I didn't remember the conversation until after he was dead and cremated. It had been so off-handed and whimsical at the time. Neither of us was going to die right away. We were going to retire in maybe a year -two at the outside. Sell the house and go to Northern California and live in a rented house on the Russian River. Lung cancer had metastasized throughout his body, the oncologist said, spread to the bone and later to the brain and the other vital organs. Three months from diagnosis to cremation.
About a week after he died, I got up very early and looked at the remains box. It was pretty heavy. I wondered if the ashes therein were really those of my lover or if it was like the packaged chicken one buys at the super market. I read somewhere they package the bird with whatever and whomever liver and gizzards come along the production line. To tell you the truth, it didn't seem to matter all that much whether the box really contained Tom's true remains or Joe's or Jane Doe's for that matter. He was gone and I was sure he was never coming back.
So, I put on some clothes, unwrapped the box, and carried it out the front door. I walked down to the bay; I tried to ignore the graffiti on the estate's walls that ran parallel to the road that I walked. I stepped over and around the litter strewn along the path to the water. I didn't feel much like listening to Beethoven or even my favorite, George Jones, on my IPod. So, I just moved to the water's edge, felt for the wind direction and scattered the remains as best I could. I suppose I said, "I love you and I'll miss you "and, maybe, I said, "I'll see you on the other side." But the truth is, I don't remember what I said or thought. I just did it and walked home.
First, I called Tom's father in Michigan to tell him what I'd done. He said he understood. If that was what Tom had wanted, then that's what I should have done. We talked a little more and, after I hung up, I felt a little better. Like Tom's father had given me his blessing or something. The next thing I did was take out the cell phone and dial up the second line on our bedroom phone which was sitting on the night stand across from our bed. I knew that I would hear Tom's greeting on this line and I could leave a message for him.
"Hi. This is Tom. I can't come to the phone right now. If you'd like to leave a message, I'll call you back as soon as I can. Thank you.” Just like him. No cutesy message just straightforward, polite, warm voice. It sounded like he really was sorry that he'd missed your call and was a man of his word who'd get back to you just as soon as humanly possible.
"Hi. It's me. I scattered your ashes just like you wanted but there was no ceremony and no music. Sorry. I'm trying here, but it's really hard. I miss you so much. I worry that you are okay. Send me a sign if you can, send me a sign if you're all right. Send the cardinals. I'll talk to you soon."
You see, we'd had this cheap assed little bird feeder hanging on the deck outside the kitchen's sliding glass doors for about seven or eight years. A lot of birds came to feed, including a flock of pigeons. In South Florida they call them doves but I know a pigeon when I see one. Tom had sawed off most of the perch rods at the feeder, so the pigeons couldn't roost but posed no problem for smaller species. The pigeons would strut around on the ground after that to catch the seed that fell from the feeder unto the deck floor. Anyhow, there was this pair of Cardinals that started to come to feed in the first year. They were constantly bringing one or two of their chicks every spring. They showed the chicks how to feed and later, I guess, kicked the chicks from the nest. Over the years, we looked forward to seeing the cardinals. Sometimes, we wouldn't leave the kitchen table when they were at the feeder-afraid the sound and/or the movement would chase them from their meal.
After Hurricane Andrew, they stopped coming for about six weeks. We were afraid that they'd been lost in the storm. But, one day they just showed up again. Chirping, carrying on and apparently hungry as hell. Well, we would have kissed their little beaks if they had allowed it, we were so happy to have them back. Somehow, it seemed to be a sort of message that everything would be okay and return to normal soon.
Following Tom's death the cardinals stopped coming to the feeder. They disappeared. Maybe it was because we were spending so much time away from home in Houston for Tom's cancer treatments that they got out of the habit or maybe they found better fare elsewhere. Maybe I neglected to fill the feeder and they really got ticked off...or, maybe, they knew Tom wasn't around anymore and they didn't feel like eating.
So, after I left the message, I waited for my sign. I went outside and made sure the feeder was full and their water was fresh. The day passed and the evening came and I have no idea what I did to fill the time. But, the next morning, really early when I was having breakfast they flew in from somewhere and hopped on the sawed off perches of the feeder. To see them, it was like they had never left. They pecked, they swallowed, they dropped seed all over the ground and roused the pigeons/doves from god knows where. I had my sign and I suppose I was smiling and crying at the same time, I couldn't even attempt to explain the whole thing rationally. What's the line from the old song, "Fools give you reasons, and wise men never try?"
Two years and two months passed, I sold the house and moved to Fort Lauderdale. I was able to retire somewhat on the time frame that Tom and I had discussed so many times. The difference was that Plan "A" had been scrapped and I was forced to follow plan "B"...alone and middle-aged but still kicking albeit not kicking so high most days. As for the cardinals I figured I would discuss the bird feeding with the new homeowners. Hope they were bird fanciers and would agree to continue to feed the pair. Don't ask me why but I never initiated that conversation. Instead, I left the feeder full and the water fresh. I left the balance of the birdseed on the kitchen counter as a clue for the new owners to figure it out. I never heard how it came out...never asked my old next door neighbor to inquire with the new neighbors. Maybe, I didn't want to know. Maybe time had healed certain hurts for me…maybe it was time for all of us survivors to set a new flight path. I'll never know the answer or, maybe, I will understand sometime in the future... I'll keep you posted.