The Yard Is Filled With Cardinals

Meditations on Losing My Mother to Cancer During a Global Pandemic

(In October 2019, my mother was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. In December 2019, she had a stroke and began experiencing dementia. In July 2020, she and my stepdad moved back to my hometown so she could be closer to family during her recovery.)

Friday, Sept. 18

I have “Palm Springs” on pause and am boiling water for tea when the phone rings. I don’t recognize my own ringtone at first. Once I realize it’s the phone, I know it’s one of two people: either my sister or a telemarketer.

The screen shows my sister’s name. And I know.

I answer the phone. She sniffles. I know.

“Mom’s gone.”

I lean against the wall, wedging myself into a corner beside a wall and a narrow bookshelf. I stare at the living room, at the golden sunset light coming in. A room with soft, peaceful light. A vacuum left by her quick departure.

  • The previous Wednesday, she was hospitalized to drain fluid because she couldn’t breathe.
  • Saturday, I talked to my sister for an hour about how she’d be discharged Friday and probably had less than six months.
  • Tuesday, Raf and I decided to visit in two weeks.
  • Wednesday, not Friday, she was discharged. My sister was told that if our mother didn’t eat, she’d have only days, not months.
  • Friday morning, my sister said, “I would suggest to come tomorrow. She isn’t good.”
  • Friday evening, gone.

When we hang up, I look at the time on my phone. 6:30 p.m. exactly.

I know I have to tell Raf. But I don’t have the energy. I can’t articulate what I want to preserve from the moment. It’s not that I want to hang onto some illusion that my mom is still here and pretend that for a few more minutes. I just don’t have the air. Or the patience to deal with his onslaught of emotions. I hope he’ll sense what happened and come out from his study. I hear his chair creak once, then twice. But he doesn’t get up.

I walk down the unlit hall to tell him.

He follows me as I walk outside and sit on the driveway, like I always knew I would after I got the news. A neighbor drives home. The sweet corner neighbor and her kid walk a dog with other neighbors and their dog. I watch life continue around me, basking in the late summer sun. Autumn chill has started to permeate the air.

Mosquitos swarm us. I don’t care. I stare at the trees and the sky.

I tell him I forgive him for not driving down earlier that day to see her. It isn’t true. I say it anyway. I will make it true.

*

He offers for us to go on a drive, to enjoy the last sunset my mom saw. He goes to get gas. I lock up the house and set the alarm, then wait outside. 

As we sit at the light to turn onto Highway 360, the windows down as chilled air drifts through the car, a young man in the truck next to us catches my eye. I reach for a tissue in the car door handle. He looks away quickly. I wonder if he thought I was sick, or if he knew the loss from looking at me. I hope it’s the latter.

*

Note: Update your contacts whenever you get a new phone. Otherwise, someone dies and you have to respond to relatives’ heartfelt text messages with “Thank you. I’m sorry — who is this?”

*

I still feel numb when I wake up the next day. Except for the headache.

A slew of texts and comments overnight. A spam message at 3-something a.m. Mourning is never peaceful.

I check my email. So many emails overnight, all of which are product-based. Duolingo. The Cornell Lab. And Dan: Two lines about how he’s sorry and thinking about my family. He must have seen my Instagram story.

Later that afternoon, I respond with, “Thank you. I appreciate it. Love to you and your family.”

Everyone else gets a short message: “Thank you. <3” “Thank you. I appreciate it.” And so on. But I write two paragraphs to a friend who lost his dog the previous Saturday a week before. I tell him about all of it. I apologize for so much info, but I add that since he too used to live in McAllen, I figured he’d understand.

*

At the end of her life, I think my mom was Marina, the Little Mermaid from the tragic anime I watched obsessively as a small child. We were all Fritz, the little dolphin, leaping through the waves sobbing, “Marina!” as the illness pushed her off the ship to her death. We did everything we could to convince her to stay with us. But her body wouldn’t let her.

Maybe that’s why I watched that movie so many times as a kid — something in my head, either a premonition or a memory from going through this simulation of life before (hey, it’s possible) told me that it would come to this. Marina’s sisters, father, and dolphin friend begged her to come home. My sister, brother, stepdad, and countless relatives and friends tried to help her get better. And in the end, against all of our pleas, the illness turned her to foam on the waves.

*

They say that when you see a male cardinal, it’s a late relative visiting you to say hello.

I have heard varied reactions to this. Some people have riffed on the gender-specific idea of this visitation, pointing out that their dead mothers and grandmothers would never have wanted to be a male bird.

The front yard usually hosts a few cardinals in the evening, including some or all three juveniles from the spring. On Sunday, 48 hours after my mom’s death, there are at least six males and two females. The yard is filled with cardinals. Even in the rain on Monday, I see two red birds darting from the bushes to perch on the table.

I think my mom would be okay with being a male cardinal, if uncomfortable with the idea of being a male anything. My grandmother might have called them too showy. Then again, as a Southern woman, she might have loved the “redbirds.” Did she like cardinals? How did we never have that conversation? If the afterlife really is like “Defending Your Life,” I’m going to fail the “What was your grandmother’s opinion on cardinals?” category.

I’m not sure that any of those birds are my mom. But I hope that at least one of them is someone who’s passed, coming by to reassure me that they’re taking good care of her.

*

I watch my mother’s funeral on YouTube.

My sister — who communicates everything about the service to everyone and who displays more grace and patience than I ever have — assures me that no one is going to judge me if we don’t attend the Catholic funeral in person. “It’s a pandemic, and everyone has a different comfort level,” she says. “You do what’s best for you.”

Raf and I go down to McAllen for the weekend. I want to see people, even if I can’t hug them.

Sometimes, when things are their worst, kindness falls out of the sky. My friend Javi — also from McAllen — says his parents have a casita behind their house, and we’re welcome to stay there. No need for the cost and stress of a hotel visit during a pandemic. There are no words for how grateful I am.

Raf and I sit in the casita on Friday morning, his laptop balanced on the chair that has the best WiFi signal, and we watch my mother’s funeral. The camera is aimed at the front of the church; none of the attendees are visible, so I have no idea how many people are there. Maybe I could’ve gone safely and maintained my distance from everyone else.

A family friend delivers the eulogy. His voice breaks a few times. He talks about losing his own mom, and how she became the patron saint of his family.

I alternate between staring at the screen and crying. At some point, I notice something through the window blinds. An enormous yellow butterfly — a swallowtail, I think — flutters on the flowering vines outside. Ever since my mom passed and a friend mentioned that her own late mother manifests as butterflies, I keep seeing them: huge and gorgeous with vibrant wings. They meander through the backyard as the funeral plays and tears stream down my face. They streak past my sight, then flutter back into view as I sob.

The funeral ends. I take a deep breath, knowing I have to pull it together before I see everyone.

And — as always happens when we watch something on YouTube — the screen fills with video recommendations. Twelve squares. All SNL clips.

I can’t stop laughing.

*

We visit my stepdad’s house, wearing masks and bringing our own chairs. We don’t go inside.

My sister wears a gold necklace with my mom’s name on it. It’s her middle name, too. I love so much that she’s wearing it.

I notice her light green dress and my brother’s light green polo — not quite the same shade, but close. When my stepdad exits the house wearing a light green short-sleeved shirt, I compliment everyone on their color coordination. They look at each other and laugh. They hadn’t realized it.

I want to hug everyone. I want to dig through my mom’s closet and take home some of her favorite animal print clothing. Instead, I stay outside and keep my distance.

After I moved back to Texas for grad school, I didn’t go home for holidays very often. When I did, there were just so many people (sister, brother, stepsister, two stepbrothers, between four and seven dogs, friends, significant others). I felt lost in the crowd. I hated everything I said and felt. I hadn’t found the right medication, I was taking another doing more harm than good, and I couldn’t handle alcohol but I was still trying.

Now, six feet and countless years away from them, I try not to suffocate under my regret. I missed so many holidays because I didn’t think anyone wanted me there. I should’ve shown up anyway. I should’ve been more interested in seeing them than in feeling like they wanted to see me.

Six feet away from everyone, it’s all so clear now.

*

When we’re not at my stepdad’s house, I try to focus on the birds. As sunset begins, more than 200 black-bellied whistling ducks circle the sky over the casita. Raf and I stare at them, awed by the spectacle yet confused about the popularity of the shed next door. Along with some grackles, the ducks swarm the yard, nibbling on the ground. Did someone leave food out for them? No idea. But we don’t get pooped on, and that’s enough for me.

We see so many birds: the ducks and grackles, Inca doves, white-winged doves, pigeons, a vocal golden-fronted woodpecker, an even louder kiskadee, and even a peacock. I don’t see any green jays, even at Quinta Mazatlan on our last morning, but I know they’re there. And I definitely see chachalacas, my favorite big, goofy birds.

The emotional costs during this trip are enormous. Incalculable. But so are the gifts. Our friends ordering pizza for us in socially-distant meals on both legs of the trip. Javi’s parents and their casita with an enormous yard and a bird-filled sky.

And the food! Nino (my brother and sister’s dad) insists we take a piece of cheesecake on the last night; I usually hate cheesecake, but it’s more like a coconut custard, and I love it. I also get Raf to buy a pumpkin pie Blizzard from Dairy Queen. And I spend too much money on a half slab of ribs from Tony Roma’s. I eat half of the order standing by the casita sink, sopping the fries in the sauce. It’s overpriced chain food, and it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

I think of my favorite quote from the book “Altered Carbon” as I devour rib after rib and fry after fry. I think of it after we get back home and the sympathy cards start arriving and a kind neighbor leaves on our porch a gorgeous orchid and a gift certificate to a local restaurant. It’s been more than 10 years since the first time I read the book, and the quote is more relevant than ever:

“In the Envoy Corps, you take what is offered, Virginia Vidaura said, somewhere in the corridors of my memory. And that must sometimes be enough.”

I don’t want to be alone. I want to be with the people I love. But what I am offered is love via the mail, and flowers and food delivered contact-free. And that must sometimes be enough.

*

Two weeks after my mother’s death, I think of the VHS copy of “The Joy Luck Club” she bought me in college, because I’d mentioned seeing it and being very moved by it.

“Oh,” I said when she pulled the tape out of the back of the minivan, “I don’t need it. It’s such a sad movie. I probably won’t watch it again. You should return it and get your money back!”

She never did. It was too late to return it, she said.

Over the next few years, she kept offering the tape to me. Once, I finally caved and said yes, only to have her insist no, it was fine, and put the tape back in the car trunk.

I would do anything to have that tape now.

A few weeks before she was hospitalized, she texted me a picture of a necklace in a magazine — one of those Franklin Mint-type ads. The silver necklace featured a cluster of sea creatures: a seahorse, a starfish, and a seashell. It was the kind of thing I would’ve loved as a kid, when my goal was to be a marine biologist and live at the beach.

She texted me the magazine ad and asked, “Would you like this?”

I said no, that it was so sweet but I had a lot of jewelry and birthday gifts already. I thanked her for being so thoughtful. Even with her dementia, she replied, “The day you were born you made my ❤ sing.”

I would do anything to have that necklace now.

Update: After typing this section, I bought it. I Googled the company website and paid $4 more than the price on the ad she sent. Now I’ll get the company’s catalogs forever.

Worth it.

*

At the end of September, I cut and color my hair for the first time in 11 months. My stylist — a friend I’ve known for 19 years — does a phenomenal job on my hair and on making the process as safe as possible. She sanitizes everything and wears an N95 mask. We talk about the usual stuff: the pandemic, deaths, effective treatments for mask acne.

Because it had been so long since my last professional hair coloring, I’d forgotten how much the candy-colored dye leaks. Even after three shampooings, an aqua tint remains on my neck. The blue sneaks onto my face in the night, curling in random tendrils on my cheeks and neck. I brush my hair in the bathtub so strands don’t end up all over the house; the strands that hit drops of water bloom with giant aqua tears.

When I colored my hair in November 2019, just before going to Vegas to see Dillon Francis, the blue dye felt like a passionate leap toward fun and joy. It symbolized me finally chasing the dreams I’d always wanted to pursue and the happiness I desperately needed after a year of losses and my mom’s cancer diagnosis.

Now, the blue feels like mourning — like I’m blindly pushing my way to the future, fully aware that this isn’t going to force closure but doing it anyway. I couldn’t keep my astonishingly long, half-blue hair because of the sadness clinging to it. But the short, bright blue hair is here because of the biggest sadness of all.

*

One morning, I can’t stop crying. There are so many feral cats in the neighborhood; and while an amazing volunteer and several neighbors are getting them fixed, the sheer number means the birds in my yard are in more danger than I realized.

I asked Raf if I should still give the birds food and water. He gets impatient, telling me to just make a decision and be able to live with it.

I start weeping. “I can’t make a decision because the information keeps changing,” I sob. “These people say this. These people say that. These people told my mom she had 10 to 15 years. They told us she had 6 months. They told us she had 10 days. The information keeps changing. So I can’t decide anything, because nothing is true and I can’t do anything right.”

*

Watching the Challenger special on Netflix one month after her death is probably not my best decision.

It’s not the worst decision, though. I make a comment on Facebook about how unsettling it is to watch one of my favorite movies and suddenly remember there’s a dead mom character in it. My friend Emily warns me, “Do not watch Disney — all the moms are dead there.”

But the Challenger show appeals to me since we recently rewatched “Spacecamp” for the podcast. The only time I look away is when the shuttle explodes. I’ve seen that explosion enough times for my lifetime. It’s permanently etched into my memory thanks to the cover of a Newsweek that sat in our living room magazine basket for years, eventually wrinkling and fading. It became part of the living room decor, just like the Asian bird artwork on the walls, the wood paneling covering half the walls, the brown velour couch, and the walkway tile bordered by nail ends that stabbed your feet if you dared to walk barefoot.

Instead of the explosion, I look at the front yard. A male cardinal squats on the ground. Please be careful, I silently tell him. Please don’t leave me.

I remember the gross boy behind me in third grade poking me in the back and saying the shuttle exploded. “Don’t say that,” I chided him. “Don’t even joke about that.” Then the principal came on the intercom and told everyone. Her voice broke.

I’d be lying if I said my mom — a 20-year teacher — had seriously considered applying to teach on the Challenger. I did pester her about it, though. “Of course I’m not going,” she told me. “If something happened to me, who would take care of you all?”

I watch the crowd sobbing in the stands. This was the first national tragedy I witnessed. Others have Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Sept. 11. Live broadcasts of collective trauma.

Then I see the students crying in their classroom, and suddenly I’m losing my mom all over again.

What am I going to tell the friends who knew her and her former students when I run into them after the pandemic? When I see people and witness their mourning, will my mourning start over from the beginning?

For me, grief has never been linear. But when we exit this nightmarish isolation, this grief might become circular: a scratched record skipping over and over, forcing me to keep listening to the same painful spot.

*

I go for a walk. Neighbors are hanging out in the yard to my right, and the yard to my left is filled with running sprinklers. So I stroll down the center of the street. It’s quiet, I’m not in anyone’s way.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, an old SUV nearly runs me over. A woman with dark hair drives it; she stares at me and refuses to slow down. I literally have to run out of her way. 

Furious, with feet damp from sprinklers, I walk in a direction I rarely go. I pass pretty houses — houses that used to be my dream homes. Weirdly enough, I no longer feel sad or angry that I’ll never afford a house in Austin again. It’s on the list of shit that no longer matters. It’s a pretty big list now.

I hear two great-horned owls hooting to each other. I search the trees for them, but I can’t find them. Afraid that homeowners are going to harass me for staring at their yards, I keep walking.

A few minutes later, an owl swoops over the street. I stare in awe, thrilled to see it in flight. It lands in a tree and hoots, shaking its tail before each call.

A couple with a large dog approaches. Unlike me, they aren’t wearing masks. They also don’t notice me; they’re looking at the tree and talking. From across the street, I mention the owl; they say they saw it flying, too. I point out its location in the tree. It calls again and shakes its tail, so they see it. With excitement and gratitude in their voices, they thank me for pointing it out. I say something polite and keep walking.

Darkness falls. I keep walking. I feel more comfortable in the absence of light, a feeling that started after my mother died. I used to hate walking in the dark. Now, it’s like the ocean for me: I know it’s more dangerous than a swimming pool, but I feel safer there.

*

Streaming won’t work on the TV. Eventually, I get Hulu to work. I try looking for “The Lost Boys” — a movie I don’t love, but it’s distracting and Halloween-y. It’s good enough for a mournful October. But I don’t find it.

I do find an old family movie about dinosaurs called “Baby.” I remember watching it with my mom and brother and sister. I remember my mother thinking it was sweet and feeling so sorry for Baby before he found his family.

I start crying. This is just what life’s going to be from now on, isn’t it? One sweet thing after another, one memory after another that hits me in the most vulnerable spots, forever and ever. This is the big pain, and it’s never going to stop.

*

At times, it’s impossible not to think about how I’m technically an orphan now.

Losing my father was so different, though. He died in a car accident just before my freshman year at Harvard ended. I spent that summer working at school, trying (and failing) to force myself to get over it.

I send another email to Dan:

Thanks again for your message the other day. I appreciated it. It has been a weird and deeply horrible time.

I keep thinking about how different it was when my father died. That was awful enough … But I had things to look forward to: sophomore year, and living with Parul, and joining the marching band, and seeing you. Your emails and letters really helped me that summer.

Now, there is no sophomore year. There is no promise of good changes ahead. Just the possibility that the election will stop the country from crumbling into fascism and maybe start tapping the brakes on the plague, and none of that is guaranteed. It’s hard to look forward, and harder still to look back when the last year — and especially the last two weeks — have so much I’d rather forget.

But I say all that to say this: Thanks again for being there for me in the aftermath of my father’s death. It really made a difference. I knew it then, but it’s even clearer now, and I remain grateful for all you did to help me pull through.

*

My cousin makes a lovely Dia de los Muertos ofrenda. I see the photo of my grandparents, white-haired and wrinkled and smiling, in a two-photo frame with my mom’s high school portrait. She is young and gorgeous, an innocent Catholic Ali McGraw look-alike leaning against a tree and smiling.

And suddenly, I’m crying. None of us guessed she would be gone this soon, that we’d be “celebrating her memory” instead of being with her this holiday season. She still feels too alive to be a memory.

The next morning, as I drift sullenly between sleep and consciousness, I see her. She’s the young, gorgeous mom I had as a small child: roller-curled long brown hair, shimmering eye shadow, perfect teeth, big smile. I, however, look like I do now: messy brown and gray hair, eyes puffy from crying under retro glasses. She is boarding a boat, heading toward my grandparents who are already on deck. And I am where I’ve always been in my heart: standing on a cloudy beach, alone and screaming.

“MOM!”

She turns around.

“You can’t leave!” I sob.

“Honey,” she says, heading back to shore. She clasps my hands in hers. “You have to let me go.”

I know my crying will make my glasses dirty and hard to see through. I don’t care. “I’m all alone,” I say through my tears, holding tightly onto her hands. “I don’t have anyone left. Who’s going to take care of me?”

“Oh, mijita. You’ve always taken care of yourself.” Then she lets go and heads onto the boat. And as I sob, my sweater starts sparkling, turning into a thousand glittering lights: the power to take care of myself. A gleaming sweater I knitted decades ago. 

*

Two months after my mother’s death, I see two fatal window strikes in one week: a female lesser goldfinch and a yellow-rumped warbler. We bury the dead, and I finally put up the strike prevention tape my friend Heidi gave me months ago. But I keep thinking about how many stray cats live in the neighborhood. So I take the bird feeders down for good.

I don’t want to take the feeders down. It breaks my heart and leads to a screaming fight with Raf, who is tired of my emotions and neediness. But I can’t keep inviting the birds to my yard when so many dangers await them.

As I remove the backyard feeders, a female ladder-backed woodpecker flies to the feeder pole. She perches less than three feet from me. We stare at each other. I don’t move, knowing she’ll fly away as soon as I pull out my phone. After a good 15-20 seconds, she blinks and flaps off to a nearby tree.

Guilt nearly drowns me. Am I doing the right thing? Is it hurting the birds more to stop feeding them?

Some friends with avian expertise assure me that the birds can easily find food on their own, that this is for the best, that it’s actually really selfless of me to do this.

For now, I keep the birdbaths up. They’re on pedestals that offer the birds a clear view of any approaching predators. I’ll give away all of my feeders except the ones that came with the house (obviously), one I won in an online contest, and one my mom gave me. I’ll place those in the backyard when it’s super cold out, just to help the birds through those few days.

After the screaming fight and taking down the feeders, I slip out of the devastating sadness that had finally engulfed me and back into the numbness I felt for several weeks after my mom’s death. I think of the three fledgling cardinals, and I hope the birds nest somewhere else next spring: a safe place where their nestlings can thrive and their fledglings can bounce around on the ground and test their wings. I hope they flourish, producing generations of mohawked birds that continue long after I’m gone, their loud chirps trilling through the air. And I hope whoever sees them thinks they are late relatives visiting them to say hello, and that they find enough comfort from the birds to outweigh the darkness.

Even after the feeders are gone, though, a female cardinal comes by. I see her at one of the birdbaths and perching in a leafless bush around sunset. I watch her and think of a note my mom used to have on the cabinet by her phone, a little heart-shaped piece of paper. On it, she had written what she considered to be the four most important phrases you can tell someone. When I got divorced, I said those four things to the birds in my yard, apologizing for leaving them. Things felt so bleak then, but eventually they got better.

I watch the cardinal and say the four phrases again, meaning them more than ever:

I’m sorry

Forgive me

Thank you

I love you

Copyright 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.