Helen Chappell - August 2009
The Thing With Feathers
Hope is the thing with feathers on it that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.
– Emily Dickinson
It was a long winter of funerals, so many friends, just a decade or two older, dropping off their perches.
“We’re next,” my brother said ominously. And increasingly, my thoughts turn toward memories, which is not a sign of one’s salad days.
So I was happy to go to a wedding this month and celebrate a new union of two friends who are about a decade younger than I. The barely fledged think love can only happen for adolescents and college kids, that older people are somehow impervious or too hardened for affairs of the heart, yet here they were, a lovely bride and a handsome groom, dancing the first dance of the rest of their lives.
That same week my neighbors brought home their new baby, their first child, a handsome boy with a head of black hair and that impervious look newborns often have. As his proud father held him in his carrier, the baby frowned, as if to say “And who are you, lady?” Of course, I was delighted.
The great thing about love is that it’s infinite. It comes in all shapes and shades and degrees. You don’t just have a cup of love and that’s that. Your heart holds as much love as the universe and you never run out.
I was reminded of this the other day when I ran into an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in some time ... a lady of a certain age.
“It’s almost a year since my husband died,” she told me wistfully. “And I miss him so much. But I know he’s still with me. Now you’ll think I’m crazy, but listen to this.
“You know, we were birdwatchers – birders. We loved to get out there on the bird walks, had life lists, traveled to see birds, the whole works. I was so lost without him, for a long time I lost all interest in everything, including birding.
“Then one morning, I came downstairs and there was a feather lying on the kitchen table. I don’t know where it came from, it was just there. A small white feather at his place at the table.
“I was puzzled, but I really didn’t think much about it at the time. You can track anything into the house around here, as you know.
“Well, a couple of days later, I went out to get in the car and go into town and there was another feather on the car seat. I’d left the windows partially open the night before so the car wouldn’t be like an oven in the morning. I put it on the dashboard and drove over to my daughter’s house. I was going to babysit my grandchildren.
“Well, I got there, and the boys, they’re eight and ten, wanted to go walk by the water, so we walked down to the beach and, of course, what do we see but a duck feather?”
‘Grandma,’ my youngest says, ‘Do you remember how Granddaddy used to find feathers and leave them for us? Do you think he put this here for us to find?’
“Out of the mouths of babes! I know this sounds foolish, but I thought, oh, Frank is telling us he’s still here with us. It may be silly, but it was such a great comfort to me to believe that. And the boys had been so close to him, I knew they missed him as much as I did. Frank adored our grandchildren, you know. He loved being outside with them, and he wanted them to love the Shore and birds as much as he did.
“So, after that, I started spotting bird feathers, and every time I saw one, I believed it was Frank, letting me know that he was looking out for us. It’s a real comfort to me, even if it does feel silly to other people. I have a vase, a clear glass vase, and whenever I find a feather, I drop it in there. And the boys collect them too.
“Is it silly if some little thing gives you comfort? I don’t think so. Of course, I still miss Frank, but the feathers have been a sign of hope for me. In some way, those feathers have allowed me to move on with my life, a life without Frank ... well, will you look at that?”
I followed her gaze to the ground between us. There, standing straight up on its quill, was a perfect blue jay feather.