The Thing with Feathers
“Hey there, buddies. How you doing? I’ll see you later, OK?”
These words, or those like them, are words we’re all used to hearing. Maybe someone speaks them when leaving a social situation. Maybe they’re said to children when a parent is leaving home to run some errands or to go to work. These are the kinds of phrases we say to friends or loved ones. These aren’t the kinds of phrases most of us imagine hearing from someone substantially over six-feet tall, who wins weightlifting competitions, and who is a veteran of foreign wars…while speaking to hummingbird chicks.
But there we were, on our way to lunch together, when my friend wished these tiny twin fledglings well while we were gone. We had already sat for an hour, just watching the chicks. We watched their mother come and feed them. We watched as one started to use its wing, or started to vibrate its wing. See, a hummingbird chick is not like a normal chick. When they test their wings, it’s like testing one of nature’s tiniest and most maneuverable jet engines. You hear it, even if you can’t really see its motion. But the sound produced by that tiniest, first motion is unmistakable.
When I watched my friend look up with wonder at the nest and speak to these babies, I could see the lift in the corners of his eyes, one of the surest signs of joy. And a part of me recalls the stories my friend tells about his time serving on the front lines of battles a world away. I can almost hear the pop and hiss of live-fire ammunition exploding through the air and into the terrain thousands of miles from home. I can almost smell the acrid, sand-swept field hospital where he and his fellows recovered from the wounds their bodies endured.
But I can’t hear those things. I can’t smell those things. In part, I can’t because I was not there, and civilians should never suppose they know what warfare is like. But in greater part, I can’t hear those things, I can’t smell those things, because what I see, a tender man wishing the best for another’s babies, for a chance to see them take wing, crowds out all that I might ever have to imagine of a world I can’t know. Because the truth of one person’s daily victory over the trauma inflicted a world away is nestled as snugly in the glinting corners of his eyes as two of nature’s, tiny, twin-engine children are nestled together, waiting for their time to fly.
A few days ago I got the news: the baby birds were gone when my friend woke in the morning. Just gone. Hope is like that. Emily Dickinson tells us hope is the thing with feathers. A man and his friend wait and watch, they hope together, to see something new. But the evidence of hope they find isn’t buzzing through the air above their heads. It’s not even in an empty nest kissed with morning dew. It’s in a message from one friend in this world to another, maybe buzzing on a mobile phone: “I’ll see you later, OK?”
And may hope alight on each of you today,
Rev. T. J.