Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Many of my friends, now in their 50s and 60s, are starting to come to terms with mortality. Their parents are ill or they are infirm or are frail. My friends worry about their parents. Lately they've been dying.

Unfortunately, I am an old hand at this stuff. My father died 20 years ago, my mother 33 and a number of grandparents and other relatives in between.

It has been a long time since I've had to attend a funeral. The other week it was my mother's brother, who was in his early 90s and had been in a locked ward with dementia for the past several years after six years on his own following his wife's death.

The rabbi spoke. The cantor sang. My cousins remembered their father and their children either spoke of their grandfather or sang a song of comfort. Some friends of my cousins were there, one of my uncle's cousins who took the train up from Washington, two relatives through my late aunt, MH and me.

As I sat and listened to the heart-felt words I noticed to my right a large reproduction of an Audubon print of a snowy egret - dark bill, yellow feet. A lovely portrait. Then I looked ahead of me. A small effigy of a bald eagle, talons bared as tho' about to grab a fish from a pond. When I had the chance I looked and realized there were Audubon prints all around the room - flycatchers, wrens, owls.

It almost made me laugh out loud.

At my house the joke is I can't go anywhere without birding. I somehow found a chattering goldfinch on top of a traffic light in the middle of downtown Chicago one summer trip. I watch a commercial and I notice the birds, not the product. I sit at a garden party and follow the flight of a pileated woodpecker overhead in the middle of a converation.

At my uncle's grave, I heard a distant flock of geese. (At my aunt's burial, a redtailed hawk had been up in a nearby tree.)

It was sad attending the small funeral.

But I couldn't help thinking of another recent death, that of my old friend Steve. We had all been young together, friends for over 30 years, had a lot of good, wild times. Lots of stories.

Then he had gone silent, mad at something we allegedly did, refusing to tell intermediaries what that was.

To hell with him, I said. Then, five years later, he suddenly died.

We heard of his passing long after his funeral. He was buried in the family plot in a cemetery at the far end of Cape Cod, one of my favorite birding areas. He died in December, not long after his 56th birthday.

Knowing me, I'd have found a bird somewhere, maybe while at his grave - presuming I'd have seen or heard it through my sobbing. I don't know how much I would've been comforted. This death was too close to home, a reminder of my own mortality, and MH's.

Losing parents is hard. Losing contemporaries, I've learned, is harder.

You can say an old, demented man who has passed on is "at peace." Many people said this of my uncle after his funeral.

But what of a young man who was very much alive, already at peace with his life and with a woman who loved him?

Doesn't seem fair.

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