THE RED CARDINAL’S VISIT • by Lisa Tang Liu

Tommy bolted out of the parking garage elevator as soon as the door opened. A man waiting outside the elevator stood with mouth agape as he watched the toddler fly past him. I dashed after my son. Clad in a red tee shirt, he was like a danger signal, and adrenaline rushed through my body.

After finally catching him, I wrapped my arms tightly around his limbs and torso to keep him from escaping, and he writhed and wailed.

“Let me go!” He bit me.

Disapproving looks burned through me as cars and pedestrians slowed down near us.

“You DON’T run out of an elevator like that! Especially not in a parking garage! You can get run over by a car!” I shouted into his ear. I wanted to hurt him.

It took almost thirty minutes to calm him down.

A box of cabernet offered me solace when we got home.

***

Because I could not find a sitter, I had Tommy with me in the gallery. I stood next to my small painting of an oriole, hoping someone would look my way and inquire about my work. A buyer would be too much to ask for. It was another juried art show that I had scraped together forty-five dollars to enter. Unlike the last show, I got lucky this time and was accepted.

Against the wall next to me was a brilliantly carved abstract wooden sculpture that, illuminated by lights installed in deliberate angles, cast a shadow of a man holding a gun. One after another, visitors headed straight up to the clever sculpture while walking right past me and my little bird — merely pretty and devoid of profound political message or breakthrough technique.

A slender woman with gray hair and thin lips stopped by and smiled.

“It looks very realistic. How long did it take?”

“Thank you. This one took a week. Do you—”

A sudden loud clanging sound interrupted our conversation. My heart sank, and I wanted to throw up. Across the room, Tommy had flipped over the punch bowl, which landed on the floor, splashing the red liquid all over himself and the white gallery floor.

Then, as if possessed by a banshee, he emitted a piercing, high-pitched scream. No other sound could be heard in the gallery. What probably lasted only a few seconds seemed like hours to me.

I rushed to pick him up, soaking my white silk dress with red punch.

Blinking hard, I tried to stop the brine that was welling up in my eyes.

“I am so sorry,” I said to the people staring at us.

“You need to control your child,” said the gray-haired, thin-lipped woman.

I did not think to explain that my child had sensory processing disorder, that his mistake was too overwhelming for him to bear, that he was only three years old, and screaming was the only way he knew how to cope with such a scary situation. I was too weak and insecure to empathize and stand up for him.

I said nothing until we got back to the car. After buckling in Tommy and then myself, I closed the car door and screamed.

“What the fuck is the matter with you?” It was a rhetorical question. I knew exactly what was wrong, but I was too tired and overwhelmed myself to care.

Hot, salty tears of self-pity blurred my vision as they flooded down my cheeks during our hour-long drive home.

“I’m sorry, Mommy.”

That was the last time I had shown my work publicly. A failed artist and a failed mother, I flushed down my Wellbutrin with some merlot that night and drifted off to sleep to a thousand questions that chorused through my brain: Should I have tried harder to breastfeed him as an infant? Should I have swaddled him more? Could he have incurred some brain damage when he rolled over and fell from the changing table — because I was careless?

***

“Mommy, that’s a pretty bird.” Tommy pointed to a red bird perched on a large branch of our maple tree.

“It’s a cardinal.”

“Mommy, can you paint it? Your birds are pretty.”

I sipped my zinfandel and kissed his soft hair — no longer downy now on his six-year-old head — gratefully breathing in his scent that calmed me and gave me a rare moment of clarity to be fully aware that he was the most precious thing ever bestowed upon me.

***

Tommy jumped up and down to hear that there was no school on that Nor’easter day. The snow was wet and heavy, perfect for building a snowman.

I busied myself with clearing the driveway, while Tommy set to work on his construction in the backyard.

Crack… Boom. 

I panicked at the loud noise and rushed into the backyard to find my son crushed beneath the weight of a fallen limb from the maple tree.

No! I screamed and rushed up to him. His pleading eyes met mine, and his mouth opened and sputtered red droplets over his face and the snow around him.

 

***

The red cardinal cocked his head. He looked straight at me through the kitchen window.

I put down my glass of port.

“Tommy, come over here and take a—” I called out before stopping myself.

Tap, tap, tap. The red bird pecked at the window. I slid open a pane, and immediately he flew in and landed right on the kitchen counter, locking my gaze.

As I reached out after grabbing a handful of sunflower seeds, he rubbed his soft downy head against my trembling forefinger. Then he suddenly spread his wings and flew down the narrow hallway of our small home, straight into Tommy’s bedroom, landing next to the Red Sox cap on the child-sized desk I had bought second-hand from a yard sale.

I built a generous mound of seeds near him. Then I gathered my canvas and paints.


Lisa Tang Liu homeschools her two daughters. She occasionally writes and makes pictures.


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