October 31, 2013
Common Pauraque
Common Pauraque
A Great Blue Heron lifts up from beneath the cutbank, startling me.  Somewhere in the forest across the river a Green Jay chatters.  A hummingbird swoops down the clearing, sees me, banks and backtracks, hovering to check me out.  Moments later a Border Patrol helicopter exactly duplicates the hummer’s every movement, for the exact same purpose.  I smile and wave my binoculars.

I know it’s cliché, but there truly are moments when one’s whole life passes before one’s eyes.  I suspect these incidents become more frequent with the passing years, and certainly the triggers are different for different people.  For me the triggers have always been big rivers, the sound of trains in the night, chopper noise, and the poetry of Loren Eiseley.

Two of these four have now conjoined as I stand in the clearing, cell phone in hand, returning a call from my dermatologist for a report on the biopsy.  I grew up along a big river, and choppers always conjure images of Vietnam.  Melanoma would have killed my mother if breast cancer had not.  The medical report nurse comes on the line.  Our connection is weak.  A Ringed Kingfisher rattles in its flight to the far side of the river.  I try to focus.  My wandering mind locks in on her only word it seeks--“benign,” embraces it like a lover, and parses all its repercussive nuances.  For minutes on end I stand unmoving, just breathing, listening to the lapping of the river’s waters against the cutbank . . . .

A small boy cavorts through knee high grass to a perfect intersection with a falling baseball.  A man in military uniform the boy will never meet smiles from a faded photograph on the mantelpiece.  A wailing woman punctuates the dawn on the day the headlines declare “War in Korea!”  There are the homemade light boxes with the neat rows of pinned butterflies and beetles, the first intimations of the latent genes.  Much later, the rugged canoe portages across the Quetico with the first, and only, woman the boy-turned-man has ever known.  The tingling along the spine upon the discovery of the Great Horned Owl staring impassively out of the winter cottonwood, eye high and ten breathtaking feet away.  The eiders on Attu, both the ducks and the island so achingly beautiful in their isolation and solitude, even amidst all the decaying reminders there of World War II . . . .

Both good news and bad news are best received in the company of loved ones.  Now, in the absence of that company, this day’s good news needs be accompanied by these flashes from a long and mostly good life which seems to have just become much longer.  It occurs to me that I have now lived longer than Loren Eiseley.  Odd how the earlier memories seem the strongest, no doubt some emotional or neurophysical byproduct of the aging process.  And then there is this, of course—how many people on the other side of that wide and muddy river would trade their life for mine, good news or bad, in a heartbeat?

I turn to retrace my steps along the trail away from the big river.  I flush a pauraque from the underbrush.  Somewhere a kiskadee laughs.  Tomorrow I’ll be home again in Phoenix, safe from my thoughts.