On my 40th birthday, I left work early to prepare for my celebration happy hour and arrived home to find two mourning doves waiting for me by the front steps. In and of itself, this was a strange occurrence. I had never seen mourning doves before (I had to Google them to make sure that’s what they even were.) and especially not at my front door. It didn’t matter, though. I knew who they were. These big, round, brownish-grey birds were there to give me a message.

The mourning dove is named because of the haunting coo sound it emits, which to many is a sad sound. Some say the sight of a mourning dove signifies the need to take a deep breath and look for peace within. All doves symbolize peace, not just the mourning dove. Dove symbolism can also mean the end of a problematic cycle in one’s life. In other words, there are possibilities of new romance, new friendships, and new beginnings on the horizon. It’s up to whomever spots mourning dove to decide if they believe this or not. Maybe it was just a few neighborhood birds hanging out by the water source.

I choose The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan for my book club’s September pick. I choose it like my last pick…by going to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list and choosing the book with the highest reader rating. This method does not disappoint! In The Astonishing Color of After, the main character, Leigh, sees her mother as a bird shortly after her mother commits suicide. Leigh hears the bird speak her name in her mother’s voice. The bird leaves quickly and Leigh leaves the front door open and a bucket of water out anticipating her return.

The rest of the book is about Leigh’s journey to Taipei to track down her mother, the bird. Leigh has less than 49 days before her mother makes a transition to rebirth. During these 49 days, her mother will, “process karma and let go of the things that make them feel tied to this life – thinks like people and promises and memory.” I’m fascinated by other countries death traditions and beliefs, reading many books on the topic. I recently ran across a Haitian belief, from Edwidge Danticat’s short story collection, Everything Inside, which stated the soul has a year and a day and then it will be, “reborn as a shadow, a dream, or a whisper in the wind.” I wonder if it becomes someone else’s shadow, in this scenario. Maybe the shadow takes on its own identity and sense of self, like in Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I am beginning to keep track of all these shadow references. For what, I don’t yet know.

Leigh’s father doesn’t believe Leigh’s mother has come back in bird form. I mean, what dad would? But I did, because it had happened to me. The mourning doves that came to visit me on my 40th birthday were my father and my 2nd cousin Melanie. Some version of them, anyway.

When I was young, my dad worked in Minnesota a lot. He would drive for eight hours to arrive home in North Dakota late Friday night and then head out for another eight hours on Sunday morning. While he was in Minnesota, he stayed with his cousin and his cousin’s family. Looking back, he probably spent more time with them than he did with us. His cousin had four kids, around the same age as me and my siblings. Melanie was the oldest at about four years older than me. Eventually, my dad was able to work closer to home and did not travel to Minnesota nearly as much.

Fast forward to my 37th birthday. My dad came to visit and see my new house. The morning of my birthday (He was not known for great timing.) he tells me the doctors found a tumor in his lungs. Ten months later, he is gone. At his funeral, my 2nd cousins were there and after talking to Alyssa, Melanie’s younger sister, I realized just how much time he had spent with them.

Fast forward three more years to the morning of my 40th birthday. I learned via Facebook that Melanie, with whom I shared a birthday, had committed suicide. I spent the entire drive home from work thinking about how upset my dad would have been by this, trying to clear the tears in order to drive safely. I realize I was making up how my dad felt, as I never had talked to him about Melanie, or any of the other kids either. Then I arrive home to see the mourning doves.

There is no question in my mind those birds were my dad and Melanie. Whether they were there to tell me happy birthday or just to let me know they were together, in wherever the heck you go when you die, I’m not sure.  But I’m sure it was them. A few days later I shared this with Alyssa. She told me that in Minnesota, on the same day, her brothers had also seen two mourning doves. A few days later, she also saw one.

Until recently, I assumed the Minnesota mourning doves also represented Melanie and my dad. Then my mom asked who I thought the other dove represented for Alyssa and her brothers and it occurred to me the second dove could be someone entirely different for them. It has been over a year since Alyssa and I had this conversation so I don’t feel like I should go back and ask now. For my own story, I’m going to keep assuming it was also my dad.

In the end, I don’t know if Leigh’s father ever really believed her. I do.