Last week Sunday, a little after midday, as I was preparing to take a shower, an unusual sight caught my eye. Through the bathroom window, I saw a huge john crow (a Jamaican name for a vulture) flying very low and close to the house. From my perch in the shower, looking out the window, the bird was close enough that I could see the individual big feathers in its wing tips. They were white, and a few of them looked a little bedraggled as if the bird had been through some hard battles in its life. Dark heavy storm clouds were moving in from the mountains to the east of our house. They hung in shades of gray over the house, and the solitary dark john crow with its white wing tips stood out against the background of rain clouds that were on the verge of weeping. I have never seen a john crow this low in the sky near my house. As I watched spellbound, the huge bird, with its wings spread wide to catch the air currents blowing in with the storm, began circling and slowly rising higher into the sky. There was an occasional wobble as the currents perhaps hit the wings at the wrong angle, but the bird was able to adjust quickly to eliminate the wobble. It continued its slow steady ascent, higher and higher, until I could no longer see it from the bathroom window.
My curiosity got the better of me, all thoughts of showering forgotten, I left the bathroom and moved to the bedroom window to see if I could continue watching the bird. As I raised my eyes skyward, I found the bird, now too small for me to see the feathers. It had been joined by another john crow. Both continued to rise effortlessly and soon a third one joined, and eventually they were disappeared from my line of sight, and shortly afterwards the clouds released their tears. I stepped away from the window feeling a sense of peace and wonder at what I had just witnessed.
Approximately 12 hours ( almost to the hour) prior to the bird sighting, my father-in-law was pronounced dead, after a year long battle with cancer. My family and I are very big on the symbolism of birds and the messages they carry, especially concerning the passing of loved ones. Our family lore has countless tales of birds bringing news of death. So my thoughts were on my father-in-law as I watched the birds, first one, then two and then three rising to the heavens…on a stormy cloud-laden day when one usually does not see such birds in the sky. I wondered if this was a indeed a message…and if so what was the message? Since I already knew that my father-in-law had died, it could not be news of death. I felt strongly that the sighting of these birds, so close to the house, flying into the storm clouds could not be a coincidence.
I also wondered how come it was john crows that I saw and not another smaller bird, with less negative connotations in Jamaican culture. It did not seem to me that the choice of bird that delivered the message was random…and pondering that question led me down a path of discovery that has left me educated, enlightened, and armed with a new resolve to look beyond the superficial to find true meaning. As one does in these modern times, I consulted the wizard of all information and did a Google search on the symbolism of vultures which is the more widely known name of the bird we refer to as a john crow in Jamaica. I spent a half a day following link after link. In the end I was even more awestruck at the appropriateness of this huge powerful high flying bird whose way of life is often misunderstood by those who look no further than the surface, as the messenger on behalf of my father-in-law. This is what I learned…
Ancient mythology has no shortage of references to vultures which were often seen as a link between the living and the dead. Carvings of vultures appear in archaeological sites dating as far back as 6500 BC. There are frescoes on the walls of these ancient structures showing vultures escorting the souls of the dead into the next world. Vultures were an essential component in the practice of sky burials used by Zorastrians and Tibetan Buddhists in Asia to dispose of their dead. Regardless of one’s religious persuasions, I think most of us agree that death is the end only of the physical earthly part of a being, and that the spirit continues its journey, no longer encumbered by the weight of an earthly body. Vultures have symbolised not just death but rebirth, purification and a means of releasing the spirit from the earthly bonds of the physical body.
In real life the vulture is a large and powerful bird with keen eyesight and a well developed sense of smell which helps it to find food. When one bird finds food, it will signal to others and invite them to share in the feast. Their role as scavengers and carrion birds is a vital one in the cycle of life on earth. By using the remains of the dead to provide nourishment for the living, these oft maligned birds provide the link between the death and life which completes the cycle. They do not kill or harm other animals. They mate for life, and parent their chicks for longer than any other birds. These large birds also have the ability to sense the presence of thermal currents in the air (the power of the sun and the air). By using these currents, vultures can defy gravity with minimal personal energy expenditure, and rise to heights in the sky that no other birds can accomplish. That rising above the gravity of earth to soar in the skies is symbolic of the spirit (air) overcoming the weight of a diseased physical body (earth and gravity).
In the 66 years of his earthly journey my father-in-law packed a lot of living into his life. He had more than one near death experience that left him scarred but very much alive. He came from a family that also produced well known public figures that are recognizable by name and sight in Jamaica and internationally. His name was often linked as the “son of” of “brother of” said famous people. Yet in his quiet and deeply spiritual way, driven by a desire to ensure justice in the sharing of the wealth of this earth, he probably had an equally significant impact on the people around him that perhaps may never be fully appreciated by the family he left behind. He did not flap his wings and make a great noise, but harnessed what was available to him to give back something to the world around him and ensure that cycle of life continued.
The impact he had on his family was not always a positive one, but I think his lasting legacy was the kindness and compassion he showed for his fellow human beings….a trait that was often taken advantage of by others, and which landed him into many situations that a person who could say “no” would not have landed in. The importance of being kind and compassionate was also the lesson he imparted to his children. His misdeeds and transgressions were forgiven because his family understood he did not intend to cause harm. The good he put out into the world came right back to him in the unswerving love and support of his family and close friends in his time of need in the last year of his life. I believe that ultimately what he will be most remembered for by those who knew and loved him is the kindness and compassion that he embodied in his time on earth.
So, I think the message the john crows were trying to deliver that overcast Sunday was not news of death of the body…it was news of the rising of the spirit. It was a reassurance that the spirit of Ivan David Coore has risen above the dark clouds, perhaps in the company of his beloved Nanny, and his parents who went before him. It was a reassurance that his soul was no longer restricted to an earthly body that had ceased to function as it should. It was a reassurance that his spiritual being had successfully completed its human journey, and was finally at peace and free.