The Red Bird

Written by Diane Tolliver

Rose sat at her desk and reluctantly pulled her homework from her backpack. She really was not in the mood to do homework, but she was so far behind in her assignments that she needed to get them done. Her teachers had been happy to see her when she returned to class and did what they could to make her feel welcome. But Rose heard the whispers and saw the stares from the other kids. It was not easy to be identified as the sister of the guy who killed himself on the high school football field.

Hot tears filled Rose’s eyes as she thought of her brother Jimmy. Rose adored her big brother, and she felt, he was the perfect brother. He never teased her or made her feel stupid. He was willing to drive her and her friends when they wanted to go out. Jimmy was handsome, smart and funny. Everyone loved Jimmy. When he graduated high school, he was top of his class and had a football scholarship to Notre Dame University.
Their father strutted around like a proud peacock when the local newspaper did a feature article on Jimmy and his accomplishments. Everyone thought Jimmy was a superstar and treated him as one. People did not know that Jimmy hated all the attention and the continuous pressure to succeed. It was a shock when Jimmy decided to postpone college and join the Army.

The arguments between Jimmy and their parents made Rose physically sick. She had never witnessed such intense anger coming from her father or her brother. Her mother was always crying. When the day came for Jimmy to leave, her parents did not even say goodbye to their only son. Rose held onto Jimmy for as long as she could and watched as he walked out the front door.

As in high school, Jimmy excelled in the Army. He seemed to love being part of a group that gave up individuality for uniformity. The group’s needs were far greater than the needs of one person. Their parents slowly began to accept Jimmy’s decision though they struggled when he insisted, they stop calling him Jimmy and call him Jim.

Jim was sent to the Middle East, and Rose adjusted to middle school. Her letters to her brother were filled with stuff about her teachers, friends, and her boring life. His letters to Rose were filled with exciting stories about his Army life and the fascinating new things he saw though he never really said where he was deployed.

The months passed, and one day, her parents received word that Jim was injured in a battle. His wounds were severe, but he would survive. Jim had been thrown out of a vehicle when it ran over an explosive device buried in the road. His right leg was crushed and required several surgeries. Jim suffered irreparable nerve damage and walked with a limp. There would be no more football in his life.

Soon Jim was well enough to come home and continue his healing. He stayed with Rose and their parents. Rose was happy that Jim was back home, but she soon realized her brother had changed. He did not smile, and he would get irate and shout at everyone. Sometimes, he would have terrible nightmares and holler at night. Rose had seen Jim sobbing in his bedroom a few times though she never let him know. He did not want to see his friends from high school, but he started seeing guys he met at some bar. Rose heard their father telling Jim that he disapproved of Jim’s drinking and new friends. Rose was shocked when Jim cussed out their father.

Jim’s recovery progressed, and soon he was healed. He adjusted to the limp and was on medication to help with his depression, chronic pain, and PTSD. The local VA hospital provided him with medical and psychological help. He even started seeing some of his former high school friends. Rose was happy to have her big brother Jimmy back in her life.

Then on a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon, Jim told his family he was going for a drive to visit some friends. At 7:30 p.m., a police cruiser pulled into their driveway, and two officers knocked on the door. Rose was upstairs when she heard her mother screaming and her father shouting NO repeatedly.

Jim was found lying on the high school football field under the goalposts. He was dead; he had overdosed on his pills. The next few weeks were a blur for Rose. She went through the motions of doing what she was told and saying as little as possible. Her parents aged before her eyes. She wondered if they would get through the shock and endless pain.

But they did. Life went on, and now Rose was back in school and trying to do her homework. She had not realized she was crying and stood up to get a tissue. Standing next to her bedroom window, her eye was drawn to movement in the maple tree outside. Sitting on one of the branches was a brilliant red bird, a cardinal. It turned its head and looked right at her. Then it hopped on a branch much closer to Rose’s window. Its dark eyes were looking at her.

Rose smiled at the bird and put her hand on the window glass. The bird hopped closer and put its yellow beak against the glass. How extraordinary, Rose thought. She stood there with her hand on the glass until the bird flew away.

She did not think about the bird again until the next day when she was in her room studying. A noise at her window made her look up, and there it was…the cardinal was sitting on the outside ledge of her window. Rose approached the window carefully, not wanting to scare the bird away. The bird sat there as if it was waiting for her to come to the window. Putting her hand on the glass, the bird turned its head, so its beak was touching the glass.

Rose sat there staring at the brilliant red bird that seemed content to sit next to her with only a sheet of glass separating them. Her friend Becky had told her that some people believe cardinals are the spirits of people who have died. It is a way to visit with loved ones they left behind.
“Jimmy?” Rose whispered. The bird turned to look at her. Carefully it tapped on the glass with its yellow beak. Rose stepped back so quickly she fell over her bean bag chair. Her heart was pounding out of her chest. She did not feel frightened but excited. Could the beautiful red bird tapping at her window be the spirit of Jimmy?

Rose scrambled to her feet and went back to the window. The bird sat there patiently looking at her. It gently tapped the glass and looked up at Rose’s astonished face. “Oh Jimmy, it is you, I know it is! I am so happy to see you. I have to get Mom and Dad and tell them you are back.”

Suddenly the bird let out a loud squawk and began flapping its wings. It hopped around on the window ledge and flew up and down. Why was Jimmy so upset? Then it dawned on her. If she told her parents that their beloved son was sitting outside her window as a cardinal, they would think she had lost her mind, and they would be hustling her off to see a child psychologist.

Rose put her hand on the window and told Jimmy she understood, and she promised she would not tell anyone about Jimmy’s transformation. Jimmy pecked the window and then flew away.

Jimmy visited Rose every day at her bedroom window. She got brave enough to open her window a few inches, and Jimmy hopped in and sat on the window. He patiently listened while she told him about their parents and how they were coping and about school and her friends.
When Fall turned into Winter, Jimmy stopped coming to Rose’s window. She knew he had flown South where the weather was warmer. She missed him all over again, but this time she had hope in her heart that she would see Jimmy again in the Spring.

In early March, Rose awoke to a gentle tapping on her window. Sitting on the ledge was her big, red bird, Jimmy. Rose put her hand on the glass, and Jimmy gently pecked the glass. A female cardinal joined Jimmy on the ledge. Rose was happy to see that Jimmy had found a mate.

When they left to fly South, Rose knew she would not see them again. But Rose was not sad. She was grateful for the comfort given to her by a brilliant red bird who may or may not have been the spirit of her brother, Jimmy.

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