(Roundup editor Pete Aleshire wrote this story after the death of his father. We reprint it now as a Christmas story in appreciation of the great gift of memory.)
My father and I stood clutching binoculars beneath the winter-naked trees at the edge of our lives at the edge of a habitat, blood strangers groping for a connection. The wind rustled through the spiny oak leaves of Madera Canyon as we read the sign explaining that life is most diverse at the edge between two habitats — oak and grass, wood and meadow, scrub and grassland.
I stared glumly at the stark, birdless trees, beset by a sense of failure. Had I squandered this out of season time with my father by talking him into a birding trip in December, without a hope of an Elegant Trogan or a Blue Mocking Bird or any other entry on his life list? But it was the only gap in our schedules and so I had resolved to explore the odd chink in his emotional armor he had left for birds — and perhaps to understand why he could so easily see birds that remained invisible to me.
But I’d blown it, for it seemed I had no hope of finding a bird that would release his joy in a way it seemed I never could. We had played our distinct roles all our lives, he the breadwinner and me the watching child, wondering at what might lie beneath the spiny, artichoke petals of our lives. But just when I might have asked the right question, I grew up, launched my own family and swirled away from him, like two red maple leaves in the sway of different streams.
But then a malignant melanoma on my back caught my attention and prompted my father to write a letter in a suddenly disconcertingly shaky hand to suggest we go off together, just the two of us. Life seemed suddenly fragile and the man who had always been solid as an iron I-beam now seemed more glass crystal. A World War II pilot, Dad had spent his career managing cities, hiring, firing, budgeting and juggling city councils — a solid and serious man. But birds worked a curious transformation in him, especially in the six years since his retirement. The fitful interest of our family vacations now blossomed into a life list. So I decided a trip to the birders’ mecca of southeast Arizona would be my Christmas present to him.
Except, there were no birds.
The flashy migratory species had flitted back to the tropics, leaving a handful of year-rounders, waterfowl fleeing northern winters and mountain-loving bluebirds hunting mistletoe berries on the denuded cottonwoods. We recorded a handful of species, nothing for his life list.
So we trudged back to the car and headed for the Sonoita Creek Sanctuary, a spot famous among birders internationally. We piddled along, stopping for every flutter as the shadows lengthened and I tried to remember whether I had ever spent more than four days alone with my father in all my life. The thought shocked me. So I devoted myself to each moment and to the cactus wrens and the Loggerhead Shrike and the Williamson’s Sapsucker. Sometimes we lurched out of the car in the middle of the road, he clutching the binoculars and calling out field markings while I rifled the bird book.
We arrived in Sonoita in the dark, snagged a room, feasted on quail and then cajoled wild tales out of a silversmith named “Mad Jack.” Then we shot pool until our quarters ran out. We’d always seemed so different, oak and aspen, granite and amethyst, forest and floodplain. But now we seemed notes on the scale. We talked late. He worried about his deteriorating handwriting and recalled his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. I pondered my remaining moles, and cursed myself for letting my life insurance lapse just before my diagnosis. He wondered whether he had spent enough time with us growing up and I said he was my model for how a man ought to be. Watching his face as we talked, it occurred to me that he had only played the role of the workaholic city manager, but the birds had now revealed his true self.
We rose at dawn to shiver in the morning mist as we wandered through the aisles of trees lining Sonoita Creek. In the dawn light, Robins flitted in the uppermost branches and sporty Cedar Waxwings gleaned mistletoe berries in the cottonwoods. We walked those woods, the stream, those meadows all that fleeting, perfect morning. He confessed he couldn’t hear the bird calls anymore and I felt abashed at my irritation when he sometimes seemingly ignored my questions. The birds sought us out — Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Great Tailed Grackles, Downy, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Lucy’s Warblers, Black-throated, Cassins and Chipping Sparrows, Mourning, Inca and White Winged Doves, Phoebes, Yellow-eyed Juncos and Ruby Crowned Kinglets, working our way up to 60 species for the trip. I realized then that you can only see a thing when you love it, be it fathers or birds. Even so, I don’t know why I repeat the names to you, except that he recorded each one in his wavering hand, so they are a prayer to me now.
And still, we had not added a single bird to his life list. I remembered then a small spring from a previous visit, decorated with blackberry bushes at the edge of a great meadow. Near the spring, the scarlet flash of a Northern Cardinal lured me off the path.
“What’s that,” whispered my father. “What on earth is that?”
“What? Where?” I asked.
“The prettiest little blue bird,” he said, thumbing frantically through the bird book. “Here he is,” he exclaimed, stopping at a picture of a tiny turquoise-blue bird with cinnamon sides, a white breast, and the finch-like beak. “A Lazuli Bunting. How about that: A Lazuli Bunting. I’ve never seen a bunting,” he added, his voice laced with Christmas morning.
I can call that Lazuli Bunting to my mind now any time I close my eyes, although I saw only its picture in his book. It flits there still at the edge of my life, the overlap of our two habitats. My cancer never came back, but it came for him three years later. We were the best of friends by then, which was the gift of the Lazuli Bunting and of the late light and the leafless trees and the shared time. At the end, we always went to look for birds after his chemotherapy, even when all he could do was sit on the stool and wait for them to find him.
Looking back, I see that I wasted too many years on silence and foolish roles. But I did not waste that day.
And I have not wasted the memory of it, now or in all the days to come.