I stood outside my sister’s house that cold March morning trying to understand how everything had changed. Police cars lined the driveway. An ambulance drove away and a coroner drove up.
How was this possible? We had all been together the night before eating Sunday dinner at my mom’s house. Could it really be true that my sister was dead?
“What do you think happened?” I looked at my mom, shivering. Neither of us had grabbed a coat in our urgent dash to my sister’s house on the other side of town.
Mom shrugged and shook her head. “When do you think the police will let us in?” I asked, wrapping my arms tightly around myself. Time seemed to be going backward. How long had we been outside her house? An hour? Two hours? “What do you think happened?” I asked again.
“Look,” Mom pointed to Maria’s wraparound porch. “There’s a pileated woodpecker. It’s been there since I got here.” The large bird with its vibrant red head stood on the railing just a few feet from the police officer standing outside the door. Mom kept her eyes on the bird. “It’s rare to see them,” she said. “How strange one would be here now with all these people.”
I looked at the big black bird with the bright red head. A redhead…like my sister, I thought. The police officer signaled that we could go inside. “It’s what happens when a young person dies at home,” she explained. “It’s protocol to take pictures and investigate. All normal.”
Normal? How was any of this normal? I walked into the house and saw my brother-in-law for the first time.
“She didn’t wake up,” he said, putting his hands over his face. As Maria’s house filled with relatives, friends, and neighbors, I looked at the green cupcakes Maria must have made the night before to go to her youngest daughter’s second-grade class and remembered it was Saint Patrick’s Day.
Over the next weeks grief consumed me. I missed my sister’s daily phone calls. I missed everything about her. She was my best friend, my oldest sister, a second mother to me. I was lost without her, confused by what had happened and angry that God hadn’t given us the opportunity to pray for another outcome.
Even the autopsy was a disappointment. According to all the tests, my sister was healthy. She hadn’t died of a heart attack or an aneurysm as we had thought. She had just died in her sleep.
The abrupt loss without a known cause made it feel as if Maria had simply vanished, as if she had disappeared in the night. God, please send me a sign, I prayed. Something so I know she’s not gone.
On a cold May morning, the day of my niece’s college graduation, I woke up and poured myself a cup of coffee. Maria would love to be here today, I thought. She would be so proud to see her oldest daughter graduate. She’d have a huge party to celebrate.
Instead I was driving Mom to the ceremony and my husband was staying home to get our house ready for my niece’s graduation party. My niece’s college was about an hour away.
As I drove down the road, the weight of my sister missing this milestone grew heavier. With each mile I felt myself fighting back tears. Mom and I were about halfway there as the winding rural roads brought us into a small city.
“Slow down,” Mom said. “There’s a light coming up.”
“Maria should be here,” I said. As I came to a stop, I saw something swoop down and land on the shoulder of the road in front of us.
A pileated woodpecker! The large red, white, and black bird stood right where it had landed and looked at us.
Mom and I stared right back, hardly believing our eyes. The light turned green and as if on cue the large bird took flight. I didn’t see which way it flew, but I knew that whether it followed our car or not, my sister was with us in spirit.
Since that day a pileated woodpecker has visited me a number of times. One perched in a tree in front of our house on Christmas Day. Another appeared and waited for the bus on the day my son began kindergarten. Another flew overhead at a memorial gathering for my sister, and once when I was going through a hard time, one even pecked at my bedroom window, persistently tapping on the sill until I woke up.
There are still days when I’m overcome with grief and miss my sister deeply, but I’m comforted to know that she didn’t disappear like a thief in the night. I know Maria is in God’s care. A big redheaded bird told me so.