Some birds may be the wondering spirits of people we know and loved.

Some birds may be the wondering spirits of people we know and loved.

by Hugh Gilmore

One summer night when he was about six, Colin and I were sitting in the backyard together, listening to the crickets trilling.

I asked, “Do you know what that sound is?”

“Yes, that’s the sound of crickets,” he said.

“I wondered if you knew that.”

He said, “You know what I used to think they were when I was little?”

“No, what”?

“I used to think that was the sound the stars made.”

How magical is the world of the child. Such beauty they bring to our lives. How easy it is to love a loving child. A little boy is so very different than an infant. A man can feel tender toward his infant son, but it is not until they start doing things together that they bond.

When we lived in Kenya, East Africa, studying wildlife, he was six and seven. I often took him to watch the baboons I was there to study. We also went to game parks and to movies a 100-mile drive away. I wanted to enrich his life, give him vital memories, be his father in the truest sense of the word. Those were our Tin-Tin years, when we sat by candlelight, my arm around him, acting the voices for him as I read.

One day we were driving a dusty, corrugated road through the savannah on the formerly abandoned ranch where we lived. I saw a group of vultures hopping about an immobile gray lump lying on the ground. I drove closer and the vultures moved away from the dead warthog they’d been pecking at. I stopped our van and told Colin to come with me and look. The thousand flies on the warthog buzzed in one machine-like sound. I went back to the car and returned with a hammer. We stood there, fascinated and repulsed,

“Watch what I do,” I said.

I pushed the warthog onto its back with my boot. The flies rose in protest and tried to settle again, lifting up and back again every time I moved. I positioned its head and held my hammer near where the upper tusks grew out. I tapped once and swung my hammer, breaking out the large upper tusk. Then I shifted the warthog so the other tusk was exposed.

“Your turn,” I said.

He was a little hesitant, but trusted me and wanted to try.

“You can do it,” I said.

It took him several cracks, but he broke off the other one. Then I knocked out the thinner, smaller bottom tusks.

“Okay, these are yours. When you see them on the shelf when we get back home, remember where they came from and how we got them.”

I wanted him to know something about life and where certain kinds of souvenirs come from. Accept the cycle.

Later. Back in America. Any man who loves his child and is divorced, or separated, or kicked out, hates Saturdays and Sundays. The still-married are walking the streets, eating ice-cream with their children, running a kite together in a park, sitting quietly on a bench. The pain of watching, of jealousy, of guilt, of longing for simpler days, never ends.

I was sitting at my desk in my apartment. A big black ant came walking across my writing pad. I reached over to crush him, then saw he had a crumb in his mandible. The phrase, “A crumb for waiting others” went through my mind. I watched with envy as he went over the edge of my desk and disappeared. Who was I to take his useful life for feeling he had insulted my empty one?

The last day I ever spent with Colin was on a New Year’s day. We went to a place then called Tinicum Wildlife Preserve. Tinicum is a freshwater marshland near my old home in Colwyn. Tinicum was always the place of dreams for me when I was a boy, where I took silent walks to see and be with birds, fish, turtles, snakes, muskrats, and salamanders. I lived out the special happiness one can only know by walking alone, and silently in a swamp.

I’d brought Colin there since infancy. We’d sit in the marsh grass in the warm sun for hours, listening to the wind rushing through the weeds or hoping to hear the cry of a red-tailed hawk in the thin blue sky.

And now, on New Year’s Day, 1988, I was back, my life feeling like the circle had closed, perhaps for good. My new wife, Janet and I walked, holding hands, while Colin proudly pushed his one-year old brother, Andrew, in the baby stroller. How blessed I felt. Peace at last, after much tumult in my life.

That day was made more magical by the odd weather. Ice and snow from a recent storm still covered the ground, and the pond was frozen, but the day was warm. A soft fog filled the marsh. We’d walk through clouds of mist one moment only to enter a sunny clearing the next.

At one such spot, we rounded a bend and saw a great blue heron come flying slowly out of the mist toward us. He veered along the curved shoreline, looking for an un-iced place where he could finally settle. We watched as long as we could. Then, steadfast as a loving memory, he disappeared into the mist. A visitor from another world.

Colin returned to Alaska the next day, where he lived with his mom. A few months later, he died in an auto accident while visiting Hawaii. I never saw my lovely son again. But, ever since, everywhere I go, in every kind of weather, whenever I look up and see a great blue heron flapping his stately way across the sky, I tap my heart in thanks and say hello to my son’s wandering soul.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the recently completed memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” His noir bibliomystery, “Malcolm’s Wine,” is set in the world of old and rare books, as is his story collection, “Scenes from a Bookshop.” Several collections of his Local columns are available in e-book form at

  • Kathy Gilmore

    Beautiful and touching story Hugh!

  • appalachian

    ….. happy birthing day to yall….. love from an old classmate from
    springfield. he is not forgotten… his quick smile and deep still
    funny kindness walks with me all these years later. i am a better person
    for having know your son for just a little time.

  • Damien Theophano

    very nice, hugh. i saw a great blue in the wiss the other week. stopped and watched him for a while

  • Gillian Maimon

    I feel lucky to have grown up with Colin. I will always remember how he was able to tell time simply by looking at the sun.