November 18, 2009

Seeing the Sparrow Fall

Did you find what you were looking for?

I hear the voice coming from the distance. I don’t have to turn around to know who is calling: Bill and Jason, lifelong friends I met four hours ago. I squint my eyes to look over the miles of open country, wind moving the tall, dry grass and leaves on the trees. I can see on the horizon where the grass touches the sky. The beautiful scenery unfolds with a soft breeze uncovering paths where others have walked. I wonder if they were looking for the same thing?

I hear the rusty door of Bill’s pickup truck slam shut.

“Not yet!” I say, walking toward the trees.

“OK, we’ll be here waiting for you.”

That’s reassuring: someone is watching out for me as I move forward.

* * *

He stands in front of my office door. I barely recognize him.

“Ms. Rodríguez, I just wanted to say goodbye.”

I look at the young man in front of me—Robert. Three years ago he was a student in several of my writing courses. One day he actually came to my office with X-rays of his dog’s stomach to prove that his homework (in a USB drive) had truly been swallowed by his dog. He asked me to call the veterinarian’s office to confirm the story; all this to show me that he was not irresponsible. I remember meeting his mother, Elena, and siblings at an academic awards ceremony. Elena and I spoke for a while in Spanish, sharing bits and pieces of our individual cultures. She was so proud of her eldest son, Robert. I assured her he was an excellent student. She did not know which award he would receive. I knew he would be awarded the “Academic Excellence Award” and a scholarship.

And now, here he is. Pressed uniform, standing taller than I have ever seen: a young man leaving for war.

I try to keep the conversation light. I ask him to show me how to properly salute so I will know how to greet him when he returns. Work colleagues take the time to join the conversation in the hall. This is part of being an educator, I believe. You hope to teach something valuable, something that does not come from a textbook, but from your heart; a valuable life lesson, a lesson to carry into any part of the world, something that would bring peace to the soul when the body is in the trenches.

We say our goodbyes and watch him walk away. I am not the only one who quickly wipes away a tear, painfully reminded that minefields are not simply found in faraway places.

* * *

Dear Ms. Rodríguez,

I hope you are doing OK. Can you believe it? It feels like I am all the way across the world. Never thought I would be part of a war, but here I am. I miss my family. I am doing well . . .

* * *

I have purchased an atlas. No computer-generated map will do. My eye catches the tiny print with the name of the town—a tiny little line in a huge book, evidence of life somewhere outside the page. The road seems rather simple: Ardmore, Paul’s Valley, look for signs of Homer and Happyland and finally Calvin. I tie the passenger seatbelt around the travel backpack containing the precious cargo for the trip. Friends offered to accompany me. However, this is a solo drive I promised Robert.

* * *

Empty spaces and small towns; these are what I see during the drive. The sun hides for a few seconds, and suddenly: rain. This was not in the forecast! Visibility is difficult. I pull over at a diner on the side of the road. It is a little pink house, but it says DINER in big yellow letters. I run inside, unsuccessfully avoiding the cold rain. A bell attached to the door announces my arrival. I see old-style booths, the kind without individual chairs. You get to sit close to the ones you love. It’s emotionally warm in the diner. If these walls could talk, maybe they would speak of all that is pleasant in life.

* * *

Dear Ms. Rodríguez,

I got your care package today. Thank you. Thanks for checking on my mother. I write to her every day. I know she’s worried. My last week at home, I made it a point to spend time with her. I have been thinking about that a lot. I think the toughest part is to reflect on everything I should have done to keep my mom and siblings happy all the time. That sounds all grown up. Maybe I am thinking about this because I am in such a “grown-up” place right now . . .

* * *

“What can I get you, dear?”

The waitress has no name tag. She gives me no time to answer.

“How about some chamomile tea? You need something to warm you up.” She walks away humming. I don’t know her, but she’s looking after me. In the diner everyone is talking and laughing.

“Here you go,” the waitress sits next to me. Why is she sitting next to me?

“My husband is a farmer,” she points to an older gentleman playing checkers with a young boy. “That’s our first grandson, Jason; he’s 6. Jason’s at the farm all the time, but he’s going to college.” She looks at Jason. I know that look. I see it in parents, friends, when one of their loved ones wins an award or graduates. I can feel her hopes and dreams for Jason just spilling all over the table like slow-moving water carefully stopping at the edge, creating a pool of hope.

“I’ve lived here all my life. I’m Debbie. Where are you from?”

“I am from Texas, just a few hours away. I am visiting. I came to fulfill a promise to a friend, and in a way pay my respects. The rain made it hard to see the road, so I pulled over.”

“Oh! You’re lost? Bill can help you!” She calls out for him.

Here they come: Bill and Jason. They sit, and it feels as if I’m talking to family. I learn this was Debbie’s mother’s diner. Bill proposed to Debbie here. Last week they celebrated Jason’s birthday here, filling the diner with balloons. This is a place of beautiful memories. Then Bill asks the most important question: “Where are you headed?”

* * *

Dear Ms. Rodríguez,

Time goes by faster over here. I was remembering the weekend before I left, when my mom took me to church and there was this lady singing. I had heard this song before in Spanish and it sounds different in English. The lyrics were talking about how God looks at this big world and notices sparrows. I remember seeing a lot of sparrow nests when I was growing up. I wish I was a kid again. I just hugged my mom and we both cried . . .

* * *

I have told Bill about Robert. I open my backpack and take out a bundled stack of letters and e-mails. At the top I have placed the last one, in which Robert has asked me to take pictures of his old town and the sparrows. Bill asks me why I have waited so long. I take out a copy of the Adventist Review and show him. It’s the tribute issue for Del Delker, and the title reads, “I Know He Watches Me.” I tell him that opening my mailbox and seeing the cover literally took my breath away and reminded me I had a promise to keep. As I talk, Bill simply nods his head. Something in his sunburned skin and wrinkled eyes tells me he knows how important it is that I keep this promise.

* * *

Ms. Rodríguez, if you haven’t seen a sparrow up close, let me tell you it’s not a pretty bird. I started wondering, Why would God care? There are so many other beautiful birds out there! There is so much going on right now in this world, do you think He always counts sparrows to make sure they make it to their nests at night, every day? I think sparrows are something that only God would look after and check up on . . . something important, right? I understand that He would want to watch out for the little ones. That’s what my colleagues and I do here, watch out for one another. I wonder if sparrows still fly out there in open country where I grew up . . .

* * *

In my home I sit holding a torn piece of paper with E
lena’s number. She asked me to help her two daughters with their college entrance essay exams. She thanked me many times. Her children would be the first generation of college students in their whole family.

I wish the phone could just dial itself. I wish there was a script for this conversation. Last week I received the news that Robert would not return home. I plan to attend the memorial service. I am compelled to call Elena.

The phone rings once, twice, three times.

“Hola?” It’s her. My heart breaks wondering if she was just sitting by the phone, waiting for someone to call her and tell her Robert is still alive.

“Hola, Elena, this is Ms. Rodríguez . . .”

Sobbing. She is sobbing. She knows why I have called. She mumbles something that becomes clearer as she takes breaths between her sobs: “Mi hijo . . . my son, Ms. Rodríguez . . . my son.”

* * *

The storm is still alive outside the diner. Meanwhile, Bill talks about his youth. He knows of war and loss. He remembers sitting next to his mother, radio on, random numbers being called out by the announcer. His mother always held a letter. One day, after the numbers were read, she sat quietly next to the radio for the rest of the night. Even as a little boy, Bill knew one of the numbers read was bad news. His brother never came home.

And Robert never came home.

Bill takes a deep breath, looks at the letters, then at me. The longest conversation of the day takes place right there, in just one look. In those seconds we silently share words of sorrow, loss, and comfort. You understand why I am here.

God doesn’t lose track of any of us. We are always in His sight and in His heart.

“Jason, do you want to come with Grandpa to show this lady where the birds are?”

Are we headed out into the rain?

Bill watches me glance out the window and says: “Storm is passing. You’ll have sunshine where you’re headed. The ground is so thirsty you won’t sink in the fields. Don’t worry.”

I believe him.

There is a plan. I will follow Bill to the crossroads and turn left, driving five more miles. There will be a clearing, a space of land nobody will ever build on because Bill says everyone in the town knows that land “belongs to God.” There I will find the birds.

* * *

Dear Ms. Rodríguez,

Today was tough. We get trained for tough. Life trains us for “tough.” It’s late and the stars are out. They look so clean in the sky, as if they haven’t been tainted by all that’s going on around us. . . . Someone once told me that one day we all discover what we are really made of. Today, I found out I am made up of faith and hope. Faith this war will end, hope that I will see my mother soon. I have a different respect for her now. It must have been difficult to raise all of us alone. We were all alone in our nest, with no father to help us. Today was tough . . .

* * *

I see the truck’s blinker. This is my turn. Bill was right: no rain. I can see purple clouds in the middle of the sun. I am sure he’s right about the dry ground, as well. He works with the land every day, knows these details. My rearview mirror confirms there is no one in sight. I pull up past Bill and Jason, wave “thank you,” and turn left.

* * *

Ms. Rodríguez, when I was growing up, as the oldest kid, I was the man of the house. We weren’t rich, but we had food and shelter. I took care of my brothers and sisters. We would ride our bikes home as the sun was setting. Birds would fly all around us. I always wondered if they flew around looking for answers because they were curious. I remember wishing I could fly. I would be that one sparrow to climb out of the nest at night and try to make it to the stars. Fly without fear of falling . . .

* * *

Elena wipes away a tear as she tells me how much she prayed for her son. At night she would wake up and get down on her knees to pray for her son. She says she knows God was watching over him: “God was the only one who could see him, watch him for me from so far away,” she says. Then she asks me if I believe she will see her son again. She begins to sob.

Yes, I believe you will see him again. He lived his life with hope and faith. Virtues God graciously gives us to share and comfort one another with.

Then I hold her until the memorial service begins.

  • * * *

“Grandpa! Look!”

I turn to see what Jason is talking about. There they are! Out of the grass, out of nowhere! There are so many birds! Are they all sparrows? They gather and display a synchronized flight, separating into smaller groups and hiding in the trees. It’s beautiful! They are singing, chirping, and I can almost hear their wings against the wind. Did He really see them all? Did He teach them how to get home? Did He give them the instinct to fly together, care for one another? Does He provide the breeze for them at the same time every day to remind them it’s time to return home? Did He give them the rain so they could feed through the grass, find food for themselves and for any baby birds in the nests?

* * *

Back at the diner I sit with Bill and listen to Jason tell the “bird story” to Debbie. It sounds so full of grace when an innocent child narrates it. I smile at the way he demonstrates the bird’s flight patterns and tries to mimic their song. My soul longs to stay in this warm environment, but the sun seems to be falling asleep in the horizon and I have a long journey home.

My car is packed with food, fresh produce, and kind thoughts. I get a big hug from Debbie, and Jason has promised to watch the birds for me. Bill shakes my hand and tells me it was an honor to be part of this meaningful journey with me. He says that God took care of his brother and Robert. He reminds me that God doesn’t lose track of any of us. We are always in His sight and in His heart. Just like the sun, this moment is slowly sinking in the horizon. I really thought I was going to get through this without crying. Bill gives me a hug as I sob a little. I have stirred painful memories in him that the sparrows have hopefully softened for him as they have for me. I hope.

* * *

Dear Ms. Rodríguez,

I have a favor to ask. Remember the town I told you about with the sparrows? My brothers and sisters don’t remember the place; they were too young. But I remember the dirt road where there was a lot of tall grass and we always saw the sparrows flying home. Would you consider taking pictures of the place and sending them to me? I have been working on a long letter for [my mother], and I would like to include the picture. I have good memories of my childhood. I have good memories of her hopes for me and her incredible faith in God. It would be special to her. I would like to see this place again. I promise, once you get there you will be surrounded by beautiful nature. You will be reminded of many of life’s blessings. Out there, all the land belongs to God. I think it’s the same here, even though we don’t have birds . . . we all belong to Him. Faith and hope, always, Ms. Rodríguez, always.



Dixil Rodríguez is a university professor and volunteer hospital chaplain. This article won an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press in 2010.