Talking to Maria
A grieving man finds the beginnings of joy
David held the scarf-wrapped urn carefully as he navigated the icy driveway, making his way towards the old station wagon.
He saw Maria was already sitting in the passenger seat, a twinkle in her eye as she watched him approach. He got into the driver's side and placed the urn upright in the centre console storage box between them.
"Well done, Butter Fingers! You didn't drop it!" his wife teased. David had always been a little uncoordinated, and throughout their forty-five-year marriage, the nickname was an ongoing joke.
"Very funny. Are you ready?"
She raised an eyebrow with a smile and said, "You know I am David. Are you?"
He compressed his lips into a line instead of answering and started down the long driveway. When they pulled around to the front yard, David saw Maria's gaze find an empty patch of grass near the kitchen window, which was unremarkable, except to those who knew what was missing.
"I understand why you took them down," Maria said quietly, nodding her head towards where the bird feeders had stood a few weeks ago, "But you're going to miss watching those birds, David."
David frowned stubbornly. She was right, he knew. He'd always enjoyed watching his avian friends at the feeder—mostly chickadees and cardinals this time of the year, joined by finches, robins, jays, wrens, and an assortment of little brown jobs during the warmer months. He marveled at their grace and beauty as they flitted from branch to branch, to the feeder, and then back again, pecking seeds and pruning their feathers.
Over their morning mugs of coffee, he and Maria would spend at least an hour every day watching the birds' comings and goings. Nothing had given David a greater sense of peace and contentedness than this simple morning ritual.
Until now. Now, thinking about bird-watching was more bitter than sweet. Since that fateful afternoon last month, every bird sighting had been like a knife in his heart.
David turned the steering wheel left onto the quiet street, and they made their way in silence past the few houses and hobby farms that punctuated the natural landscape as they headed away from town.
David felt himself becoming broody.
"Catbird got your tongue?" Maria probed, using the modified phrase she had coined early on in their relationship when she realized how much of a bird nerd he was.
"No, Maria. Maybe. I don't know what to say."
"Why don't you start with how you're feeling?"
He exhaled impatiently, then said, "Okay, Dr. Phil. You want to know how I feel? I'm so angry I can't even look in the mirror."
"You think this is all your fault," Maria added knowingly, placing her fingers on top of the cold urn that sat between them.
"It is my fault!" David snapped, a little louder than he meant to. He took a steadying breath, then continued, "If I had just filled the feeder myself, this wouldn't have happened, and you and I would be at home drinking coffee right now."
"Right. Because you could have foreseen that a fluke accident was about to take place," she chided sarcastically. Inclining her head towards the urn she added, "On the other hand, if you had done it, maybe you'd be the one inside that fancy-pants jar."
"Better me than..." David choked, unable to finish. He cleared his throat and continued, "I should have checked for ice on the ladder."
"And I should have been born in England so I could have married the Prince."
"I should have set up the damned bird bath further away."
"Shoulda-coulda-woulda," Maria shrugged, then smiled at him sympathetically, "David, what good does it do to blame yourself? It was an accident."
After a moment he said, "I know, Maria. But that doesn't make this any easier."
The long road had turned from pavement to gravel as they followed a route that led to open countryside, farm fields slowly transitioning to Crown land forest. They stopped at a T intersection and took a right.
"I've always loved this drive," Maria reflected.
"We must have come this way dozens of times over the years," David smiled nostalgically.
"Do you remember the first time?"
"Of course I do, Maria. You were twenty-three, and I was sweating like a turkey on the day before Thanksgiving."
"You were nervous," She recalled with a pleased grin.
"Of course I was. I was about to ask the most amazing woman in the world to marry me."
"You didn't think I would say yes?"
"I only knew that if you didn't, I would be a lost man."
The car went over a few bumps, jostling the urn a bit. David put out a protective hand to steady it.
"If you think about it, this whole thing is kind of funny, really," Maria mused.
"How so?" David asked.
"It's ironic. You're the Butter Fingers—"
"—and you're the one who slipped off the ladder and hit your head."
Maria nodded and continued, "So what does that make me?"
"Butter Toes?" David suggested.
The musical tinkle of Maria's laugh flooded his mind, and the sight of her throwing her head back in easy surrender to her amusement filled his vision. Her sense of humour was one of the qualities that David loved most about Maria.
"You always knew how to laugh," David reflected, smiling sadly.
"So did you, David," Maria pointed out, "And I want you to promise me you will keep on laughing."
"And just how am I supposed to do that?" David's voice was bitter, and tears filled his eyes. He could no longer see through the car windshield, so he pulled off to the side of the road.
"You were my whole life. And now you're gone!"
David was hit with a wave of grief that took him over completely. Loud sobs racked his body, and his face became wet as his tears mingled with the running of his nose.
Through his crying, he heard Maria's voice say, "I know. You lost me, and you don't think you can bear it. You're angry at me too. But I am still with you."
Her voice simultaneously soothed and pained him.
"Put the feeders back up, David. Every time you watch your little friends and drink your cup of coffee, I'll be right there beside you."
He wiped his eyes, feeling achy and empty. Smiling dully he said, "Or maybe you'll be out there with them. You always said if you could come back, it would be as a bird. You always wanted to be able to fly."
"I also always wanted to bring a smile to your face, ever since I first met you. If I'm a bird, I can do that."
David turned his head to look out the window, and said, "I don't think so. You died because of them."
"No, David. I died tending to something we both loved."
"Well, either way. From now on, seeing them will only break my heart."
Maria's eyes twinkled in David's memory as she spoke the words, "We'll see."
He looked back towards the passenger seat and saw that it was empty and that he was alone.
Suddenly the car was a cage around him, and his hands fumbled on the handle as he hurried to open the door and get out. He stood up in the fresh February air, taking deep gulping breaths. His heart was beating quickly, and he fought to keep down a sense of panic.
Breathe in, breathe out, he instructed himself.
After a few moments, the pounding in his chest subsided, and his breath steadied to its normal rate. He walked around the front of the car, wiping residual moisture from his eyes.
David stared out over the open field before him, the last piece of farmland before the wilderness took over completely. It was empty except for the stubbled remains of rows of corn that had grown there in the summer, now mostly covered in snow. A few starlings hopped in between the short dead stalks, pecking at the ground.
He turned around angrily at the sight of the birds, only to see another much larger one perched on top of the stop sign just a few feet in front of him.
It was a mature barred owl, with mottled brownish-grey and white feathers, and piercing black eyes that were looking straight at him.
A month ago, he would have been struck speechless with admiration and awe. He would have reveled in the beauty of this magnificent, elusive bird for as long as possible and counted himself lucky to be standing in such close proximity, taking in every detail of the moment.
Today, he only felt irritated.
"What are you staring at?" he demanded grumpily.
For a long moment, the majestic creature didn't move, and man and owl stood locked in a staring contest, neither one blinking. After a while, something subtle passed between them, a feeling of understanding that David would never quite be able to explain. There was something wise and knowing about those dark eyes. And there was something else too.
What is it? David tried to peg the emotion beginning to rise in him, for suddenly he felt his chest loosening, his shoulders relaxing. He thought he saw a twinkle in those penetrating eyes.
"What are you up to, Maria?" David spoke the words quietly as their standoff continued.
The owl suddenly turned her body completely around so that her back was facing David, her great clawed feet clenching the road sign from the other direction. Her head hadn't moved at all; she looked over her shoulder in the classic uncanny head twist that only an owl can pull off. She held David's gaze.
The enormous bird then lifted her tail feathers with a flourish and defecated forcefully in David's direction. Startled, he jumped back and watched the mess splat onto the frozen gravel at his feet.
"Hoot hoot, hoo-hoo!" The owl proclaimed triumphantly, apparently deciding she had won their staring contest. Then she spread her impressive wings and flew away without a sound.
David felt a large bubble rising up in his chest, and before he knew what was happening, he heard himself laugh out loud.
"Okay, Maria," he said, "You win."
He returned to the car and picked up the urn with tenderness, his grief no longer filling every space in his heart. As far away as it seemed right now, he knew that one day joy would return, and the decades of memories he so cherished would once again become sweet, not so tainted by loss.
He knew his pain was his love, speaking loudly.
To the ashes in his hands, he said, "Let's go set you free, Maria."