We hadn’t yet left the house when the first harbinger hit. It was late May and almost two years since Wife No. 5’s departure (my mother was No. 1 and would have left my father like the other four if she hadn’t had a stroke first).
I found him standing at the big picture window, watching for me, I thought, but, when I walked in, he held up his hand.
“Western tanager,” he whispered, as though the bird might hear. “They migrate at night. He’s come for breakfast.”
I knew that my father had long hoped to add the tanager to his life list, but the early morning traffic between my condo in the Spokane Valley and my childhood home on the South Hill already was congested, and my shoulders were stiff from wheel-clutching. My father, a retired Air Force colonel turned commercial airline pilot, had developed a sudden and inexplicable fear of flying, which was the reason I and my Subaru were there.
“Better get going,” I said, and grabbed his flight bag. He snatched it back and glared at me.
“Whose house do you think you’re in?” he said.
Just like that, I was a girl again, being raised by a mostly absent father and a rotating cast of women who couldn’t mother a cat. I wished my sister, Clare, daughter of No. 3, had been able to shuttle him across the state, but she lived in Colorado. When I called, she was nursing her fourth child. “How convenient,” I joked, but neither of us laughed.
I’d never regretted my solo life, not even during the long months of the pandemic. Working from home, isolated with everything I loved – my books, my designs, my mother’s piano – I missed no one, especially not my father. I’d fled Spokane for New York and a degree in architecture, was drawn back by guilt. Who was left to care for him in his final years? The virus allowed me distance, but then he got vaxxed, I got vaxxed, and I lost my excuse. My first visit with him post-pandemic, I was shocked by his sagging pants and hoary head. If isolation had offered me a bonus year, it had robbed my father of the last sane days of his life.
His single focus was the bird feeders. His hands trembled as he scooped the seed he bought by the pallet from Costco and stored in the garage, which had attracted a profligate family of mice until No. 4 adopted a terrier, which dispatched the rodents but also a ground-nesting junco, which caused my father to load his garden gun with snake shot and blast the toilet the terrier hid behind. To her credit, No. 4 turned off the water before calling the plumber, then packed her clothes and her shivering rat of a dog and was gone.
It had taken three months to get an appointment with the Seattle specialist my gynecologist had recommended when I told her my father was acting funny. “Funny how?” she asked. “Underwear-in-the-freezer funny,” I said, and she shrugged. “My grandmother sprinkled shirts with water, then rolled them up and froze them until she had time to iron.” I looked at her from between my knees. “Shirts with skid marks and urine stains?” That’s when she gave me the name of the geriatric neurologist she had dated in med school. “He’s the best,” she said, “at least at his profession.”
“Come on, Dad,” I said. “We can’t be late for this.”
“Who’s we?” He was watching the tanager through his binoculars, stutter-stepping to keep his balance. I imagined him crashing through the glass, finding him 20 feet below, broken and bleeding. “Isn’t he beautiful?” he said. I’d heard that tone before. He was falling in love.
Red-orange head, yellow body, dapper black and white wings – the tanager was a prince among thieves, the worst of them the jays my father called the Blue Bastards. One screeched in for a landing as we watched, scattering the smaller birds. The tanager startled up, veered toward us and hit the glass only inches from my father’s face.
“Oh,” my father said. “Oh, no.” He half-stumbled down the stairs to the yard. I watched from above as he gathered the tanager in his palms, lifted his watery eyes and raised the bird like a flame.
By the time I found the empty shoe box and helped my father dig the small grave, it was too late. I called Seattle, said I would check the calendar and reschedule, but some part of me knew it would never happen.
He sat at the kitchen table, his highball more whiskey than water.
“I willed him here,” he said. “I wanted him for myself. That was my sin.”
I leaned against the counter and glanced at my phone like I had somewhere to go, but we both knew I’d blacked out three days for him – tests, scans, consultations.
“I need to see a priest,” he said.
I sighed, weary of his self-pity, and he looked at me.
“Do you think your death is going to be better than mine?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I sure hope my life is.”
“What do you know about my life?” he said. “You’re never around.”
“You were never around,” I said. “Do you even know what I do for a living?”
“You’re a card shark,” he said. “I hear talk about you at the casino.”
“I’ve never gambled in my life.”
He narrowed his eyes, then gave me the lopsided grin he used on anyone he wanted to court or con. He emptied his glass before throwing me the keys to his vintage Mustang.
“We can take my Subaru,” I said, and he looked at me like I had suggested we ride a goat.
“Top down,” he said and put on his aviators. “It’s spring.”
Father Dennehy met us at the church door as though awaiting our arrival. One of my father’s buddies from Vietnam – a battlefield chaplain who still prayed for the souls of the Viet Cong – he had baptized me and remembered my Christian name even though I hadn’t answered to it since I was 12.
“Celeste.” He nodded once, then rested his hand on my father’s arm. “Welcome, my son,” he said and turned him toward the confessional.
I settled into a pew and waited for my father’s absolution. I checked my phone – nothing but blue skies for the next three days. A stop by the nursery on the way home: herbs, marigolds, geraniums. Hours on my knees, digging in the dirt, would do my soul good.
Twenty minutes went by, then 30. How long could it take to atone for the death of one bird? I pocketed my phone and studied the church’s architecture, built during a time when Spokane was ruled by copper kings. Gothic pillars, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, Italian marble altar – the space was large enough to hold 1,000, but the pews were empty, some still draped with gold rope to maintain social distancing. I wondered if, in the past year, parishioners had come to prefer their own prayer closets. Why not confess over your oatmeal, Hail Mary in your bathrobe, petition on your Peloton – no other eyes to see, only God’s ear to hear?
Forty minutes – long enough to confess a legion of sins. I started to rise, and that is when the second harbinger hit like a sonic boom – a shatter of glass so brilliant and sharp, I shielded my eyes against it. When I opened them again, a beam of sunlight shown through where St. Peter’s halo had been.
My father and the priest found me stiff in my pew, glistening shards all around. Dennehy called 911, but it was my father who ran outside and collared the offender. The boy was trying to launch rocks as high as the steeples, never thinking he would do any harm.
I was fine, not even a scratch. They stood in a circle around me – my father, the priest, the tearful boy, the emergency crew in their bright red hats and yellow striped uniforms – and called it a miracle, but not miracle enough to save my father. One minute he was standing at full attention, the next he was on the floor, having fainted, they all agreed, at the sight of his own blood – a cut from touching my glittering hair, making sure I was OK.
The next week, it wasn’t a specialist but my father’s barber of 40 years who noted that one of his pupils was more dilated than the other. It was Dad who walked himself across the street to the home of his old Gonzaga classmate, a retired ophthalmologist, who referred him to the neurologist daughter of Dad’s golf pro, who made the diagnosis of glioblastoma. The Pakistani surgeon my father knew from playing pickleball opened his skull, closed it up again and came out to tell me that nothing could be done. I called Clare with the news. “I’ve got four kids and a husband,” she said. “Maybe you can take this one.”
This is what I remember about my father’s funeral: not the mournful tone of the bugler playing taps, not the flag the soldiers folded and laid in my lap like an infant, not even the patch of Plexi-glass atop the apostle’s pate, but the faces that filled the pews. Air Force buddies, co-pilots, flight attendants. Tennis partners, bank tellers, servers from the coffee shop. Birders from the group I didn’t know he belonged to, bowlers from the team I didn’t know he was on, rockhounds from the club he dug garnets with each spring. Car dealers, carpet layers, the manager of Dick’s Burgers. All four of his surviving ex-wives, clutched together and crying. As the line of mourners filed by, an uncommonly tall young man approached and held out a basketball scribbled with signatures. “He was our favorite booster,” he said, and I recognized him as the university’s star center. “For an old guy, he had a wicked J.” I remembered the hoop bolted to the garage, how, as a girl, I would fall asleep to the sound of my father shooting baskets in the dark.
There’s no revelation here, no moral to the story. I didn’t make new friends, take a spouse or adopt children late in life. Clare and I keep a respectful distance – I send gift cards to her kids at Christmas. When I fly, I fly alone.
What I have is a basketball covered with the names of people I have never known, touched by hands that have never touched mine. Some nights, I balance it in my palms, raise it to the stars and imagine its flight through the night air, a bird winging its way home.