My dad loves birds. He always has, for as long as I can remember, and consequently, a number of our family memories are marked by statements such as, "Remember the time Mom looked out the kitchen window and saw the apple tree completely filled with cedar waxwings?" or "Remember when we saw the wood-duck sitting on top of the Knippen's house next door?" or "...the time we spent a good portion of Christmas morning not opening our presents but watching hundreds of birds come to the feeders for their Christmas breakfast?"
As kids, Dad passed all sorts of bird trivia on to us so that I thought that kind of knowledge was normal and am shocked when confronted with adults who can't tell a sparrow from a starling or a wren from a pine siskin. When I went with Elaine's class on the trolley trip along the river, it took all my social skills to remain silent when I heard statements such as, "Those are geese. Or maybe they're ducks. I don't know, I just call everything ducks." (Hello?)
Since cardinals are our state bird, we have a lot of them around and I know from Dad that their singing (which sounds like either "Cheer, cheer, cheer" or "Pretty, pretty, pretty,") is the absolute first sign that spring might be coming--even before my beloved robins show up. Cardinals, despite their bright color, are actually shy and secretive birds--you'll never see their nest, even if you know its location, because they usually tuck them deep into cedar bushes and don't even make them look like nests.
Cardinals also mate for life. In each house I've lived in, I've had a cardinal couple living here, too (in a cedar bush). The cardinal couples are so loving toward each other; they'll even feed one another, and I promise you that one day I saw my cardinal neighbors perch on the fence, lean over, and kiss with their little red beaks.
In these past two weeks that I've lived at my parents' house and the hospice home, I've gotten to hear the story retold several times of how my parents met--because everyone wants to know. My dad was the principal of a Christian school in Chicago, and he desperately needed a fifth grade teacher.
My mom's was one of the resumes he had, so he called her on what was the night before her going to Pennsylvania to accept another job. But she said she had a several-hour layover in Chicago, so she would come to interview anyway. She decided (after praying, of course) to take the Chicago job instead, with my dad as her boss.
His first impression of her was that she was a wonderful teacher, but it didn't take long for him to get interested in her as a person, too. He had suffered a broken engagement several years before, and though people had tried to set him up in the meantime, he just wasn't interested until this little missionary teacher crossed his path.
On the night of their first date, Dad says it was almost their last because he had been up all the previous night, dealing with a tree that had fallen on his garage and then had gone to work all day. Mom had carefully prepared a list of topics for them to discuss, which she kept surreptitiously pulling out of her purse, but Dad met every attempt with a yawn.
They did survive the first date though, and went on to many more, which had to be kept top secret since there were strict rules about couples not working together. After that year, my dad resigned and took a job in Wheaton while my mom stayed at the Chicago school. Then they could openly be engaged, and Dad wasted no time telling people that he was planning to marry his fifth grade teacher.
However, Mom got the last word. The school gave an end-of-the-year banquet for the faculty and invited Dad back as a guest. Each of the teachers was asked to get up and give his or her testimony about what God had done in their lives the past year. When it was Mom's turn, she talked for a bit in her sweet, serious way and shared the verse that had been special to her that year: Psalm 84:11 "No good thing will the Lord withhold from them that walk uprightly." Then she paused, turned, dramatically pointed at Dad, and said, "THIS is the no-good thing that the Lord did not withhold from me."
As Dad says, she brought the house down.
They were married a month later, on June 17, 1966. They lived in Wheaton and had their family and were active in their church. They did not have a perfect marriage, because they were human. But they did have a great marriage.
When they retired, they moved out to the country and lived much the same way, quietly, but active with their family and with their church. Every afternoon at three o'clock, they would stop and have tea together.
Over the past sixteen months, I've watched my dad take care of my mom--he was very protective of her--and I've watched him grieve what he knew was coming. One day that I saw her at home (during her confusion time) she said to me privately, "Your dad and I have this little game we play together. You know how we love plum preserves? Well, I have to hide some of the jars, otherwise he'll eat it all and there won't be any left!" Then she drew me a little diagram of the shelves in the basement to tell me where she had hidden some jars. I said to her, "Actually Mom, that sounds like just a little game YOU play!"
When Mom was in the hospice home, I watched my dad kiss her each time he came in or left. Sometimes he would ask, "Do you know me?" and she would whisper, "You are Charlie." She didn't want anything to eat, so he went home and got their homemade bread and some of the secret plum preserves she loved, and then he sat on the side of her bed and fed it to her.
One afternoon I left the hospice and went to their house to do some things. I saw on the counter a tray with his afternoon tea things--the teapot, the sugar bowl, a solitary cup. It was then that I told him thank you. Thank you for what a good job he's done, taking care of Mom all these months and years. He hugged me and said, "Well, at the beginning of 2009, the Lord gave me an assignment: to escort one of His very special jewels all the way to the gates of Glory."
On Mom's last day, the hospice called us early in the morning and told us we needed to come as soon as we could. We got there and sat down on either side of Mom's bed. We turned off her oxygen since it wasn't making any difference. We turned on her hymn CD. We opened the french doors to her room and let the sun shine in, the breeze blow, and the birds sing. We held her hands. When we knew it was the very end, Dad leaned over, kissed her, told her he loved her, and said, "Say hello to Jesus for me, sweetie." Then she was gone.
They were married 43 years and 364 days.
If you've read this blog long enough, you'll know that we like to name all the bird couples we meet. There are our mourning doves, Henry and Margaret; our robins, Frank and Eleanor. But we've never named the cardinals--just Mr. and Mrs. I realize now that that is because I've known their names all along.
They are Charlie and Lois.