The snowy egret froze, gazing into his reflection as the wind ruffled his nearly fatal feathers. My heart froze to see him, cast back to the last time I saw my father in the sunlight.
Egrets have done this to me for a decade now, ever since I lost him.
My father was a workaholic and a pillar, the sort of man a stranger could hand a suitcase with a million in unmarked bills and count on Dad still waiting when he returned.
Frank spent 50 years as a city manager and all that while married to my mother. He spent World War II flying B-17s and B-29s. In some 250 years of family history, he was the first Aleshire to go to college — thanks to the GI bill. But he put all three of his sons through college — with graduate degrees piled on top.
For most of my life, I misunderstood him — and loved him at the wrong distance. It seemed to me that his job defined him more than his family and that the people who worked for him had more call on his time than I had. But this was only because I was young and didn’t understand people or men or the roles we play.
He taught me to love birds on long family road trips to Idaho, where we visited his parents on their little farm. He always brought along the bird book and the binoculars and made little notations alongside each species, with the date and location of the sighting. I clung to this inconsistency in his character — this tell-tale frivolity.
I thought he would hate retirement. What would he do?
But he loved it. Before he retired as city manager of Carlsbad, Calif., he managed to land for the city a $50-million Army Corps of Engineers project to reconnect a dying, freshwater marsh to the ocean. With the wash of the tides, the marsh became a gleaming refuge for birds. One of his great delights in retirement was leading birding tours around the lagoon.
But life does not keep track, does not even things out. So his lifetime of hard work did not yield the long puttering through the marshes he deserved. My mother contracted colon cancer and he nursed her through to the end. As she lay dying, the doctor found blood in his stool — so I flew out to tend to her as he went in for surgery.
Six months after she died, his cancer came back.
So I flew to him every weekend to take him to an experimental chemo treatment and then tend to him over the weekend. As the cancer progressed, it caused fluids to build up in his abdomen, causing a painful distension. Periodically, the doctor would use a great needle to drain off the fluid — which resulted in such relief that he was giddy with it.
Often on the way home from the doctor, we would stop by his lagoon to sit and watch the birds.
He dearly loved the egrets — and the other long-necked, long-legged members of the heron family who made their living fishing the shallows.
Snowy egrets and great egrets nest along the Colorado, Gila and Salt Rivers, showing up mostly along the edges of ponds and backwaters at the lower elevations — but sometimes turning up unexpectedly in Rim Country waterways.
We very nearly killed the great and snowy egrets off 100 years ago to provide feathers for women’s hats, after the egret’s long, fluffy breeding plumage caught fancy of human females making their own breeding displays.
A law protecting egrets represented one of first great conservationist victories.
Most evolutionary biologists believe modern birds grew off a branch of the dinosaurs, who died out in their great and terrible forms some 65 million years ago. The earliest known fossils of the precursors of the herons and storks date back to the Eocine, some 35 million years ago. They have spread across the globe, flexible, patient creatures — heirs to Tyrannosaurous and survivors of women’s fashion.
Some 65 species of herons, which includes bitterns and egrets, have split off from the storks and flamingos. The herons and egrets all can partially retract their long necks and fly with them folded into a graceful “S” shape. By contrast, storks fly with their necks stuck straight out.
The herons are all hunters, mostly in ponds and streams, sometimes in flooded farmland. They can stand patiently for hours, unmoving. Some shade the water with their wings, to better glimpse their prey. They happily gobble up small fish, snakes, frogs, crayfish and anything else they can swallow.
Most of the herons nest in great rookeries, often in huge, crude nests of sticks and vegetation atop some towering tree — which is often a cottonwood in Arizona. Usually the males build the nests and then take up their station to make elaborate courtship displays, in hopes of attracting the attention of a passing female with a flourish of the feathers that nearly resulted in their extinction. Elsewhere, these rookeries may include hundreds of pairs — which generally hook up annually for the breeding season and take turns incubating and feeding the young. In Arizona, with its narrow riparian corridors and lack of suitable nest trees, the heron rookeries are much smaller.
The green heron, a small, short-legged variant also found in Arizona, lives a much more solitary existence than its cousins. However, the green heron has learned some neat fishing tricks, like flicking bits of stick and vegetation onto the still surface of the water to serve as lures for fatally curious fish.
Almost all the herons follow the efficient, though ruthless, practice of catching their prey in powerful bills then swallowing them whole. Reportedly, one heron reacted to unwise taunting with a canoe paddle by striking at the paddle and driving its bill two inches out the other side. On the other hand, some herons have been found choked to death from trying to swallow too big a fish.
So now, I never pass by a heron or an egret without stopping to watch, another gift of my father.
I remember his last egret.
We had just left the doctor, who drained the fluid. The chemotherapy wasn’t working. Dad had made the good fight, but had no fear in him now in the shadow of the end. He savored any chance to feel good — and made no complaint.
We stopped by the lagoon just at sunset.
I got the binoculars and the bird book and the little camp stool he needed now, for he could not stand long. We used to hike for miles through the brush and rushes and sandy beaches, adding to our tally. Now he shuffled 40 yards down the path and paused to get his breath. I set the stool for him and he settled gratefully into it.
A snowy egret foraged in the slough before us.
The photons cascading from the sun 93 million miles away fell in a glory on the egret, bounced off those brilliant, dangerous feathers, glanced off the glowing shimmer of the water and made their way finally through my eyes into my heart, the egret dipping endlessly into its own reflection.
I could smell the ocean and the damp earth. The breeze soothed my cheeks, drying already the tears that flowed, heedless across them.
I had wasted all my life not knowing my father and found him only at the end, when it seemed already too late. But at least I had discovered him in time for that sunset. So I stood in the fading light, my hand resting but lightly on his shoulder, watching with him the egret — known to some as the Angel Bird, for the glory of its raiment.
I could hardly breath for losing him.
Then my father sighed, a long, happy breath of perfect contentment.
“Isn’t that something,” he said, without a trace of sorrow.
After he died, I cleaned out his bedside table. There I found a scrap of paper with the shaky scrawl into which is beautiful handwriting devolved at the end. On the paper he had written a poem.
I think it is about egrets.
Mark the joyful hour
Amidst life’s dismay and pain
For only it endures
And unto death remains
— Frank Aleshire