Septuagenarian

Almost seven decades in the books. Then I will become a septuagenarian. I wish I could reach back into my mind to know what I was thinking as I was paging through that book on the lawn in Sioux City, Iowa. As sharp as my memory is, I can’t get back there. Maybe one day there’ll be technology that allows us to access everything that’s happened in our consciousness, but like flying cars that’s still a ways down the road.

My dad never got to age 70. He used to talk all the time about how if you made it to that benchmark year, you could cruise along for a long time. Of course that’s what he thought. His father died at age 39 from congestive heart failure when he was only eight years old. His mother died when he was 29, she at the early age of 52, from the sepsis caused by a burst appendix. There’s no way of knowing how long she might’ve lived, absent that medical accident. My paternal aunt lived to be at least 90, from what I was told. My mother didn’t like her so she drifted away into a distant life. And as for mom.

She lived to be a nonagenarian, a person who lived into her 90’s, a stunning accomplishment for a woman who had both multiple chronic physical problems, a couple of cancers, diabetes, and numerous nickel and dime issues which eventually made her despise doctor’s appointments. Up until her late 80’s, she remained intellectually sharp, but her unresolved emotional issues which kept her more of a dreamer than her life experiences would have led one to imagine, didn’t exactly set a positive standard for how to accept the aging process. She either ignored her increasing physical limitations which usually led to more problems, or spent time bemoaning all the things she wished she could still do without putting in the physical labor to make more of those possible. So except for hoping that my mental faculties stay as strong as hers, I’m not wanting to wind up annoying my family in the way her unattainable dreams annoyed me. I think I’m more like her mother who was a sturdy peasant who had fewer physical problems and was pretty tough.

So here I am, taking a break from spreading mulch, headphones in my years, squeezing as much outside time into my life as I can before winter comes and I become a prisoner of the unrelenting coronavirus. On the cusp of this new decade, I’m trying to understand the best way to live whatever life is left for me. I can’t imagine the future right now. The daily angst over the politics in this country consumes a lot of my mental space. Every day there’s a new unbelievable story. I alternate between rage and terror, mostly rage. I spend a fair amount of time worrying about my kids, my grandchildren and their futures, wondering what this planet will be like if there’s no unified approach to climate change. If there are 4 more years of the Trump administration, I imagine a nightmare scenario of social progress dissolution and natural resources destruction that is unparalleled. When I’m at my most anxious, late at night, I find ways to distract myself so I can sleep. The other day, I started working my way through all the characters in Game of Thrones, family by family. When I was younger, fantasy was not high on my list of books or television shows. I was more likely to be watching the history channel or Trauma – Life in the ER. Dragons are a more attractive option these days.

The past 6 months of singular isolation have definitely altered the trajectory of what I had in mind for myself as priorities after Michael’s death. I wanted to write an autobiographical collection of stories for my family. I’ve gotten to my junior year in college in that project. I was also determined to write about the orphan cancer experience Michael and I went through for five years. That’s been much harder than I thought. As I plowed through all my journals written during that time, I’d get exhausted by the power of every intense moment, and would sit paralyzed as if it all was still happening. Which it sort of is. I’ve managed to get through Chapter 11 of that book which takes me to the proverbial beginning of the end – only 5 months left in his life and certainly among the most harrowing of them all. I know I’m going to finish that. Then there would be travel but that’s all a far-off dream at this point. I still have a to-do list that grows daily, but my desperation to stay outside has done some serious damage to the pace of accomplishment with those goals. Still, I’ve become a bit of a philosopher in that backyard and ponder the life out there as it relates to us scrambled humans.

In recent days, I’ve been forced to acknowledge the familiar signs of fall, the lime green hydrangea turning an ombre/pink while the pampas and zebra grasses develop their plumes. I do enjoy watching the sparrows land on them, swaying up and down as they nibble seeds buried in the fuzz. But I’m also coming to terms with the fact that the butterflies that I wait for anxiously in summer are mostly departed. I haven’t photographed any swallowtails in weeks. The painted ladies are gone as are the red spotted purples. I still see an occasional monarch straggler, along with plenty of painted ladies, cabbage whites and yellow sulphurs. One day soon they’ll all disappear.

All summer I’ve watched the behavior of these different species who’ve frequented the plants I’ve selected for their needs. Although I understand the pitfalls of anthropomorphism, it’s hard to not attribute some very human characteristics to them. Territoriality is real amongst these delicate creatures. Monarchs can be very aggressive with each other and towards other species. They almost always win their chosen flower, acceding power only to good-sized bees. The eastern tiger swallowtail is more docile and willing to share space within its breed. Painted ladies move as fast as hummingbirds and dart away quickly if they’re approached directly. The hummingbird bumps the zebra swallowtail off its desired blossom.

Pecking order. My garden is as socially stratified as the human world. To me, these power plays are as recognizable as all the human ones played out in societies everywhere, the disparities between the haves and the have-nots, the powerful, the less powerful and the powerless. Is it all about natural selection or survival of the fittest? Is hierarchy inevitable? Is my backyard just a microcosm of Darwinian principles? I guess this is what happens when you have a lot of time on your hands, staying outside as long as weather permits and pondering the connections between the drama of nature and its relationship with the bigger picture. I think about a lot of unanswerable questions. Certainly the nature picture is a prettier one than what goes on in the world at large where we ratchet everything up with the complexity of people. I guess I feel so helpless about so many out of control issues right now that all I can control is this environment I’ve developed around me.

Two male cowbirds vying for a female.
Pumpkin and Carmine, the primary cardinal mates.

I invite birds here by providing food and water. Insects appreciate my offerings too. These creatures exhibit the same dynamics as the butterflies. There’s a lot of pushing and jostling that goes on in the scramble for sustenance. For sex, too. I’ve seen male birds doing their display, albeit not as fabulously as exotic tropical birds. My son tells me that there’s a thing called mate guarding which essentially is a way of the male protecting its future progeny. Pretty functional and dull. But after endless hours of observing the behavior of Pumpkin and Carmine, my resident cardinals, I’d become fully convinced that they’re life partners. Hence, it’s not a stretch for me to have projected that they’re the avian version of me and Michael, mated for life and deeply engaged in raising their family. Go ahead and scoff and think that isolation has finally undone me. The thing is, I’m a good observer. These two are never far from each other. I saw them being frantic parents when their fledgling was threatened by a cat. I can identify them by their calls. So I looked it up.


By early spring, male cardinals have aggressively claimed their territories and will court and mate with a chosen female. Cardinals are predominately monogamous and will mate for life.” (Northern Cardinal, psu.edu.)

Pumpkin and Carmine on my backyard climbing structure.

These two spend a lot of their days near each other. Even more interesting to me is the fact that despite most adult birds ultimately shoo away their offspring to protect their own territory, Pumpkin has been hanging around with one of her kids. I’ve found this interesting and humorous as she often feeds her baby who is now significantly larger than her. I can relate.

But as with daily life in the human world, where life is packed with unexpected surprises that can turn our “normal” on its head, my cardinals’ universe is fraught with peril. All this bounty that I’m supplying for my butterflies, birds and beneficial pollinators has been a good thing, but there are opportunists who are also enjoying the treats, some of which includes my beloved invited guests. Recently, I’ve had an influx of rabbits, squirrels, possums and mice who’ve gobbled their way through my apples, pears, basil and of course, tomatoes. I really hate the stray cats who park themselves near my bird feeders, hoping to get lucky.

Even more disturbing are the nasty birds like the big, beautiful bluejays, the bullies of the backyard. And scarier are the Cooper’s hawks and the red-tailed hawks who are showing up here frequently, mostly looking for lunch or a mid-afternoon snack.

I try shooing them away, even though I admire their magnificence and fully understand the way things work in the world, where the strong survive and the weak are crushed. All I want is for my cardinals to be ok. So you can imagine my shock the other morning when Pumpkin emerged from the bushes for her a.m. bath, absent her beautiful fiery orange-red tail. Gone. Poof.

First I was terrified and devastated. Then I composed myself and started looking for an explanation. I discovered something I’d never heard of before – a fright or a stress molt, when a cardinal, threatened by a predator, loses all its tail feathers at once, apparently an escape adaptation. Something had threatened Pumpkin. Off with her tail. She can still fly. If all goes well, her feathers will grow back in 4-6 weeks. I’ve seen her every day since that first shocking moment, both alone and with Carmine and her unnamed baby. I’m hoping this incredible bird with her unusual creamy color survives her fright or her attack and live here for another couple of years.

But this was a sobering reminder of the fragility of daily life. I’ve been knowing this for many years. I’ve had more than my share of losses. With the stress of this Covid time, when the wrong choice can kill you, when we’re living in a country in which the elected leader is attempting to become a dictator, it’s the little things that give you a jolt into staying alert, into keeping up the good fight. Because life as you know it is an ephemeral thing and keeping it real while you’re in it is your job, your right and your privilege. From the little to the huge. That’s how I see it today. Michael would definitely agree with me.

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