5:08 AM. I wake up groggy and disjointed to a song I have become very familiar with this semester – a cardinal is singing somewhere outside. It’s an insistent call, forcing me out of what must have been a deep sleep and into the yellow lit, brick walled reality that is my dorm’s basement. Shit. I must’ve fallen asleep on the couch while I was coding data. I had been dreaming of Afghan girls. Beautiful skin, piercing eyes… and road trips that got off to a delayed start. The rest of the dream fades too quickly for me to be able to write it down.
I’m sitting on the couch, disoriented and irritated when a small part of my brain lights up. Cardinals! A cardinal woke me up. Are my ears deceiving me? I refuse to believe that. There it is – again, a cardinal calling to me from somewhere outside, insisting I wake up and listen to it sing. Whether this is reality or a dream, this moment is just one more story to add to my growing list of cardinal interactions. My reaction? I smile a little, greet Opa, and promise him I’ll get up and relocate to my bed soon. I need to allow myself more than a 30-minute nap tonight in a place more comfortable than this dorm couch. Get up, get your work done, and then get to sleep! Message received. And just like that, I cease to hear the cardinal.
I’ve had this… connection… with cardinals all semester. I mention them in my journals often, to document their presence in the woods and occasionally write about a moment I share with one of them, but have never really delved into my relationship with them. It’s time, though, I think. Here goes. You may not believe me, but I don’t care.
My first cardinal moment happened this winter during my third time in the woods. My trip into the woods that day was an escape – from the commotion, the stress, and the pace of my everyday life. I saw a cardinal on my walk in, but barely reacted to it thanks to my foul mood. But then I saw one again on my walk out and just completely froze. Looking up at the cardinal, I had this enormously powerful sense that it was my grandfather (Opa) stopping by to say hello and let me know he’s watching over me. I have no idea how long I actually stood in the middle of the road looking up at this cardinal, but it felt like 20 minutes or longer at the time that I was standing there with my face lifted, tears slowly rolling down my cheeks, just feeling Opa’s presence for the first time since he passed away in July.
Since that cardinal sighting, I have seen them every single time I’ve been in the woods. Coincidence? Maybe. But the story goes on… A few weeks after that first encounter with a cardinal, I was on the phone with my mom just catching up and relaying stories about my time in the woods when I mentioned that I see cardinals all the time and just have this sense that sometimes, they carry Opa’s spirit with them. Mom fell silent for a moment and then proceeded to tell me this story:
Spring 2013. My mom was in her office at the studio (her business – it is attached to our house) when Janine, one of her employees, walked in and told her there was a cardinal sitting outside on the Es Gibt Immer Einen Weg stone. This stone is a 6-foot tall piece of sandstone standing in our garden with the saying “Es Gibt Immer Einen Weg” etched into it. The saying, which means “there is always a way” is a family motto passed down from the German side of my family. It is a phrase that Opa, my mother, and myself all live by. Years ago, Opa had this saying engraved in an enormous slab of sandstone and set it in his garden in Germany. For years, it stood there as a reminder of the power of determination and finding solutions in life. When my mom turned 50, she asked for a similar stone for her garden in America. There is always a way – and true to his motto, Opa found a way to ship that boulder from Germany to the USA in time for my mom’s 50th birthday. That sculpture has been standing in our garden ever since.
Anyway, Janine mentioned that there was a cardinal on the stone that morning when she came in to work just because it’s not a common sight in our garden and she thought my mom would appreciate it. Hours later, Janine walked back into my mom’s office. That cardinal is still sitting on the rock, she said. My mom went outside and sure enough, the cardinal was still there. It didn’t move the entire day. The next morning, my mom found out on the phone that her father had been diagnosed with cancer the previous day. She took the cardinal as a sign that Opa was there with her, letting her know that there is always a way – even through this. Turns out that way ended up being a dignified, enlightened death a few months later.
I was shocked when I heard my mom tell this story. The same bird brought with it Opa’s presence on different occasions for both of us, without either of us knowing the others’ story. How can that be a coincidence? Seeing and hearing cardinals this semester always brings me hope, stillness, and reflection. To me, the cardinals are reminders to slow down and remember what is important in life – compassion, gentleness, family. And they serve as proof of a life force or energy on Earth that truly never dies, but instead just changes form.