11 Years Gone, 10 Years Gifted

July 2nd, 2002, in the early hours, my mother left her body. It was a profound loss, as the years would come to show, and we got through the hours and days knowing it was what we had to do.

In her last month in hospital, I was unable to make the transition from her hospital room to my home, where 2 boys (ages 6 and almost 10) were going about their carefree lives, aware that their Bubup was not well but not ready for the finality which – to such young minds – was never as close as it truly was. I would stop at the park on Lake Road, 3 minutes from the house, and walk down the long path to sit by the lake for which it is named. I found solace in the setting sun, the happy voices of children, and most strongly, the ducks and birds which symbolized my mom’s love of nature – birds most profoundly.

After the sun had set, I was able to collect my thoughts and go home to be the stable force of motherhood she had provided me, where my boys needed me to be.

On the last day of her shiva, I came home alone, changed clothing, and took my portable CD player (no iPod in those days) with classical music she had given me. I sat by the lake in the 2 p.m. sun, listening to the music, and letting emotions flow because the finality was beginning to hit.

The year brought many changes, and on the first yahrtzeit (Jewish for “anniversary of death”), I took music once again, and headed for the lake. With the advice of One Who Knows, I asked for nothing my mother could not provide, but went with her strongly on my mind, in my heart, and governing my direction.

I sat by the lake listening to music, watching the usual ducks and enjoying being in nature even surrounded by families nearby. And after 2 hours, I was ready to leave, feeling somewhat at peace but still hoping to see a sign.

Just as I stood, a movement from across the lake caught my eye and from the forest across, a magnificent heron took flight, flying across to the side upon which I sat. I was mesmerized. For those who have not experienced this bird “in person”, they are without description beyond the superlative. With a grace unexpected of this huge bird, a prehistoric-sized wingspan and a presence of spirit, they must be experienced to understand the beauty. I smiled through tears; heron is one of my spirit animals. I whispered my thanks to Mommy and stood to go home.

A few steps up the path, I felt a tug. I turned and walked back toward the lake, taking a path that veers to the right, and against the forest at the end of the path stood that mighty heron. I took photos as it allowed me to, it took wing and flew across the lake again, disappearing into the forest. I knew I had been graced.

The following year, I repeated my visit on the same day, and was graced with two herons side by side. The 3rd year, 3. The 4th, 4. It seemed almost impossible but knowing that the Universe listens, and the spirits provide when the mind and heart are open, I continued to go without expectation, and be rewarded every year.

One year – the 5th – I spent the night awake, working on some school assignments, and decided as the sun rose, to make my visit in the early hours. I approached the lake to see the heron already waiting for me, on a barrel sunk into the lake to provide perch for the birds. And it has been that way since. Three years ago, my then-13-year-old son chose to accompany me, and it has become a new tradition. Each year, he becomes more adept at sighting “our” heron, and experiences the same thrilling shivers when we see it approach.

This year, the morning dawned grey but not rainy, so we woke at 6:15 and headed to the lake. We were greeted by this: (click on all pictures to see them larger)

Goose walking on the path
Goose at Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)

When we turned the corner, we found this goose’s family, young goslings feasting in the grass.

Geese grazing at Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)

We watched them for a while; the one single goose keeping watch did not move from that spot but another adult was walking toward us, making motions with his (her?) head as if to let us know we were being watched.

Goose approaching, Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)

We watched them for a while, then headed to our spot by the lake. Sam had binoculars – the ones bought in Hong Kong decades ago by the lady we were there to remember – and they are extremely powerful. I gave him the job of “scout” and he set to watching for the heron.

The lake was rippling with the wind, and our next visitor was a cormorant. They are the “Loch Ness” birds of our lake, swimming with only their heads and part of their necks above the surface, and they are fun to watch as they dive and resurface great distances away from their original point.

cormarant peeking up from the lake
(blurry photo – low light and moving bird) 

We watched the cormorant for a while, and were then visited by the various duck families that live on the lake. They were bobbing up and down on the rippling surface of the water, and were – as always – tremendous fun.

Duck swimming
Swimming duck, Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)
Ducks on the lake
Duck family, Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)
Mother duck preening, Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)
This is a wood duck, who kept returning to us. Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)

A duck couple swam nearby, coming ashore to preen. They swam together all morning – we figured they were together (despite the homewrecker noisy female that kept trying to crash their party).

This mallard was preening too. Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)

We watched them dip their bills into the water and groom their feathers, keeping an ever-watchful eye (and binocular) out for the elusive heron.

The geese had begun their morning swim, and as they approached the beach, I noted how they look like they’re the bad boys of the beach – strutting their stuff! I was focused on one, until I noticed they had all come ashore – fun ensued!

Suddenly, across the lake, along our side of the shore to the left, I saw what seemed to be a cormorant on a rock. Earlier, Sam had seen the duck family on that rock, watching them with the binoculars until they “plopped” into the water. I pointed out the cormarant, and we watched it for a few minutes. He held the binoculars up to his eyes and said, “wait, he’s got some yellow on him.” And just then, the bird turned in profile and there was our heron! The low light and the shade of the trees had darkened his feathers, his position (facing us) had hidden his size. As always, my breath caught.

Blurry photo of a heron
Heron – slightly blurry. Centennial Park, Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Quebec (Lissa Albert)

Of course, I felt her and gave thanks immediately. We watched this bird, marveling at how it must have been in that bluff for the entire morning (almost an hour since we had arrived), and talking about how its patience practically outweighed ours.

Heron (Lissa Albert)

He turned to walk away from our view, and still I got photos of his unique shape.

Heron walking away
Heron walking away

He turned into profile once more:

Heron in profile
Heron in profile (Lissa Albert)

And I was able to get video. (Sam marveling at how he was a “rat” for hiding out the whole time, and me urging him to fly) But he walked into the forest and was gone from our sight.

As always, we felt blessed by this visit, a sure sign that he was sent to us deliberately. We continued to watch for him, while photographing the ducks on the water. We began to talk about Mommy, and how she loved her birds. We talked about how she watched them from the beautiful windowed room she’d had built in Vermont, and how we never see birds without thinking of her. And then, too suddenly for me to even lift my camera, the heron came out of the forest, took flight, and disappeared around a bluff of trees. There is no mistaking that wingspan, the slow strength of their beating, and the sheer size of the bird they hold aloft. Sam remarked on how we had been talking about his grandmother and that’s when the heron took flight for us. He had no doubt we had invoked the action by giving voice to our memories. He went around the corner, up the pathway, to see if he was able to find the heron again, but was unable to.

That’s okay. She sent him nonetheless, and as every year, we knew we had been given a true gift. Not of the bird – because many people see many herons in many parts of the world. But of this bird, on this day, in this place, and in this way. Every year when we see our heron, there is a unique way in which we first sight this gift and how we experience it.

I miss her every day. I miss her smile and her gentle soul; I am so sad that she is not here to see my boys grow into the young men they have become, and to share in our joys. But she makes herself known to us in many different ways, the deepest and most spiritual in her birds that she sends.

For those who knew her, or of her, you understand what her absence feels like, and what it means. For those who did not – here is her smile. She could light up a room. And her presence still does. 11 years gone, she continues to bestow her presence upon us in ways that are awe-inspiring, but not surprising. We will always miss her but it is a comfort to know she is just a whisper away.

Mom, and my two sons at ages 3 and newborn
Mommy, Sam (newborn), and Josh (3)

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