A whole lot of people remember JFK on this date. He was a leader that inspired many people to reach beyond themselves and do great things. But a few folks will remember you. Like me, they valued your friendship and respected your character. And it was you that helped me gain the confidence to believe that I could do anything. JFK I did not know. But I did know you. You were my father, my birding mentor, and my friend. And for that, I am glad.
I lost you on this day 13 years ago, November 22, 2000. I had just moved back to Columbus, OH and got a job there so I could be closer to you during your final days. Little did I know that those final days would only be 2 weeks. <sigh> Your physical presence here on this planet is sorely missed. Much has happened since then.
Your family wondered how we would deal with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. And my brother, Ned, said “What would dad want us to do?” And mom and Ned spoke in unison, “Celebrate Thanksgiving just like he was there” And so we did! And that is what we have done every year since.
I have dealt with the loss in an up and down fashion. Sometimes I handle it okay. Sometimes I still find myself incapable of holding it together. Still. 13 years later. I think I used half a box of Kleenex just writing this letter. <sniffle> But it has also been heartwarming to relive some of the treasured memories I’ve shared with you.
Thank you for your years of gentle prodding, inspiring teaching, and steadfast character. Thank you for introducing me to birding at such an early age that I cannot even remember getting my first pair of binoculars. I have many fond memories of us birding together through the years. It was a true passion that we both shared. The shared travel experiences were priceless.
I am really happy I started taking birding trips with you in the 1990s to places that you had always talked about. In 1992 we went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and we got to see Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, and lots of Snowy Owls that year. I remember the car thermometer registered -17 degrees one morning. Oh, but what a trip!
And in September 1993 we went to Cape May. Remember all the Sharp-shinned Hawks? And the Connecticut Warbler? And all those Palm Warblers? They were everywhere. One even landed ON THE CAR!
In May of 1994 we took one of the most fun birding trips EVER—with your brother Jim Miller and his son, Kent. We went to Southeast Arizona and had an incredible time in an area that is like Disney World for birders in North America. Remember the Elegant Trogons and that group of Montezuma Quail? And the Northern Pygmy-Owl being harassed by House Finches? Ha! I really enjoyed our celebratory breakfast at Portal Peak Lodge with bacon cheddar omelets, too! That was an EPIC fun trip!
And in 1995 I got to drive both you and mom to Maine. We saw warblers and puffins and ate fresh lobster. What a joy to take you both to where you honeymooned together! It was a rich experience.
In April of 1996 we took our last birding vacation together. It was a trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. My favorite moment was getting to show you your lifer Green Jay—a bird you had longed to see since you were 5 years old. I got the distinct privilege to show you that species, your favorite bird, 61 years later. It thrilled my heart to see your delight. And you knew how to relish a good moment. I think we watched Green Jays for a full ten minutes without saying much of anything at all. I do recall you saying, “Boy! That’s a pretty bird!” in your own quiet way. Green Jays can do that to you—leave you speechless with your jaw dropped in amazement.
And then there was my Big Year in 1998. We didn’t get to do too much together because of your health. But I did call you every night while out on the road. I can remember the shared joy of those telephone conversations. I didn’t have a cell phone then. I would use a Walmart phone card. That just sounds ages ago in terms of technology.
But I do recall one very memorable day that year. We went to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area near Upper Sandusky, Ohio in the northwestern part of the state in late March 1998. I was after an owl species—a Long-eared Owl (not the Great Gray Owl in the movie). It was in a stand of pines now referred to simply as the Owl Pines.
We had been out birding all day and you were tired. We walked into the beginning of the pines without finding any owls. You stayed there and encouraged me to find the owl. A very young Jen Brumfield (a gifted artist and one of America’s finest birders) was there, too, also looking for owls. We set out and walked through most of the pines before it struck me that dad was really worn out and was not in the best health. How would I feel if something happened while I was looking for a bird? Horrible.
My heart raced a bit as I traced my steps back through the light snow to the front of the stand of pines. There you were with your binoculars raised, looking up into the trees. I saw you smile and motion to me as you heard me coming. Jen and I joined you as you pointed to an owl about ¾ way up the tree not far from the trunk. I got my binoculars on the bird. Oh, my! The Long-eared Owl was leaning forward and doing his “stare” at us. Long-eared Owls have a stare that feels like it pierces right through you! It is intense! And what a gratifying moment to see you still doing well. I was relieved.
Those were great times! But as a young boy, I think some of the best times I remember were those where we would take a simple walk into the woods across the road from the house. May 1st was often my very favorite day with you. You would tell me April was fun to bird, but on May 1 it would be like turning the page and reading a new chapter in a book. Birds that were not there on April 30 would mysteriously show up on that glorious morning on May 1.
It seemed magical to me as a kid. The wood lot was on the east side of the road, so we’d always start on the western edge. The early Ohio mornings in May would often be crisp with remnants of cold air still lingering. We often started the day hearing Wood Thrushes sing from deeper into the woods—it is still one of my very favorite sounds of spring. There would often be a handful of warblers in the younger trees along the edge of the woods.
After making sure we hadn’t missed anything you would often turn to me and utter words that still seem real, like you are here speaking to me right now. You would look at me with that curious look with a twinkle in your blue eyes and you would say, “Let’s go to the sunny side of the woods.” I would always get excited when you would say that.
We ventured eastward through the woods with no trails. You taught me to avoid stepping on sticks or rustling too many leaves. You taught me how to be quiet. (Sorry, dad. I am still not very stealthy.). And how to move with patience. You also taught me the importance of not to missing anything along the way. Your thoroughness and careful style have been a great benefit to me. When we’d finally reach the east side the sun would just be warming the trees along the edge. The first few buds and blooms would be near the tops of the trees. And there were almost always more warblers there than anywhere else in the woods.
Sorry, but I never thought to ask why back then. Now it seems so crystal clear and easy. The sun warms the east side first. The blooms open up there first. The blooms attract insects. The birds feed on the insects.
I never made the connection as a kid. I just knew to do it because you said so. It was great to have a father who was honest and worthy of trust. I hope I can be like that for other people. You helped make sense of so much. I thought everybody had dads like I did. But now that I am older I know just how privileged I was to have you.
Those May mornings in Ohio are not the same without you. But I still enjoy birding. And it is my hope that I can carry on your legacy to inspire others and help them enjoy the simple delight of birding, too. Just the way you helped me.
Thanks Dad. You were the best. I may not be very rich in money, but I consider myself one of the richest in all the world when it comes to life’s experiences.