Despite the sunshine, the air carried a chill.
When the wind picked up, my hair whipped across my face blocking my vision. Jim held his ball cap down as the gust shifted, an invisible force threatening to lift the hat off his head and send it out to sea. He pulled his coat closer. It hung off him now. His bulk had dissipated with his appetite over those months of chemotherapy.
The air smelled faintly of salt and fish and cypress trees. Jim had taught me to capture the needles between my fingers, rub them together and then inhale the spicy scent.
The trees had been beaten by the unceasing wind, their trunks and limbs twisted into a grey, gnarled tapestry. Each tree’s evergreen needles clustered into a series of small dark green parasols perched at its crown.
This impromptu trip to Carmel was set in motion by a week delay in Jim’s next treatment, and now we were exploring Point Lobos Nature Reserve during this mild California February.
I would later learn that cypress trees were a symbol of death and mourning for the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used the wood for coffins and planted the trees near graves to protect the dead from evil spirits. Escaping the daunting prognosis for Jim’s health, we had unwittingly walked into a veritable grove of grief.
The fallen needles crunched under our feet as we walked away from the coastline and into a thicket of woods.
The sun was blocked and we at once felt the bite of the shade and the respite from the wind. The air around us had changed. At first, it was silent and still. And then, we noticed a pulsing energy above us—a vibration. A thousand beating wings. Our eyes adjusted to the shadows. In the branches overhead danced hundreds of small birds, each a vibrant blue with a tinge of gray, and tiny bushy black eyebrows. They grew louder with our arrival, a two-beat high pitched call akin to a squeaky toy twice stepped on. As we stood and watched, they started to get used to our presence and settled into normal activity, which appeared to be a constant dissatisfaction with their roost as they hopped or flew to capture a different position, displacing a peer, who would then also travel to a new location, and over and over this frenetic dance took place.
“They are busy.” I said, pulling Jim close. He felt so thin under his coat.
“What’s the purpose?” Jim said softly, “Are they seeking the best position or simply restless?”
I tucked my head into the crook of his neck – his skin was cold. Jim always had such warm skin – it was a refuge for me…whenever I needed comfort, I’d slide in to place my body against his and soak in the heat radiating from him. But as he got thinner, the ever-present heat had dissipated, leaving a cold and clammy layer.
“I read somewhere that birds can sleep in trees without falling because their feet…” I searched for the right word, “…talons…lock them in place.”
Jim held me close as we watched this carpet of blue bend and weave through the trees. “This doesn’t suck.” His way of expressing satisfaction.
Knowing little about birds, I catalogued them as blue jays and they became a strong symbol for me. Once Jim was gone, they were him incarnate.
Years later, I would attend a writing-meditation weekend down the road from Sedona, in Oak Creek Canyon.
It was a rare gift to myself and I remember sitting on the plane en route feeling giddy that I was neither on a business nor family trip. The retreat was in a rustic bed and breakfast settled into the narrow canyon along the creek and each day started with outdoor meditation in the crisp, fresh air with the sun beaming on my uplifted face. I was out of element, having no experience with meditation. One evening we had a silent dinner, where if you made eye contact, you were simply to give a slight nod and move on. I enjoy not talking but am less excited about hearing other people’s jaws masticating lasagna. Another day we spent the morning in a meditative slow motion walk around the property while other guests, including the resident sheep, looked curiously at us.
But most of our time was spent writing, sitting in a circle in one of the larger cabins. The instructor would give us prompts, we’d write away, and then have an opportunity to share. “You don’t have to share,” she’d counseled, “…but if you feel a trembling when it’s your turn, that’s your body telling you to share what you’ve written.”
Something prompted me to write about Jim and the blue jays, but as we went around the circle, I had planned to decline reading…the writing not up to par. When it was my turn to read or pass, the instructor, sitting directly across the room, gasped at the window behind me and we all turned to see a large crowned stellar jay looking in, his rich blue feathers sparkling in the sunlight. If he had opened his beak and said hello to me in Jim’s voice, I wouldn’t have been surprised — that’s the type of moment it was, when reality is suspended and it feels the earth is rotating just for you.
I immediately started shaking and read my piece, my voice catching, eyes pooling with tears. It would be years before my knowledge expanded to realize that not every bird that was blue and called a jay was in fact the same species. I would eventually come to learn that the birds we’d seen in Carmel were scrub jays.
But when you lose someone – you grasp onto the impossible as a way to connect. And I cannot judge today what was truth and what was fiction. And if this very morning, a stellar jay, or blue jay, or scrub jay landed on the window that sits beyond my writing desk, I would consider it a sign from my long lost husband.
Jim and I had stood in silence taking in the deep blue miracle of those birds – a performance that we felt could have only been for us.