I stand in front of the gravestone in my black funeral gown. Tights and black heels. Hair tied back. I had worn it so many times before throughout my life it was like second nature to me. Dressing for a funeral. Respecting the dead. Honoring their life with the blackness of my clothing.
I'm standing in the graveyard where my cousin was buried. His death, opioid overdose at a party with friends in Iowa, automatically excused him from the label of “human”. He was in prison in Nebraska before that. That’s all people knew, or cared to know. People read his detailed obituary, shake their heads in shame or grief and move on. They didn’t care to know anything else. But I know. I know his story.
When I was 14, and he was 16, his parents locked my family and I out of his life. We kept standing up for him, for his well being. We knew he'd end up dead if they kept feeding the addiction. And now I stood here, in front of his grave, hurting. Hurting because I didn't get to spend more time with him. Hurting because I knew why he did it, why he took those pills, and why he was dead now. Hurting because I know that the life he had was too painful to live, and returning home would lead to him being buried by his past mistakes: warrants, more jail time, less options for work, stigma.
I questioned whether he was in a better place now as I stared at his grave, reading his name, letting the tears stream, reading his birth and death date. 28 years. That's how old he was. Was he ok now? Was he healing? Momma told me that since he had such a painful life he'd be cocooned in a healing light in the afterlife. Then he'd decide if he wanted to come back down to earth. I wondered what he'd come back as. A human? Or an animal? Probably an animal. Maybe a dog. He liked dogs. But his parents treated their dogs badly too. So maybe he wouldn't feel safe being a dog. I started thinking more, but I really didn't know. It made me wish he were here, and the tears started welling again. Sometimes, if you ask the dead a question, they'll answer, momma had said. Even ghosts speak, if not with words then with actions.
"I don't know T. If you could come back to earth, what form would you take?" I asked aloud. There was a soft breeze that picked up, brushing my legs. It had rained a little while ago. It smelled like fresh dew and clean air. The clouds were gray above. The willow tree standing next to the gravestone rustled as the breeze blew on it's leaves. The light of the day was waning as the sky started to transition to night. I had to leave, my question unanswered. I walked away from the grave allowing more tears to flow and I collected them in a tissue. I'd return tomorrow, perhaps with some flowers. And then I wondered what flowers he'd want. Orange ones, probably, as that was his favorite color. Tulips, maybe, or soft petal roses. I had it clear in my mind of what I wanted to do as I drove home and undressed.
Going to bed that night I dreamt of my cousin, giving him a hug, and woke up in tears. I got dressed and drove to the flower shop, picking up a bouquet of bright orange tulips. I drove to the graveyard and parked in the same spot I had parked in before. My cousins gravestone was in my direct sight. And on top of the gravestone, in the light of the morning sun, sat a barn owl. A large, healthy, white and speckled brown barn owl with an elegant round face and big eyes. I didn't know of any barns in the area. Why did it fly here of all places? And in the middle of the day?
I grabbed the bouquet and headed toward his stone, growing wary as I got closer, the barn owl not moving. I stared at the beautiful creature with crisp golden eyes and a sharp curved beak. Why did this owl choose my cousins gravestone to stand atop of? Of all the gravestones in this yard, why this one? I started to wonder if this was the answer to my question I had asked yesterday. Could it be that T was trying to tell me he'd be an owl if he could return to earth? I certainly wouldn't blame him. They were quite beautiful, and valued by many. Symbols of wisdom, war strategy, and freedom, they were an understandable preferred choice.
Carefully, I bent down and slowly set the tulips on the ground in front of the stone. I didn't want to disturb the owl, surprised it let me get this close without flying away or attacking me. I stood back up and took a step back to ensure the owl wasn't nervous. And then, the bird did the most unusual thing. He looked at the tulips, his head swiveling. He walked to the end of the gravestone, fluttering to the ground. He walked up to the tulips, bending down as if sniffing them. And then, he nestled, like he would on a perch or in his nest. The bouquet wrapper crinkled as the bird made itself comfortable next to those tulips, as if comforted by them. As if he recognized what they were, and what they represented.
My heart suddenly swelled. When I slowly bent over to sit cross legged on the ground, I only barely noticed the dampness underneath me. The owl made a coo sound as it closed it's eyes. I felt tears well. It was so sad. This owl was the only one who recognized that within this grave was a human soul who passed away. This owl was probably the only one, besides me, who didn't care what T did in his life. Whether he was a drug addict or not. Whether he did this to himself or not. Whether he made bad decisions or not. To me, he was my cousin, a human being, who died in a horrible way. And that's all that mattered to me. There is no reason a person should be undeserving of love. Undeserving of soul recognition. It shouldn't matter that he was a drug addict it should matter that he had a life so horrible, so miserable, that he felt the need to take his own life. And to abuse himself. When he needed help no one helped him, and it led him here. To this grave, where this owl now sat, peacefully next to my tulips lovingly placed there.
And I cried. I sobbed next to this owl. This beautiful barn owl that was sent to accompany my cousin in his grave. This owl, who was an animal, who didn't understand human society or stigmas or judgement. This owl who loved anyone, just because. Drug addicted or not. Just like I did. Like how I loved my cousin regardless of his addictions and mistakes, his bad decisions. And at the corner of my eye, I saw the silhouette of his spirit standing next to the willow tree, staring at me. And suddenly my question was answered. There he was standing before me as if he had never been addicted to any drugs in his life. As if he had never experienced any past pain. His once ashen skin and stringy hair was vibrant and clean. He wore good clothes that fit him well. He had a light around him, a healing light, just like momma had said. And my heart suddenly rested in my chest, at peace. Because seeing him that way told me that he was alright.
And now I know, when I see a barn owl, it's T's spirit visiting me.
About the author
My credentials: BA in English Literature with an Emphasis in Creative Writing
Two minors: Psychology and Chinese Language and Culture
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing