Celebrating the start of this Lunar New Year with close friends, I discovered something I had intuited for a while – that I was not actually born during the Year of the Dog, as countless take-out Chinese menus had assured me. Their global description of my zodiac sign never quite fit. Having a winter birthday put me on the cusp, and this January, as we welcomed the Year of the Rooster, I finally learned that I myself am a Rooster. I immediately assumed this was good fortune, realizing my Rooster identity at this precise time. I quickly found I was wrong.
According to Chinese astrology, the year that is yours bodes ill – Horses have a hard time in any Year of the Horse, Tigers in any Year of the Tiger, etc. I took the bad-luck news very much to heart, because a couple of women I loved dearly were sick. I sensed in my bones that this Rooster year would be bitter indeed. Some friends challenged my fatalism and encouraged me to stay upbeat, whatever that might mean when things are plainly not going well.
My aunt – who after training as Catholic spiritual director decided to get ordained as a Taoist priest – insisted that in Chinese mythology, “the rooster is also a phoenix. Don’t forget that!” she told me. The phoenix does inevitably rise, but only after everything has burned down to ash. Beginning in spring, my husband Ben and I had three successive deaths in our family in three months. These were special people with whom we spent our holidays: Memorial Day, Christmas and Easter, and New Year’s – that New Year we mark on our Gregorian calendar here in the West.
Bertie was the last of the three to succumb to cancer, so this past New Year’s Eve was our final one with her, though we had no idea of that then. Bertie would come to our house on New Year’s Eve, spend the night in our guest room, and greet the New Year in style. To call Bertie a citizen of the world’s too understated; she was a true internationalist. She had served in the Peace Corps outside Delhi and spent her subsequent career travelling the globe teaching educators everywhere about early childhood education. One year, she made Ben and me Indian for our January 1st breakfast; another year, she brought bright Mexican jewelry with tinkling bells for our party guests to wear, to ring out the old.
As we ushered in 2017, we joked about Bertie about being both “sassy and seventy”. Her birthday falls in September, and we talked about the party we would throw this fall to mark the milestone of her turning seventy years young. Possibly because she worked with children her entire life, Bertie remained conspicuously exuberant and youthful. Her sixties had held nasty surprises, including a devastating divorce and a major depression, but she had somehow emerged her irrepressible self and now had much cause for joy.
Within months of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, though, Bertie was saying her final goodbyes to her adult daughters. This was not the year she was expecting in January and it could not contain her fondest hopes, after all – hopes that she would finish her doctoral dissertation, take that long valedictory road trip, and have her seventieth birthday bash with Ben and me and the very many people who adored her. Even American politics and the state of our nation were concerning and disappointing for her in the end.
Bertie died while my husband and I were overseas. I was in Hong Kong this June teaching a class of Chinese spiritual directors an intensive course on fostering resilience. She was top of mind my entire stay there, in large part because she was such an exemplar of the resilient spirit. When we got the death notification, the students and program directors and I all prayed for Bertie’s two daughters and for her memory. She would have been very touched by it, I’m sure; her last sojourn had been to Beijing, where helped facilitate a conference on museum education.
On a walk around the New Territories, Ben and I came across a large mosaic of the Chinese zodiac set in floor tiles. Their zodiac has twelve astrological signs, just as we have in our system, only their signs are assigned to years, not months – to lunar years. History always seems far longer in the East. At the center of the zodiac sat that Taoist emblem of light and shadow, the yin-yang circle. Squeezed between the Monkey and the Dog, the Rooster orbited it, with its one slice of that time for everything under heaven.
During her last days, Bertie was feeling angry. Understandably. The year had deceived her, promising one thing and delivering something else. She loved life too much to take a quiet leave of it, and her protest was justified. We cannot help but experience betrayal when what we sincerely believe to be an auspicious time turns out to be another sort of time altogether. Maybe we’re faced with an indefinite postponement, or worse, a outright cancellation of wished-for outcomes. Either way, there’s no interrupting the righteous indignation that arises when those plans we have laid for ourselves get so grossly violated.
After hearing of our most recent loss, my lovely clergy colleague Sarah texted me. “F’ing Year of the Rooster,” she wrote. It was such a succinct lament, but it spoke volumes. There are few apt condolences to offer when important people are gone suddenly and too soon – the time was wrong, we say, as if time itself weren’t setting the agenda for us all.
A few years ago, on one of her darkest days, Bertie met Ben and me at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where two enormous travelling phoenixes made by the Chinese sculptor Xu Bing floated high in the air. She was insistent that we see his gorgeous work. In an interview with The New York Times, the artist pointed to giant metal scars and explained that the birds “lived through great hardship, but still have self-respect. In general, I think the phoenix expressed unrealized hopes and dreams”. Bertie saw that in an instant – call it a flash of recognition. The three of us together circled that pair of sculptures, and ever the educator, Bertie had Ben and me look at them from as many different angles as we could.
After she died, Bertie’s daughters showed us a journal she has kept at the Hoot Owl Lodge over the past summer in the Adirondacks. In in it, she outlined her precious “lessons learned”, namely to “make new stories from out of the old like days past… a combination of revisiting old adventures and finding new ones. A good lesson for life in general,” she concludes. Of course, Bertie’s right.
Perhaps this ultimately will be the Year of the Phoenix, but not yet – not for me, personally, Rooster that I am. Lately I’ve been enveloped by sadness I have real difficulty shaking; too many of my days feel like a slog. Whole worlds of mine have disappeared with those women I loved. I lack the words to explain how indelible their impressions are. For now, I will only say this: no ascent is possible before the descent is completed. We cannot rise if our time is not ripe. So we must wait for it, all of us birds of a feather who occasionally flock together, and then we must likely wait some more. We must wait…