The morning after my mother died I stood in the backyard of her house in Las Vegas and smoked a cigarette by the pool (see Lake Dontwanna). There was no one around even though the house borders a public park where kids often play and people walk their dogs. That morning, though, I heard nothing; not a voice, car engine, lawn mower, or plane. I stood smoking, looking up at the boundless, blue sky vaguely aware of inhaling and exhaling cigarette smoke but not much else. I may have felt numb, but I wasn’t even aware of that.
A crow screeched overhead. Actually, it came from directly above me: a rasping burst that startled me. The crow did it again and again. I stepped into the sun, shielded my eyes, and searched the Scotch pine and mesquite trees around me but saw nothing. The screeching wound down to cawing and then a deep-throated creaking punctuated with clicks. I stared into the upper branches of a pine tree but still didn’t find it.
Then, in a snap of wings like a neighbor airing a bedsheet, a large crow flew out of nowhere and turned a wide circle around me before flying away. I watched it disappear into the blue sky. I had no idea where it came from or why I hadn’t seen it, but obviously it had been very close.
I thought of an incident that happened years ago at Glacier National Park in Montana (see The Hand of God). I nearly drowned trying to swim across Lake McDonald, which is the largest lake in the park. A crow flew above as I struggled to keep from sinking into the ice-cold water. Instinctively and with my last bit of strength, I cried out to my mother and St. Michael the Archangel for help. I was saved from drowning by a miraculous turn of events, and I knew that somehow the crow was involved. I see the appearance of the crow in my mother’s yard now as a sign from her.
I believe in the transcendent, miracles, and signs but don’t see meaning in everything à la Teresa in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who found significance in a park bench. I know some serious people do. I’m just not one of them, mainly because I recognize the pervasiveness of human frailty and self-delusion. As a result, I don’t run to God with every little thing like a parking space or job offer. That God protected me from my own stupidity on the lake is enough for me.
But neither do I side with deniers and those whose vision is so myopic that they have to prove everything with scientific accuracy. Besides, after Covid it’s clear that you have to ask whose science, which facts, and what expert. I have arrived at a point in life where I don’t believe much of anything anymore and trust few people, since many have succumbed to ideologies of one sort or another. It’s as if they have fallen asleep and their bodies replaced.
I became obsessed with science in my adolescence and early adulthood. Perhaps the clearest example of how far I had gone was when I argued with my father over whether I could fit five pounds of shit into a two-pound bag. My father liked to use the expression to convey the folly of exceeding your limits, since it cannot be done. Missing the point entirely, I experimented with Tupperware and blocks of frozen water to show that I could add twice as much volume as the amount indicated on the container. Things did not go well when my father returned home from work that night.
But that attitude differs only in degree from more complex arguments by people who use probability theory, subsets, and multiple universes to dismiss signs as superstition, which would include my belief that the crow was a message from my mother. Even if they are intellectually honest in their arguments, though, I don’t see much difference between a universe vibrating with spaghetti and angels dancing on the head of a pin. It just has me imagining St. Michael bent over a bowl of steaming pasta, presumably with a glass of Montepulciano.
There is a kind of poetry believing in the crow, in its return from the lake. Back then I remember it flying above me in the distance. This time it was much closer, and I could see its feathers as it flapped away. When my time comes, I hope to be ready for his final visit.
Image credits: feature by Michael Hudson; in flight by Arno Senoner; “Lake McDonald Shoreline,” by Jacob W. Frank, National Park Service, Public Domain (October 21, 2016). Like fiction? Check out the “Mercury trilogy” (The Gringo and Laura Fedora) as well as the autobiographical Nine Lives here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”