The Orioles

It was a complete surprise when the Orioles showed up, despite the time of year and despite knowing exactly who had sent them.

Friday May 8, 2020. Joel was tinkering in the garden, putting some final touches on the vegetables and herbs he’d just planted. Hobbling up the sloped backyard with our 1 year old daughter Fern, her arms stretched overhead and hands gripping my fingers, I suddenly heard an unfamiliar birdsong cut sharply through all the ambient sounds of May; the traffic down below, the other chattering birds, and the trees being ruffled by the breeze. This new birdsong was coming from the enormous maple tree which sits in the center of our back yard. The sound wasn’t just a clear, sing-songy song. It was as if the tree itself had cleared it’s throat and began to sing an announcement over the loudspeaker of that springtime day.

“Wow, what kind of bird is THAT?” I asked Joel.

He leaned on the planter box, both hands steadying himself as he looked up at the tree directly in front of him, and there, the unfamiliar visitor, perched high up in the tree calling out to make his presence known, was a male Baltimore Oriole, it’s vibrant orange chest peeking through the branches who’s leaves had just begun to burst from their buds in early springtime fashion.  

Joel replied, “That’s an Oriole!” And I was electrified.

We’d been living in our house for close to 8 years at that point, keeping the birdfeeders on the side of the house stocked most of the time, watching in awe the sparrows, titmouses, cardinals, red winged blackbirds, cowbirds and catbirds, teeny tiny neon finches and other bird varieties feast with each passing season. But in all of those 8 years there was just one other day we had caught a quick glimpse of an Oriole. It was stopped briefly at the feeder, long enough for us to notice him, and for him to notice us, which then prompted a quick getaway, and he flitted off into the sky and out of sight. 

A few weeks before this 2nd Oriole sighting I had gone out for a run, pushing Fern in her stroller.  We left the house and navigated traffic on the busy main road. It was a beautiful day, the warm sun was high in the sky.  Fern was relaxed and taking in the sights while I listened to a book called Signs. We made our way towards the harbor, and I listened to the author (a medium) tell stories of people who asked for signs from deceased loved ones. Elephants on billboards, numbers on receipts, dimes in the streets, so many stories of people seemingly connecting with loved ones through various “signs.” It inspired me to try to connect with my mom. As I wondered what sign to ask for I ran by a big house with a sign in the front yard – The Hydrangea Inn –  a bed and breakfast. Hydrangeas were my mom’s favorite flower. Whoa. But wait, that’s too obvious. I wanted a sign that wasn’t obvious.  So I asked, Mom, send me a…purple rose. It was the first thing that came to my mind. Obscure, because roses aren’t naturally purple, and roses have no special meaning to me. Definitely not obvious, so I went with it.

We jogged along the harbor, up around Stage Fort Park through the ocean side baseball field, up a steep fast paced road, then onto a windy hilly neighborhood side street before we were finally back to the house, breathless (well, at least I was). Waiting for my purple rose I felt excited and hyper-aware. I could picture my mom being a little frustrated by the request and I could hear her playfully responding – “A purple rose? Christina, you know roses aren’t purple. Ugh, fine…”

To my astonishment, I got my purple rose within minutes of getting home. Fern and I had gone inside, and as I removed my headphones I opened Instagram on my phone. And there on the screen was the photo of an acquaintance’s daughter, smiling and wearing a sweatshirt with blue, pink and PURPLE roses on it. I flushed. I zoomed in on the photo. Zoomed out. Zoomed in again. Those are ROSES. PURPLE roses. 

Now this was a game I wanted to keep playing. And so I asked for another sign. 

My mind first went to Cardinals. They have always been a sign for me. A good sign. A reminder of loved ones I miss and I see them frequently. But again, I wanted a sign that wasn’t obvious.  I wanted something different, rare, unexpected, unlikely. Mom, send me an…..Oriole. As I mentioned before I had only seen an Oriole once in my entire life and the moment was so brief I wonder if the memory is just the visual representation of someone else’s story.

Feeling hyper aware, I moved through the rest of the day looking out the window repeatedly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare (to me) bird. After putting Fern to bed, I walked over to our side window for one last look at our birdfeeders but something caught my eye before I could look out. Down by my feet was our dogs’ bed, covered by an old quilt a friend gifted us when my mom was sick. It had all kinds of random patches and prints that I’d never paid attention to. But that night looking back up at me was a patch with a print of what looked to me like…you guessed it….an Oriole.

A few days later as I was tidying up our basement I came across a bag of birdfood and on the front of it was a picture of an Oriole…

A day or two later my father in law and fellow bird lover stopped by. It was he who gifted me the bird-feeders after seeing how much I enjoyed watching his. During his visit he swore he saw a couple of Orioles at the feeder, but when we rushed to the window there were two bright red young male cardinals on the ground eating seed. “I could have sworn I saw a couple of Orioles…”  Even though we didn’t actually see Orioles, the topic of Orioles alone felt like another sign to me.

Days went by and then a week and I became less aware of the sign request I’d made. Mother’s Day (this year, May 10th) and the anniversary of her death (May 13th) were approaching and I was beginning to feel the familiar heaviness of it all: Flashes of when she was sick, regrets, joyful memories, yearning for a sense of family, wishing she could be a part of my motherhood, and I a part of her grandmotherhood… 

But then on Friday May 8th this Oriole showed up singing in our maple tree.

According to my Massachusetts Bird book Orioles like citrus and grape jelly, so I halved a mandarin and left it out on the retaining wall beneath the tree before we left for a long walk through town. My excitement was barely contained, I couldn’t stop chattering on about it as we walked. What were the chances? Mother’s Day was in two days, and we’ve got an Oriole in our tree. How profound.  I expected it to be gone when we returned a few hours later, but he was still hanging around and it wasn’t long before he was snacking on the mandarin.  

Over the next couple days I scanned the tree obsessively to make sure he was still here. And when Mother’s day came and I noticed there wasn’t just one male Oriole, there were at least two. And then I noticed a couple females; Less flashy, more yellow and just as skittish as the males. 

Every time I left the house I would whistle the Oriole birdsong I’d come to know. Each day I’d set out another fresh halved mandarin on the retaining wall beneath the tree, and worried the scoundrel chipmunks would get to the fruit before the birds could. With every trip to the bathroom I’d look out the window and gaze up at the tree branches while I peed. And with each distracted diaper change I looked out Fern’s bedroom window hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the birds. Without fail, no matter which window I was looking out, no matter where in the house I was, no matter the time of day, I’d see them. It was like they were looking for me too.

On the morning of May 13th I woke up very early, before 5am, while Joel and Fern slept soundly  in our bedroom, Fern in her crib by the side of our bed. I quietly climbed out of bed, crept into Fern’s empty room, and lifted the shades. And there looking right back at me, teetering on a branch directly across from my view a couple feet from the window, was an Oriole. Slowly, gingerly, I back-stepped my way to the cozy LaZboy rocker recliner in the corner of the room, keeping my eyes locked on the bird. I sat down and the two of us hung there, suspended in time as the morning went from dark to light.

7 years prior to that very same moment in the very same room, my mom laid forever motionless, as repeatedly cried I’m sorry, as if I’d lost all my words but those two. I could have never imagined then how that room would transform into my daughters room, or that 7 years later I’d receive signs from my mom in the form of Orioles.

The Orioles replaced my annual grief with an incredible amount of love. Instead of remembering the awful from 7 years prior, I remembered the smile that appeared on her face after she was gone. We don’t have answers to everything in this life but we keep putting one foot in front of the other, not necessarily accepting what is, but still letting what is BE what is. I had asked my mother for this sign, bring me an Oriole mom, and not only did she come through, she knocked it out of the damn park. Not only did she send an Oriole, she sent a family of Orioles, lifting my spirits through Mother’s Day and May 13th. I felt so much awe and such a strong connection to her, that there was no space left in my heart for sorrow or sadness.

As May 13th came to an end, Joel and I sat in our sunroom watching dusk turn to dark. I briefly felt that pit of my stomach feeling, that goodbye sort of pang in the gut feeling. “Honey? I think the Orioles are gone, I haven’t seen or even heard them since this morning.” 

But then a week later, after unexpectedly tough day, the type of day I would’ve called my mom and lamented to her about life, I texted a friend in tears. “…..I wish my mom was here.” From the bathroom sink I splashed cool water on my tear soaked cheeks and out of the corner of my eye I noticed, right outside the window, gently gripping a slender branch, so weightless his movement he barely shook the leaves, an Oriole.

It’s been over a month and I haven’t seen the Orioles with any sort of regularity. From time to time I hear them calling in the early mornings, from some other tree, in someone else’s yard.  (Did they ask for a sign, too?) Much like the seasons and like life itself, I can’t expect them to stay around forever. Their visit this spring was no sort of coincidence and this experience can’t be explained entirely through humanly labels and descriptors. It’s shown me that those we miss are still close by. Look for them in the space between the breeze and the bustle, in that stillness of the present. Feel it with all your senses and know it in your heart. And if you need proof, all you have to do is ask for a sign.

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