A rare species

Standing in the back yard in the late afternoon on Labor Day, I looked up and chanced to catch sight of a nighthawk darting about against the backdrop of blue sky. Each pointed angled wing displayed a white bar, the sine qua non that clinched the identification.

Here in New England the numbers of nighthawks have diminished precipitously over the past several decades. Some observers have attributed the drop in their numbers to the relative paucity of nesting sites: grey and white crushed stone flat roofs have been replaced with uniform black tar, erasing the element of camouflage necessary for the bird’s survival. Others have suggested that an increased use of insecticides to curb mosquitos might have adversely impacted this bird population.

Excited by my find, I dashed off an e-mail to a seasoned fellow birder, someone I had met while out birding one clear blue morning this past May.

I had ventured forth early that day, following the trail that runs along the river to the park. I had sighted any number of spring warblers and had just focused my binoculars on a Baltimore oriole, when an older gentleman appeared, binoculars up, stalking a blue-grey gnatcatcher in the same tree. We hit it off immediately, comparing notes on the black-throated blue warbler that we had each heard and seen shortly before meeting up.

After a delightful conversation we ambled back along the road to where the man had parked his car. I pointed out some bird activity in a nearby bush. We both raised our binoculars and studied the small specimen: a flycatcher, most assuredly an Empidonax. Consulting the field markings in his Sibley guide, we agreed that it was a least flycatcher, Empidonax minimus.

Roger (for that was his name) invited me to participate in the spring birding census, noting that there were several species of special concern in Connecticut, among them the nighthawk. He sent me the form, which I completed and returned to him at the close of the census. Although I recorded over 60 species, I didn’t see a single nighthawk that month.

Understandably, I was anxious to share the news that I had sighted a nighthawk at last.

Later that day I received a reply from Roger’s wife, thanking me for my note:

Roger would have been very happy that you wrote about identifying the nighthawk. He was, as you know, an avid birder who took so much enjoyment in pursuing his hobby. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer in May and died on August 7th. He fought bravely as he endured three sessions of chemotherapy. I shall miss him forever — he was an exceptional husband in every way.

An exceptional husband, an avid birder, one of a rare species: I shall miss him too.

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Goodbye, Sadie Hawkins

It was the week before the junior high Sadie Hawkins dance, when the traditional shoe fell on the other foot. Back then it was the boys who asked the girls out on dates; nearly every boy asked a girl to senior prom. But on Sadie Hawkins Day things got switched up; on Sadie Hawkins Day the girls asked the boys out to the dance.

This was particularly problematic for a shy boy like me. I made it a point to keep an extra low profile in the weeks leading up to the dance.

We were sitting in the back of an empty classroom one autumn afternoon, chatting among ourselves after an extracurricular club meeting. I don’t recall which one it was, only that we were there lounging at the desks, making small talk; when suddenly there she was, straight shoulder-length brown hair framing a face accented by heavy dark-rimmed eyeglasses, staring at me.

Uncomfortable, I reached for an imagined yellow pencil behind my ear and slid forward in my seat, as if I could dematerialize in the process; but she stood her ground. I knew it was coming, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

“Would you go to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance with me?” she asked in one continual uninterrupted breath.

“Who, me?” I hemmed and hawed, pushing myself up into the seat, only to slide back down again.

“Of course, you,” she said, and waited expectantly for an answer.

“I, well I—” I gulped some air, cleared my throat and offered some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t make it that particular night.

“Is it because you’re hoping someone else will ask you?” she asked, undeterred.

“No, no that’s not it at all. It’s just that I, well I…” The words trailed off like the hollow notes of a loon over a lake.

“What then, is it because I’m not pretty enough?”

“No, it’s not that at all. It’s just that I, I don’t dance—I don’t know how to dance.”

Somehow this explanation seemed to placate her. “Well, maybe you ought to learn to some day,” she said, and walked away.

Five years later I attended my senior prom—alone. I took my 35-mm camera mounted on a tripod and took photographs of couples for free. I don’t recall if she was there that night or not. I was only thankful that the camera had saved me from having to ask a girl out for the evening, even if I had to pay for the white-coat formal wear myself.

Years later our paths crossed at a Thomas Howard lecture in Lancaster.  She was doing graduate work in Vancouver; I was just finishing up my undergraduate degree.

I never saw her after that until our 35th high school class reunion. Suddenly there she was with her husband of two years; she had fallen in love and married late in life, too late to start a family. She still had her dad; her mother passed away when we were in high school.

That evening she was exuberant. She told me about her translation work; I told her about my book. She wanted to know where she could get a copy; I told her she could find it online. Eventually, the conversation died down. She and her husband seemed so much in love.

Today I learned of her recent death from liver cancer. She would have turned sixty this September.

Try as you might, you can’t pack nearly sixty years of life into a few paragraphs of newsprint—it just doesn’t seem to do the person justice. But then, in the end justice isn’t what it’s all about.

In the end what it’s all about is mercy and grace.