"Look at the female cardinal, Mom!"
Mom followed the direction of my finger as we marveled at the bird's appearance. The cardinal sat perched on her only leg—just like Dad.
My parents had been living with our family for five months when we noticed a small blood blister on Dad's big toe of his right foot. This was a serious concern as Dad was an insulin-dependent diabetic. Eventually, that tiny sore led my mom, dad, and me through an emotional journey fraught with heart-wrenching decisions, and eventually to an unthinkable operation—the amputation of his right leg below the knee.
While Mom and I sat on the lanai, Dad lay in a hospital bed at a rehabilitation center. We were all exhausted.
Exhausted because Dad hallucinated after the surgery, leading us to believe he'd lost his mind. Exhausted because he was angry and unkind to us and to the aides. Exhausted because my strong, outgoing, passionate father had become weak, introverted, and dull.
Where is my daddy?
Sitting on the porch that morning, I recalled the verse in which the apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in everything. I wondered what Mom and I could rejoice over, what we could celebrate. We knew that Dad wasn't progressing. One infection after another continued to plague him. Eventually, these infections led to another operation, taking the same leg above the knee. We knew that the above-knee amputation would significantly affect his rehabilitation. We also knew my 76-year-old father would probably never walk again.
The days trudged forward. Each morning, Mom and I continued our coffee ritual on the porch. The one-legged cardinal continued to visit our yard and feed with her mate. Often her partner ventured on to another feeder and brought back her sustenance, while she waited. He fed her. She devoured the seeds.
The thought came to me, and after a moment I said, "Mom, why don't I try putting birdseed on Dad's windowsill?"
My Own Rehabilitation Program
It was a thought from God. Dad had always been an avid over-the-edge bird-watcher. As a teenager, I was embarrassed when he'd stop the car in traffic and pull out his handy binoculars to view a particular species of bird. My mind went back to one particular day.
"There's a yellow-bellied sapsucker! First one I've ever seen in the wild!" He cut across traffic and pulled onto the median as I sunk down into the seat.
I don't care about the yellow-bellied sapsucker. I'm concerned about the red-blooded, football player, my 15-year-old self thought as my shoulders caved in. I pulled my coat collar close to my face and ducked under the dashboard, pretending to pick up an imaginary item from the floorboard.
Drivers shouted obscenities, honked their horns, and made vulgar hand signals, but it didn't deter my father. Seeing God's creation anywhere was worth a few offensive comments and loud horn-blowing. He didn't care if it embarrassed me.
It wouldn't embarrass me now.
He climbed back into the car and tossed the binoculars on the seat. His eyes sparkled. "What do you think of that, Sister?"
So I started my own rehabilitation program for Dad. Each morning when I visited him, I placed seed, bread, and peanuts on the windowsill by his bed at eye level. First, only squirrels visited. Then the jays came. I pointed them out.
"Look, Dad, there's a blue jay. You know how much they like peanuts." He turned his head but didn't speak.
Day by day, I noticed a spark of interest as his head moved toward the birds more quickly and his gaze remained longer.
One day when I visited him, he said, "I saw a cardinal on the sill today."
Finally, something to celebrate.
Blessings from a Wood Stork
Mom and I were encouraged with his mental improvement. However, he wasn't responding to any physical therapy, and continued to have various infections. This went on for five months. My husband and I made the difficult decision to bring Dad home.
Those first few weeks were indescribably difficult. Accommodating a handicapped man weighing more than 250 pounds and his special needs were a tremendous adjustment for everyone. To our amazement the cardinal pair continued faithfully visiting our yard for more than two years. Often I pointed the pair out to Dad. He watched as the strong male fed his mate. He never commented.
Soon, caring for my father became impossible. I was forced to move him to a nursing home a mile from me. I took him for walks there too. There were plenty of birds on the grounds.
One day, when visiting him, he appeared especially gaunt and pale. I took him for a walk. He was slumped all the way over in his chair, but still I persevered. As we rounded the sidewalk to a nearby pond, to my delight I spied several different species of birds that miraculously landed only feet from Dad and me. There were mallards, seagulls, herons, and the grand old wood stork.
"Look, Dad, a wood stork!"
Dad lifted his head and whispered, "Wood stork." I bent low to view his face. He smiled at me and said, "Wood stork."
Those were the last words my father spoke. He died five days later.
More to Celebrate than I Realized
It's been more than three years since my dad and I viewed the bird show that God provided for us. I'll never forget it.
On my windowsill, there are sunflower seeds and mixed-bird seed and peanuts. I get the same callers. Courageous, crafty squirrels, sporty blue jays who choose the heaviest peanut, and yes, cheery cardinals. Recently, a female cardinal landed innocently on the sill as I worked. I marveled at her intricate design; I sighed at her amazing color scheme.
All of a sudden, she noticed me peering at her and flew away. I'm not sure about all that we'll do in heaven, but I'd like to think that my daddy sent her.
During that difficult time, there wasn't much to celebrate. Or at least I couldn't see it then. Now that I look back, I can see plenty.
Isaiah 43:2 states, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you."
There were times when I couldn't see what God was doing. I felt like I was drowning. But I didn't. He didn't let me, and I came out stronger. I see how God worked in my heart to help me endure. He positioned me to receive patience. He stretched me to develop more compassion—even through something as simple as watching birds. But I realized, are birds really that simple? After all, Jesus reminded us that God sees even the sparrows and knows what happens to them.
Often, during those valley times, all I see is uphill-both ways. But when I reach that mountaintop, after God has done a gracious and grand work in me, I can see the valley with its green meadows and sparkling streams and I can rejoice.
God's special bird show reminded me of that. To me, birds represent a celebration. A celebration of my earthly father's love for God's creation, and my heavenly Father's love for me.
Now it's my 20-year-old son's turn to slink under the seat as I stop the car in traffic to view a particular species of bird. It embarrasses him, but it makes me smile.
And I imagine Dad smiles too.
Pauline Hylton is a freelance author who writes, watches birds, and celebrates God's blessings from her home in Florida.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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