THE FIRST FEATHER
The Actual First Feather
I contributed a blog similar to this Hub on blogspot. See the link below. But I wanted to share this story with the community here on Hubpages as well. So I made some revisions in order for the posting here to be truly a separate "work." However, I have made citations from the blogspot posting and they are in bold italics.
Today is June 14. In addition to being Flag Day, it is also Tommie Daigle and Arlene Stefanich’s birthdays. Most of you don't know either Tommy or Arlene, but you never know. What is that saying about six degrees? More importantly, today is the anniversary of my finding the "first feather." June 14, 1998.
Finding a feather in any context is sort of a big deal, because as many birds as there are flying about the world, feathers are not just lying around. I mean the birds leave plenty of their "droppings" around, but they don’t seem to leave feathers around the way humans leave litter or certain groups of folks leave graffiti. I really don’t know what it means when a bird loses a feather. I think of an airplane losing part of its wing or an engine burning out, and it’s serious! I’m imagining a bird has a few feathers to spare and perhaps they fall out naturally. But I really don’t know. Maybe one of you readers can leave a comment if you know.
On Memorial Day Weekend in 1998, I traveled north, about two and half hours from San Francisco, to be a part of a gathering of men at Camp Gualala which is nestled amongst the giant redwood trees between Healdsburg, and Stewarts Point. The campgrounds are divided by the south fork of the Gualala River. A suspension bridge connects the two sides of the camp, and crossing this bridge is a "special" kind of experience, especially when someone is simultaneously coming from the opposite side. The bridge really swings back and forth, and you have a difficult time maintaining your balance. Even stone sober, you walk drunk!
In this neck of the "woods," the giant redwood trees outnumber human inhabitants. Many of the trees are literally ancient and create an air of sacredness.
One tree, in particular, estimated to be over 2500 years old, stands out like an Elder or perhaps even the King, sinking its roots into a prominent spot on the west bank of the river. Standing next to the tree brings an immediate awareness of mystery and infinity. One knows instantly that God is literally IN the tree.
When I tried to explain this experience to a priest, whose theological and philosophical training was steeped in Aquinas and Aristotle, he insisted, "No, Vern, God is not in the tree. God is in your heart, and you project God into the tree."
As many times as I restated my observation, the good priest, ironically like the redwood tree, stood his ground. Playing Monday morning quarterback, I wish I would have said, "Father, in terms of sheer raw faith, it seems easier to believe that God is in that tree than in either of our at times ungodly hearts."
Besides sharing, laughing, drumming, eating, sleeping, star gazing, singing and chanting, the men who gather here spend a good chunk of time searching deep into their souls for purpose, meaning, creativity, courage, compassion, forgiveness, healing, and last but not least, for the Creator of this magnificent forest. It is not a particularly religious gathering, but, like the trees themselves, definitely a sacred gathering.
Attending this gathering was becoming an annual event for me, and I was there this particular year because Roberta and my son, David, had encouraged me to go despite the battle with cancer that was taking place at home. Roberta and I had been married for twenty six years and a part of each other's life for thirty years. The C word had busted its way into our life and we both knew that we were at the physical end of our relationship as we both knew it then. It was with considerable ambivalence that I left Yucaipa to travel to Camp Gualala, and I have never wondered,literally till writing this "piece" how my life might have been different had I not attended the gathering that year.
When I arrived, I was caught off guard by that year's theme for the gathering, which somehow I had either overlooked or forgotten. Good Grief, the theme was GRIEF. The theme was obviously apropos for me. Not only was Roberta in her last days of fighting cancer, but I had lost my father a year before.
Being with this gathering of men is always a privilege and leaves me feeling rich. The men here are focused outward on others. There desire to be responsive and responsible for the condition of our society, our world, and our planet generates a kind of energy which almost buzzes through the forest. No, they are not wild men or tree huggers. They are not of any particular religious or political persuasion, and there are no drugs or alcohol at this gathering. They are not perfect nor perfect gentlemen, but men who are excited about doing and humble about their endeavors and accomplishments.
Throughout the weekend, I heard people sharing with each other different projects that they were involved in, projects that contributed to their respective communities or to the benefit of some humanitarian cause or movement. And after hearing about the project, someone would inevitably ask, "Did you find a feather?"
I found the question curious and a little odd. But I was too preoccupied with home to ask the obvious, "What are you talking about, finding a feather? And what does it mean if you find one or not?" But I didn’t ask. I did what most of us do. I assumed I knew what it meant....!
At one point in the weekend, we each fashioned a vase from pottery clay and "poured" into the vase our grief. During an evening ritual, we set the vases afloat down the Gualala River to eventually meet the ocean. In addition to carrying our grief, each vase also carried a lit candle, so we could watch our grief-filled vases float down the river for some distance. The ceremony did not make the sadness any less heavy. I am crying right now remembering the moment. It was a very real physical experience of surrendering and letting go.
I arrived back home on May 25th. The weekend had been a good preparation for walking with Roberta on her final steps of her earthly journey, more than I even realized then.
Fortunately, Roberta was at home. We had a wonderful hospice team and many many friends who supported us literally twenty four hours a day. For those final weeks, David and I sat at her side, taking turns crashing on the King Size bed next to her hospital bed. Sometimes the three of us talked. Other times, we just sat in silence enjoying each other’s presence (or presents!). The day before she died, she insisted that my Mom take a picture of the three of us. You have to appreciate that she did not like her picture being taken period, let alone at a time that she literally looked the part, someone on death’s door.
David and I were intrigued by all the conversations she was having with folks we could not see. We never thought for a moment that she was hallucinating or delusional. In fact one afternoon, she said to me "Say something nice about your Father."
I said, "Is he here?"
She said, "Yes."
At that time, even though Dad was dead, I was still angry with him, so I had to get it together, so to speak, really quickly, and come up with "nice things" to say about him! I don’t know for sure, but it’s probably a good idea to say good things about your dead father, even if you are still angry with him, if he’s there in the room with you! Maybe he knew the best directions for getting Roberta through the pearly gates, you know?
At one point, she mentioned that she had crossed over and come back several times. Needless to say, our curiosity was quite stoked. In the book, Final Gifts , the authors’ tell about such experiences and their on-going encouragement is to pay attention. For David and I, paying attention meant an opportunity to get a glimpse of the other side. It’s almost like we saw ourselves standing in line with her, you know like it used to be when someone was boarding an airplane? You got to be with them right up to their walking through the boarding gate.
On one particular evening, her conversations with the folks we could not see seemed quite intense. So I asked her to tell us what she was seeing. To our surprise, she responded with "GET BACK."
David and I talked about her "reprimand," and we both had the same thought. She was telling us that we had no business "being in line," so to speak, and what was on the other side was not for either of us to see or know. It was a spine chilling and ALSO sacred moment. But one that also brought us to the awareness, that we were not giving her HER SPACE. Roberta was more introverted than extraverted and perhaps our hovering was draining and maybe even keeping us tethered to her, not allowing her to be free to cross over and stay there. After all, as much as we were all very much IN the journey with her, it was ultimately HER journey. So we talked to her about giving her more alone time. We would be right there available, but not hovering and she seemed to appreciate that.
So on Sunday, June 14, during one of those times when I was not hovering and just letting her BE, I ventured into our backyard to check out the roses and the weeds! And there it was, the first feather, sitting on a bed of rocks. I immediately recalled the conversations at Camp Gualala, "Did you find a feather?" I sure did.
At first, I just dismissed the discovery as, "okay, a feather. I found one, So what?" I almost walked away from the feather, but the question from Camp Gualala kept repeating itself, and I knew that this feather meant something. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it meant something. So I picked it up and I put it in a safe place. I don’t think I told anyone about my discovery. And, anyway, I wouldn’t have known what to tell them.
But here’s the unbelievable part of the story. On Tuesday, June 16, two days before she died, Roberta says, "Will you do me a favor?"
"Sure, what do you want me to do?"
"Will you get me a feather?"
Whoa! I was stunned, to say the least, but I was happy to respond with, "Well, I just happen to have one."
So I got the feather, attached it to a long thread, and hung it from the ceiling for her to gaze at. The feather hung there, sometimes quietly, sometimes gently moving and sometimes twirling.
I never bothered to ask her why she wanted a feather or what the feather was about. It was almost like that would be disrespectful or trying to use a cookie cutter on something mysterious and ethereal. I don’t know. I sometimes wish I had asked her. Roberta died on Thursday morning, June 18, 1998 at approximately 11:30.
I shared the story about the feather at her funeral. I told our friends and family that I had no idea what it meant, but it all seemed significant and beyond coincidence. So how would life had been had I not traveled to Gualala that weekend? There’s a good chance I would not have seen the feather let alone pick it up for safe keeping. And perhaps I would have dismissed her request for a feather as just one of those strange requests that dying people make.
Of course, the story doesn’t end here. When the funeral was over and following the burial service the next day, friends and family started walking up to me and handing me feathers. I didn’t know what to make of that, but I took them and put them into a basket.
On Thursday morning, June 25, I intentionally went on my six mile run between 11 am and noon time I wasn’t out looking for feathers, I was just out exercising my heavy heart. But at eleven thirty, there at my feet as I’m running, is a FEATHER. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I took it as a sign that she was still with us and taking care of us.
And the feathers have continued to show up for seventeen years now at very significant moments and in very unusual places, places where you have to wonder, how did a feather happen to land in this exact spot at this exact moment?
And besides believing that it symbolizes her continued presence (presents) in our life, I imagine the appearance of the feathers might mean something even bigger than that. I don’t know. I’m just glad I went to Camp Gualala on Memorial Day weekend, 1998 and paid attention.
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