Wings of eagles

“I saw the eagles again today.”

I looked up from the plate of food resting before me on the dinner table. “Where?” I asked.

“They were gliding in the air overhead just this side of the mountain,” my wife said. “I was out for my morning walk when I looked up, and there they were.”

Individually, we had sighted eagles in the village over the course of the past year, but they had always been solitary birds, sometimes perched or soaring above the river. Earlier this month was the first time that my wife and I had seen two mature birds together in flight.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“They kept circling, then eventually they disappeared over the ridge.”

Quietly, I closed my eyes and watched them: circling, soaring, clockwise and counter-clockwise, currents of air pulsing through the tips of their long wings, white heads and tails glistening against the morning clouds.

Ever since I was a boy, I had always dreamed of seeing an eagle. I had studied plenty of pictures, emblems on the national shield, photographs on postage stamps, drawings in books on birds of prey.  I had watched native American dancers whirl about to the beat of drums, their headdresses adorned with eagles’ feathers twisting and turning in the air. Later, as a sojourner of sorts, I had kept a watchful eye over the course of my travels, always on the lookout, hoping one day to catch a glimpse of a mature eagle in flight.

Decades passed before I finally got the chance to see a one; and now here they were in pairs, soaring  above the small village that we have come to call home for nearly forty years.

Hope can bring us a long way.  Sometimes we wait years to witness our childhood dreams fulfilled. Perhaps hope requires a healthy measure of time to bring us to the point where we become capable of appreciating such gifts, long-awaited but yet unseen.

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All is (not) lost

All_is_Lost

Last night my son took me to see the recent cinematic release All is Lost. Robert Redford plays the part of a man alone on a sloop 1700 miles from the Sumatra strait. He is awoken by the sound of water rushing into the cabin. A large metal transport container adrift in the sea has collided with the boat, tearing a gaping hole in the forward hull just above the waterline. Redford’s character surveys the scene, then skillfully attempts to extricate his vessel from the partially submerged steel container, first with a gaff (the soft aluminum pole bends like a drinking straw) and then by the creative use of a sea anchor. Finally, the container breaks free.

From that point forward Redford’s character (he is never named) uses his wits and ingenuity to grapple with a series of setbacks, each seemingly more serious than the last. When the vessel is crippled in a violent storm, he salvages whatever essentials he can find and abandons ship to the relative safety of an inflatable life raft. With a sextant and a reference book on celestial navigation he plots his drift on a chart, moving closer each day to the major shipping lanes in the region.

Time and time again we witness the forces of nature beat the man down, while the man responds to the best of his ability. Hope is what keeps him going until the very end. Even in the midst of drifting down into the quiet depths of the sea, a ray of hope prevails.

The drama reminded me of what I have been wrestling with these past five months. From the time of the announcement that the medical practice which I helped to build over the past 20 years would be sold, I have been forced to rely on my wits for survival — first attempting to negotiate terms of employment with the new owner, then maneuvering to salvage what I could from the old. At every turn there were new obstacles to circumvent. I began a job search, went out on interviews, weighed options, sat and thought. When it became apparent I would have to leave, I devised an exit strategy. In the end a life raft appeared on the open sea.

This week I’m surveying the scene, salvaging those essentials that I will need for survival. Each day requires constant vigilance and adjustments. Yesterday I packed up the remaining files and the last of my books. Today I will notify my malpractice insurer of my departure date; tomorrow I will transfer my retirement funds to a new venue. I’ve written a final letter to my patients, folks I’ve cared for over the span of 20 years. Friday will be my last day.

All is not lost: a ray of hope prevails.

Humane Medicine — Said and done

If we should become wise, we come to understand that each of us has only the day before us to live. more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine columnSaid and done: When the present is all we have left — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Humane Medicine February 2013

A new year

The phone rang; my wife picked it up. I could hear her voice from the other room.

She appeared in the doorway, holding the receiver against her shoulder. “They want to know if we want to joint them for dinner at the pub. Are you up for it?”

I had been sitting on the sofa in the dark, mesmerized by our Christmas tree all lit up in the corner.

“If you want to go, we’ll go,” I said.

“We’ll swing by the apartment on our way down,” my wife said into the phone. Slowly, I rose from the sofa and reached for my coat and cap.

A thick fog blanketed the wet streets as we walked beneath the streetlights. I pulled up the collar of my coat and jammed my fingers into my gloves. The cold dampness cut through my trousers as we walked down the street beneath the yellow cones of light in silence.

We knocked at the door of the first floor flat. My son-in-law let us in. He and his father had been working in the new old house most of the day, tearing plasterboard off the walls in the upstairs bathroom. His mother had finished sanding the walls in the master bedroom, getting them ready for the first coat of primer. Both of his parents had worked all day without eating. They looked spent.

They pulled on their coats and we stepped back outside into the fog. It was a short walk to the pub at the end of the street.

The dining room was vacant; a few regular patrons lounged at the bar; a sentinel Christmas tree stood silently in the corner.

We shed our coats and slid into a booth. A waitress appeared to take our order. “Where are all your customers?” I asked. “It’s New Year’s Eve.”

She shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “Somewhere else, I guess. We’re thinking of closing early.”

“Is the kitchen still open?”

“Of course.”

We ordered a round of drinks and studied the menus.

Later, my daughter and son-in-law arrived with my son and his girlfriend. They sat down at the table next to our booth.

“This place is dead,” my son said.

“It’s quiet and warm and clean,” I said. “What more do you want?”

“A party,” he said. “You going to watch the ball drop on TV?”

“I’m going to drop long before that — into bed,” I said.

“Ian posted a letter he wrote me when he was away at college.” He handed me his smartphone. I scrolled down to read the text written 15 years before. Work on your grades, his older brother had written. You don’t have to get A’s to get into college, but you have to graduate from high school. Otherwise you’ll be pumping gas at the Getty station or bagging groceries when you’re 30.

I laughed. He was 31 now with an undergraduate degree, working for the government, going back to school in the spring.

“When we tore out the wallboard, there was knob-and-tube wiring underneath,” my son-in-law’s father said. “You’ve got to be careful when you do demolition in these old houses. No telling what you might run into. I cracked my head on a beam in the basement.” He dropped his chin to show us the red crease on his scalp.

I thought about the work I had done on our home shortly after we purchased it 26 years ago: stripping paper, priming walls and ceilings, replacing the subflooring in the bathroom, repairing a leak in the roof.

“I told them to concentrate on one room at a time. That way they can see some accomplishment. It gives you a little incentive to move ahead. Somehow, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.”

We finished up and stopped by the table to say good-bye to the kids, who were now starting out on their own, just like we did three decades ago.

Outside the fog lay in the street. But overhead the stars were out. A clear crescent moon hung in the sky.

The next morning dawned faultless blue above the village. Outside the back window, high up in one of the maples, a woodpecker pummeled the bark of a broken limb, a remnant of last October’s storm.

Night Landing

Night Landing

Above her toes, from where she lay
Reclining at bed’s edge,
She glimpsed a light pass through the night
Above the window ledge.

The plane began its last approach,
A beacon locked it in—
The landing gear would next descend
And brace against the wind.

Blue lights would then come rushing up—
The runway in the night
Would suddenly materialize
Within the captain’s sight.

The plane would drop down at the last,
Wheels screech against the earth;
Air brakes up, flaps hold fast,
Into its final berth.

She wondered how the end would come—
She prayed she would take flight
As wheels against the tarmac run:
A knock, a lurch—then light.

Copyright 2011 © by Brian T. Maurer