I really wanted to walk in the forest this morning, a specific forest in fact. My sister, Kerry, and I used to walk and talk a lot, and we both loved being outdoors. So today, February 5th, on the 17th anniversary of her death, I wanted to hike to a particular cedar grove in the local conservation area as a way of honouring her. Last Sunday however, when attempting to hike in that area, I’d fallen on the huge sheet of ice that the forest path had become and wrenched my knee. It was mild a few days ago, but not mild enough to melt all the ice. I couldn’t risk it. I felt disappointed but decided to trust that I would figure out something else to do.
The sun was shining out from the clouds over Fairy Lake and, on impulse, I went in that direction. It was chilly and beautiful snowflakes started floating down all around. As I was walking down Main St. toward the park, I decided that when I got there, I would watch for any chickadees, birds I’ve always associated with my sister.
I also decided to take Kerry with me. I imagined her walking beside me and left space for her on the path. At first I talked to her in my mind, and later when I was alone, out loud. It’s the first time I’ve talked to her in a while.
As I turned off the cement pathway and approached the boardwalk, a flash of red flew past me. I thought it must be a cardinal but as I looked closer I realized it was a robin. A robin, at this time of year? I almost never see them in winter. Mind you, there have been some mild days recently so most of nature is a bit mixed up right now. Then I noticed another robin on a tree nearby and assumed maybe it was the first one’s mate. All at once I realized that the bare branches of the bushes and trees beside the path were full of robins—at least ten robins all fluttering and hopping about, pecking away, looking for food. I began to notice some beautiful bird calls I couldn’t identify, and then a chickadee call from either side of me chimed in, and then the tap, tap of a woodpecker. It was a beautiful flock of bird energy surrounding me. It felt magical. After a few minutes, one by one the robins flew off to the north-east. As I began walking on the boardwalk, I saw two chickadees, and when they left, I spied a muskrat swimming and then the woodpecker in the tree above it. It was like they were all coming to say hello today. Gift after gift. All I could think was, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Kerry and I kept walking along, me talking, sometimes with tears. When I came to the bridge and began to retrace my steps, on impulse I took a little side path down to where the river runs over the rocks, wanting to hear its sound. When I turned around, I realized I was in the midst of a beautiful little cedar grove. I’d never noticed it before though I’ve walked this route many times. And here I was, surrounded by these beautiful strong trees. I didn’t have to go all the way to the conservation area to find what I had been looking for. It had appeared to me where I needed it.
I received one last gift as I neared the end of the boardwalk. Lying on the wood edging, I noticed a woolly bear caterpillar, still and unmoving. I guessed that it must be frozen, lured out by the mild weather a few days ago and caught in the cold. I didn’t know if it was dead or in stasis but I felt sad looking at it. A snowflake landed on its back like a star, and I saw that its body was surrounded by more lacy flakes. It was so beautiful and sad all at the same time.
It was the perfect metaphor for everything I’d been feeling. The pain of Kerry’s physical absence was infused and surrounded by beauty: the beauty of the love I feel for her, all the ways that her life and death have transformed me for the better, the gifts I was receiving—the flock of robins, the cedar grove, the caterpillar—and the beautiful sacred space that opens up when I am willing to be vulnerable and connected to what I carry in my heart.
As I walked back out of the park, I took all these gifts with me. May all of you who have lost someone you treasured, find your own ways to create a space for connection and remembrance, ways that are perfect for you, that offer you a bright flash of beauty and a glimpse of grace.
Post Script: Grief is messy and unpredictable. Although I returned from my walk with Kerry inspired and completely exhausted with all I had felt, there was more to come. A series of mistakes and mishaps this evening, after I thought I’d finished this blog post, triggered a whole lot of intense emotions: more sadness and anger than I ever expected, and more than the mistakes themselves warranted. Grief finds its way out when it needs to and not always in the ways we expect, and our challenge is to be gentle with ourselves when it happens.