17 years later, and the birds still talk to me

IMG_3276 (1)Seventeen years ago this past Saturday, August 8th, my father spent his last conscious moments in this world. It was a Saturday just like this past Saturday, a beautiful August morning full of ripening blue berries, blooming sunflowers and all the perfection of Maine’s late summer. He’d been sick all summer, and had finally agreed to go to the hospital the day before, where they immediately suspected he had tuberculosis and transported him to a hospital with a proper isolation room. In reality the gaping cavities in his lungs that showed on the X ray were the result of end stage lung cancer, not tuberculosis, but that wasn’t clear for another three days. Saturday morning we visited him and then went to the cafeteria to get some food. While we were gone, he got out of bed to get washed up, collapsed and went into respiratory arrest and subsequently cardiac arrest. We heard them call the code over the hospital wide PA system, and by the time we got back to his room a priest met us in the hall. Fifty five minutes passed before the critical care team got his heart started again, but after that much time without consistent oxygen, his brain was mush. He would never be conscious again.

Seventeen years ago today, Monday August 10th, we took him off the ventilator and let his body naturally proceed through the operations of dying. I used to think that death was an either or situation, one moment you were alive, and the next you were dead. Sitting in that hospital room with the late afternoon sunlight streaming in the window I learned that between the white of life and the black of death exists a long slow gray fade, as one by one cells stop functioning in concert, and the measures we use to assess life slowly ebb. Even after the heart stops beating there exist waves of electrical activity, the last bits of cellular action refracted into space.

Dad in Redwood National Park.

Dad in Redwood National Park.

After my father died birds started acting strangely around us; hawks landing on the lawn in the back yard, a kingfisher who sat close in a tree and would not leave, eagles circling low over the house, and like the grieving everywhere, we ascribed this activity to my father’s spirit. As a scientist I know there is no evidence that supports this possibility in the least. As a living breathing loving human being though I see that nothing in nature actually goes away, and every thing is simply transformed from one state of being to another. Why should our life force be any different? I can’t think it’s wrong to greet my father when an eagle passes overhead, or a crow gets especially close, or a thrush follows me along a trail as I run through the woods.

My father’s death certificate is dated August 10th, but in a way he really died on August 8th. And this August 8th, seventeen years later I headed out the door for my morning adventure a run with my dogs in the woods behind the house. Once way out back, I headed a spur trail I hadn’t been on in a while, a path that leads to an old beaver flowage, a shallow pond filled with dead trees, perfect for wood ducks. I often run to this spot and pause, it is the perfect place to just stop and take it all in. Along the trail to the pond I ran through a patch of huckleberries that were perfectly ripe and slammed into a wall of intense gratitude and humility, grinning and gasping and tearing up over the perfection of the blue sky, warm summer air and abundant berries there for the taking. That poor little wild animal in me, the one who withers up when I sit in my office, the one I try to nourish by taking her out for runs in the forest, she smacked her lips and reared up, gobbling huckleberries, taking over my person for a few moments.

When I reached the beaver flowage, I walked out on to the log and pallet snowmobile bridge that spans the stream that flows out from the beaver’s handiwork. Two ospreys were calling, one from a tree top near by and I looked up and saw him looking back at me. He took off and flew in large circles, in and out of view. The other was in a tree further off and it soon took flight and flew towards us. It was a young of the year, flying not as confidently as the father. It circled around and around in tight circles, low overhead, calling constantly. The father came and went and eventually disappeared from view, the juvenile just kept flying around calling. This went on for as many as twenty minutes and I just watched to see what would happen. Finally I said “Ok Dad, I get it. I see you. I hear you. Thank you”, and I walked back into the woods with the dogs. The young osprey immediately stopped calling and for all I know vaporized back into the ether, and I shook my head in amazement that seventeen years on, the birds are still talking to me.

Dad at the Grand Canyon.

Dad at the Grand Canyon. He loved to travel, especially out west, and he passed that love on to my sister and me.

When my father died I was 25, a week away from 26, and though that sounds like the age some one who could be considered a full fledged adult, I had most definitively not gotten my shit together at that point in my life. Today I am 42, staring at 43, ducks much more in a row (perhaps a little too tidily). I’m in the same decade as my father was when he died (at 49, a month away from 50), and I can see mortality a bit more clearly from here than I could when I first held its hand at 25. What I know is this, when I think about dying I get sad. Sad because I am so crazy in love with this world that the thought of leaving it breaks my heart. Then I remember the birds, and the huckleberries and the hungry wild bear inside me, and the blue sky in August, and I know I’ll be all right.



Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.