A spring, not so long ago, I discovered two Canada geese in the field by the blue pool. A spring when my father was still alive. The pool is a luminous ribbon of water that arches away from the river and cuts across a fallow field. I visit this part of the river often. Follow the old railroad grade down from our house. There were just the two geese at first. Two nestled together in the grass at the water’s edge. I thought them vulnerable but they prefer the open meadow so they can easily spot predators. I returned often to watch the geese. Sometimes one goose seemed to sleep while the other sat nearby, head held high or pulling at feathers. Then one day, goslings. I watched six tiny bodies waddle to the water’s edge.
Egyptians thought geese to be messengers between heaven and earth as did the ancient Chinese. Romans made them the sacred animals of Juno, goddess of light, whose goose laid the egg from which the sun every day hatched. Canada geese are the birds I most often saw on hikes with my father. He liked to walk. My mother once told me of their first date, a midwest autumn Sunday, with maple and oak leaves floating through the air. They walked from her house to the capitol building and knocked at the governor’s door – introduced themselves. The governor invited them in and they chatted about what they might do with their lives. They passed a lake on the walk back. Maybe he kissed her. She didn’t say. I imagine there were geese somewhere, in the sky or on the water.
“It was over ten miles,” my mother tells me. “And he didn’t talk much.”
They married soon after. He was, as my mother confesses, very handsome. They started a family that would be four boys and two girls.
I often walked with my father down to rivers, ponds, and creeks near my childhood home. He took me with him when a walk was needed. Fast and silent. At first, I wasn’t so much invited, as sent by my mother. It started when my father was recovering from open heart surgery and I was just starting middle school. As always, he wanted to walk. After the surgery my mother worried, so out I’d go, running to keep up, my job to seek help should his heart give way. Later, when he was better, he’d take me to see geese or herons or swans in the nearby parks, sometimes on frosty winter mornings, the geese and swans swimming on a small hole of water their warm bodies kept open. In spring, we would visit heron rookies, loud places, full of white drippings on the trees and here and there the small lifeless bodies of young that had fallen from their nests. But it is geese we saw most often. Canada geese.
Geese are known for their strong family bonds and lifelong mating habits. They return again and again to nest at their natal homes, generation after generation. The in-flight v shaped formation of their flying is easily recognized. It’s what we see so often overhead, what I like to point out to my son, follow with my fingers in spring or fall. There they are again, chattering from above, a warning or a celebration of sorts, depending on the season or one’s state of mind.
Under ideal conditions a flock can cover over 1,500 miles in a day but usually they travel at a more leisurely speed. Experienced adults take turns at the head of the V formation, setting a pace which all can maintain, young and old. It’s said that the honking geese do is encouragement to each other; the geese in the back of the formation hearten those in the lead. Push them to keep pace against the demands of buoyancy. If one of the flock is unable to keep up, they travel slower. If continuing is not possible, several are left behind with the weak or injured where they stay together until the weak are able to continue. Or until the weak one dies. Only then do the others rejoin the flock.
The winter after I discover the goslings in the blue pool, my father is told he most likely won’t make it to another spring, so weak is his heart. He is reaching into his eighties and still going on the repairs done during that open-heart surgery some 40 odd years ago. We’ve heard these dire predictions before. Ever since my father had his first heart attack. But this time seems different. When I call my mother though, she says everything is fine, just fine. But others say hospice. They call and ask me if my mother knows what hospice means since she keeps saying everything will be fine.
“No need to worry,” she tells me. “No need to rush home.”
But I do. I don’t exactly rush but I go home to celebrate my father’s birthday. That’s my excuse. As if I need an excuse. It is February and I am only there for a long weekend, a cold weekend. A blizzard. I try to pretend like this is something I always do, come home in February for my father’s birthday. The blizzard shuts down the roads the day after I arrive. My mother is sick and my father labors to move around the house, shackled as he is to oxygen tanks. I realize, maybe for the first time really, that they have become old. There is not much food in the house, none of the usual cookies or pies. Its snows and snows but I make my way to the grocery store. I make stews and soups and we watch TV. My father’s feet swell and I help pull his socks up his feet and around his thick calves. He falls asleep at the breakfast table minutes after eating. When he wakes, he carves as he has for many years. He is a carver of ducks and songbirds and fish and human figures. A painter too. Oils, watercolors, charcoal sketches. He is prolific, productive still, mostly making carvings for my mom to paint. And he watches birds – out the kitchen window and at the feeder in the back yard, along the telephone lines and in the trees. It has been a long time since he could walk far, or even leave the house to visit a park or pond or heron rookery. But out the kitchen window he can see cardinals and bluebirds, chickadees, and cedar waxwings. Once we saw a snowy owl, but not this weekend. This weekend it is just starlings. But that seems like enough.
For his birthday my father asks for a hamburger and chocolate milkshake. He asks for cigarettes too. I come back without them. He is so disappointed I go back out and buy him a pack. He eats his burger and drinks his milkshake then struggles away from his oxygen tanks and down into the basement to smoke. He smokes while carving, like he always has, as if things will always be this way then returns upstairs to his tanks. We watch TV. We watch the snow fall. Watch for birds. I go on short walks and make more runs to the store. I make cookies. My mom feels better and joins us in the TV watching. Then the weekend is over and it’s time for me to leave for the airport, to fly back home. My father reaches out to hug me when I stand before him with my coat and luggage. I lean down to wrap my arms around him, in between the lines of oxygen, and he kisses me on the check.
“Bye, bye,” he says as I stand up.
“Bye,” I say.
“You came here to see me because you think I won’t make it until summer,” is what he says. It’s not really a question and I don’t answer right away. It feels more like I’ve been caught doing something I ought not. Lacking in faith or hope. I ‘ve made some sort of proclamation in my coming here. I say nothing and don’t look at him but mumble a yes because I don’t know what else to say.
“Yes,” I say because it seems a bad time to lie.
“It’s ok,” He says. “I understand,” and he turns back to his carving. I leave as I have so many times, as if he’ll be there carving and drawing and watching TV the next time I visit.
He died one night after dinner, as he played computer games. My mom was not really sure at first what happened, as he quietly slumped forward. It was April Fool’s Day. My son asked if it’s some kind of joke that Grandpa was doing when I tell him because he did like to joke, my dad did. It is morning when I go to my son’s bed. When I tell him. I say no, no, I’m sorry, not a joke and my son pulls his covers over his head and stays there for a very long time.
In the weeks and months after, I walked. It is what I learned after all these years. To walk. When I have time, I go to the river, to the blue pools and pond. I look for birds, for geese. I look for the goslings returned, older now and ready for their own goslings. I look for the family to be there again. But they are not. There are days I do nothing but watch for them in their field, watch for them to be swimming or waddling about or sitting in the tall grass, bending their long necks upwards, watching for whatever might lurk there in the grass, whatever might harm them, whatever it is that makes them vulnerable. But they are not there. It is just an empty field and a pool of blue water. I go looking too for herons in the side channels and sloughs, for doves in the maples. I pull stones from the river and feel them smooth in my hand, watch clouds drift, study the way ferns bend under wind. Mostly I wander.
One evening my son puts his finger to his lips and shushes me. We are upstairs in his room, putting clothes away. I look at him and he points to the window, the closed one.
“Geese!” he whispers. Through the closed windows we can hear sounds though I can’t really say what they are.
“I hear their wings flapping,” My son says. I say no, no you don’t. That’s not possible. But I open the window and look out. I go as if I might hear the rustle of wings. As if that might be possible. As if the geese might be just above us. As if they could be that close – the dusk that still. But there they are, passing overhead, just nearly above the alder and cedar trees, flying toward the blue pool. I hear the swoosh of wings and then their deep cries calling. Singing like they have for so many seasons before. Singing for every spring and fall returned. For all that has come and gone, for all that must be left behind, for all that must move forward. Here are the golden days of your being, they cry. Rise up, they say. Stay buoyant. Stay buoyant. Stay buoyant.