In Larry David’s family drama “Fish in the Dark,” the father, Sidney, dies. At the funeral reception, his mother Gloria runs into the dining room from the terrace, obviously agitated.
“Sidney! Sidney!” she screams.
“Mom,” says her son Arthur, “what are you talking about?”
“It was an oriole,” she replies. “Daddy was from Baltimore. He was an Orioles fan. That was a sign from Sidney!”
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The audience cracks up.
The idea of the dead returning to us as birds is a common trope in mythology and literature. And on its face, it does seem silly, laughable even. But a year after my father’s death, I’ve come to understand why we rely on this cliche.
In the last year of my father Ben Bradlee’s colorful life as a newspaper editor, he became fascinated by a bright red cardinal that lived in the biggest tree on our property. He could see the bird from our library window in D.C. and would call him “buddy.”
The first time I went down to our farm after my dad died, I thought about that cardinal. And the next morning, as I was making coffee, I saw a bright red bird standing on my window sill. He flew up and down frantically, as if waving at me. As I moved from room to room, the cardinal followed me, perching in different windows in my home.
I started to think maybe it was my father. Dad had come back as a cardinal.
Over the next year, the cardinal would often “check in.” He would perch on my windowsill and watch as I got ready for my day. One morning after waking up and making my coffee, I ran out of sugar. When I went over to the main house to get some, the bird followed me.
My dad’s birthday was Aug. 26. That day, the cardinal came to visit our house in D.C. I felt like it was his birthday present.
My mom, Sally Quinn, had never been to the farm without my dad in the almost 30 years that we had owned it. When she arrived, she walked into the kitchen. Sitting on the windowsill, peering in, was the cardinal.
When I Googled the symbolism of cardinals, the first thing was a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Find hope in the darkest days, and focus in the brightest.” This, I think, is why we try to see our deceased loved ones in nature. Death leaves a hole in our hearts. Imagining our loved ones coming to visit eases that pain.
In 1944, near the end of World War II, in Florence, a small brown bird landed on the shoulder of a young South African Jewish officer named Bert Cohen. It stayed there for five days.
Bert Cohen was the uncle of New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. In Roger Cohen’s book “The Girl From Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family,” he writes that his uncle was nicknamed Captain Little Bird.
Some women in Florence thought Bert Cohen was a saint, and asked him to bless them and their grandchildren. All this while, artillery fire was heard throughout the night.
Captain Cohen called the bird Ishbel. An American soldier took a picture of Bert Cohen and the bird. Within minutes, the bird took off and flew out of sight, leaving him bereft. Fifteen minutes later, the bird flew back to him, and perched on his left shoulder as if nothing had happened. Cohen was elated.
As Roger Cohen writes in his book, “The bird on your shoulder: it comes when least expected to affirm life’s miracles, beyond every suffering.”
The cardinal is my miracle.
Quinn Bradlee is the Founder and CEO of Friends Of Quinn and the author of “A Different Life, Growing Up Learning Disabled and Other Adventures.”