I wrote this some years ago back when I sometimes encountered wildlife by chance while walking my dog in rural Missouri. My location has changed and someone else is walking my girl Clementine these days, but thoughts about my dad on Father’s Day stay the same.
Walking the hounddog Clementine in the June heat is a bit of a chore, so I waited until she was really fussing at me before I put on my shoes and we headed out. I was feeling meditative as I wandered, thinking of books I had read, mysteries I have solved, or haven’t. (More often, haven’t)
As we came up to the halfway point, I noticed of a kind of brownish lump on the grass shoulder near the sidewalk. It turned out to be a rather unattractive and miserable-looking young bird sitting on the lawn. An energetic twip-twip coming from a grackle up on the phone wire above told the rest of the story. One mystery solved, anyway.
“Ohhh,” I said to the homely little bird. “You’re a fledging, and you didn’t do that well on your maiden voyage, did you?”
He (or she) was quite large and fully formed, except for having a bald patch around each eye where the feathers hadn’t finished. And wearing that sullen expression that baby birds always have when they’re exposed to possible danger, as if they’ve just wet their pants and want you to know that they’ll do it again if you don’t go away.
We did go away, of course. When Clem finally noticed the interesting little life form, she was all for going up and having a sniff (which made the twip-twipping parent very agitated), but since the young grackle didn’t look at all thrilled with this idea, I was able to dissuade her. After we’d moved off enough that the parent stopped scolding us, I looked back, and saw the melancholy little bird execute several leaden hops across the lawn, as if it weighed a pound instead of an ounce. I have no idea how these things work themselves out, but experience has proven to me that they usually do. Somehow, that bald thing that looks so flightless will get over his hopelessness. Dad Bird will chide the little thing into beginning to hop and flap together. When he does, the twip-twips will serve as his North Star and tell him where he needs to go.
As Clementine and I left them behind, I thought about my father. Or rather, I thought about the fact that I hadn’t been thinking about my father. It’s Father’s Day, and my father has been gone for over 18 years. I never would’ve thought the years would fly by. That country song “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” came out less than a year after Dad passed away, and I could hardly stand to hear the line “The man I thought would never die, has been gone almost a year.” That felt so true. You know it will happen, but you’re never ready when it does.
But that song shifts into sadness, speaking of how fathers are sometimes the last ones to say tender words, and I’m grateful that that isn’t part of the memory of my Dad. You couldn’t be that close to someone so very warm, loving and supportive and not know you were loved. I don’t recall ever being in doubt, or needing to hear it expressed in words when he said it in hugs and jokes and looks.
I do miss him, for sure. I used to feel the loss keenly and be amazed all the time to think that he wasn’t out there rooting for me, a phone call or car trip away. But even then — and certainly now — there’s no open wound or big hole where he was, because there wasn’t unfinished business between us. He was such a hero to me always — so funny, so wise, so ready for life’s next adventure — and I don’t think the years have shown me anything to make me doubt my assessment.
When my priest acknowledged the fathers in church today, he reminded us of something that sounds obvious: Without our fathers, none of us would be here. And that’s true, of course, but on multiple levels. Without my father, somehow I don’t think I would’ve gotten through the last couple decades, even though he wasn’t around to see it. Sometimes, the fledgling makes a bad go of it and has to spend some time in the grass figuring things out. And at times like that, if all you have going for you is the little sound of Dad telling you where home is, it becomes the most important thing in the world to you.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you.