I noticed the first Cardinal a few months after my daughter died. It was a male, shockingly red. It landed in one of our dead ash trees (the tree that fell, with an explosive crash, this past September).
When I saw the bird, I thought, “She’s sending me a sign.”
Death came with me everywhere that year. It lingered at the threshold of the doorways she used to walk through in this house where she grew up.
I lingered too, wandering through the house, feeling barely alive, looking for signs — feathers, coins, heart-shaped stones.
I made my husband drive me around all summer, following the rumbling sky, chasing storms, hoping to see a rainbow.
When I finally saw one, I took a triumphant photo. I uploaded it to Facebook and was confronted with a dozen rainbows as bright and perfect as my own.
My sign was everyone’s sign. The rainbow proved nothing.
Proof. That’s what I needed — proof that she wasn’t completely gone, that her soul still existed.
Birds, stones, coins, feathers — I searched for them with feverish determination. I needed something to believe in that was bigger than myself, something that atheism had never given me.
I needed faith.
I needed my daughter, alive and whole, but a sign from her might provide some solace.
At first, the birds were the answer — the Cardinals and Hummingbirds and Red-tailed Hawks. I sat in my yard for hours watching them. I spoke to them.
Tell Ana I love her.
I imagined them flying through the veil to greet her with my message.
I wrote to Ana in journals. I drew hearts on the chalkboard wall in her old bedroom. I pictured my hearts, my lopsided drawings, manifesting in blue and yellow and red, piled at her feet.
Heavy with grief, I let the living world fade away. I closed my eyes and tried to see something meaningful in the darkness.
I was convinced the Cardinal was a sign. I believed until I didn’t.
Cardinals are winter-hungry birds that come because I feed them. Nothing more.
I know too much about birds to have faith in their magic.
I began feeding them the year she died, hanging trays of black oil sunflower seed on hooked poles. Cardinals love sunflower seed. They don’t stray far from their nests when they fledge. They are year-round residents in New York.
An atheist always seeks a rational explanation.
Right now, there are six male Cardinals perched in my nectarine tree. They look like bright red confetti.
Like rainbows, Cardinals prove nothing.
There is no rule that tells atheists what to believe. There is only one rule about what not to believe.
I am free to believe in a soul and an afterlife. I am free to conjure up my own mythology about death and what may (or may not) exist after the body dies.
Keep your god, but sit with me.
It is not as if I don’t have faith. I am imagining her in the ether, waiting for me to be okay. She’s watching me fumble and reach. She’s sending me cardinals — one, two, three, four, five, six — and shaking her head when I turn away. She is wondering, “How many must I send before you believe in me again?”
Dearest Ana, I accept some miracles more easily than others. You should know that by now.
I once found a ring beside my bed waiting for me when I woke up in the morning. It fit the ring finger of my left hand. I thanked Ana for the gift. She’d been dead for days by then, but I felt her everywhere.
I wore her gift every day for nearly four years and then, a few weeks ago, it wasn’t where I thought I’d left it. Gone, just like Ana. The ring is gone.
I keep asking her to give it back to me.
Maybe it wasn’t a gift from a dead girl.
Maybe it was just a ring I found.
The doubt creeps in, a slow poison. It separates me from my faith. Is this unique to atheism?
Maybe she’s getting impatient with me.
Ana, I’m sorry. Please give the ring back.
Disbelieving in god does not disqualify me from spirituality. It does not make me immune to faith or optimism or hope. It does not blind me to the possibility of miracles.
I stop in my tracks when I see the moon and wonder if she sees it too.
I speak to her in dreams where (I believe) she waits for my unconscious mind to find her. I reach for her when no one’s looking, imagining her hand in mine.
Come with me, Ana, there is a trail I want to show you.
I feel her hand, just for an instant.
She plays me a song she knows I’ll remember. She brings me things — eagles perched on branches outside my office window, clouds that echo the contours of her face, trails that meander among the trees, a migrating flock of butterflies.
Atheists pray too. At least, I do.
I look at the empty sky and ask the universe for a sign. I worship — her memory, her spirit, the intangible idea of her soul in flight with the birds.
Yes, I am an atheist that worships. Perhaps I am breaking the rules of my own non-religion.
There is nothing left of Ana for me to love. Nothing on earth. I have only the invisible bond that runs from my heart to her spirit. It spirals out into the place where her soul exists. It connects us, a path from life to death and back again.
Don’t you see? She took that part of me with her when she died. It links us together. I can still feel her.
I am not crazy.
I create altars with sacred offerings. There is a plaque with her name on it affixed to a rock in her favorite park. I leave things there — stones, folded cranes, coins, dried flowers.
Here, Ana, is a crystal you once loved. Here is a bowl of Marigolds for your Day of the Dead altar. Here is a red feather that you left for me and I now leave for you.
The narrative in my mind relies on her living spirit — that she still exists somewhere, somehow.
You see? I do have faith.
Atheists are doomed to doubt matters of the spirit. That’s a grand sweeping statement, don’t you think?
Atheists are doomed.
Atheists are doomed to wonder, to question, to look for proof.
Atheists are doomed to disappear.
Shit. I am stuck in an atheist loop.
I believe there is more to death than death. I know this is because I want to see my daughter again, so I doubt my own beliefs. I want to see my daughter again, so I believe my own doubts.
There is more to death than death.
There are six cardinals in the nectarine tree when it starts to snow. I wonder if this is a sign from her, before I convince myself that it isn’t.