At a reunion of my mother's family, held at the Seattle home of my brother some 7 years ago, my cousin George pulled a slender volume out of his coat pocket and announced that since he was the oldest member of the family, it gave him the prerogative to share some poetry. He proceeded to read some of his favorite poems from Billy Collins' most recent collection. George's melodious southern speech patterns were punctuated by his chuckles and frequent glances into the eyes of his audience. George knows how to bring worth to each moment, how to connect with each soul he encounters, how to enrich lives.
Already, George was experiencing signs of Parkinson's and perhaps had an inkling of the Alzheimer's that was soon to begin to plague his short term memory. But at that gathering and each other time we've met, George has taken the time to tell me about my mother's youth, to learn about me and my family, and to convey his love. Each January he writes to me, effusive in his praise of the creativity of this year's card, "the best ever!" once again. "Your mother would be so proud!"
In both Seattle and the following family reunion in Tallahassee, we went on birding expeditions together, once on foot and once in a boat in the lake where The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed. I thought of George when I borrowed this book of poetry from a friend. "Billy Collins and birds," I thought, "I wonder if George has seen that."
Tonight when I paddled my kayak upstream, I was looking for birds and thinking of George. I admired a Green Heron fishing on the bank. I smiled at the pair of white domestic ducks that make our river home.
But I was paddling late, and as I turned downstream, I saw not birds but a gathering mist hanging low over the river. I paddled along the bank, gazing at the vibrant greens of the ferns and hemlocks, punctuated by the crimson of the Cardinal Flower. Nearby, mayflies were swooping about. As long as I focused on what was close by, I could see clearly. When I glanced back upstream, fog was settling over the banks where I had just traveled.
The baby in this photograph, taken some 85 years ago, is George, held in the arms of our grandmother. I have other, more recent photographs of him, including one of him reading poetry, but they are not with me tonight.
Tonight George is resting at a place with the delightful name of Palm Garden, trying to regain some strength and put on a few pounds. I imagine him charming the staff and smiling wisely into the eyes of all of his visitors, making the most of each encounter.
This afternoon, I took these bird charms and added some beads, thinking of George all the while, and wishing I could send him healing balms. The mists may be gathering, but I hope that someone will pull up a chair for me and share a favorite poem with George.