The Orioles Left When Dad Died
In the last few years of his life, my dad became a passionate backyard birder
COPD had stolen his breath, so he couldn’t tramp the countryside anymore, but he sure could get birds to come to him! He’d spend hours on the Internet learning how to attract hummingbirds, blue birds, goldfinches, and more. Together, he and I became pretty damn good porch-sitting ornithologists.
Our favorite birds of all were the brilliantly plumed Baltimore orioles whose contortionist antics amused us so much at the jelly feeders we hung over the lawn. And the hummingbirds! So tiny, so delicate, so bright. Such a rare treat, yet we’d see them every day for hours.
We ended up seeing birds we never expected because they were supposed to be out of range, like the brown thrasher. The day an indigo bunting visited was really special. Their cobalt blue plumage is startling!
I even learned how to tell birds apart by their song from inside the house. “Hey, Dad,” I’d say. “I hear a rose-breasted grosbeak outside!” Then he’d grab his coffee or lemonade and head to the porch to wait for it to burst into view. The grosbeak is one of Michigan’s most ornamental birds, a very large finch whose feathers shine like enamel.
I feel a tiny bit shocked each time I spot one.
Out on the porch, a low-frequency electrical transformer buzz would often pull my head up to the nectar feeder in the corner. If I didn’t make any sudden moves, I could enjoy the company of a hummingbird sipping sugar water just two or three feet away.
Evenings, we’d sit on the porch with our English pointer Sam, maybe sipping a beer or glass of wine after dinner, always watching the birds. Sam would lie his head on Dad’s lap, soaking up the attention of his favorite human, often enjoying a grooming from a stiff wire brush. Most days, as the sun began to set, the two of them would head off in the truck to spot deer and wild turkey on back-country roads. Sam would stick his head out the window, tongue hanging out, smiling like only a happy dog can.
Late one afternoon last August, we sat on the porch with Sam while a home-hospice nurse did the paperwork to admit Dad to her service with regular home visits. The nurse was AMAZED by how many orioles she saw feeding and playing.
Dad and I loaded Sam in the truck and went out to dinner to celebrate a new stage in his life. We already knew his time was coming to a close, but we were glad for the extra care he’d be receiving — care that would ease frequent episodes of pain and severe breathing distress that made him suicidal. Care that would extend our happy period of evening porch sitting and allow a graceful and gradual transition to whatever comes after Act III.
When we got home from what turned out to be our last meal out, as the sun sank and we said goodnight to the birds, we looked forward to a comfortable end of summer and a nice winter with feathery friends who always stuck around, even in the snow.
Dad didn’t make it to winter and snow. He passed away just two weeks later. His COPD spiraled much faster than the hospice doctor assumed. Months or even a year of relatively comfortable passing turned into a gut-wrenching final episode of extreme distress that only morphine — tons of morphine — could alleviate.
That afternoon watching the orioles with the hospice nurse turned out to be the last time Dad watched the orioles. Soon, he was confined to bed, then to a hospital bed, with periods of consciousness infrequent and brief.
Sam stayed at his side every minute, as I did. Family gathered for the last vigil and commented on our beautiful birds, but I didn’t see them. I sat in a chair beside Dad and counted breaths, counted the growing length between breaths.
After Dad exhaled for the last time, he looked peaceful and rested. Sam and I said goodbye, Sam looking as mournful as I, as the hearse pulled out of the drive. At least I had a memorial service as closure. Sam wandered around lost and bereft. Please nobody try to convince me dogs don’t suffer and grieve. I know better.
The orioles disappeared almost immediately, marking a passage I hadn’t been ready for. No mystery to that. They leave at the end of August, females first, headed south with their new broods before cold weather strikes. The males hang on a few days longer, then poof, they all disappear at once.
By the time all the brilliant orange males were gone, so were the hummingbirds, starting their inconceivable journey to Mexico and Central America. How does an ounce and a half of fluff and feather manage such a feat?
Sam and I didn’t ask. We were too busy grieving. Then one crisp autumn day before the first snow, a new family member showed up, a small cat clearly in love with people, equally clearly abandoned. We took her in, and she helped us through a dark winter.
I worried about spring, about the orioles, the hummingbirds, about life moving on. Had I paid enough attention to Dad’s instructions? Did I know how and when to set up the jelly feeders? If we missed the migration, the orioles might pass us by, or so said all the experts.
And what about the cat? Would her presence chase our springtime regulars away, send them off to less dangerous-looking habitats?
Starting more than a week ago, my worries turned to real anxiety. All my feeders were out, everything set up as well as I knew how, but no orioles. No hummingbirds. They were late. Very late. By all expert estimation, they should already have arrived.
They weren’t coming, simple as that.
I told myself it was OK, that life changes, and if my pretty little cat was at fault, then the joy she’s brought to Sam and me is enough to make up for porch evenings without our favorite birds.
Then! The day before yesterday, I turned around in the kitchen and spotted one male oriole at the feeder. Yes! But he was alone, and I only saw him briefly. I sucked in my breath against disappointment.
Until late yesterday afternoon. Two orioles showed up outside the kitchen! Just as I was getting some great photos, I heard loud birdsong. “Sam!” I shouted. “Front porch!” We ran out and sure enough, four MORE orioles were singing their hearts out as they ate at the front feeders.
When I ran back to the kitchen for the camera, I spotted a male ruby-throated hummingbird sipping peacefully with orioles right beside him.
This morning, as I write, I’m entertained by the antics of what seems a flock of orioles, almost all male, which means the migration is on in full force, late for no explainable reason.
All is well. The universe continues its unswerving march, granting those of us who try small peeks at beauty, harmony, and continuity.
Sam and I sat on the porch for two hours last night watching the orioles and a pair of brown rabbits who decided to munch grass and watch them with us. Sam put his head in my lap and cried for a while while I groomed him with a stiff wire brush.
I think I know why.
I think the orioles were helping him find closure. I know they’re helping me, and I’m so glad they’re back. I’m probably more glad than I’ve been able to express here, but I hope the photos I’m sharing help you understand a little bit.
Because a little bit would be more than enough.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.