On the banks of the slough near our house, there are almost always great blue herons around. They like to fish in the shallows and they are a frequent sight overhead as they fly to and from their feeding grounds. I have always loved seeing them overhead as they pass by. There is something both elegant and primeval about their look and they are a startlingly large bird. That they can sustain flight is truly a marvel of avian design and engineering.
My daughter identifies with these birds and sees them as her power animal, a guardian of sorts. When my dad died, she said they reminded her of him. Then mom died, and as herons are often together in pairs, it feels like they are watching over us. Since herons are birds that mate for life, that seems appropriate. Now, when I see two flying overhead, I say hello and send up a quick prayer for my parents. They have become totems for me, too.
Over the past few months, there has been some interesting activity in the trees by the slough. For the first time in all the years I have been walking out there, the great blue herons are building nests in trees that are very central to the park. I have counted seven nests in these trees and have seen about 14 birds perched in the branches. This has caused quite a few people to stand, stare upward and comment on what is going on above us. Quite a few people, like me, have been snapping pictures. It is making bird-watchers of a lot of us and has given me a lot of joy. It feels like a rebirth is underway.
As I drove away yesterday, I thought of the parallels between the year that has passed and the importance of rebuilding. Seeing these fragile nests clinging to slim branches makes me nervous for the eggs that will eventually inhabit them. They seem so flimsy a strong wind could blow them away. The herons are still adding sticks to them each day, so they must want to secure them, too. I know that I can’t help them do it – I can only be an observer and my worrying about them is pointless. They are the experts and they will do what they know works, following patterns in their DNA that was long ago imprinted. They rebuild their nests each year and they are bringing forth the next generation. They are doing so in the face of stacked odds – predators, illness, lack of food, and worst of all, siblicide. If one chick becomes larger and more dominant, it “nudges” the others out of the nest and has all the parental attention to itself. That ensures its survival – but is not so great for the others.
My own rebuilding continues to make me stronger. Day by day, I feel myself reclaiming what is important to me and being able to stand up more solidly. My new normal is becoming more than just an expression; it is how I feel and what I have to work with. I still think of calling mom, dad, or Jan regularly. Other times, I’m surprised that I haven’t thought of them being gone in a while – and I feel bad for not feeling bad. Mostly, I am feeling good about making my way forward and finding out how I need to be without them. It is a daily adventure, but one that isn’t as painful as 12 months ago, 6 months ago, or even a few days ago.
I was in a group recently at work and someone mentioned they’d heard I’d had a rough year, so I told them that I’d lost 3 important people from my family over a span of 17 months. This time, instead of the usual sympathetic comments or words of understanding, someone actually said “Oh – you think that’s bad, my dad just disappeared one day.” And I almost started laughing. Since when did grief become a competitive sport? All I could do was rein in my urge to say “WTF?” and channel my sympathetic ear, asking him what had happened. Turns out it was years ago, but it must still be a source of pain for him. I walked away, shaking my head at how people can be, but knew I was making progress. My pain is there, but it has had a chance to be acknowledged, shared, and respected. In doing so, I don’t need to use it to one up anyone. I would truly hope for no one to have to experience a series of loss like I have. It’s not for the faint of heart.
I am hopeful that each visit to the slough will show me that this new heron colony is thriving and they are successful in launching this season’s new chicks. I admire them for their boldness and wish them well in their efforts. I will be watching.