I never used to pay much attention to the birds. To me, they were just little brown blobs I’d notice from the corner of my eye while I was flitting to the garage, to the garbage can, or to the mailbox. A busy mom, I didn’t have time to stop and look. Then, when my kids were older, I went back to work and really jammed activity and purpose into every day. I’d catch up with the birds later when I had more time.

Then my twenty-four year old son, Peter, was kicked to death by bouncers outside a club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The sky darkened. Time stopped.

In the first weeks of sleepless nights, one solace was the pre-dawn plaint of the loons. I’d hear them beyond the window, wailing to each other and to me from the other side of the lake, my companions in grief, calling to ease my profound sadness.

At a memorial service for my son in London, the vicar quoted: “And Life is eternal and Love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.”

The words stuck with me. Sitting on the dock, staring at the sky, asking over and over again what had happened and why to Peter and what to make of it, my thoughts wandered to the mystery of the horizon. I pictured flocks of birds, and angels, flying over the horizon with every change of season to another place I could only imagine from my perch beside this Minnesota lake. And I imagined how beautiful and how bountiful must be that place in which they’d escape the snow and ice and my despair.

I credit the birds of spring for waking me up after my sad long sleep. In the spring after that dark first winter, my husband Mark and I, with new resolution, started getting up early in the morning to walk. I was by no means done mourning, one never is, but I couldn’t help but look up on our morning walks to the tree tops and smile when I heard the melodic sharp whistle of the Baltimore oriole.

We carried binoculars and stopped and looked and waited. There, way up at the tippy top of the old oak, tree we’d see the spectacular orangey oriole, head stretched high, brilliant song piercing the gorgeous blue sky. Imagine his view, I thought.

Suddenly, it was as though Peter himself were poised at the top of the tree, guiding us into the day, singing out to us in a language we couldn’t understand but singing away nevertheless, proud and gloriously happy, watching over us from up above.

When the chaos of judicial proceedings began, I quit my job to prepare and to steel my soul for the agony of trial. During long days outside, I practiced being quiet, and I kept my binoculars close by. Gradually, I got into the habit of pausing when I noticed the slightest flicker of movement in the shrubs, taking up my glasses, and gazing long enough to identify the bird or at least remember its markings well enough to find it later in my guide. I became familiar with juncos on the grass, chickadees on the peanuts, upside-down nuthatches on the tree trunks, pine siskins on my window feeder, bright red cardinals against the snowy hedgerow.

One warm June morning, close to my birthday, I saw twelve baby wood ducks jump from the house which Mark had built to the lawn right in front of my tractor. Dropping from a height of 20 feet, little balls of fluff toppled out the hole one after the other, bounced in the grass and stretched out their winglets, lined up behind their mother and waddled down the hill toward the lake. Two minutes of majesty and mystery, my birthday gift.

We spent weeks in New Jersey sitting in anguish through hearings and trial and sentencing I thought I’d never forget. But now, six years later, I must say I remember as clearly, and much more favorably, the morning we birded with our friends at Cape May.

All four of us with binoculars, two of us better at seeing the birds, one good at identifying them by ear, one quick at finding them in the book, we thrilled with the frequency and variety of birds we encountered in just a couple hours: tufted titmouse, white-eyed vireo, Carolina wren, summer tanager.

My field guide today is scribbled with the species I first noticed then. There I learned to identify the black-masked common yellow-throat by its witchity-witchity and to distinguish it from the equally ubiquitous yellow chat. I chuckle still at the clownish antics of the chunky oyster-catcher at the beach.

With gratitude, I can say I recall the shiny olive-shouldered coat of the secretive clapper rail in the reeds better than I do the attire of the defendants, and I see the site of the golden eagle roosting in the marsh alongside the estuary more clearly than I do the arrangement of benches in the courtroom. Birds are the plus of that frightful nightmare.

My husband Mark sums it up best. He says we’ve taken up birding as well as fly-fishing ― where I bird as much as I fish ― because they are two new activities we can’t imagine sharing with our active, often impatient son.

Birding is an exercise in patience. You think you see flickers of movement, you stay glued to the spot, binoculars in-hand, and eventually with luck the tiny chestnut-sided warbler darts out from behind the leaves for you to see it, briefly, in all its glory. Grief too takes patience. It is a journey of two steps forward, one backward, enduring and gradually replacing the horror of sudden loss with the memories, if only glimmers, of a young life well-lived.

Birding has given us new focus, new life, and hope. I give tours now to groups at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I talk about images of birds in an early Chinese funerary vessel in the shape of an owl, in a Japanese silk screen of magical phoenixes among pawlonia, in Marc Chagall’s Poet with the Birds, in Brancusi’s sculpture of The Golden Bird. I quote the vicar about birds flying beyond the horizon to we know not where. And I conclude with words of Emily Dickenson: “Hope” is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.”

Birds to me are hope. Hope that spring will follow winter, the songbirds will return, the loons will call again. Hope that we enjoy new activities together for many more years. Hope that memories and love endure forever. Hope of life beyond the horizon.

Mary Westra 2011

(Originally published in We Need Never Walk Alone, The Compassionate Friends, Summer 2010)

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Mary Westra

Mary Westra

Mary Rondeau Westra grew up in Northeast Minneapolis. She graduated from Macalester College and taught French for eight years before becoming a stay-at-home mom. When her two daughters and son became teenagers, she went back to work, launching a 10-year career of fundraising for arts organizations. She retired from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2002, shortly after the murder of her son, Peter. She became a Master Gardener and museum guide and started writing. Mary continues to be inspired by Peter. Over the years since his murder, she has reached out to other parents of children who have been murdered — writing them letters or picking up the phone. She stays in contact with a number of Peter's close friends from childhood and Middlebury College. And every year on July 8, she and her husband, and any family or friends who are present, wake up early and go down to their dock on the lake, sitting together to mark the hour that Peter lived after the attack in Atlantic City. Mary and her husband, Mark, live in White Bear Lake, Minn. They bike and hike together, watch birds, play golf, and Mary tends the garden; they spend time with their adult daughters, and Mary has begun to knit for her first grandchild, born in 2010.

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