Seeking Birds, Finding A Father

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The wind rustled through the spiny oak leaves as my father and I read the small sign beside the paved trail, which explained the greatest variety of birds occurs at the edge of two habitats — like oak woodlands and the grasslands. Like wordless strangers, we peered separately into the shadows, hoping to glimpse something unexpected. Madera Canyon is really one gigantic habitat edge with oaks, sycamores, juniper, mesquite and yucca.

So we’d come to Madera Canyon, my father and I, seeking birds and one another. We came late to the effort. All our lives we’d played our roles to perfection: He the dedicated breadwinner, me the watching child — never speaking of the time never spent. Always, we’d suspected some other relationship might lie beneath the artichoke petals of our lives. But I’d grown, inexorably: He’d progressed from promotion to promotion. Then, suddenly, I was grown with a family of my own and three boys with whom I played endless games with a curious intensity and longing. My father and I had swirled away from one another, maple leaves in the sway of different streams.

But then I had a close call with a malignant melanoma. In a letter my father wrote to me seeking more information on the unexpected mortality of his middle son, I noticed how shaky his handwriting had become. Six years retired, moving through his 70s, his suddenly frail handwriting unsettled me. All my life, he’d been an iron I-beam, now he seemed like a wind chime.

I recalled then the family vacations through which his interest in birds ran like a piccolo threaded through the sound of tubas. Dad spent his life managing cities. He’d test piloted airplanes during World War II, earned a paycheck every week for 50 years, and spent most weekends mutely watching televised sports. He was not given to overstatement, giggling or emotional outbursts, but somehow birds released his childish delight. He hauled his dog-eared bird book all over the western United States on our annual family vacations and I remember watching him, wondering at this inconsistency in his character.

So I resolved to take my father on a birding trip.

Now we picked our way through the winter-hushed woods, although we came upon nothing remarkable. Still, Dad noted each bird and seemed to savor the time, although I couldn’t escape a sense of failure. I yearned for an Elegant Trogan, something to top his life list.

But then I realized with a start that in all our life together, this was the first day we’d spent alone, together. So I relaxed and everything fell together. We slid into foolish, unselfconscious glee.

We arrived in Sonoita in the dark, snagged a room, feasted on quail in the restaurant and then shot pool as long as the quarters held out. We’d always seemed so different. He tended toward dark forests — somber, deep and filled with great-trunked trees. I lived in the floodplain, among the quick-sprouting cottonwoods, sprinting for the sun between floods. But on this evening we shot pool with an identical, shambling satisfaction. We talked long into the night, until he had lamented the unwavering priority he’d always accorded his job and I confessed how jealous I’d sometimes been of his work.

We rose at dawn, located the entrance to the sanctuary, shivering in the gray mists of morning. We wandered through those woods that endless morning. He confessed to me then that he couldn’t hear the bird calls anymore, and I understood then why he sometimes didn’t answer me when I spoke. The birds presented themselves to us: Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Great Tailed Grackles, Downy, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Lucy’s Warblers, Phoebes, Yellow-eyed Juncos and Ruby Crowned Kinglets. Even now, the list has a magical power, conjuring the memory of that day.

We came finally to a small spring, where birds bustled and called.

“What’s that,” whispered my father suddenly. “What on earth is that?” “Whatcha got?” I asked.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. The prettiest little blue bird.” He thumbed through the bird book. “This is it,” he exclaimed. I peered at the picture of a small turquoise-blue bird with cinnamon sides, a white breast, and the finch-like beak of a confirmed seed eater. “A Lazuli Bunting. How about that: A Lazuli Bunting,” he said.

“I’ve never seen a bunting,” he added, his voice laced with Christmas morning.

I savored his pleasure — do to this day.

I have lost him now — years ago. But I have not lost that day, nor the memory of his joy, nor the lesson of our foolish postponement of time together.

I look for buntings now, wherever I go, and they always make the tears well up in my eyes. For I know now that in life, as in birding, it’s best to look along the habitat edges where roles overlap.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you so. But then, you’re never far, waiting just up ahead, the luminous flit of blue in the deeper shadow.

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