Photograph by Hanka Steidle/Shutterstock
Photograph by Hanka Steidle/Shutterstock

My Mother the Crow

Inevitably, it comes time for the one who loves us best to leave. But maybe she’s always around, like that bird outside the window.

I threw open the windows as my mother instructed.

“You can’t leave a spirit inside,” she’d say. “You have to open all the windows when someone dies so they can get out. You have to let them out. Open the windows and say, ‘Go! Go! Shoo! Get out of here, you ghost! Time to go! Bye bye, ghost!”

I opened each of the four windows in my parents’ bedroom as wide as I could and realized how stale the air inside had become. Normally, we’d open the windows during the day to allow the fresh air to wash over our mother, but over the last few days, the hyperfocus on what we knew were her last moments made us forget this.

The outside air felt good. Cool but not cold. Massive dark clouds hung in the sky. It smelled of early spring, the slight hint of wetness, the freshness that comes with the death of winter, the air infused with new life from budding trees and plants and flowers. The smell filled the room, and I thought perhaps my mother’s spirit was floating just above my head, searching for a way out. I looked up and around the room, thinking that she might be just up there, she might still be with us for a few more instants. My heart felt calmer than it had in weeks. My mother wasn’t suffering, but maybe she was still with us. Maybe she was just above our heads.

It was an odd feeling. I breathed in the spring air as tears poured down my face and I realized that part of me was happy my mother was dead. Just then, the wind carried the call of a crow into our room. I had been standing near the window and noticed the little black bird sitting in the solitary tree in my parents’ backyard. It was a thin, wispy tree, behind which stretched fields of corn and wheat. It was a dramatic sight, as the little tree’s branches had just sprouted new leaves, making the stoic crow even starker.

My sister joined me at the window, noticing too how the bird seemed to look straight at us, cawing in a monotonous rhythm.

My sister joined me at the window, noticing too how the bird seemed to look straight at us, cawing in a monotonous rhythm. “He’s calling for Mom,” she said.

“He’s calling for Mom,” she said.

The crow sat there for nearly thirty minutes, watching intently and singing his song. He stared into the window, and I thought that my belief, or should I say disbelief, in the conventional afterlife was, for the first time, truly challenged. Perhaps it was coincidental that the bird landed on the little tree just outside my mother’s window moments after she died. Perhaps it was coincidental that he stayed there for so long, slowly calling out to something, obviously looking into our window. Perhaps it was coincidental that the bird was a crow, long believed in many cultures to be shepherds from the mortal life to the afterlife. Perhaps it was nothing more than a carrion bird smelling death, hoping to feast on my mother’s flesh. But at that moment, in that room and with our dead mother lying with us, it became almost impossible to believe that anything was a coincidence.

The crow cawed one last time and flew away, leaving the skinny branch bouncing in his wake. And I said goodbye to my mother.

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A few weeks before my mother died, when we knew she was stopping her treatment, at the very beginning of the very end, I sat with her on what would soon become her deathbed, waiting for my clothes to dry so I could return for just a few short days to my life in New York City. We sat as my clothes tumbled, volleying small talk. I wanted to ask her so many things but couldn’t muster the guts to broach the big subjects. That would have made it all too real. It would have meant she was really dying. Finally, I summoned the courage.

“Are you afraid?”

“Am I afraid?”


“I’m not afraid of dying,” she said. “I came to terms with that a long time ago. Death is part of life. If I didn’t have to face this I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy everything that came before. It’s all part of the deal. So no, I’m not afraid of dying.”

She reached over to her nightstand, the tubes that kept her alive tangled beneath her arms. From the top drawer, she pulled a small piece of paper. “This is a poem I want you to read,” she said, handing me the scrap. On it was printed a well-known piece by the poet Henry Scott-Holland:

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

“When I go, I’m coming back as water. This way, I’ll be everywhere. Whenever you need me, just find the ocean, and that’s where I’ll be.”

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.

For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

“I read that poem a lot, Mikey. I’m not afraid. And you shouldn’t be afraid either.”

“I am.”

“Of what? I’m not going anywhere.”

At this point, I was sobbing as my mother held me.

“I’ll always be just around the corner.”

“I know you will.”

“You know I’m coming back as water,” she said. I could feel her smile on the top of my head.

“What do you mean?”

“Back to Earth. When I go, I’m coming back as water. This way, I’ll be everywhere. Whenever you need me, just find the ocean, and that’s where I’ll be. Get in the water and I’ll be all around you. When it rains, I’ll be on your forehead. When it snows, you can play with me. I’ll never be far, Mikey. Just find the water.”

The dryer buzzed loudly, jolting us both and telling me it was nearly time to go home.

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For a handful of years after, Emily and I stayed in New York City, surrounded on most sides by water. Whether the Hudson or the East River, the mighty Atlantic, the Long Island Sound, water and my dead mother were never very far. And then, in the hopes of having and raising children in a quieter and gentler place than Lower Manhattan, we moved to the middle of North Carolina.

For years, I felt unmoored from my mother, landlocked as we are. We have streams, to be sure, lakes and creeks. But the kind of massive, unfathomably large, all-encompassing water I always associated with my mother, is, at its nearest, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in Chapel Hill. There, you’ll find the intracoastal waterway which sinews between the barrier islands dotting North Carolina’s coastline. There, you’ll find the Atlantic Ocean, the same ocean along whose shores I was raised twenty, thirty, and forty years ago.

To be beside water like that, to be in the presence of my mother, is not an everyday occurrence anymore. Not like it was as I rode my bike over the Williamsburg Bridge to work every day. Not like it was when I took my lunch breaks on the West Side, staring into the Hudson. Not like it was as we went back to my hometown on the Jersey Shore on weekends. Not like it was when we visited my father in the house where my mother died, just a stone’s throw from the lapping edge of the Long Island Sound. Back there, my mother was everywhere. Down here, she’s almost nowhere.

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A few years ago, I took to road cycling. Riding a bike was part of my everyday for most of my life, but for some reason, likely owing to a suburban reliance on driving, I all but stopped riding after we moved to North Carolina. It wasn’t until the start of the pandemic that I, like so many other Americans, rediscovered my joy on a bicycle. I joined a local cycling group, started racing again—something I hadn’t done since college—and began logging upwards of 250 miles per week. As Chapel Hill is buttressed to the west by hundreds of thousands of rural square miles, the riding here is fantastic. The roads are quiet, with farmland stretching out on either side and on any long Saturday ride you’ll see more livestock than you will humans. We don’t have much water down here.

But we have crows.

They line the fenceposts, their black eyes fixed on our mini peloton as we whizz past in a blur of bright-colored spandex. They dot the fields, little black specks nipping for some kind of earthmeat in the soil beneath them. Their wings flap overhead as we ride beneath them.

For years, I had forgotten about the crow that sat outside my mother’s window in the moments after she died. But on one hot summer solo ride, a few days before or a few days after my mother’s early-August birthday, I was on the roadside, tending to a punctured tire. The North Carolina sun beat down on me, my hands too slick with sweat to get my tight tire over the edge of my bike’s rim. I rubbed my hands against my cycling shorts, also drenched with sweat. I bent over and twisted my palms in the roadside dirt, hoping to dry them a bit and gain some traction.

Ready to try again, I turned back to my bike, only to find a small black crow beside it, staring at me. I waved and I smiled and I even said hello.

I tried again and again, and again and again I failed. I was frustrated and angry, which is common in the time around my mother’s birthday. I set the wheel down, its tire half on, half off, and set off for ten or twenty paces. I needed to catch my breath, to recenter myself, to take a few deep inhales, to tell myself—as I often tell my five-year-old son—that no problem is solved in anger.

Ready to try again, I turned back to my bike, only to find a small black crow beside it, staring at me. I waved and I smiled and I even said hello. And then, in my head, I repeated the closing line of the poem my mother had me read in the days before her death. All is well.

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“Daddy!” my son said. “Look at that one! Is she one like that?” I bent down beside my son and wrapped my arm around his tiny, bony, just-turned-five shoulders as the crow flew above our heads.

“Not like that one, bud,” I said. “That’s her.”

He craned his neck and used his little hand to shield the sun from his eyes. “Hi,” he said before taking a long pause

“Susie,” I told him. “Her name was Susie.”

“Right. Susie. Sorry, Daddy. I forgot.”

He repeated the name to himself, trying his best to etch it into his memory. Susie. Grandma Susie. Susie. Susie.

“She’s a bird now, Daddy?”

“That’s right.”

He repeated the name to himself, trying his best to etch it into his memory. Susie. Grandma Susie. Susie. Susie. “She’s a bird now, Daddy?”

“How did she become a bird?”

I stared at the crow for a moment, wondering, reckoning how I might explain death to a just-turned-five-year-old; how I might explain to him that my mother told me she was coming back as water; how I might explain to him that my mother told me that to comfort me while she was the one dying; how I might explain to him my fear of not being near her, of not feeling her presence; how I might explain to him that I use this metaphor, this creature that feeds on the carcasses of other creatures as a stand in for the greatest void in my life; how I might explain to him that none of what I’m saying is very real and that hope and imagination are doing most of the work; how I might explain to him that hope and imagination are two of the only things that are actually real in this life and how those are the two things he can never let slip away. I thought of all those things, smiled, and took the easy way out.

“Because,” I said. “She’s magic.”

Author Profile

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani is a writer and musician living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife and their children. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, WIRED, Condé Nast Traveler, The Guardian, The Toronto Star, Travel + Leisure, Southern Living Magazine, Bicycling Magazine, The Millions, Victory Journal, and a bunch of others. 

1 thought on “My Mother the Crow”

  1. Hi Michael, thank you for this wonderful work. It’s a story I could have written – should have written. I’m so glad your mother the crow brings you solace. Thank you for sharing the magic with us. Best, Deb

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