There’s a song called “Fourth of July” by Sufjan Stevens that has nothing to do with patriotism but everything to do with this very moment. He sings about a conversation that he had with his mom on her hospital bed as she died with aggressive cancer and uses bird-terms of endearment and examples of brilliant light to symbolize life. Needless to say, it strikes a chord and makes me cry every single time but I can’t stop listening to it.
“Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry?
And I’m sorry I left, but it was for the best, though it never felt right.”
My mom and I both firmly believed that her dad–my grandpa–came back to us as a bird after he passed away. After my mom passed, I found feathers everywhere I went when I happened to look down, even indoors. And she and I always told each other, “You are my sunshine.” So I’ve let myself believe it’s a song she’s singing to me (even if it’s via the lovely voice of a male stranger).
“You do enough talk, my little hawk, why do you cry?
Tell me, what did you learn from the Tillamook Burn? Or the Fourth of July?”
Apparently, the Tillamook Burn was a series of catastrophic forest fires in Oregon starting in the 1930’s. (I had to look that up.) The fires caused massive destruction, but the life of the fire did come to an end. As did the lives of the trees. The Fourth of July blasts hundreds or thousands of fireworks across the sky where they make dazzling colors and inspire some hope and reflection. But within each burst comes a small death that disappears in the sky. After the thirty minute show, they’re gone forever. Their light dies too. What remains?
I’ve written about it before, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time, but those things are impermanent. We’re impermanent too. That’s the next line in the song, by the way: “We’re all gonna die.” We’re momentary bits of beautiful light across the universe like thousands of tiny suns, we’re flocks of birds across the sky, and we’re fleeting. We can’t fear that. It’s just something to accept, and the sooner we accept it, the easier it feels. It’s devastating but beautiful, because it makes everything mean something.
The second we accept that nothing lasts forever is the same second we can start living fully without the barrier of fear in the way. (I’m still working on the acceptance part.)
My mom was only on this planet for 61 years, and I know that she positively impacted every person she met. She fervently loved her friends and students, and while I don’t think she played favorites, she loved the underdogs a little harder. She fought for them when they couldn’t see their own strength or beauty. She fought for me when I couldn’t see mine. She beamed light from her pores and fingertips and toes and smile. She was a ray of sunshine that made its way through the fog and to our hearts. She was a rare and special cobalt blue firework bursting across the midnight sky. She was a hummingbird fluttering for mere seconds in the catmint in the garden. She was a momentary but magnificent beacon of wondrous things like strength and hope and silliness and kindness, and I thank God or whatever is calling the shots up there that I got her to brighten my life and illuminate my path as long as I did.
“Shall we look at the moon, my little loon, why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife, while it is light.”
Last year around this time, my husband and I were driving my mom to her weekend getaway at our house when fireworks went off over the bay. We pulled the car over to watch them for only a moment, but while my mom was in the passenger seat watching them, I was watching her. She was so beautiful inside and out that you couldn’t help but stare in awe.
Use today and especially this Saturday to think of your life like a firework. Live fervently and purposefully, even if your sole purpose is to cast a little light into the world. Leave a magnificent mark across the sky for others. Be an inspiration. Perform random acts of kindness just for the sake of being kind. Love without limits for however brief of a time you get that opportunity.
Start really living before it’s too late.
P.S. Sufjan Stevens, please forgive me if I’ve destroyed the intended meaning of this song. This is how I understood it. I thank you for your beautiful music even if it makes me cry. And I’m so sorry about your mom.