the chuch that day. I see God’s light in our friends and family every day. And though I may not understand it, I trust in His plan for us all. Marriage and children are an awesome gift of God to us to be cherished, protected, and honored. Thanks for sharing this day with us.

    • Thank you, Mickey, for your thoughtful note, and thank you, Anita, for sharing my page. Kevin and Paige and I talked about this over dinner tonight. The more time that passes, the more in awe I am that this happened to me. I think it made all the difference in the world in how I’ve managed to work through my grief. Another key component has been the prayers and support of great friends and family. Thank you for allowing me to share my experience and this day with you.

  2. Donna,

    Thank you for sharing. Your story is beautiful. My mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law had a very similar experience with dragonflies when my husband’s grandfather passed away. God works in mysterious and yet very wonderful ways. I really enjoyed sharing with you today and am so honored that you shared this “Godwink” with me!

    Tracey Godwin

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my “Godwink.” The peace I have about Keith’s death surpasses my own understanding, but I attribute it 100% to this gift I was so generously given. Thank you for letting me share my story, and thank you for sharing yours. I think our conversation was a “meant to be” talk!

  3. This is simply such a beautiful image and story – Yellowbird. Music and song is my favorite way of expressing emotion and how interesting that we share that. It was wonderful that you were able to see those birds and how beautiful that you were able to recognize the spirituality of it. Thank you for sharing. I always look at butterflies for my son – so I understand that thought process well.

    • I cannot deny that I, too, think it is beautiful, but I can say that because I don’t believe for a minute that I own it. From the start, it was only mine to share. Yes, music moves me in a way nothing else can, and it IS interesting that we both have that (although I don’t believe in coincidences). I have a degree in music, and my boys inherited my love of it and my talent for it exponentially. Did you hear the song his band wrote for him? The band is still together and has grown in skill level and sophistication, but nothing, NOTHING they ever do will top that song in my mind.
      Regarding butterflies, they are special to me as well. People find it strange when they visit here that we have them 12 months a year. I don’t question it……

  4. I remember when Keith got his Mack Truck, he called and was sooo excited, I can still remember him saying “Listen to this Ampie Pam”, then thru his phone I heard this huge truck horn – obviously a very large truck !! I told him, that was no regular truck horn, what was he into now ?? and he told me “I bought my first Mack Truck” !!

    • Haha! I remember being outside and hearing all this racket coming up over the hill. I waited and watched, and sure enough, Keith and some friends came over the top of the hill like some kind of Cavalry, honking that huge truck the whole way. Too funny!

  5. Donna and Laurence,
    I knew Keith before Kevin was born, and from the beginning, he and Lindsey were fast buds. I remember his boundless energy. I remember his inquisitive nature. I remember the many” food creations” ( which were really science experiments) that he and Lindsey did in your kichen. I remember my fear, your unrelenting
    patience and support. I remember that for the first time in my life I was forced to admit real diffences between girls and boys. I remember vividly that Keith was an entrepreneur even at the age of 5. He sold plants and other things from the back of his red wagon in the neighborhood. And he made fair deals and made money. He was the second best seller at Dickens in the Strand .
    His insatiable thirst to understand the inner workings of EVERYTHING resulted in his fear of NOTHING.
    I remember his passionate caring and nurturing guardianship of all animals ( even those I thought were varmits). I remember his Adonis like beauty. I remember the aura of light that radiated from him. I remember his love and his light and the lessons he taught me.
    I remember how very much he loved and admired you and Laurence.
    Love you,

    • Thanks for the memories, Donna! I had forgotten about the science experiments/cooking that took place in my kitchen. After Keith died, I gave up eating bacon-wrapped, grilled quail. I would never have tasted it in the first place if he had not made it especially for me, but it was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten, and I wasn’t going to eat it again if he didn’t make it for me. I saw not too long ago that Lindsey was canning things, so I guess all that experimentation led to something wonderful! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing memories with me. I love you.

  6. I woke this morning and walked into the living room where Deanna M was sitting reading this and I was singing out loud a song about a bird with no wings and couldn’t fly that i completely made up in my head that was just a bunch of silly verses that rhymed. She said it’s weird that I was singing this because of what she was reading, so I poured me a cup of coffee and sat down and fired up the computer to read it for myself. I am so heart broken and cried my eyes out for the last hour about this story, but I know in my heart there is a reason why all this happened this morning. I, myself, feel that I am not much different than Keith in the way I live my life, ie…Loud, Never met a stranger, and always thinking about something, I can’t remember if we met at Sandy’s Christmas Party 2010 or not but I would love to sit and chat some day, anyways I just felt compelled to tell this story…God Bless!!! Steve S

    • There are no coincidences in this life, Steve; I am convinced of it. I am looking forward to that chat. Thank you for your heartfelt response to Keith’s story and for taking the time to respond to me so beautifully. God bless you!

  7. Thank you Donna, for sharing something so very intimate with the rest of us. You and Laurence teach us the true face of courage…..and the real meaning of love. Something so devastating, that would destroy most families… all found a way to survive it and continue to love each other completely. Keith is so very much a part of the fabric that is the Bender family. His part in the song was more brief than the rest of you, but not less important and not gone………….

I value your thoughts and comments. Please share them!! ~Donna

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