Winter never came to Florida the way it had come to Baltimore, where my husband, Ken, and I were born and raised. The only real season you could find where we lived in Jacksonville, Fla., as far as Ken and our boys were concerned, was baseball season. And the truest mark of spring's arrival was the start-up of spring training, the early reporting of pitchers and catchers, the regular players then arriving like migratory birds, and the easy, almost-lazy games as everyone warmed up slowly to the demands and promise of a new year, the long haul if the regular season, 162 games, the hope for October. And the baseball season meant one thing for our family—or should I say one team?—the Baltimore Orioles.
Though they seemed always to break our hearts, we were ever-faithful to the O's. At the breakfast table, Ken would read out the box scores to the boys—Kyle and Chris, 13 and 11 years old. The three of them bought and traded memorabilia and gear, their collection of Oriole artifacts bordering on a shrine. We watched games whenever we could, admired Camden Yards's outfield and its glorious view of waterfront warehouses and brickwork, and just as hard as we rooted for our "Iron Man," Cal Ripken, Jr., so we also rooted against our rival Yankees and Red Sox.
This was all part of normal life for our family, Ken taking the boys to St. Petersburg, where the Birds held spring camp, the boys oiling their Little League gloves with their father, who was also their team's coach. And normal life was what we fought so hard to hold on to when Ken was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1996.
For two long years, the boys and I did everything we could to help Ken through the battle against his cancer. After running the gauntlet of craniotomies and upward of six weeks radiation, as well as rounds of experimental radiotherapy at the Mayo Clinic, we thought we were out of the woods. We all believed that the cancer was in remission. Ken resumed his normal life, going back to his job in warehouse inventory, and our family resumed its normal days—the boys going to school, me to my job as a nursing professor at the community college.
Maybe we'd raised our expectations too high, or had believed too much in Ken's full recovery, or had wished too hard for our lives to return to normal again. All I really know was that we were devastated when, after a short relapse, my husband of 20 years died in December 1998. The boys were inconsolable. And I floated in a daze through the months following his passing. We prayed for a healing of our grief, but there seemed no relief from the anguish we carried within us that winter. Each night I begged God to let me see Ken in my dreams, just so I would know he was all right. I needed to know that he was at peace, even if I wasn't.
One morning, as spring approached, I tried to pull myself together and leave for work, but out in the yard I caught the most beautiful birdsong I'd ever heard—here, here, it sang, come right here, dear—like a flute. I gazed up into the spindly branches of the water oak in our yard, following the song until I saw the black, shiny feathers of a bird hidden in the leaves. And it did not leave. The bird raised its head and let out a song so lovely it took my breath away.
"Kyle, Chris," I said, "that bird sang for me. It was a sign from God—I know your father's safe in heaven with him."
The boys looked dubious, but stood beside me to keep me from starting to cry or getting upset again. The three of us gazed into the empty tree for a few moments as the breeze drifted through the leaves. I breathed deeply for the first time in months and kissed the boys before I left for work.
Even if the bird wasn't meant to be a sign, I felt such peace that day. At lunch I told a teacher friend, and she said she'd seen a cardinal when her father died—the cardinal was the state bird of Virginia, she explained, her father's native home.
That night, Chris was at the computer looking up birdsongs on the Encarta dictionary and playing them for me. "Does this sound like your bird, Mom?" he asked after each new call.
I listened to the songs from the other room: the jay, jay, jay of the blue jay, the three blind mice! of the golden-crowned sparrow, the chick a dee dee dee, and the woop err whill. Those were familiar to me. And then Chris played a flutelike birdsong—here, here, come right here, dear—and a shiver went through me.
"That's it!" I yelled to my sons. "That's my bird."
Neither Chris nor Kyle answered from where they were. "Boys? Did you hear me? That was the one singing to me."
"Are you sure?" they called.
"Positive," I said. "What is it?"
They came to the doorway, both of them with smiles wide.
"What was it?" I asked again.
"Mom," said Chris, "that bird was the Baltimore oriole."
"How perfect!" I exclaimed. Nothing else in the world would have been as right as an oriole coming to our backyard, nothing so loving and puckish. It was as if that song lifted a terrible need to see Ken again—not removed it from us, but lifted it slightly—and made us see that things would go on from our season of grief. Spring would come, the players reporting to camp while snow still threatened in Baltimore. When the Orioles took the field that year, I couldn't help but smile through my tears.