My “Dad Bird”

Cooper’s hawk photo by Bruce Wunderlich.

This will be my fifth Father’s Day without my dad, and I’d like to say it gets easier, but that’s not really true. I will never stop missing him with my whole heart, especially on holidays designed to remind me of him. However, I find it’s true what they say about how our loved ones are always with us, and for me, I often sense my dad’s presence when I’m amongst the birds. A certain bird in particular, actually.

Let me explain.

On January 14, 2016, I woke up very early, in the still-dark morning, having spent the night in an uncomfortable reclining chair at hospice next to my dad. We were in the end-days, and I hated to leave him, but it was also my son’s second birthday, and I knew Dad would want me to be with his only grandson that day.

I made the two-hour drive back home, and after a quiet day together, my son and I went to pick up his big sister from preschool. As we drove through our neighborhood, my phone rang, and it was my mom. As she tearfully told me that Dad had taken his last breath, at that exact moment, a Cooper’s hawk flew low across the road in front of me, barely escaping the hood of my car.

My tired brain tried to process my mother’s words as well as the near-miss with the Coop. Soon I had both children in hand, and as motherhood goes, I barely had time to think about much more than what was in front of me, which was two lively, needy kiddos, plus a birthday to celebrate.

Cooper’s hawk photo by J. Wiley.

I muddled through the sad, difficult days ahead, and I took comfort where I could as I grappled with my grief. As an avid bird watcher, of course one of these comforts was my backyard birds. On one particularly heavy-hearted day, I was cheered by an uncommon visitor to my feeders—a Cooper’s hawk! In all the busyness of child rearing and funeral arranging, I had nearly forgotten about the Coop that flew in front of my car, but now I had time and space to reflect on the uncanny timing of its appearance that day.

As I watched the hawk scout my yard for a potential meal, I was filled with some certainties: I had no doubt that my dad waited until I left the hospice to let go of this world, wanting to spare me the pain of that moment. It was no coincidence he passed on my son’s birthday, knowing I would forevermore be occupied by the joy of a birthday celebration rather than spending the day gloomily in mourning. And I certainly had no doubt that Cooper’s hawk had been a messenger, as was this one I was currently watching.

In the weeks, months, and years since, I have lost count of how many times I have had a difficult day, struggling with missing Dad, and a Cooper’s hawk shows up in my yard. Or flies overhead as I drive down the road. Or the kids come running in to tell me a hawk is outside. It happens so reliably, that I don’t even question it anymore. I just smile and feel wrapped up in my dad’s love.

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