The cardinal in the Willow tree

It was at a funeral that I first heard the legend of the cardinals, how when you see a cardinal it’s the spirit of a loved one who has passed, come to remind us they haven’t forgotten us, as we haven’t forgotten them.

I have been prone to bouts of melancholy since we lost Willow The Best Dog There Is™ just shy of her 12th birthday in March — not crippling sadness like the first few days, just moments when I remember something sweet about her or a fond memory, and I miss her all over again.

I have been noticing cardinals, too. Now, we have always had cardinals about. We feed them in winter. The splash of red against the snow is a familiar and comforting sight during that most colorless season.

But they haven’t always perched on our back deck, as I saw cardinals do more than once after Willow left us. A time or two, we saw the cardinal back there and said, “There she is.”

Then there was the day a cardinal sat on the roof singing. I never knew exactly which song was the cardinal’s until that day, when the bird sat on the roof and I could see its bill moving in step with the song, chirping away.

The other morning I walked up to our mailbox to fetch the newspaper, and I noticed a spot of red near the top of our tallest willow tree. (our — Willow — tree.) I don’t ever recall seeing a cardinal that high, and certainly not precariously balanced on a willow branch.

As I started back down toward the house, the cardinal swooped down across the front yard, directly in front of me across the driveway and into the brush on the north side of our land. It was gorgeous — I could see every detail as it sped past me, the brilliant red of its body, its yellow bill, the black around its eyes. If ever I believed in the legend …

There may be a less supernatural explanation. Red suspects there may be a cardinal nest in one of the apple trees between the willows and the driveway, and so the bird may have been trying to divert my attention away from the precious new ones, never suspecting my attention was already fully on the adult.

I accept that possibility. I even embrace it because I love the idea that we are providing a safe place to raise new beauty for the world.

But I also like the thought that the cardinal atop the willow tree was saying, “Don’t worry, Daddy, I’m doing fine and feeling so much better — watch this, I can fly again!”

She was such a splendid dog.

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