As I stood in a superstore parking lot before leaving Ohio, I watched some geese fly south and remembered my parents’ relationship with birds. My mother was a lapsed Catholic who kept the church at a distance. My father never talked about god. Not until the end. But they both believed in birds.

My father lost his mom to cancer when he was twenty-four. I never met her, but I know she loved the great blue heron, a big swoopy thing that dragged its legs across the sky. Whenever my parents saw one, they’d pull the car to the side of the road and gawk. There she is, they’d whisper. My father would bite his lip, and it was the closest I ever saw him come to tears until the day my mother died.

My grandfather kept a stuffed bald eagle in the basement, an oddly seditious act. But he was all too happy to show you the federal paperwork, including a letter with the president’s seal that said the bird was legal. He found it on the beach when he was a boy. It had a broken wing, and he tried to nurse it back to health but failed. After my grandfather died, my father reported seeing bald eagles in improbable places. A parking lot outside of Grand Rapids. Circling over the Detroit interstate.

My father’s faith in birds deepened after my mother died. “Now she’s a blue jay,” he said. “Remember how excited she would get when she saw the first one each spring?” Over the years, he would call at odd hours with reports of blue jays. He saw one perched on the railing of the building where he moved after selling the house. He saw one on the hospital lawn after his lung transplant. He saw blue jays in places they don’t live. Over the years, I became accustomed to how he’d clear his throat to make space for his inventory of herons, eagles, and bluejays. These birds were plain facts to him, proof of a sensible universe where those who left us did not leave us.

I realized too late that I never knew my father’s favorite bird, and now there’s nobody left to ask. But if I see a blue jay flying alongside a different bird, maybe a cardinal or robin, I’ll know that’s the one.

Perhaps it’s more fruitful to contemplate the desire to believe rather than the shape it takes.