It is summer now. The river is running bright and the sun is warm and sweet on the sagebrush. All around us is life; the kingfisher is rattling like a gunwale, the hummingbird buzzes and tumbles like a garnet tossed carelessly overhead. Somewhere far downstream, a grosbeak spins its messy warble. No, the trout are yet to bite and the lines yet to tighten, but the hard and bitter and perfect scent of the mountains is pouring over the valley and the sky is ever blue. My legs wobble in the water as I feel the current pulsing against my thighs, but it does not scare me; it fills me with life. I am standing next you to, and I am safe and smiling. All is well; we are together. This is happiness, I think. This is everything beautiful. This is life.
It is autumn now. The breeze is strong and cool, and it casts the leaves through the sky till they festoon the city with a million shades of yellow spark and orange flame and tender scarlet coal. The park’s paths are covered with them too, with people, with dogs, and the oaks are equally heavy with acorns and flight-feisty birds. “Nothing like a Sunday morning in the city,” you say, and I agree. Because you are right. You smile and suddenly this October morning in the park is a play, a wonder, and all the people are adventurers and all the dogs storytellers and the oaks are mountains and the birds golden treasures spilling from caves like shattered glass. I call out the names of birds; Warbling Vireo! Ruby-crowned Kinglet! Blue-winged Warbler! I ask which one is your favorite, but you have none. It is all life; it is all beautiful and sacred. God is a warbler, I tell myself as we listen to the wind on a high wooden bench. God is the morning in Central Park.
It is winter now; well, not quite. There are no leaves on the trees, no warblers or vireos flighty in the oaks, and the breeze is not cool but bitter. But how can it be winter when you are beside me, when the sun is shining, when the wonders of life are spread before us to seek, to love, to pray? No, winter is the season of death, and you are more living than I could ever imagine.“Where are we going?” You ask, and I call out names as we drive rapid-fire across bridges that stretch across the endless yellow marsh. There is so much, too much; shorebird roosts and marsh hawks on high and rare auburn ducks that hide on high school ponds. I want them all. You are with me, and everything there is is beautiful.
But now it is winter really and cold snows blow. And when I seek hardy black sea ducks and little spotted owls and weave through tangles of holly to see everything that is beautiful, I seek them alone. Sick is the word everyone keeps saying. He is sick in his prostate, sick in his body. I keep words of my own. Your mind is not, I think. I fight through the freezing wind and the shivering rain, and the owls and the sea ducks and the cranberry flocks of finches turn a blind eye. The beauty of everything is lost to me. And it is still winter and I am back at the river-where-it-was-summer. The river is ice and the sun is weak and waxy-white, but the sky still keeps its blue. And though the kingfisher has fled and the hummingbird flown and the grosbeak gone far away, new life is here. The places where the river is still water are covered with mallards and wigeons and goldeneye ducks, the snowy hillsides teem with creeping gray partridge and chipping goldfinches, and where ice keeps its iron grip is the gathering place for swans, big as lions and twice as beautiful. They are like white spirits, great ghosts of frost. Ghosts. This is all that is beautiful, but all I have of you is a distant ghost. Still ill, still fighting. Still sick and far away.
But it is spring now and with the green of the earth comes every wonder nature has to give. It is beautiful, so perfectly, indescribably, everything beautiful; warblers bubble and twirl with songs that break through the canopy of locust and golden-green larch, and snow geese come at dawn to the marshes we once hopped through, carefree. I am everywhere, to see all that is beautiful, to love the love of the world you gave me. And it is warm and life is all around me, and how can I be sad? I can see the happiness in your eyes when I speak to you, for the wonder is yours as well. You are not a ghost, never; you are here. And though I watch you be weak and sick as I have ever seen, the joy does not leave. It will never leave.
It is still spring when I am pulled from school early in the morning, when I am told that I am to return home, for my mother wishes to see me. I know. For the sake of my family, I keep my face passive, but I had always known. And as we drive slowly back home, not saying a word, about to face whatever is waiting in that house ready or not, I look and listen. I see the blur of green as we drive down the streets, the leaves on the trees stretching out to greet the morning sun, and the redbud blossoms still hanging on, to the last petal. I see the sun glistening on the harbor water where I row and the seabirds my coach chides me for stealing glances at. And song; I hear it everywhere. Robins and Song Sparrows serenade me from every corner and as I step through the threshold, heart pounding, I can make out the faint warble of a mockingbird. I make a note of its final melody as the door slams behind me.
And then it is time to hear the news, time to cry, to hold each other tightly. I watch the mockingbirds, flashing white and grey outside the window, through every moment. I had lost the father who stood strong, who showed me nature and God and everything beautiful there is to be seen a long time ago, I think. You only left me birds.
I cry hardest when they take away your body, for I will miss your smile as I name each song in turn and your steely eyes as we speed to catch a rarity. You taught me, taught me well, and you watched me learn from nothing to twice as much as yourself. But you will not be there to greet me again. I kiss your forehead once, and weep once again.
But despite my sadness, it is still spring, and if through all my father’s teachings I had learned one thing, it is that to waste beauty and action and love is the greatest waste of all. So it is the evening of the next day, and my father’s body is still yet to be ash, when I swing on my binoculars and head out the door. My friend meets me on a grassy island, and we speak as we walk. For hours we speak, of where we will go and what we will see for years to come. I tell him of your death, and he is stunned. I tell him truth. “I have no regrets. He was a great father and a great man. He would not want me to sit and cry in my room. We were happiest out here, together. This is where I heal.”
It takes time, but I heal.
And it is summer now, summer again. The sea is swaying gentle and blue and the maple quivers shy and green. The Song Sparrows sing from beach roses and the mockingbirds fight on the lawn like scattered newspapers wheeling in the wind. I can hear the terns calling from on high, making their nests in the little rocks at high tide. The sand is in my toes. I see the house you taught me in, the house you loved me in, the house you lived and died in. The wind blows, not cold, not light, but strong. It is strong with your spirit, strong with the man who gave me my life. You are not a ghost. You will never be a ghost. For a ghost is a spirit without love, and the wind speaks to me. Your spirit is love itself.