At the end of June, I fly to Madrid to be with JRA and Lady H; Grandma and Papa. We are celebrating and mourning; vacationing and working. Both Grandma and Papa have worked in and across Spain for many years; JRA is fluent in the language; only Lady H and I have some catching up to do. We eat late-night dinners and drink late-night wine, and generally, things are Okay, even as we approach the Anniversary of the Last Day of the World.

The Last Day of the World happened last July. Pete had messaged me that June, asking if Paul and I wanted to go out to dinner for JRA’s birthday – the date was set for an early-July Saturday night between his birthday and hers. We had met – two couples – at a wheelchair-friendly restaurant, and had taken a long, leisurely summer dinner. Paul and I had gone on holiday for the two weeks after – first to California; then to Newport. It was nice – it was the last, pleasant dinner out I could remember having with Paul – no fighting; no drama. But within two weeks, Pete’s younger brother Tommy had died suddenly. Within six months, Paul and I were separated, and Pete himself died shortly thereafter.

Nothing was ever the same again after that one, specific night.

We spend our time in Madrid visiting friends; wandering the city; exploring the Prado. We stand in front of the Bosch paintings; Velasquez’s works and JRA leans over and begins to say something about the little people in one of the Velasquezs but thinks better of it. It was a joke for many years – how much I hated all those exploitative little people shows on TV; how angry I’d get about them – until I found out that I had a bad, probably Spanish, gene. Then all bets were off; then, maybe my revulsion was just some kind of genetic fear.

Later that day, we are changing clothes before dinner, and Lady H asks me about RHJ. How IS RHJ? she asks, like a chatty girlfriend.

(She is six years old.)

He’s fine, I deadpan.

You know what I think? she says, I think “third time’s the charm.”

She says the words thoughtfully, like she is considering this as a viable possibility as the words tumble from her adorable mouth. Two nights before, the second of her two front teeth had come out over dinner. She had spent the day wiggling the hell out of it, and I, in my role as Tia Fearless, I had gripped it a few times and twisted; yanked; done the dirty-work of a much older sister or maiden aunt. I’d rubbed my icy fingers on her gums and passed the precious few ice cubes from my drink across the table to her – over Grandma’s furrowed brow, and JRA’s disgust at the whole affair. It was then that Papa had told us, as I sipped my umpteenth Abarino of the night, that there was no Spanish tooth fairy. Instead Ratoncito Perez visited you in the night and swapped a gift for your tooth.

Forgetting my Spanish, and my manners, I immediately exclaimed, We’re letting a rat come into the house in the night? What does he bring you – jamon iberico?!

Papa, in his calm, pedantic manner, replied, Technically it’s a mouse.

Lady H said, I think he brings manchego.

Grandma, for her part, quickly realising that obtaining a hunk of manchego at that hour would be nearly impossible, chimed in, I think he brings you an IOU for whatever you want. JRA began laughing so hard she was unable to contribute to the conversation.

Moments later, Lady H spat the tooth into her hand and then handed it to me.

So I listen to Lady H tell me Third Time’s The Charm through her adorable gap, like she is both a woman and a child, and it makes me laugh, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces; into dust – because she is older than she should be but she is exactly who she needs to be; because I may never stare into the face of my own gap-toothed elf, mise-en-abyme, because of genes or circumstance; because this is exactly how things happened and it wasn’t what I expected when I married Andrew, or I married Paul, or when we all went out to dinner for JRA’s birthday on that fateful double date.

If you had asked me a year ago, on the last night everything was normal, if I thought we would be sitting in Madrid, taking stock of the damage one year later, I would have thought you were nuts. But looking back now, through gapped teeth, and the streaky rearview of grief, it is actually that last, perfect night in Hell’s Kitchen that seems much more far-fetched.

I do not like birds, but they have become a part of my consciousness lately.

I do not care for birds because when I was growing up, my mother one day brought home a pet cockatiel. My mother, like her father before her, was once famous for randomly acquiring pets; is still the kind of woman who takes photographs of herself holding exotic animals all over the world. The pictures in question used to be displayed in my parents’ den, all in a row, on top of the big oak desk: My mother posing with koalas; Boa Constrictors; ridiculous Macaws or Cockatoos, one on each arm. I think there was even one of her holding a monkey.

I am not sure why my mother got the cockatiel, other than it being a natural outcropping of her Exotic Animal Thing. For her part, this fetish was less toxic than her father’s, because as the story goes, Bop once brought home a baby alligator, which he raised in their basement until he (the alligator) met his untimely end at on the broadside of a neighbour’s shovel. For the cockatiel’s part, though, the bird survived for a few years to holler his name (Murphy!!!!!!) into the high-ceiling’d abyss of parents’ family room, until he one day just dropped dead, either from the futility of it all, or the intemperateness of the room.

Secretly, I was glad, because, see above.

So over the last six months, I have noticed birds more; I am living out some winged metaphor, but I do not like them any better. I have become convinced they are a sign of something, but I cannot make sense of exactly what.

Perhaps this is grief. Perhaps I am just going insane.

With this background in mind, as I walked to the office the other day, I observed a bright red bird flit about from around the street trees, and then suddenly alight on my shoulder. I felt ridiculous. I kept walking, in hopes that the damn thing would startle off. But it did not. I felt like a Disney princess, except weirder.

When I arrived at the office, I quickly googled what is a cardinal a symbol of? But I didn’t know the bird was a cardinal at the time, so I was googling “robin,” until I realised what had landed on me was actually a cardinal.

…What is a cardinal a symbol of?

Would it not perhaps have been better to google, Why am I looking for symbolism in Disney Princess moments and in all of these chance encounters with birds?

The first hit was a page from California Psychics and it was then that I realised I was losing it. I had had a bird land on me and I was searching the internet for wisdom from California Psychics. Worse, this was on my work computer, so these searches were being saved to our back-end compliance system. The second hit was what looked like an early 00’s Geocities page featuring a woman in a Blossom hat, with extensive content about What Cardinal Sightings Mean In The Afterlife.

What am I searching for?

It seems like we are coping well in this era of second divorces, and widowhood, and beginning again, until these crystal clear moments of frantically searching the internet happen and I realise we are Obviously Not. I realise this is normal. I type it into that empty google search box until my browser is filled with pictures of birds.

I keep the bird stuff to myself, mostly. Because it’s weird. But it’s happening to all of us.

The week before Father’s Day, Dorota and Michael and Lady H and JRA and I decide to ride bikes along the Bronx River Parkway, which we do for hours, until I need to get back to the city for late drinks with RHJ.

As we begin our ride, there is a bird standing at the mouth of the bike trail, staring at me like the blue heron was back in January, and I want to scream What do you birds want from me? What are you trying to say?! But I don’t because that’s also weird and I have already spent an hour this week on the California Psychics webpage trying to decipher one close encounter.

But we get back to JRA’s house, and she mentions the bird, quietly at first, then she says she saw a dog she liked at a North Shore Animal League travelling event. I laugh, because she is So Not a Dog Person, then it dawns on me that when Bop died, we found piles of North Shore Animal League freebies in his things – he must have donated money – and that these animals and things have all had a message that maybe are connected and have nothing to do with some Geocities site and suddenly I say, Okay, so let’s go to the shelter event they’re hosting today!

We arrive at the parking lot event moments before it closes down for the day. JRA does not get a dog that day, but the next day she drives out to the north shore of Long Island, where the Animal League is headquartered, and comes home with the dog.

Am I a Disney Princess, I wonder? The evidence is clear: My long, blonde braid. Talking to the two dead guys I love through animals. No. It’s not that. I was convinced I was this logical lawyer, but what I realise now is that despite our best efforts, sooner or later we all turn into our mothers.