Thursday, November 19, 2009

The White Feather

Walking on Nantasket Beach in my hometown peninsula of Hull, Massachusetts, makes me think of my brother Jim. Jim lived in Hull for most of his childhood and all of his adult life. He was an ardent weather enthusiast and a respected member of the local weather community who frequently took photographs at the beach, some of which were published. Later this month is the anniversary of his unexpected death in 2001, and The Blue Hill Observatory, where Jim was a volunteer, will be hosting the 4th annual Jim Redman memorial picnic (part of the reason I’m in Hull right now). After his death, the Observatory erected a flag with an inscribed dedication in Jim’s memory.

My brother Jim’s life and death were intimately intertwined with my brother Dan’s, who died a month after Jim did. This is the time of year that my family and I relive our heartbreak, and I find myself remembering a certain white feather.

Below is an excerpt from “The Jim and Dan Stories,” the book I wrote about losing my brothers.

It was a perfect white feather that must have just fallen, but it seemed to have been placed in my path just for me. I was walking on the beach in Hull, the beach that Jimmy so often took storm photographs of, trying to gather my strength for his funeral and thinking of the eulogy I was to give. I found myself picking up that feather to save in my pocket and then later putting it with Jim’s body when I said my last goodbye. For me, it represented other-world, freedom, and purity.

Weeks later, we were facing the worst with Dan in the hospital, an unlikely place for a white feather to show up, but it did. Jeanne, my sister-in-law, pulled it out of her pocketbook (not knowing about the white feather I left with Jim’s body), saying her daughter had given it to her. We called ourselves “the three ministering Mary’s,” Jeanne, my sister Kathy, and myself, tending Danny at his death bed, the way Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary, and her cousin did for Jesus. That was when it occurred to me that death faced willingly, and especially after suffering, was a sort of sacrifice and generator of grace. And didn’t Danny say “I’m all right” the first chance he got when the breathing tubes came off, the way Jesus said “forgive them, Father,” comforting us when he was dying?

We anointed him with “Three Wise Men Oil” that my aroma-therapist sister, Kathy, had brought. We placed the white feather on his pillow next to the pin of Mother Mary that an anonymous late night visitor had left there. When I find myself in times of trouble… Mother Mary comes to me… speaking words of wisdom... Let it be. The nurse removed the breathing tubes when Dan signaled he was ready, like taking Jesus down from the cross he was nailed to. After he died, I placed the feather safely in my journal to keep in remembrance of his passing, but later, when I went to retrieve it, it was gone.

Family friends arranged for a funeral reception at the Hull Yacht club, which was a stone’s throw away from where the house we all grew up in used to be. My husband, Joe, took a picture of Jeanne, Kathy, and I at the bandstand gazebo on the lawn. On the way over to the bandstand Jeanne picked up a white feather and gave it to me.
“You better take good care of this one,” Joe said.

“No, this one can go where ever it wants to,” I answered. After holding it awhile, I passed it back to Jeanne who wore it as an earring.

Weeks later, when that picture was developed, I was shocked to read above our heads in bold letters “DAN S MEMORIAL.” My Massachusetts sisters and mom drove down to the yacht club to take a second look. It actually said “DAN SHORT’S MEMORIAL BANDSTAND,” but in our picture some of the words were cut off.

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