Hummingbirds are considered a sign, that the spirit of a loved one who has passed, may be near.
This story was originally published in The Memoirist on Medium.
I first saw the delicate, hand-carved hummingbird tied to the bottom of a birdhouse, hanging in the sunroom.
Handcrafted of tightly twisted twigs, the birdhouse was the perfect haven for mom’s collectibles. A Christmas angel, three red hearts, and a sparkling leaded-glass butterfly among the hanging trinkets mom said were holiday decorations she wanted to enjoy year-round.
The little wooden hummingbird seemed out of place among the colorful ornaments. In fact, mom doesn’t even remember where he came from.
When I got word dad was nearing the end, I was on a plane to California the next day.
By the time I arrived at the assisted living facility that he and mom called home, he was unconscious, and on morphine.
I sat by his side, holding his swollen hand, knowing this would be the last time I’d see him.
I’d thought that many times before, expecting each visit over the past three years might be my last.
But he kept hanging in there.
Hospice advised he would likely pass that day.
As I sat there, talking to him and reminiscing, I asked if he remembered the times we’d shared together.
Like when I ran cross country in high school and he got up before dawn to run with me because he didn’t want me running alone in the dark.
Or the time I broke curfew, and he hid behind the hall closet, ready to bust me when I opened the front door.
Or, when he handed me off to my fiancé at the church alter, turned to him with a smile and whispered, “lucky dog.”
These memories are now evidence of how much he loved and wanted to protect me.
That’s when I heard the birds singing outside the open window.
“Dad, do you hear the birds?” I asked, knowing he wouldn’t answer.
I’d recently seen a documentary on dying. In it, a woman reported being visited repeatedly by a red cardinal after her mother passed. That story clearly still in my subconscious, I asked dad if he’d do me a favor.
“When you get to the other side, will you send me a sign to let me know you’re okay, that you’re at peace?” I requested.
The past few months had been hard.
His body was failing and dad needed assistance with just about every daily task. He could no longer enjoy his favorite pastimes — playing senior softball, puttering in his garden, or reading — so he mostly dozed in his chair, with mom sitting quietly by his side.
Married 60 years, and active until just a few years ago, their days now reduced to lounging in recliners and staring at the television, though it was rarely turned on.
I’d had a long talk with dad about dying on a previous visit.
Our conversation focused on his curiosity about the next stage, as he called it. A lifelong Catholic — a practice I believe he maintained for my mother’s sake — he sounded jaded as he explained why he no longer believed in heaven or hell.
Instead, he was inquisitive about what was next, asking me what I thought happens after a person dies. As I explained near-death experiences and theories about the afterlife, I recalled all the documentaries on death and dying I’d watched in recent months.
Having never faced the death of anyone close, I suppose subconsciously I was trying to prepare.
As I shared stories of people seeing a bright, welcoming light, and being reunited with loved ones, dad’s face brightened. He looked hopeful as he told me he wanted to see his father. He explained that he had so many unanswered questions about the man who died when dad was just eleven months old. Questions he never thought to ask his mother.
Yet even with all his uncertainty, dad didn’t seem afraid.
He was ready, well, as ready as I suppose anyone can be.
I took comfort in that. As much as I didn’t want to lose him, it was too painful watching him wither away and losing all dignity.
When dad took his last breath I had stepped out of the room, as had everyone except my brother and one of his daughters. I’ve since learned that’s not uncommon, the dying choosing to spare loved ones from witnessing the actual death.
I don’t know if dad had the power to choose his time of death, but I do know exactly where I was when he left.
Sitting in the courtyard I watched the hummingbird drink from a bird feeder hanging outside another resident’s window.
As I sat beneath an umbrella sheltering me from the hot summer sun, I’d seen the hummingbird fly up to the feeder and begin drinking the liquid red nectar. It was a welcome distraction from watching dad die.
The death rattle — an awful gurgling noise dad made every time he took a breath — had driven me from the room and outside into the courtyard. I would take a short break, gather myself, then go back inside.
My eyes focused on the hummingbird, I breathed in the fresh summer air, trying to calm myself. Then I watched as the hummingbird flitted away, soaring up into the cloudless blue sky and disappearing beyond the roofline of the peach-colored stucco building that encircled the courtyard.
At that moment I noticed my sister-in-law running toward me.
“He’s gone!” she exclaimed.
“What?!” I replied, “I was just with him!”
I jumped up from the faded patio cushion I’d been resting on and ran toward the glass door leading back inside.
I hurried past the dining room and the wafting smells of cafeteria food — where a caregiver had taken mom just moments before I left dad’s room. I raced around the corner, down the short hallway, and into dad’s studio.
Mom’s early dinner was cut short, she was already sitting in the chair next to dad, holding his hand, her face stoic. The rest of the family had also returned.
Dad was laying in the hospital bed looking just like he did when I left. His head turned slightly toward mom, his face pale, and his mouth gaping open like he was asleep. But I knew he wasn’t. I burst into tears and fell into my brother’s arms.
I knew dad was ready to die.
We had talked about it multiple times. I told him it was okay. I’d been mentally preparing for three years. I actually thought I’d feel relieved, his suffering was finally over. And yet, I was gutted.
As I stood there, shaking in my brother’s arms and sobbing uncontrollably, suddenly something pulled me back.
“The hummingbird!” I exclaimed, “It was dad!”
Through my tears, I choked out the words… the birds singing outside dad’s window, asking dad to send me a sign, and the hummingbird in the courtyard that flitted away, probably at the very moment dad passed.
“He was letting me know he’s okay,” I explained.
Then I walked over to dad’s bed, leaned down to kiss him on the forehead, and whispered, “thank you for sending me the hummingbird.”
That evening when I returned to mom and dad’s house — where I was staying while in town — I saw the little wooden hummingbird hanging on the twisted twig birdhouse in the sunroom.
I immediately knew I wanted to take him home to North Carolina. Not to remember dad’s death, but to remind myself he was finally at peace.
The delicately carved bird, with his long pointy beak, upward swept wings, and fan tail, now hangs in my family room near a window. Suspended by a clear strand of fishing line attached to the ceiling, he looks like he’s flying.
I’ve since learned that seeing a hummingbird means someone who has departed is happy now and wants to bring you comfort and happiness.
So I smile every time I see that little wooden bird, and silently thank dad for answering my request.
And, whenever I see two hummingbirds flitting about together, which I have many times since that hot summer day in California, I imagine it’s dad, spending that much anticipated time with his father.