To Be Standing Beneath the Cranes

They flew so low, it was almost as if they were inviting us to reach up and touch their soft, feathery underbellies. (image from: mackerrow.zenfolio.com)

They flew so low, it was almost as if they were inviting us to reach up and touch their soft, feathery underbellies. (image from: mackerrow.zenfolio.com)

Three weeks ago today, I was sitting comfortably in my bed, deeply engrossed in a James Lee Burke novel. A bit unusual since I’d lost my normally voracious appetite for reading. My father had loaned me the book, one that I was initially eager to enjoy as we’d read nearly every one of his novels together. But for some reason, I kept picking at the book a few pages at a time, never completely diving in. Until that night. One particular passage touched me in a profound way, and I dog-eared the page to show my dad. That’s what we did, he and I. Our own little book club. But I never got to show him. He died just several hours later.

And looking back, it makes so much sense. It seems to have been God’s way of preparing my heart for what was about to transpire. I drifted off to sleep dwelling on my father’s physical and mental health, empathetic to all of the pain and suffering he’d gone through in his life, and grateful that I knew him well enough to feel his hurt. The dog-eared page read:

 “The daylight hours allowed you to concentrate on making money and buying food and clothes and worrying about your bald automobile tires. The nocturnal hours were a little different. The gargoyles that lived in the unconscious had their own agenda and were not interested in the ebb and flow of your daily life. When you were in bed by yourself at four A.M., you could hear them slip their tethers and begin production of a horror movie in which you were the star, except you had no control of the events were about to take place. How did you deal with it? You could try reds, four fingers of Jack, or even Nytol. Except you usually mortgaged the next day for a few hours of drugged sleep.”

My father. My poor father. His gargoyles were very real, and for the first time while reading that passage that night, I felt completely and hopelessly sorry for him. His life had been hard. He’d lost his father before he was even able to tie his own shoes. A learning disorder meant school was tortuous. Two men on horseback stole his innocence on a dark night while he was a young boy in LA. Alcohol took him by the hand, and didn’t let go without regular visits to a local AA meeting. And after all of this, he lost his oldest son to suicide, and discovered that the church he’d grown to love had royally screwed over his family, and those of many others. As time went on, his once strong body began to fail him, and then, his mind.

He was miserable. And there were times when he wanted it all to end. And I can’t really blame him. He was loved, he WAS love, but he suffered. His body was frequently marked with cuts and scrapes from falls he had taken. The prescriptions were many, and hard to keep straight. My father was scared. Scared of an upcoming back surgery that he just knew wouldn’t work. Scared of our nation’s future and what he sensed was a waning patriotism. Scared of all of the joy and hobbies and family and friends and music and memories he would leave behind when he left. My father was scared of death. Deeply, and tragically scared of death.

My biggest regret is this. That I wasn’t there when he slipped away to tell him, “It will be okay.” From what we can tell, he passed in his sleep with no knowledge that death had arrived. And I cling to this. Because the thing that slays me, the thing that brings stinging tears to my eyes and pangs to my chest is the thought of him being afraid. Yes, I saw my father as a grown man, but I saw him equally as a scared little boy. To some this might sound strange, but my father and I had a unique relationship. He knew me to my core. He believed in me like no one else, and “got me” in ways that no one can duplicate.

Here I am, three weeks after his death, and I find myself longing to be there again. On that day. Not in the morning, when we were shell-shocked and walking across trap doors that sent us free-falling into disbelief. Not that afternoon, when the casket had been chosen and pallbearers selected. But that evening, nearly 18 hours after his death, when my husband and I saw my father for the last time.

I had gone home to rest for several hours, and my husband and I were preparing to return to my mother’s house for dinner with our two young daughters. I had just buckled the girls into their car seats, our van parked on the east side of our house. My husband was approaching from the side of the shop, where he’d just finished some farm chores. The weather was exactly what my father would have liked. Chilly, but not cold. Overcast, but not stormy. The tiniest of drizzles fell from the sky, almost floating like snowflakes. And it was still. Completely. I breathed in deeply, knowing I would always remember this day, yet not knowing the most memorable time was yet to come.

“Look at those snow geese flying at us.” My husband stood by my side and pointed over the open field to our east, where a large flock of birds approached us in V formation. “Those aren’t geese,” I told him, “Those are…cranes.” Their long, bent necks were unmistakable as they got closer. Nearly twenty of these majestic birds flew directly at us, coming right up alongside our house, maybe only forty feet in the air. And then, inexplicably, they hovered. Right above us, wings spread wide. I could hear each “whoosh” of their beating wings, and the delicate chattering of their conversation.

I dared a glance at my husband, whose mouth hung open in complete awe. “That’s my dad,” I whispered, my eyes again turning upward, never wanting to leave this moment. I caught his head shaking in agreement. The birds flew in slow motion just to the south, then turned back toward the west. “Have you ever…,” I started to ask him. “No, never. Not ever.” He asserted he’d never experienced anything like it. Not in all his years of sitting in deer stands, observing the great outdoors.

Cranes are not rare in Kansas, but I’ve only seen one in my years on our property, and I’ve never seen an entire flock in our area, let alone one that would fly so close and so low to the only home within a mile, and then lay out right over our heads, almost as an invitation to reach out and stroke their feathery underbellies. I know what I experienced, and nobody can ever take that away from me. My father had paid me a visit. To tell me, “It will be okay.” And while singing the farewell hymn at his funeral, I felt a profound joy. His pain was over. He’d flown away.

Some glad morning when this life is over

I’ll fly away

To a home on God’s celestial shore

I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory…I’ll fly away

When I die Hallelujah, bye and bye

I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then

I’ll fly away

To  that land where joy shall never end

I’ll fly away

I’ll fly away, oh glory

I’ll fly away

When I die Hallelujah, bye and bye

I’ll fly away

Oh I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away,

When I die Hallelujah, bye and bye

I’ll fly away

 

 

 

2 Responses to To Be Standing Beneath the Cranes

  1. Jodi Pyle says:

    Words fail me, my friend. Your faith and connection to your dad will live on. May comfort continue to find you.

  2. When I Blink says:

    Oh, my hand is on my heart. Wow.

    Beautifully written.

    Thinking of you and yours.

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