Bird-watching helps Dante find peace after the death of his grandfather
The freezing wind howled past me like a ferocious wolf, biting at my toes and fingers. A foul smell arose from the deep black garbage bags, stockpiled messily on the sidewalk. The buildings looked like metal bars, imprisoning me inside my own mind. This was New York City, not a good place to grieve or endure loneliness.
The past few weeks had been weeks of sorrow for my family. My grandfather had just died and it hit all of us hard. My grandfather had died after stumbling on a treadmill. He had already been struggling with diabetes and heart problems, but none of us anticipated for him to pass this soon. At the time of the accident, my grandfather was living in California so none of my immediate family saw him before he died. The funeral had been especially tough for me.
At the time of the funeral, I did not know my grandfather very well. My family didn’t visit California very often, maybe once every two years. I was nine, so that meant I had been with him only four times in my life.
At the funeral, everyone was crying. I didn’t know how to feel. I was young, and this was the first major loss I had experienced. I had never attended a funeral before. The walls were lined with pink and purple flowers and the priest gave a homily for a long time. I was bewildered. What were all the crazy words he was saying, such as “congregation” and “resurrection”? What was that long red-and- black cloak he was wearing? I did not understand his job. When the pallbearers carried the casket with my grandfather’s body in it, I was too frightened to look at his dead upper body. My mom said, “You don’t have to look at the body. It’s okay.” I felt guilty anyway. I remember thinking afterwards, I should have gone up and given my final regards to him. After the services, the remainder of the funeral was a blur to me.
This was the second weekend after his death and we were all still in mourning. The absence of his cheerful presence every time we called was evident. We were sauntering to Central Park on a cold autumn day. I had brought my binoculars and had decided to go bird-watching. I had been bird-watching for around a year, so I had gotten used to going every so often. I had my head down, trying not to think back to the funeral when a voice interrupted my blank state of mind.
“Are you okay, Dante?” my mom asked worriedly.
“I’m fine,” I replied in a dull voice.
“Okaaaay,” my mom commented while raising an eyebrow. “If there’s anything you need to talk about, I’m here,” my mom stated. The sidewalk felt stiff on my feet and my heavy clothing held me down to the ground. The sky matched my downcast mood and was gray and gloomy. I was pushing my way toward the 90th Street entrance to Central Park. Just a few more blocks in the heavy wind until I arrived in Central Park.
The second I stepped into Central Park, everything abruptly changed. The giant brick skyscrapers were replaced with bright cherry blossom trees and the garbage smell became a warm earthy scent.
“We’re here!” I enthusiastically remarked. “Where do we go now?” I asked. “Well the best place to go bird-watching is in the Ramble, so let’s start walking southwest from here,” my dad replied. We started strolling toward the Ramble, and I had the chance to appreciate all the plants and nature. There were spider plants, with their bright green-and-white leaves sprawled in all directions. Striking red, blue, pink, and purple flowers blooming in the spring. Towering red oak trees with their bright scarlet leaves. I loved the way the red, green, and yellow colors blended together. There were too many brilliant plants and colors to count. I also observed many different animals. There were squirrels scavenging for nuts. Sparrows seeking seeds under the benches. I felt my chest widen with all the beautiful animals and plants, all thriving in Central Park. The stroll to the Ramble took about twenty minutes, but it seemed all too fast with my eyes darting this way and that, taking in all of Central Park’s nature.
I barely noticed the sign that my family had arrived at the Ramble until my dad declared, “We’re here!”
“Already?” I asked, astonished.
“Yes, look at the sign in front of us,” my dad replied. I took a glance at the sign and it read, “The Ramble” and was followed by a map. We walked along a rough dirt path into the Ramble and experienced another change in scenery. The trees became denser and their translucent leaves allowed little light on the ground. There were more lush bushes and the path was now completely soil. We went down a dust trail until we reached further into the Ramble. A stream trickled as we walked across the bridge over it. It was a small stream but flowing fast as it rushed and glided downhill. The chirping of birds intensified as we got closer to the center of the Ramble, but we were yet to see our first rare bird. We kept listening and gazing around for bird signs, trying to spot a rare bird. The trees and bushes all seemed still and silent around us, like time was frozen except for the plodding of our feet and the running of a nearby stream. After a few minutes of restless glancing and pacing I sensed movement in a spindly young tree next to us. I focused on the tree for several seconds before I saw a dash of red as a brilliant male cardinal showed itself.
The cardinal was striking red. Its lizard head had a dash of white and its tail also had a hint of black. It flitted in and out of the treetops, showing itself here and there. Then, a few seconds later another cardinal appeared. This one was female with brown and beige feathers. Suddenly I realized, the male cardinal had been chasing after the female the whole time! The male cardinal flared its feathers in an attempt to draw the attention of the female. Its feathers were a deep, beautiful cherry color in contrast to the cardinal’s deep-black face. I held out my hand with bird seed for them. They seemed hesitant at first, but after a few long minutes they realized I wasn’t a threat. The male cardinal was bolder and was the first bird to fly to my hand. Its little black feet tickled my bare hand. “Hee ha ha,” I couldn’t help but giggle softly. The male cardinal grabbed a seed and immediately flew away. The female cardinal followed the male’s lead and jumped onto my hand. It also tentatively took a seed and flew off. After that encounter, the male and female cardinals flew off together.
I held out my palm with bird seed, and soon warblers, thrushes, and sparrows all flew to my hand. There was no stopping the birds coming and going from my palm. I had to refill my hand several times, and eventually, the birds got bored of my bird seeds and flew off. My family and I walked around the Ramble for a few minutes, just taking in the woodland nature and red and yellow falling leaves. The walk around the Ramble was relaxing and calming. We saw Barry the Owl, a year-round resident of Central Park, and many other animals such as chipmunks and squirrels.
After a while of bad luck for spotting birds, I finally spotted a red-tailed hawk. It was sitting dead still in a tree, its watchful eyes observing the scene below. It was mostly brown, with dark red in its tail. It was hard to see against the brown trunk and branches. I used my binoculars to get a better look and saw that the hawk never blinked. I learned later that hawks have three eyelids. Their third eyelid moves horizontally to clean the eye, and they never close their eyes completely.
Suddenly, it swooped to a nearby tree in an attempt to catch a squirrel. I missed its first dive, and then it dove a few more times. The attempts were futile. The squirrel had escaped into a hole in the tree.
It was magnificent to gaze at the hawk’s giant wingspan and the way it dove with its claws out. Its beak gleamed in the sunlight and looked dangerously sharp. After the swing and miss with the squirrel, the hawk glided off in the wind.
After thirty minutes of walking around aimlessly, I got sleepy. I sat under a canopy of red and crimson leaves to rest my exhausted eyes and legs. I leaned my back against the sturdy trunk of a nearby tree. I ran through many thoughts in my mind and pushed away the thoughts about my grandfather. I had to face them eventually, though. His smiling face kept coming up in my mind. I finally acknowledged that I had to think about him and his life.
He was a generous grandfather, giving me presents every year, and was always kind to me when I visited him. My family would FaceTime him often, so we could catch up and check in. The last time I saw him was when my family took a walk by the riverside with him. It was a delightful crisp day and you could smell the fresh sea and feel the mist on your face. My parents had bought my sister and me ice cream and we walked as we licked our giant scoops of iced dessert. It was a pleasant walk and we had caught up on things with my grandfather, like what has been going on in California, and how he’s doing. I asked him what he was watching on TV. He replied, “I don’t watch TV except for the news. It just isn’t interesting to me now.” I was confused. How could you outgrow TV? I had so many questions for him. I understand now that entertainment isn’t everything. My grandfather would always sit down with me and explain how in the old days, they never had computers or phones and they had to find other ways to have fun. He would show me the dusty old books he used to read and teach me about the past. When it was time to leave, I was sorry to say goodbye.
My grandmother and grandfather were divorced, and my grandfather had remarried. He had married a woman named Catherine, and Catherine didn’t like my grandma very much. Catherine was a small agreeable woman and my family had no problem with her. I never saw my grandmother and grandfather together for this reason.
As I was thinking about my grandpa and his life, I began thinking the same question again and again. What would he have wanted for me?
I knew the answer.
I knew he would have wanted me to live a long and happy life and to not dwell on his absence. He would have wanted me to move on and accept that he had passed away. I had never really accepted the fact that he had died. In the back of my mind I still expected to see him the next time I went to California. I had been caught up in the fast-moving tide of life and hadn’t had any time to think about him. Right then I made a decision.
I would not let his death stop me from enjoying life.
I would remember him for who he was to me and grieve him, but I would never let the dark hole in my chest swallow me up in remorse and sorrow.
I realized that this whole time I had been running. Running away from his death and his passing.
But I was tired.
Tired of running from the inevitable. If I had ignored his death for the rest of my life, I would have always been burdened.
On the walk home, suddenly the trees seemed a bit greener, the sky seemed a bit lighter, everything felt a bit more beautiful. It felt as if a giant weight had been lifted from my back and swept off in the wind. I started asking my parents questions about my grandfather, wanting to know more about him. “Where did he live in his childhood? What was his job? Where did he work?” I wanted to know everything about him. It felt as if the dark hole in my chest had closed up and the world felt less heavy. I knew I had to live life out to the fullest extent. The world sped up as I walked home, and now I thought more about life and all the beautiful things. The smallest smile, the feeling of waking up, wearing my favorite sweater all felt sweeter and fuller to me.
In some ways I was a bitmore timid butneverletup on the thrill and excitement. I was more thoughtful, thinking more about the smallest things and my decisions. I was less rash and more reflective of myself.
The male cardinal was bolder and was the first bird to fly to my hand. Its little black feet tickled my bare hand.
I never forgot the lessons my grandfather passed on to me through his death. Live freely, courageously, and vitally in spite of awareness of death.
Everything is temporary. Live life to the fullest.
Don’t run from death.