Reflections captured at sunrise, looking through a glass darkly.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it rose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full. Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. Ecclesiastes 1:5-7
“He’s had fever for two days. He’s been so fussy, he won’t let me put him down.”
This mother looks exasperated, exhausted as well. And she’s not a new mother. This 7-month-old infant was her caboose. Up until today, she’s only brought him in for well-child care.
“Has he been eating?”
“Not well. I could only get him to take 4 ounces all day.”
“No, no vomiting—just extreme fussiness.”
“How high has his fever been?”
“102 to 103.”
I study the infant in her arms while we talk. At this point he seems comfortable. He even smiles at me, always a good sign in my book of clinical diagnoses.
“Any one else at home sick?” I ask, reaching for my stethoscope.
“No, not at home. But we did take him to see my husband’s grandfather in the nursing home a week ago. He was bedridden with pneumonia.”
I nod and listen to the baby’s back and chest. Nothing but normal breath sounds greet my ears, another good sign.
“Let’s lay him down,” I say, standing at the head of the exam table with otoscope and tongue blade in hand. The mother pins her infant son’s arms at his sides while I peer into his ears and throat. The tympanic membranes appear pearly grey, but the throat is red and swollen with a small amount of exudate on the tonsils.
“He’s got a sore throat,” I announce. “Let me swab it and run a quick test.”
“I knew he had a sore throat from the way he was acting,” the mother muses. “He cried every time he tried to swallow.”
Even without running the test, I know that this infant has contracted a virus. It’s exceedingly rare to see strep throat in such a young child. But I need confirmatory evidence to prove it.
By the time I return with the news that the results show no strep, the baby has calmed down. Even his fever has dropped — another good sign. I tell this seasoned mother that in all likelihood her little boy will turn the corner in 24 hours. “Give him some acetaminophen, hang in there and call me tomorrow morning to let me know how he’s faring.”
“By the way,” I say, “what did his great-grandfather think of him?”
“He was pleased to see him. Could the baby have picked up pneumonia from him?”
I pause to ponder her question. “Do they know what sort of pneumonia he had?”
Tears fill the mother’s eyes. “Terminal,” she says. “He wanted to see his great-grandson before he died.”
Pneumonia, the dying man’s friend. It settles into the lungs of the exhausted aged bedridden patient and whisks him away in the night.
“When did he pass away?”
“Ten days ago.”
“I doubt that the baby contracted pneumonia from him,” I say. “The incubation period is too long, and there are no signs of a lung infection on exam.”
The mother seems reassured. She will follow my instructions and call me in morning.
One generation makes its entrance while a former one fades away. Standing at the bend in the great river, I look upstream and marvel at how the new white water cascades down over the smooth rocks as downstream the current meanders around the far oxbow and silently slips from sight.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of downy wind and snowy flake. —Robert Frost
I sit on a wooden stool by the window in the kitchen, watching the snow come down. Across the street in a yellow cone of lamplight tiny flakes swirl about as though encased in a snow globe. Each one in its own time descends to rest against the frozen earth.
Forty years ago after the last bell of the day, I sat on a similar stool in a high school classroom, listening to my teacher reminisce about his boyhood. Outside the second-story windows snow lay along the sills in fluffy mounds, muffling the sounds from the street.
“I never had much direction in life,” my teacher mused, taking a sip of coffee from his thermos. “Maybe that’s why I eventually ended up following in my dad’s footsteps.”
He was a tall man with reddish-brown hair that hinted at his Scotch-Irish ancestry.
“My dad was raised on a small farm across the river. My grandfather continued to live there after my dad left home. When I was a boy we would visit my grandfather on the farm. It was tucked away back in the hills off a winding blacktop road. You turned off onto an unmarked dirt lane and followed it a quarter mile to the farmhouse.
“My grandfather was a big man. He and my dad didn’t always see eye to eye. When things went well, the two of them would sit on the porch and talk. Sometimes they took a leisurely stroll out to the orchard, leaving me behind to play in the yard. When they had words, my dad would quietly walk me to the car; and we would head back out the dusty lane to the road.
“One winter day we made the trek to the homestead. The fields lay buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow. It started to snow again shortly after we arrived, and by late afternoon it was coming down heavy. My dad decided we had better go before the roads got bad, so we headed out in the old Chevy down the lane. The plow had already gone by, throwing a big mound of snow at the entrance. We couldn’t get through, and we couldn’t turn around.
“My dad left me in the car with the motor running and the heat on and walked back down the lane to the house. After what seemed a long time, he appeared with my grandfather. Each of them carried an old coal shovel. In the yellow beams of the headlights I could see them working together to clear the pile of snow from the end of the lane.
“When they finished, my grandfather reached out his hand for the shovel my dad had been using. My father hesitated, then surrendered it. Together they disappeared into the darkness through the swirling snow.”
My teacher stood quietly by the lab bench, thermos in hand, staring out through the high vaulted windows. I shifted on the stool. “What happened?” I asked.
“It wasn’t long before my dad came back. He dusted himself off as best he could and slid in behind the wheel. He gave it the gun and we broke through onto the plowed road.”
After a brief moment of silence he said: “That was the last time I saw my grandfather alive. The darkness had swallowed him up; he disappeared into the falling snow forever.”
Although he was a chemistry teacher, we had been talking about writing, how to craft a story, an impression. He was very interested in writing and had managed to produce several stories and the beginning of a work of science fiction.
Somehow I managed to find the words: “Maybe one day you’ll write that down, just like you told it to me.”
Sitting on the stool by the kitchen window this evening as the snow swirls down in the light across the street, I wonder if he ever had.
The breakfast dishes are done, the dog is walked, the bed is made. Time to retire to the front porch with a cup of coffee to sit in the morning sun.
Cicadas whir in the trees overhead. There’s a hint of a breeze. The air stirs the compound leaves on the wisteria vine. Down in the front yard, among the long dried stems of the black-eyed Susans, a pair of white butterflies flutter about, exploring the last spoils of summer.
When I was a boy, my friend and I used to stalk butterflies in the expanse of fields near our home: cabbage butterflies, white with black wingtips and two dark insignia dots on the wings; golden sulfurs; tiny coppers and azures; orange monarchs; fluted swallowtails; admirals and fritillaries.
Inexperienced trappers at first, we used our cupped hands to capture our prey. Later we fashioned butterfly nets from old red nylon onion bags, wire coat hangers and broomstick handles. We experimented with killing jars—gas chambers made from our mothers’ mason jars with rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton balls stuffed into the bottom.
We mounted our specimens with straight pins and glued typewritten labels below to identify each one.
Sometimes the wing scales would inadvertently rub off onto the tips of our fingers, and we would scrape this precious dust onto glass slides to peer in wonder through the lens of a small microscope I had ordered through the mail.
In school we learned how a caterpillar spins a cocoon and hibernates all winter to emerge the following spring, changed utterly—boldly turned into another creature, this one winged; and, like the cherry blossoms, ethereal.
As adults, few of us pause to consider the wonder of such transitions. We accept them as fact, and attend to other, more pressing things.
Yet on this bright morning after an overnight rain, I sip my coffee and ponder the sight of another pair of small miracles flitting about in the remnants of the flower garden; and catch a glimpse of wonder from a boyhood long since passed.