The red-winged blackbird has flown in and out of my life since I can remember. I grew up in the middle of the country, surrounded by farmland and prairies. As I rode my bike on the country roads of my childhood home, flying up and down the gravel hills, I watched the red-winged blackbird fly low over the grasses and up into the sky, the arc of its flight dramatic and pronounced, like the flight of a fighter jet in an air show. The bright red spot on the wings seemed to glow as an ember in the dark coal of a campfire. They were mysterious to me, always solitary, lonely, quiet.
Their presence on the quiet fishing trips I took with my dad throughout my life was so common and dependable that I began to associate them with the man who taught me to love nature and who loved me with an intensity that only a parent knows. He was a quiet man who often retreated from the noisy kitchen where we kids congregated while my mom cooked dinner to his recliner in the den to read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. He operated with an economy of words that was profound in its scarcity. He chose words carefully, speaking slowly and deliberately. Each word mattered and by the time he got around to saying something, he had boiled down his meaning to the bare bones, nothing flowery, nothing to sift through. What he meant was always clear.
Our fishing trips were times of silent companionship, times when a deep sense of mutual understanding and appreciation grew, seldom ever through the words exchanged, but from watching for and listening to what wasn’t said. From the time we loaded the truck with our poles and tackle and bait until we returned home, few words were spoken, and seldom more than the usual, “You get a bite?” or “That’s a beauty. Looked like he put up a fight.” Occasionally we would stop to discuss the quality of the water and the kind of fish we knew to be in the pond so we could decide what lure or bait to use. But mostly we stood next to each other for hours without ever saying a word.
It’s hard to convey all that was communicated in that silence. I grew to appreciate it with a deep sense of gratitude. The silence taught me to listen and pay attention, to know that words are seductive, often veiling what happens between two people. We were two solitary creatures standing near each other, preferring the quiet company of one to the often loud and boisterous company of our large family life back home. And just as I came to count on the strength of his quiet presence, I grew to appreciate the red-winged blackbirds that always seemed to watch us from their tallgrass perches, inspiring awe as they flew off, the brilliance of the red that colored their wings standing in stark contrast to the oily blackness of their bodies.
My dad died a little over four years ago. A stroke in the middle of the night a few weeks before Christmas landed him in the hospital. I made hurried arrangements to be gone from work and drove to the hospital to be with him. We had a great afternoon talking about family and fishing. The next morning when my mom and I returned to his room, he was seizing. I quickly called for a nurse and while we waited for him to come, my mom and I each took my dad’s hands and talked to him. His speech was garbled and barely audible, but I listened carefully to what he was saying. Over and over again he said, “I love you,” first to my mom and then to me. In a matter of minutes he was in a coma, making even this quiet man of few words seem strangely silent. I stayed by his side the whole day, holding his hand, wiping his brow, rubbing the fingers on his big, strong hands. I was a hospital chaplain, used to watching the breathing of people who were dying. I didn’t need reports of brain scans. I knew our time together was drawing to a close. Within a few hours, he quietly stopped breathing, and I had a deep sense of his spirit lifting, flying high in the dramatic arc of the red-winged blackbird.
Family had been contacted in the morning to alert them to the seriousness of the second stroke. They started arriving that evening and the house grew noisy with stories of fast trips to the hospital and reports of who was coming when. The dissonance of multiple cellphones ringing at the same time echoed in my ears and I found myself drawing quieter and quieter, withdrawing into myself, trying to find a quiet place. The house was loud, and it grew louder over the next two days as more people arrived, and the sheer number of opinions about how the arrangements should be handled increased the likelihood of disagreement.
My brother and I were charged with doing a eulogy. He had strong opinions about how it should be done properly in order to honor God. I was more concerned about honoring my dad. We locked horns and fought fiercely at one point, opting to separate and return to the task after I had had a chance to sleep and calm down. My oldest brother had a hotel room down the street and offered to let me retreat to it that night, and in the solitariness of that room, I was able at last to find the quiet place I needed. My mind carried me to the edge of a pond in a field of tall, green grass, where I felt a gentle breeze on my face and watched as the red-winged blackbird flew just over the field. His quiet, calm presence gave me the words I needed to capture the picture of my dad that I wanted to convey.
Throughout the years of my life, I’ve seen the red-winged blackbird flying over the lake on the mountain where I hiked in
I've been trying to understand the meaning of that sight ever since. Why now? Why did the solitary creature choose this time in my life to show me that sometimes it chooses to be in a flock?