A day off, an afternoon thunderstorm, a hot cup of coffee with cinnamon and honey. For my tired body it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s been a week. As in, quite a week. Five of us ladies hiked up the Leroux Creek road to Bailey Reservoir two days ago, my first day off in awhile. I’m still stiff, but it was well worth it. The wildflowers were magnificent, and it’s still early. Ground saturated from snowmelt was carpeted with glacier lilies, in the aspens and higher. We walked across knee-deep snowdrifts just before reaching the reservoir.
The day before that, the eagle mother landed with a fistful of straw. One of the chicks pounced on it and leapt to the back of the nest. I could see him or her pulling at it, tossing straw. Then the chick turned and came at the mother with a kind of aggressive stance, as though demanding, “What the hell was that, mom? A trick?” The mother stood and looked at the chick, as though explaining, and then all three chicks began picking at the straw. Maybe there was food in it.
But you know what I think was happening? I think she was bringing nest materials. Just one more thing they have to learn how to do before they take off. This supports my theory that when she brought them deer legs, she was teaching them that they could eat road kill and carrion. I figure the parents were bringing them some of every thing they’re supposed to eat so they know, and can survive. And now it appears she’s bringing them nesting materials so they can learn that, too, before they leave. Because once they fly, they are truly on their own. I have learned so very much from watching them almost every day for the past ten weeks.
Yesterday while I sat at the boat shack, hot wind howling, waiting for boats to come in to inspect, Suzi called to tell me that two of the chicks had walked out on a limb. Then later, to say the third had finally joined them, after squawking and flapping eagerly for a few hours. Today, all three sit on a forked limb, flapping back and forth to the nest, shrieking now and then, perhaps with joy. It is just one more amazing aspect of this animal drama that the eagles found a site so perfectly formed for this exercise, a large enough open space out from the nest that the eaglets can practice flying back and forth to a limb safely. Magnificent creatures, soon they will fly into their new lives.
And soon, the Colonel will fly into his, into whatever life after death there is, or is not. He lost his mind some time ago, and now he’s lost his wedding ring. His caregiver is heartsick over it, and so am I. His team has scoured the apartment. It appears to have found its way into the garbage and out the door. He had been worrying it, taking it off and on in the night. Most nights, I’m told, they put his wedding band and his West Point class ring on the top of the dresser so he would not lose them. He has lost so much weight in his creeping decline that both rings were falling off occasionally. One night he was asking for his wedding band so he was given it, and now it is gone. In the morning, he apparently said, “I think I lost my wedding ring in the bed.” He has not asked for either ring since then.
And it’s a good thing, because as soon as I heard about the wedding ring last week, I arranged to have his class ring sent to me via registered mail. This morning, I signed for it at the post office, and now I am wearing it on my thumb. I won’t for long (or maybe I will). It’s huge, a heavy chunk of gold, with an oval ruby set into it.
I could not take the chance that it also would be lost. My father has worn this ring for almost seventy years. Never in my fifty-two years have I seen him without it on his finger next to his wedding ring. And next to his wedding ring, his 1942 class ring from West Point was his most prized possession. It is so worn from sixty-nine years on his hand that the ruby, once faceted, is smooth, the writing around the stone is illegible, his name engraved inside disappears toward the narrow part of the band, and the crests on each side of the ring are hardly recognizable.
The tradition of class rings at American schools began at the United States Military Academy in 1835. Historically, each class designs their own ring, with the USMA crest on one side of it and their class crest on the other. Each crest has as its central image an American eagle. A bald eagle.
A couple of months ago, the Colonel’s aide took his wallet away when he found him tearing up twenty dollar bills. Tearing up cash money. That struck me as profoundly symbolic of letting go of the world. Now, his no longer asking for his ring suggests that he has let go one more little bit of this life he clings to.
As the Colonel’s saga winds down, as he lets go of material things, another saga burgeons. This nestful of eagles learns to cling all the more tightly to tree limbs, to life. As the eaglets have learned from their parents, I, too, learned from mine how to get by in the world, how and who to be. I benefited from their fierce love for me when I was young and helpless, and from their letting me go when I grew up.
I have many things to remind me of my mother, rings and necklaces, paintings and pots she made. There is a little bit of her in each of them. But this ring, this ring is my father, has always been and will always be my father. The eagles worn smooth on the Colonel’s ring will always remind me of his pride in being an Army man, his tenacity and fortitude in the prime of his life. The worn smoothness itself of the ring will always call to mind the length of time he wore it, sixty-nine years, how worn smooth he himself was at ninety-two, and his final, reluctant, letting go of the world.