Bird lore, 1906. National Committee of Audobon Societies of America. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I knew a birder once. I liked him—it’s pointless to deny it and in any case I don’t think I can write about him without it being abundantly clear—though we redirected early enough that friendship seemed possible. For him it always was a friendship, anyway. Still, the birding excursion was definitely a date. Perhaps he was curious about whether he’d discover feelings for me among the pines—whether what psychologists call the misattribution of desire might be prompted by seeing a rare bird in my presence. We only saw regular birds, though: grackles, goldfinches, a great blue heron.
He was a birder but he was mostly a musician. I would have found it satisfying to discover that these were two sides of the same coin for him: it’s nice, after all, when people cohere, when you can discern a uniform purpose or a set of underlying values across their various pursuits. But the truth, really, is that people are more than one thing, and for most of his life, birds were an inconsequential if benign presence. It wasn’t until the 2020 lockdown that he discovered how far he was willing to go for their sake: a tundra swan in Pittsfield, a Pacific golden plover in Newburyport.
He was a musician first, though—a conductor. This meant he could replicate plaintive calls and fluttering warbles with a melodic accuracy far beyond the typical naturalist’s, and distinguishing between overlapping cries was hardly more difficult than finding the rogue soprano within a thirty-voice section. That comparison is mine, of course: conducting is not so much like birding, if you are really paying attention. Choir is about connection, he told me once—to the music, to other people. But you don’t need other people to walk around a lake in Woburn and check for sleeping owls. I just happened to be there.
He had one friend. This friend lived in Pennsylvania, but they had grown up together, and when he read a strange passage in a book or his car’s brakes were acting funny, that’s who he’d call. He had found that the ease and shared sense of humor born of twenty-five years’ friendship were not easily replicated—at least not without a similar temporal investment. Anyway, that was fine with him. If he had wanted more than one friend he would have networked more aggressively in kindergarten.
I didn’t know he was a birder when I met him. I knew he curved his wrists when he played the piano; I knew his voice was clear, his intonation precise. The first time we walked somewhere it was too dark for birds. But the second time there was an hour until sunset: he identified a red-tailed hawk and, at my request, a small bird I spotted flitting into a tree. (That’s a robin, he said, amused.) Once, we stopped to observe two northern flickers who were uncharacteristically content to putter about on the ground. When a house sparrow approached us at a picnic table, he held out his hand. We sat still and silent as the sparrow considered it, hopped forward, and then flew off to a nearby tree.
It was a summer when everything seemed to be going well for me. I only say “seemed” because they were the sort of things whose value is at least as much in the promise they suggest for the future as in the things themselves—small successes, indicating that my work might be worthwhile after all. I felt an energy spinning inside me. It reminded me of the way my high school choir director used to illustrate breath support, circling her fingers in front of her diaphragm like a motor. Spinning, spinning, she would say as we held a sustained note, her fingers moving with possibility and force.
The birder was part of this, for a little while—in that early stage where nothing is real yet but it seems that anything could be. It was like waiting for something to land, waiting for the moment when we would come to a first tentative answer: I know something about who you are, and something about who we will be to each other. Even after the landing, though—after the possibilities it foreclosed—I still felt the sense of spinning in myself. I spent mornings writing in coffee shops and afternoons reading in libraries.
He was working on a composition, a piece commissioned by the church where he worked. Every morning he would make a cup of coffee, turn off his phone notifications, and sit down to write. The beginning was the hardest part: so much would follow from the opening tonality that writing the first few measures nearly meant composing the whole piece—finding a sense of it, finding an impetus that pressed toward somewhere worth going. He tried five beginnings in five days. On the sixth day, he heard it: a motif that wanted to become something. He followed it through twelve lines of text, watching it ravel and unravel across the four voices.
Sometimes he composed for his church choir: a group of eight or twelve singers, a few musically trained and the rest enthusiastic. They loved him for his patience, his youth, his skill—and for his face, too, a grandmotherly soprano confided—and when he wrote for them he gave preference to homophony: chords that rang together and melodic lines that cajoled unity from singers whose voices ranged widely. But he wrote this piece imagining a choir equipped to give voice to whatever he devised for them. It was still a choir that he imagined, though: populated by people, not by some collection of ethereal voices amiably leaping across whatever intervals he assigned them. Liszt famously wrote piano pieces that no one could actually play. He didn’t particularly care for Liszt.
He directed two other choirs. One was at a university where he served as conductor in residence, a role that offered him artistic control only under the aegis of a music professor responsible for all three student choirs. The other position reported to a board of directors with a penchant for bouts of reflection that often led to unexpected requirements in program length or instrumentation. Art happens in the interplay between creativity and constraint, and these were the peculiar restrictions enabling his art. Of course, this is a resolutely optimistic gloss on the situation. The affected party himself tended more toward baffled frustration: Why are they always reflecting? And why don’t they reflect with me?
It was also the summer my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. The news came in August: a cancerous mass the size of a lime had taken up residence in her body. The botanical comparison was disconcertingly similar to the updates my friends would see in their pregnancy apps. I imagined how the app would track the growth of my mother’s cancer. Now it has lymph nodes! Now it has a liver—now lungs!
At first the news was easy to compartmentalize. I could choose when to think of it, and in what way. My unconscious mind did the worrying that my conscious self was reluctant to take up, producing vivid dreams of catastrophe in which my whole family died or the world ended. In the dreams I felt a deep grief. But they protected me from the dull sinking pain of waking up to bad news—when you remember, again, the reality you’re living in. Instead, mornings were a relief: my mother has cancer, but we have not all been killed by meteorites.
We didn’t know whether the cancer had spread. My younger brother and sister and I were visiting my parents, and they came into my room for a hushed sibling conference one night as I was about to go to sleep. Have you looked at the survival rates? my sister said. Yes, I said: seventy-two percent for stage three, fourteen percent for stage four. You have to face the worst possibility, she said. Do I? I said. I know it—do I have to face it? Stage four means she has maybe a year. We don’t know that’s what’s happening, I said. It could be stage three. Yes, she said. Or it could be stage four.
My body shook. I took deep breaths, tried to relax my muscles, and still my legs clenched and trembled. I fell asleep by listing all the people I knew who had lost mothers. When I woke shaking a few hours later, I fell asleep again by listing all the people who were like mothers to me. When I woke at 5 A.M., I listed myself. I listed the ways I am like her; I listed the possibilities spinning inside me. I fell asleep listing the things worth doing that I want to do.
I don’t know what the second night would have been like, whether a form of peace can work night after night or whether it is diminished every time you call on it. I can do hard things, a dear friend said during her labor. I can do hard things. But the next day we learned it wasn’t stage four, and my brother blasted Hank Williams and I baked a peach pie.
Sometimes this kind of news acts like a sieve: excess relationships slip into irrelevance. I felt that, with some people. It no longer seemed worth it to offer emotional energy for dubious return. Other people became more important than they had been—doctors, of course; friends with similar experiences. But the birder stayed the same to me, which suggested we’d gotten something right.
He came with me to see my parents the day my mother was discharged from the hospital. In the evening, before driving back to the city, we walked down to the harbor. On that rock, he said: A black-crowned night heron. I saw it—head tucked against a wing, oblong body and moonlit feathers, perched at the edge of the water. Above us, a stray Perseid fell in a small streak across the sky.
Maisie Wiltshire-Gordon is an essayist and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley.
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