The day we came home from the hospital without our son, I went straight to bed. I don’t remember much, like how long I slept or what I did. I do remember family floating in and out of my bedroom. Someone brought a cup of tea. A box of Kleenex appeared on the side table. The morning passed with my eyes closed and head under covers. By afternoon, I needed to stretch.
I asked my husband, Michael, to take a walk with me. We put on jackets, sat on the front porch bench and laced up our shoes like we’d done a million times. But this time felt different. It felt unbearably sad. And yet taking a walk was something I knew I needed to do. I was on a mission to revisit the congregational church where I had seen a letter board sign on our drive home. Was it real? Yes, it was. When we trudged by the church, its sign still read Short Lives Glow with Heartbreaking Beauty. It hadn’t been a dream.
Michael and I ambled on and crossed the street. I noticed delicate, pink dogwood blossoms. After living what felt like a lifetime in the hospital, I had forgotten that spring was here. New life was all around me. It hurt to see. Purposelessly and hand-in-hand, we wend our way to a favorite pocket park — the duck pond. Ellis Pond is the proper name of this local gem. It is a secluded, wooded park nestled between residential homes. We simply refer to it as the duck pond for the family of mallards that reside year-round in the pond’s muddy waters. It is such an institution that on our very first trip to the Seattle-area — our house-hunting trip, our realtor showcased the pond as a selling point of the island. It was the first park on Mercer Island Ewan ever visited.
It was also the last park he visited. We walked there on a cold March afternoon when Chicago Grandma was in town. He had been home all day, working on his popsicle puzzle. I insisted that we all get out for a little fresh air. We headed up our hill, to the duck pond with a bag of stale bread in hand. The ducks flocked to him as he flung fistfuls of food. Chicago Grandma and I snapped photographs and we all rested on a nearby bench then returned home. Ewan was very tired.
The ducks always rush to you as you approach on the muddy, earthen path along the water’s shore. Today was no different, but we hadn’t thought to bring any treats for the ducks. In fact, I noticed, for the first time, a sign that read Do Not Feed The Ducks Bread. I made a mental note to not make this mistake anymore – no more bread, but this new knowledge couldn’t touch my memory of Ewan’s smile that last time he fed them our stale loaf. The ducks quickly sized us up and saw we had nothing to offer. So, they swam over to an older couple standing near a bench. A matching gray-haired man and woman were tossing bits of cracked corn into the water.
We started to talk to this couple about weather and this and that — where we lived and where we were from. They said they lived near the pond and walked over everyday to feed the ducks. They moved to the island to be close to their daughter and grandchildren. It turns out we shared several connections. Michael and I attend the same church as their daughter. I remember reading in the church bullet, a few years’ back, about the death of the daughter’s grandmother. Not long after that news, the daughter and I shared a room together at a retreat. She told me stories about how her grandmother had impacted her life and how much was going to miss her. This gray-haired, older woman, now standing in front of me, sprinkling cracked corn on the ground, must be the daughter of my church friend’s wonderful grandmother. I surmised we shared a bond of losing someone we love.
We also shared a Chicago connection. For many years, the Windy City was their home. The older man and I both worked at the University of Chicago, in the same neighborhood, but decades apart. During our friendly exchange, the older woman asked about our children. “How many children do you have?” This was my first time facing down this question.
“We have four”, I unflappably informed her. I continued, “Our youngest, our eight-year-old, died of cancer this morning.”
“Mhmm,” the older woman sounded in a sort of agreement. She said nothing else. Her husband, who hadn’t stopped talking, carried on about his time at the University of Chicago’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Words rolled on as if I’d said nothing. But I was sure they had heard. I quieted. Inward, I was pinning hope on this being a bad dream. Surely, our current encounter and conversation was merely a snippet in a nightmarish dream sequence. It must be a bad dream. Nothing was making sense. Michael and I listened and nodded and made “mhmm”s of our own as the conversation drolled on. I tuned out and into the humming in my head.
That’s when I saw the hummingbird. It hovered near a bush, flitting just a few feet behind the gentleman’s head. I’d never seen a hummingbird on the island before. Was this another sign from Ewan? Its what you do when a loved one dies, right? You start looking for signs that they are still with you.
The jewel toned bronze-green back and head feathers glinted and sparkled in the day’s dimming light. Ewan would’ve known how many times its wings were pulsing per second. It reminded me of when we saw emperor penguins at Sea World.
It was just the two of us – a Me and Ewan experience. He had not been old enough to go on the Manta roller coaster ride that loop-de-looped over the park’s walkway. His older siblings bolted off without him. Michael and I agreed to split up: he’d accompany the older, taller kids and I’d stay with Ewan. At first, Ewan was disappointed to be excluded from a ride with the others. Then he saw the roller coaster flying over our heads. Riders were dangling, harnessed in at their shoulders and feet falling freely to the ground. They zipped past and then took a facedown-inverted nosedive. We heard screams of terror, or were those shrilling sounds of delight? In that moment, Ewan decided he was comfortable with not being tall enough to ride. Plus, he’d get to have time with just me.
We wandered into a nearby aquarium room where actual manta rays were swimming overhead. We saw ethereal, leafy sea dragons. Clownfish playing what looked like a game of hide-and-seek in their anemone were Ewan’s favorite find. After ten minutes of floating from view of fish to fish framed in glass, we exited the exhibit and found ourselves facing the South Pole.
It was an icy exhibit called Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin®. A recorded narrator told us we’d get to experience a journey through the South Pole as seen through the eyes of a penguin named Puck. Whirling, trackless cars spun down dark, 30-degree tunnels. We barely escaped the slippery death jaws of a leopard seal. The ride’s final destination is a live penguin habitat with five different species. Ewan and I disembarked our barrel-shaped car, found our sea legs and were drawn over to the display by the stately sight of emperor penguins.
Emperor penguins are the largest of all penguins and exquisitely adapted to endure life in a frigid, harsh and dangerous environment. After mating, females lay a single egg and then promptly leave it behind. The male emperor will stand guard to keep the newly laid egg warm by balancing it on its feet. This was exactly the kind of fact Ewan loved. He was in awe of the huge, hearty, tuxedo-suited birds.
Suddenly, I was back at the pond on Mercer Island, standing hand-in-hand with Michael. The hummingbird was gone but the ducks were still begging for food at our feet. And I back to remembering that Ewan will never feed them again. As Michael and I parted from the park, the older woman pressed her pouch of cracked corn into my palm. She said, “Feed them this.”
This was her silent nod to Ewan and our shared bond of loss. She’d heard me after all. Perhaps, she hadn’t known what to say. I left the duck pond dazed: heart aching and head clouded by dreamy confusion. Had the conversation with older couple at the duck pond’s edge even happened? Had my child really died in the first hour of this very morning? Was any of this real? I stood with a zip-lock pouch of cracked corn clutched in my hand. It was a painful reminder of the facts: don’t feed the ducks bread; hummingbirds beat their wings 70 times per second; female emperor penguins feed their chicks; Ewan was gone; life goes on.
This last fact hurt almost as Ewan being gone. It was time to go on and head home, again. Ewan was no longer here to feed the birds, but I was. I am. I go one cradling my child. I go on in search of more synchronous signs. Where will I see Ewan next? On another billboard or in the form of a bird? On this day, when everything seemed vitally important, I tucked the cracked corn gently into my pocket and patted it for safekeeping. Who knows when this mother bird will get to feed a little chick next?