Life Lessons

MarApr

I’ve taken to going for a walk on my workday lunch breaks. There’s a city park a few blocks from our offices that includes a circular, half-mile path, a fountain, a moat, a waterfall, and a small lake. It also has a full contingent of young mothers pushing strollers, old retirees sitting on benches, a model yacht club, a taiji class, and lots of ducks.

One day last week as I passed the yacht skippers at their remote controls, a female mallard came with a brood of hatchlings across the expanse of sidewalk leading to the edge of the lake.

Judging from the size of the ducklings—2-3 inches of downy fluff atop two furiously scurrying legs—this was probably their introduction to water and the wide world.

When the family was still ten yards from the water, a crow came up behind them, apparently with the intention of sampling a duckling for his midday meal. Mother Mallard turned on him and hissed, causing Crow to back away, but only until the brood started moving again.

When a second hiss from Mother Mallard didn’t seem to impress Crow, a woman from the growing crowd of onlookers stepped between the ducks and the crow and started walking slowly toward Crow. When he retreated a few feet, she kept advancing until he eventually flew away.

Meanwhile, Mother Mallard had reached the sidewalk edge overlooking the lake, with her brood of 8-10 ducklings huddled around her feet.

A moment later, Mom plopped down into the water, leaving her young in a tight clutch on the sidewalk edge, a foot above the lake surface. As the crowd waited anxiously, the group fluff ball milled with their own indecisive anxiety until one separated from the mass, hurled itself off the edge into the water, and immediately began paddling ferociously toward its mother.

Another followed, and another, until all the ducklings had spilled over the precipice into the new, wet, welcoming world.

It reminded me of another duck family I saw many years ago on a freeway on-ramp that adjoined a saltwater lagoon in Southern California. The ducklings were much larger than the mallard hatchlings in the park, and instead of following their mother, they were leading as they hurried across the road.

The mother, in fact, was spreadeagled on the asphalt, face down, wings outstretched and flopping spasmodically. She had apparently been hit and left with a broken back.

But as the last of the ducklings reached the safety of the weeds on the far side of the road, the mother stood up and hurried after her young. She’d been serving as a decoy in case any predators saw her offspring exposed in the open.

On a personal level, I came to understand for the first time the love between parent and child two and a half years ago when I sat up with my mother the night before she died. As we talked, I felt every cell in my body humming with recognition. All my cells, I realized, had come from the cells of the woman lying in the bed in front of me. Our cells were not just connected, they were inextricably linked. We shared a common heritage, on a visceral, cellular level. I also felt, intuitively, that we have the potential to feel a universal connection and inextricable link with every cell in every life form everywhere. We are all stardust.

1961

More recently, I came to appreciate on a new level the blessings of a good marriage. It happened just last night as I was sitting vigil with my father. He’s been on hospice care for the last several weeks. As he slept, I felt both his and my mother’s presence—not as nonagenarians, but as indeterminately youthful beings expressing joy in being together. They were married for 72 years, knew each other for 85 and, I saw last night, still find each other’s company their favorite pastime. A good life. And a good way to come home.

1946 Dad & Mom Kiss

I’ve taken to going for a walk on my workday lunch breaks. Life is happening all around me, and I want to bear witness to as much of it as I can.

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