The Great Blue Heron

It balances like royalty, on one long elegant leg upon a tree outside my bedroom window. Head raised high, azure blue-gray plumage ruffling gracefully in the breeze, it is a magnificent bird, nearly as large as my 18-month-old.

I had only seen it once before in the two years we lived in this townhouse. That time, I enjoyed the bird on my own. Baby was asleep in her crib, while I photographed the bird standing like a statue on that tree, stalking prey in a man-made lake trimmed with office buildings and houses. When it launched itself into the air, I nearly felt its wingtips brush my cheeks as I admired it quietly from my balcony. “Thank you,” I said to the bird, “for bringing me a taste of the wilderness that I am homesick for.” _MG_2804

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Today, Kyra is helping me pack bags for a road trip. Ethan jumps up and down on piles of clean laundry on my bed while Riley attempts to dip her fingers into the toilet (yes, her new game to annoy mommy). I pull the shades up, hoping the man-made lake as depressing as it is can rejuvenate me like the river that used to run in the backyard of my cabin in Alaska. And that’s when I see my bird.

I squeal. The kids drop whatever they are doing and press their noses against the window. “Mommy, is it injured? How come it only has one leg?” Ethan asks.

“What is it?” Kyra asks.

Perfect opportunity to crack open the Audubon  bird book, which we never get a chance to use now that we live in the city: “Who can tell me what kind of bird this is?”

While the kids flip through the book and ask each other questions like “does it have a yellow bill“ or “chestnut and black accents,” I tell them about the day I spent with this bird and how happy I am that they get a chance to meet it.

Finally, they reach a consensus: Great Blue Heron. I play its call on my iPhone bird app and Riley snatches it out of my hand. Kyra and Ethan wrestle the iPhone out of Riley’s hands and google answers they can’t find in the Audubon book.

Thank you Great Blue Heron for creating a teaching moment that entertains all three of my kids.

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Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh

“Oooo mommy, do you know why herons stand on one leg? Thermoregulation hypothesis,” Kyra stumbles over the words, “Or to look less suspicious to their prey. Cool!” Now they are teaching me.

“Can we go on the balcony to see him?” Ethan asks.

I agree, but warn them that we must be quiet and go all at once so that we don’t scare the bird. While I put on a coat for Riley, Kyra steps out too impatient to wait. By the time, I get outside the heron is showing off its six-foot wingspan as it glides across the surface of the lake crusted with the light of the sun.

“Wow!” all three kids say.

They are so quiet that beneath the sound of the cars whipping by for last minute Christmas gifts at Fair Lakes Shopping Center, we can hear the ducks squawking on the shore and the advertisement calls of the frogs. Who knew that in the midst of office buildings and townhouses, animals had made a home for themselves just like I need to.

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Home

Forehead pressed against the cold window, I waited impatiently for the plane to descend through thick clouds.  My breath held and released only when Turnagain Arm welcomed me “home” with a ripple of its silky waters.

The jagged gray mountain peaks that I loved were already coated with termination dust, hinting at my favorite time of the year.  As the wheels touched ground, I sighed, the kind you release when you’re coming home after a long business trip, even though I was now a visitor with only ten days to teach a class for 49 Writers, wrap up loose ends with various jobs, and put our house in Eagle River on the market.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, home is “a refuge, a sanctuary a place or region to which one naturally belongs or where one feels at ease; a place where something flourishes.”

A few moments with my feet on Alaskan soil and I felt as if I was wrapped in the softest robe, sipping a cup of tea.  Physically, I am extremely comfortable.  My metabolism is such that in places like D.C., even in an air-conditioned environment, Thomas catches me climbing into refrigerators or freezers.  Cold temperatures calm me down so that I am more willing to let things be.  Emotionally, I flourish in nature.  A placid body of water, so still that it reflects the drifting clouds in the sky, inspires poetry, while manicured lawns, office buildings, and traffic jams put me on edge.  Shrink-wrapped in pantyhose, high heels, and a tight suit, I’m not only uncomfortable but I feel judged.

Escaping the rat race of job titles, houses, and cars, is one of the main reasons why my friends swear they will never leave Alaska.  Here, we can smoke salmon in our pajamas on our front lawn.  Or wear Bogs and Carhartts to work. Or crash into a friend’s truck and simply be forgiven with the words, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve done worse things to this piece of shit.”  For many of us, it’s hard to find another place in the world that makes you feel so much at ease.

For all of these reasons, Alaska will always be my “home,” which is why it was difficult for me to accept that eventually I would have to write a “last post” for KTD.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines “home” as “the family or social unit occupying a house.”   No matter how much I might savor a long soak in a hot tub beneath skies lit by the Northern Lights and a full moon, my mind lingered in Vienna, Virginia, worrying about whether Thomas remembered to brush the kids’ teeth or whether anyone made him breakfast.

My phone conversations with my family went like this:

“Hi, it’s Kyra Oh.  Mommee, I didn’t miss the bus today.  Mommee, I love you.  I miss you.  When you come home, I have a surprise for you,” Kyra speaks so fast that I can’t get a word in. “Come home soon, okay? Here, Ethan talk to Mommee.”

“Wait!” I say, but now I can hear my son walking around with Thomas’ iPhone.  “Mommee?  Mommee? Mommee?” his voice reminds me of the pitiful cry of a hungry baby bird waiting for his mom to feed him.

“Ethan?  I love you!” I say, but my iPhone goes silent.  The connection is still running.

“Hello? Ethan?  Thomas? I think Ethan hit the mute button.”  I pace back and forth in frustration.

Finally, a child’s voice comes through, “Are you in Alaska?”  Now, I understand why my relatives can never tell the difference between Kyra and Ethan on the phone.  Their voices are virtually indistinguishable, but as the mother, shouldn’t I be able to tell?

So I try to be quiet and just listen.  Once the words “I’m mad” and “Spiderman” and “Batman” surface, I sigh with relief.  It’s Ethan.

Finally, I decipher a full sentence. “Mommee, why are you not home?” Ethan demands.  Then the connection drops, probably because he hit the “end” button.

The longer I stayed in Alaska, my refuge and sanctuary, without my family, the more I felt uneasy.  Soon, I heard myself saying that I couldn’t wait to go “home.” I scrolled through photos of my kids on my iPhone and counted down the hours to lying in bed with a kid tucked under each arm and a book propped on my belly.

When I did reunite with my family in the D.C. area, I filled their tummies with smoked salmon and blueberry jam made by my Alaskan friends.  The kids insisted that I read Kiska and Kobuk every night as they snuggled with their Kiska and Kobuk huskies.   At the center of our dining table, I filled a vase with dry reed grass I picked from a hike on Glen Alps, where I dozed to their gentle rustle in the wind.

I have a feeling that part of me will always be curled up like my son  in front of Alaska’s door, waiting patient and loyal, cheeks squished, butt propped high and proud.

 

The Ablation of Grief – Part III

Before the day heats up, Ethan and I slip on our Bogs, still caked with mud from the mouth of the Kenai.  We inch our way down the steep incline behind our house.  Ethan marches confidently ahead of me.  His raspy voice bounces between the trunks of oak trees, “Where did the Mommee deer go?”

Thomas had left hours ago for his first day of work.  On our way back to the house from Kyra’s bus stop, a white-tailed deer froze in the middle of the street studying our every move.  Ethan and I stared at our first animal sighting in Virginia.  Then, the deer flicked her head and two fawns appeared out of the woods. The three of them ran into our backyard with their tails raised, white underside flickering.

Still in our pajamas, we follow the deer into our backyard and check out the areas that had been underwater just a few days ago.  We are outside for no more than five minutes when Ethan screams “Spider” and hides behind my back.

Nearly every tree is linked by fine strands of spider silk.  Some hang elaborate orb webs, glistening with dew.  Others are so fine; you can only see the fat body of a spider twisting in the wind.

Putting on a brave face for my son, I use my camera bag and fling it ahead of me in hopes of taking down some of these webs to create a path for us.  The hike is not fun.  We’re brushing whispers of webs across our faces.  Our feet trip over roots and mushrooms.  At one point, I turn around to check on Ethan and the boy has one tiny mosquito on his forehead and another one on his neck.

With arms folded across his chest and his lower lip sticking out and a red bite swelling to the size of a nickel on his head, Ethan says, “Mommee, let’s not EVER do this again.”

Back in the house, Ethan deals with our setback by slipping on his Batman suit.  While I’m scratching irritably at three new bites on my back and arms, he sits down and starts his daily routine.

I wish adults could adapt that easily, too.  My mentor, Elaine Abraham, Naa Tláa (clan mother) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moiety), K’ineix Ḵwáan (people of the Copper River Clan) from the Tsisk’w Hít (Owl House), encouraged me to “feel the earth.  If you go into the woods and just sit there and rub your hands up and down on a tree or put your hand on the soil, there’s warmth. The spirit of the land is warm. You can make connections with the earth anywhere anytime because today we are travelling people.  Now, we can adapt.  You have to have a real strong spirit to adapt.”

Looking out my ceiling to floor windows at the maze of webbed trees, I can now appreciate the strong spirits of my military friends, who had to leave Alaska.  Keilah Frickson, who moved to Eagle River, Wisconsin, last year, says she misses “the smell of the mist on the mountains on cool, rainy days, the texture of the landscape, the road trips through breathtaking vistas, and the constantly changing moods of the mountains.”

Alaska taught her to slow down and take breaths regularly.  “I tried things I never thought I would do, and I loved it!  The broad, ruddy foundation of the Chugach range still grounds me. The fierce winds whipping off of the ocean and through my hair still remind me that I can weather any challenge in life. The cool mountain air still helps me stay calm under pressure. The muddy bottoms of every shoe and sandal I wore in Alaska still remind me that ‘it’s just dirt and it won’t hurt anything.’”

The Conaboys, who left in 2007 for Japan and currently reside in Massachusetts, still fill their bellies with Alaska Amber, salmon, and halibut.  Jed has managed to return to Alaska every summer on business trips and charter a boat with his squadron.

The Registers, who left in 2008 for Florida and currently reside in Texas, say that Alaska is their “measuring stick” for every place they travel.  “Plus, our first child was born there. We will always have a connection to Alaska, especially through her.”

I know that eventually I must adapt too.  After all, I have survived the death of my mother, brother, both sets of grandparents, and my father-in-law.  And I will always have to chase down my Alaskan babies, who ablate grief in seconds.

But for now, change is not my friend.

A loud THUMP-thud-thud-thud skips across our roof and lands on our deck.

“What’s that?” Batman asks.

“It’s an acorn,” I tell him about every hour, when this disturbing sound echoes through the house and makes my heart skip.

“You want me to stop it?” Batman throws two punches into the air.

“I wish you could,” I answer. “I wish you could.”