by Hugh Gilmore
The nature writer and anthropologist Loren Eiseley was once out in the badlands of the American West with an order to capture something interesting – birds, reptiles, anything, that his museum could use for exchange with a foreign zoo. One night he came upon an abandoned cabin. He opened the door softly ready to use his flashlight to blind whatever he saw and thereby capture it. He heard the rustle of birds come from a shelf on the wall and brought his short ladder over and climbed it. He reached into the darkness and shined his light just before he clutched a female sparrow hawk. Then her mate sank his beak into Eiseley’s thumb. Eiseley let go and the female escaped through a hole in the roof. Eiseley grabbed the male and climbed down in the dark, left the cabin, put the bird in a small box and made camp. His thumb ached and bled all night.
The next morning was beautiful, with a sky so clear and blue, you could see forever across the plains. “It was a fine day to be alive,” he wrote. He took the bird box out of his truck to examine his capture. He opened it and held the bird, wings folded. The sparrow’s heartbeat rapidly, but “he only looked beyond me and up.” Eiseley lifted his eyes to see what the bird was looking at but could not follow his gaze. But something changed in that minute. Without knowing why, he laid the bird in the grass.
At first the male sparrow just lay there. Then, “like a flicker of light,” he vanished. Eiseley’s eyes could not follow him into that empty vast sky. All around him was silence. “Then from far up somewhere a cry came ringing down.” Eiseley looked up and saw the two hawks meet in a soaring gyre and dance of wings. “Then they were gone forever beyond the eyes of men.”
Years later, after reading an article about the wonders of artificial intelligence, Eiseley remembered that day with the sparrows and wrote, “On the other hand…on the other hand, a machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours, in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with fierce passion of a bird.” He called it “that cry from the heart of heaven.”
I was reminded of Loren Eiseley’s story of “The Bird and the Machine” (from “The Immense Journey”) last week when I received a letter from Gilly Phipps of Wyndmoor. She explained how a book she read was helping her with a problem she faces.
She wrote: “I want to speak of love and friendship in our current day and age. Don’t feel you have to mention my situation in one of your columns. It’s a bit heavy and maybe depressing for your readers, so I won’t be offended. I just wanted to share my story.
“I am daily faced with some quite trying issues concerning my best friend who is a five-year resident in a nearby nursing home. She currently has short-term memory loss but is right on target when we discuss anything from the past, in particular our past together. We are best friends for 25-plus years (she is a decade older than me). She is the last living member of her family.
“I’m going over today soon. It’s a frustrating experience and yesterday she was combative and screaming at the staff and even at me as I stood at her window outside. She apologized, but she is having a time of it…weeks on end of feeling sick and not eating. Her vitals are stable but she is still in quarantine because the entire building is quarantined. No visitors until further notice. I haven’t been inside for over two months.
“Two weeks ago she tested positive for Covid-19. I have been taking a daily drive to the home where she resides, and since she is one of the residents who are quarantined in a room with a window, I stand outside and wave my signs that say, Hi, I love you, and goodbye. We try to talk to each other, but with the glass between us, it’s hard.
“But at least I get to see how she looks, and learn how she is breathing, sleeping, eating, etc., and she gets to see me. It is frustrating, but the best we are offered during this unprecedented time.
“So far she is physically winning the battle…but the war is still ahead. The staff are caring and compassionate, they know and love my friend, but they are overwhelmed with the current situation. They were one of the first nursing homes to shut down visitations from outside.
“But quarantine living means isolation. Confined alone in a room, for weeks, not being able to even get into her wheelchair for bathroom trips for fear of raising her risk of losing precious oxygen during the transfer. No appetite, beyond bored…we both can’t wait until the doors open again and I can sit next to her and hold her hand and have a laugh about one of our old memories…”
In this age of coronavirus it is important to reaffirm that older people are not expendable. They too feel love and know passion. Whether they have “pre-existing conditions” or not, they love and are loved. There are many ways of being heroes in our present age.
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