The Cardinal, the Blue Jay, and the Gravestones

“I got off work early today, for the long weekend.” I spread the blanket my mother had made for Glory many moons ago on the grass beside Dennis. I’d been using the blanket (embroidered with colourful birds and flowers) every single day for two years, never washed it once, and other than fading from sun and rain, it still looked like new. “I’ll sit with you, since I sat with Glory the past few times.”

I put my big purse on one corner, kicked my shoes to the other, and lay down on the edge on the opposite side. I traced my fingers over the letters etched in stone – Dennis Templeman, January 7th-April 19th – and felt tears burn my eyes. Thirty-eight years-old when he died, we should’ve celebrated his fortieth over four months ago. “I’m still sorry I didn’t go to Scotland like we’d planned, but I just couldn’t. You understand, don’t you?”

A breeze rustled through the leaves in the trees behind our row. I closed my eyes, let the wind lift my hair and dry my tears. “I knew you would. Maybe in a few years, for my fortieth, I’ll make it there. Probably not.”

The breeze stopped and I heard the birds before I saw them. Cardinals and blue jays, winging through the air from tree to tree. “And hello to you, too, Glory. Mommy’s here.”

I stretched my arm over Dennis’s side of the stone to Glory’s, traced her letters – Glory Templeman, February 3rd-April 21st – and smiled at the carved cardinal between her daddy’s name and hers. “You fought so hard, baby girl. I can’t believe you’d be six now. You never got to go to school, but I showed you the pictures I took on what should’ve been your first day of Junior Kindergarten, remember? I think you would’ve liked your school. I drove past on my way here, saw your first friend, Ruthie from down the street, who’d have been in your class. She was playing in the park, I bet she’s excited to be starting grade one on Tuesday.”

The birds flitting overhead soared out of sight, and I felt alone. Two years and four months had passed, yet the grief never faded. Time doesn’t heal anything, not really. Not when your heart is buried six feet below, covered by dirt and grass. I dug my iPad out of my purse, found the movie I’d downloaded for Glory, and set the tablet over Glory’s name so she could watch and listen while I talked to Dennis. I knew anyone who wandered past would think I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I had some things I needed to say, and coming here every day beat the loneliness at home.

“Dennis, there’s something I need to talk to you about. Mark, at work, asked me out again. Of course, I told him no. But I’ve been thinking –” I swiped impatiently at the tear that escaped. “This is so hard. You and Glory are together, and I’m all alone. The tenants I leased the house to want to buy it. I’m thinking maybe I should sell, buy a different house. Move out of the apartment I rented after…well, after you left.”

The gentle breeze brought the scent of fresh flowers, likely from the new grave I’d noticed had been dug the day before. “The house is too big for me, and holds too many memories. Those first few days after the accident, with everyone cramming inside while I sat vigil with Glory, then after, when…” I swiped at the tears streaming freely now. “Those are the memories the house holds. I’ve got the rest in my head, and in my heart, but every time I go near the house, I remember the sad, the bad, the angry. I’m shot back in time, to April two years ago, the worst time of my life. The playset you built for Glory, with the dream we’d have more kids, is still there, but all I see are the empty swings, the unused rope ladder and slides. The couple renting, they’re expecting twins. I’m thinking they should have the house, own it, and fill it with their own happy memories, replace the sad ones I see and feel whenever I’m near.”

The breeze stilled and only the faint drone from the movie filled the silence. The cardinal, a male because he was so vibrantly red and beautiful, flew overhead and landed on a low branch in the pine tree behind our row. I heard his familiar cheer-cheer-cheer, his pretty-pretty-pretty, and the answering song of the female somewhere nearby. The breeze picked up, and the scent of gladiolas filled my senses.

“I’m glad,” I smiled through my tears. “I’ve had my eye on a cute little bungalow near the river, nowhere near as big as our house but it’s so pretty. I think Glory would’ve loved it, you too for that matter. But I have to pick something for me, and I think this is the one.”

I heard the jay-jay call of a blue jay, and the cardinal took flight. “Wonder if they’re friends today or fighting?”

The cardinal landed in the tree the female had called from, and a male jay perched above them. They seemed to be talking. “Glory, you’d love this. They’re friends today. Wonder where the girl jay is?”

The breeze picked up and the birds took to the sky. I watched until the blinding sun blurred my vision. “Go back to your movie, honey.”

I heard the drone of a lawnmower start up, not in the cemetery but one of the houses nearby. “That’s the other thing, the house? Mostly nature gardens. Hardly any grass to cut. So many trees, I could hang a billion feeders. You and Glory could follow the cardinal and the jay, come see me.”

I traced the embroidered cardinal on the blanket. Glory hadn’t even been born yet when Mom gave it to me as a shower gift. Dennis had hung it on the wall until Glory was two, begged us to let her use it. Mom insisted we let her, saying she’d crafted it for Glory, to keep Glory warm, and it was a shame we’d turned it into a showpiece. Glory’s first word hadn’t been mama or dada, but bird. She loved cardinals the best, and the cardinals were always in the cemetery. “I think I’ve said this before, but I think you, Glory, attract the cardinals. I asked the groundskeeper if there’d always been so many pretty birds but he said he didn’t think so. I told Grandma that the jays come because of the pretty cardinals you loved so much. She says I’m crazy, that blue jays and cardinals don’t get along, but every time I’m here, they seem to. I think when they don’t, they’re only playing tag because they’re all friends again the next time. That’s because of you, isn’t it, Glory?”

The music I heard from the tablet was intense, almost spooky, and I figured that’s why Glory hadn’t responded. “Dennis? I don’t want to date Mark, that would be too weird to date someone you knew, but I’m thinking –”

The breeze picked up when I broke off my sentence. “Sorry, sorry. It’s so hard to say. But Dennis? Do you think you could ever forgive me? If I decided, someday, to say yes to a man who asked me out?”

The cloying scent of the gladiolas was as strong as they’d been the day of the double funeral, when I’d laid my husband and my daughter to rest together. “I figured you wouldn’t want me to be lonely. Not that I’m looking for someone. Not that there’s anyone who could ever replace you. I’ve just been thinking, late at night, how lonely I am, how much I miss having someone to hug when I’m sad, someone to share good news with. To go out for dinner with. The mother’s on that on-line grief support group keep saying that I’m still alive, but that I’m not living. At first, I’d log off when they said stuff like that, but now? Now, I’m wondering if maybe they’re right. Did I stop living the day you died? Or maybe it was the day Glory died. It’s like the fog closed in the minute the police knocked on my door, and lately? Lately it feels like the sun is trying to poke through, chase away the fog.”

A fat bumblebee buzzed past my ear, probably on their way to the new grave’s flowers. “I hope your new neighbour is nice, that whoever loved them visits often.”

I rolled onto my back, watching the fluffy clouds rolling in. “Is Glory still as she was? The day she died? Or is she growing up? I’ve asked ministers and priests, all religions, but everyone seems to have a different answer. I want to keep seeing Glory as she was. Inquisitive, funny, smart, and oh-so-stubborn. It hurts to think she might be growing up without me, where I can’t see her.”

The birds were back, the females in the lead with the males cheer-cheer-cheering, jay-jaying, and I smiled. I heard the rustle in the trees behind us, knew they’d landed in the tall pine and not the maple nearby. “That cloud? To the west? It looks like a heart, the way Glory used to draw them.”

“I’m going to call the tenants, Jenny and Tom, going to tell them to go ahead, to get a mortgage to buy the house. I told them I’d get a lawyer to draft up a sale, using the rent they’ve paid for the past eighteen months as a down payment. Once we get that settled, I’ll go back to the realtor and discuss the bungalow. The money from the big house will more than pay for the little one, and I’ll have money left over. I know, I know, I’m a savvy shopper. That was one of the things you loved best about me. I’ll invest the difference, just like I did the life insurance money. No, I don’t know what I’m saving for, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out someday. And if the little bungalow is gone once I’ve sold? It wasn’t meant to be and I’ll stay in my little bachelor apartment a bit longer, until I find my place.”

The birds cheered me on, sang their hearts out. “Glad you guys approve. Glory’s movie is over, I should get going. Mom says maybe I should start coming every other day, but not yet. Maybe soon. You and Glory don’t mind, do you?”

I put my shoes on and got to my feet, the breeze picking up and the birds continued to croon. I shook the blanket out, folded it, and put the iPad back in my purse. “I’ll see you both tomorrow, okay? I love you to the moon and back, forever and a day, always.”

I touched my fingers to my mouth as I knelt over the stone, planting a kiss first on Glory’s name, then Dennis’s. “If I decide to go out with the girls tomorrow, I’ll be here early morning or late evening, otherwise I’ll be here for lunch.”

I meandered along the paved path, taking the long route so I could check out the new arrival. The small sign next to a man’s inscribed name made me smile instead of cry. Together, finally, some ten years after he’d passed. “Look out for her, Dennis. Show her around. You too, Glory. I know all about how hard it is to be in a world by yourself, at least help her find her man. Who knows where he’s wandered while he waited.”

The birds flitted from tree to tree, following me as I made my way to my car as they often did. I passed the small pond with the tinkling fountain, and as I rounded the bend, I bumped into someone, staggered a few steps. “Oh, pardon me.”

The man stumbled backwards, his baseball cap falling off. “I’m so sorry.”

I looked into blue eyes rimmed with black lashes, eyes I’d seen a few times. “Kent, right?”

He scooped up his hat and put it back on, nodding. “Jenna, right?”

I grinned. Two years and we finally knew each other’s names. “I don’t usually come this way, but I wanted to pay my respects to the new arrival.”

“Me too, otherwise we’d have met up at the other end, but likely not bumped into each other. I should’ve known you were here since the cardinals were busy today.”

We fell into step, back along the row he’d come from. “They only come out when I’m here? I see the jays all the time.”

I glanced down at the graves I knew Kent had been visiting. Jason Williams, November 30th-September 5th and Kelly Williams, March 1st-November 30th. Kent’s wife had died during childbirth twelve years ago, Jason had died of cancer four years ago, at eight. My heart squeezed. “You’re early.”

Kent shrugged, nodding. “I come more often near the dates, you know? Until today, I hadn’t visited since March.”

I wondered if I’d ever reach the stage where a few times a year was enough. “How’re you doing?”

Kent shrugged again. “Gone on a few dates, took up golf. You?”

I snorted. “I’m the same as ever. Although I told Dennis and Glory I might start coming every other day. Mostly to make my mom happy. She’s worried, thinks I’m depressed. I told her that I was depressed, but I feel like this year I’m at least thinking of tomorrow, and the day after. Maybe not next year, but it’s a start.”

“You’ll do what’s right as it’s right.” Kent patted my arm gently. “Like me. I was ready to date but then Jason got sick, and it’s only been the past year or so I’ve been trying it out. Only it’s hard to meet someone who understands. They get jealous when they ask if I still love Kelly, or they get angry that I still bring her flowers for her birthday.”

I patted his arm this time. “That’s what I’m afraid of, too. That I’ll be alone for the rest of my life because the part of me that loved Dennis so much will never die. At least I’m past the point where the thought of being with someone makes me physically ill.”

We both laughed as we wandered along, not in a hurry. “I bought a plot close to Kel and Jase, isn’t that pathetic?”

“Not really the right person to ask saying as I did the same thing. Couldn’t get too close to them, I waited too long, but I got one near the pond. Figured it was as good a place as any.”

“Eleven seventy-two? I’m next door. Funny how that works, isn’t it? The groundskeeper suggested it to me a few months ago, said there were only two left in this section.”

“We must’ve bought at the same time. Glen told me the same thing.” I smiled to myself, thinking how the groundskeeper had hesitated to approach me, how I’d jumped at the chance. Future real estate, my forever home, near Dennis and Glory. “My dad’s near the new arrival, that’s where Mom will go when it’s her time. Figured I’d be close to everyone some day. At first, after I bought it, I was sad. Couples should be together and all that, but then again, parents should never have to bury their children, and I couldn’t have handled knowing Glory was in the ground alone, Dennis in the ground alone. Plus, if I ever do find someone someday, I can be buried with him.”

We walked in silence until I noticed the cardinals and the jays flitting and singing over the gravestones. “We’ve got company.”

“Blue jays were Kelly’s favourite, and Jason loved the baseball team. I used to think they were a sign, when I’d come to visit, a male and a female jay.”

“They are. Don’t sound like you’re doubting it. And Glory loved cardinals. I think the jays are your Jason and my Glory playing together, watched over by Dennis and Kelly.”

Kent walked on without speaking. I wondered if I’d said something to upset him, or scare him. Maybe I was crazy, but who did it hurt, to take comfort from these small signs? “You know something? I think you’re right. The cardinals joined the jays around the time Dennis and Glory showed up.”

We left the cemetery. I recognized his old pick-up truck parked a few aisles over from my little car. “Guess I’ll see you late fall.”

Kent nodded, but before we parted, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Have you got plans tonight?”

I stared at him, confused and surprised. I didn’t know what to say – part of me wanted to say I didn’t, the other part of me wanted to run back to Dennis, throw myself on top of the grave and weep for considering it.

“Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I just thought of all the people in the world, you might understand.” Kent’s eyes were sad, but he smiled. “Plus, you’re really pretty.”

Kent started to walk away. I saw the cardinals in the tree, the male and the female. The pair of blue jays were on a higher branch. “Can I go home and wash up first? Only I expect a decent restaurant if I’m going on my first date in years.”

Kent hesitated. “Only if you like steak. Otherwise I’ll meet you at the coffee shop for a cup of coffee and a doughnut in ten.”

I thought of the steaks Dennis and I had eaten over the years, fallen in love over. “I live in the little building near the steakhouse. Pick me up at seven.”

The birds trilled and sang, fluttered high and soared. For the first time in years, I felt hope blossoming in my chest. The clouds were fluffy and so white against the blue, blue like Kent’s eyes. Four birds flew overhead, soaring higher and higher, and I waved to them, blew them a kiss. “Thanks, honey.”


 

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