I decided to go shopping anyway this afternoon. Originally I had planned to stay in bed. Today marks the anniversary of my dear father’s death. February is a tainted month. It has been eight years now. The sage responsible for “time heals all wounds” did not do his homework. With the shopping done and the groceries put away, I was just glad to have the luxury of retiring to my room and rest. Laying on my bed with my cat at my feet had a calming effect on my nerves. A purring cat transforms the vibrations in a room. Still, the silence hurt my head. Music. The supreme antidote for the low-ceiled sadness now descending upon my brain-heart. Wagner “The Ring of the Nibelungs”. A heavy choice, but so comforting. When I was 16 the librarian at our public library would not allow me to check out the boxed 33-rpm sets of these operas because she did not think that a kid my age would even listen to such music. She actually thought that I would try to sell them. It was my Dad who intervened for me. I do not know what he said to the librarian to cause such a rapid change of heart. My Dad oozed charm. As I write this memorial, Birgit Nilsson is coming to me loud and clear thanks to Spotify. Grief and loss are funny things. While I thought my heart would break anew, just listening to Wagner and allowing the home cinema of memories associated with this music, to my Dad, to play unhindered, I am not gazing blindly into this abyss of loss. Wagner is not a light evening salad. It connects the associations. I see myself on a weekend in the late 1970s laying on my bed with headphones and Wagner on the turntable. My Dad would peek in to make sure that I hadn’t fallen asleep. My musical eccentricities only made him smile. He preferred Big Band era tunes .
Grief and the resulting loneliness is insidious and tricky. One moment you think that you have it under control and the next thing you realize is that the wound has re-opened, the metaphysical scab had become caught on a memory, the furtive whiff of after shave on a city bus and the oozing picks up where it left of the last time. The trick is not to allow the sense of loss to rule your life. Easier said than done. My musings lead me down the path inhabited by questions about time and space. The passage of time. I often wonder about what we do not know about life after death. Does it really go on, the soul silently sandwiched between two (or more) dimensions? Despite having studied more theology than I care to admit, I prefer to keep my opinion, my ruminations to myself.
As my Dad lay dying of the cancer which had infiltrated his bones, I had many inexplicable and even wonderful experiences during the death vigil I kept. I’ll keep the mystical and murky nature of this to myself. If I am brave enough in the future, perhaps I can write up an illustration. Not now. There is, however, an event which bore down upon me twice in connection with my Dad’s last days on earth. The first time several months before he died and again a year after the fact.
Quite often, high above Daddy’s backyard, a large majestic brown hawk would circle in search of a little animal, a squirrel, a mouse, to scoop up with agile talons for its next meal.
Daddy often shared his hawk sightings which would evolve into anecdotes about his youth in the boot heel of Missouri. He loved nature. He loved its life and the wonder it beckoned in his heart.Though rapacious, he deemed the hawk a majestic beauty. Little did I know just how dear this hawk would become to me one day.
Early one summer morning in late august 2005, my daughter and I were early risers up with the sun. We were on the last leg of our month-long visit to Michigan to visit Daddy and for my brother’s wedding. As usual, the children and I stayed with Daddy. The wedding had been a wonderful three-day event and we were all still a bit tired from the festivities, especially Daddy, who had undergone a cancer treatment a day or two after the wedding. My son was still fast asleep like his grandfather.
The weather was especially balmy this particular morning so my daughter and I decided to enjoy our breakfast outside on the back porch. As I opened the door and stepped out onto the porch a figure swooped silently, but determined, out of the sky and cast an enormous shadow across our bodies. My little girl stood behind me, the door closed, but she saw the entire dream-like event unfold behind the screen. The hawk dove down from the sky above the backyard intending to grab one of the resident squirrels for his morning meal. Unfortunately for the hawk, the squirrel scampered towards the porch under which it obviously intended to hide until danger flew away. As a hawk is not equipped with brakes, it had no choice but to maneuver keenly, banking sharply to avoid crashing into the big bay window. I stood hypnotized on the porch wondering what would happen next. I was in the hawk’s trajectory and had no way to avoid the big bird. I held my breath and shivered with fear and wonder as the veering hawk flew past me, skimming the length of my arm with the back of its foot. Its razor-sharp talons of an egg yolk yellow hue were strangely warm, hard and smooth. After the foot came the soft, but rigid strafing of its wingtips against my forearm. No sooner had the hawk avoided careening into Daddy’s house, he completed his breathtaking acrobatics and flew off gracefully between the two big trees in the backyard. As far as I was concerned, it was flying off to an other planet. I watched the horizon suspended in that inexplicable and gracious moment. Even today I can recall the beautiful sound of the air surrounding me as it was parted by the hawk’s wings. It made an unmistakably, yet gentle, « whoosh ».
I still carry the invisible mark of the talons and feather tips on my arm. These elements have taken root in my heart. In a state of awe and shock, my daughter and I sat down on the porch, our hearts thudding in unison. We didn’t get around to having breakfast until later. We nourished our first pangs of hunger on the marvelous event which had just been presented to us on a silver platter.
One of my older brothers dropped by shortly after the hawk incident. Since he had studied forestry, I was sure that he would get a kick out of our hawk story. He laughed and informed me that « hawks just don’t fly that close to habitations in a city environment. » My daughter was defiant and informed her uncle that mommy was telling the truth. By this time Daddy had come out into the dining room and was having coffee with us. After hearing my brother scoff at the hawk story Daddy said « now, don’t go making fun of your sister. I see that hawk regularly and his behavior would surprise even you ». No questioning his word .
Segue: On February 15, 2007 in Luxembourg. A year exactly since Daddy passed away… the hawk returned.
I was expected at the office at 8.30. So overwhelming was this anniversary that I did not think that I could make it. I had spent the previous night weeping unfathomable tears. The grief completely overwhelmed my every nerve. Yet, I mustered up the necessary energy to get the children off to school and myself in the car. I wept and shook the whole way and thought of turning back several times. My puffed-up eyes impaired my vision. Working that day seemed too rough for me, too surreal.
I remember moaning, »Daddy, why did you have to go just now?» not reproachful, just mournful. As I wound my way up the long, serpentine driveway leading to my office something caught my eye. To my right was a tall pine tree and perched upon a branch at eye-level was a huge, brown hawk, beautiful and majestic. I was floored and stopped the car abruptly. The hawk took flight in my direction. By then I had rolled down the window and stuck out my head. The hawk flew directly toward me, gently cutting through the air… the familiar « whoosh ». As it reached the car it flew upwards and circled the car three times, in slow motion, it seemed. My car being equipped with a panoramic roof window allowed a breathtaking and detailed view : head, beak, eyes, talons. I savored the sound of the airstream disturbance created by the movement of its wings. After circling me the hawk landed upon a big tree to my left, looked in my direction and then flew off through an opening formed by the crowns of the tall deciduous trees skirting the driveway.
How could this event evoke anyone but my Father? My mind was preoccupied by the hawk and Daddy for many days to come. These images return regularly to my heart and mind. I do not attempt to ferret out an explanation. Perhaps grief renders our sensibilities more acute. I do not pretend to have an answer; not for a minute.