My dad is a hawk. The build up to our realization of this fact is detailed. Fly with me.
Because I know that he is one, I’ve become an expert at seeing the difference between hawks—relatively rare—and turkey vultures, invasive and common. From a distance, it’s all about the wings. Vultures fly with their wings held at a bit of a V, the way children draw seagulls over a beach scene. Hawks wings are more horizontal, with their wings straight out, like —*—, like jets.
After my father died, in early January of 2014, my mother retreated to the frozen tundra of her youth—the hard cold of winter in upstate New York—and briefly to the gigantic house she built with my father on West Lake Road in Skaneateles, New York. She mourned in seclusion there for several months. Long afterward, she told me that she fell into a habit of taking showers so hot that her skin would burn and would stay flushed for an hour afterward, as if sanitizing herself in boiling water would disinfect her from her grief.
But you could never really keep Dad away from Mom—he had a near predatory infatuation with her. “Fly right,” his last love note said. “Look to the sky. I’ll always be there.” He really wrote that. I swear.
But spring follows winter, and then summer came and it was time to sell and then pack the house that had been their greatest masterpiece together, developer and designer. The nostalgia of moving brings its own grief, and it had been a merciless, lonely year. Sometimes the magnitude of the project and the weight of sorrow nearly debilitated her.
One afternoon, my sister and brother-in-law drove out to see Mom from the other side of town. It was late afternoon. She was sad—so often sad—and talking about a hawk. She’d seen this same hawk for several days, and each time felt a presence. It was like she knew it was him.
The three sat on the deck where Mom and Dad always sat together, looking at the lake and talking about this hawk. They all remember how strongly Mom felt that it was Dad.
All of a sudden and seemingly out of nowhere, a large hawk flew right at Mom. The way she describes it is that the hawk flew right past her head—so close she could feel the rush of wind—and into the glass windows at full speed. She was sure the glass would shatter. But it didn’t; that house was a stronghold.
The hawk—only momentarily stunned—rose up, looked at her, flapped its wings and bombed away. She was shaking. My sister and her husband were screaming. “We could not believe it was real,” Mom said, “that it had really happened.” But it did.
In retrospect, a hawk seems perfect for dad. Like a hawk, he was a force—an elegant, decisive predator; a loner; a source of mystery, and fascination; an example of freedom and single-mindedness—untethered, uninterested in joy, ferocious and noble.
My dad lives on as a hawk, but so too in our son William.
There are the coincidences: the flattish head, the impish grin, the mischief, the love of dance, the stubborn Dutchman. There was the 1:32 pm birth on September 6 and the 1:32 pm death on January 6, exactly four months later. There is the selective hearing, the skeptical looks, the challenging spirit.
Last month, or it may have been August, William’s five-year-old boyishness was getting the better of me—of us. Our household ran a low-grade fever of constant exasperation, as did in my childhood home, with Dad throwing his storm over every dapple of sunlight that managed to break through. Although this time it was the tyrant prince.
So I took him to the backyard to talk, mother to son. Will sat, diminished and uncomfortable in the over-sized Adirondack chair. He stared at me— his Disney-princess eyes the color of root beer tucked under a furrowed brow, displaying guilt and defiance in equal measure.
I began with a truck metaphor, although he’d long outgrown the truck phase. I wanted to use the analogy of putting on the brakes; we’d been up the runaway truck ramp so often lately—always ending in his tears and often mine.
I thought of that fabulous Mister Rogers documentary, and his reflective song “what do you do with the mad that you feel?” and also, of A Raisin in the Sun. How prone my son is—as my father was—to explosion.
Will was shifty and awkward, not meeting my eyes, and I could tell my words weren’t landing. It was one of those times when you’re trying to engineer a moment with a child, and it feels forced and halfhearted. My attempt to create a meaningful, memorable impact fell-flat. I needed help. I began again.
“William, you remember about Gampa, my dad?” He nodded. “Well, he used to get really frustrated…like mad. He would forget to use his words.
He didn’t really learn to Take Five. Those are things he never learned.
I want you to learn those things so that you don’t spend so much time upset and lonely and feeling like the world is against you.”
He looked up. “Gampa is the hawk, right Mom?” (Our kids have heard the story and also see me looking for hawks and pointing them out.)
“Yep,” I said, not seeing the relevance.
“Well Mommy, there’s a hawk right there. It just flew in here,” he said, pointing to the branch above my head.
Now, we live in Salt Lake City and our neighborhood is not fully suburban; it’s still pretty darn close to town. I have never in six and a half years seen a hawk anywhere near here.
But lo and behold I looked above me and there sat a truly magnificent brown hawk.
I was so stunned I could barely breathe. Tears streamed down my face and neck and into my shirt unconsciously. It was him.
He stayed with us long enough for me to walk slowly inside, call to Danny and Eloise, and have them come outside. We all stood there, speechless.
It was as if I summoned him to make the moment stick with my son. He had heard me and agreed with me and wanted to back me up. Maybe he knew I was doing the work, trying to offer tools that he had never been given, trying to save Will from the burden of carrying anger and never being able to put it down.
After at least three minutes, he took off, swooping over our heads heading south. But William remembers and will remember when Gampa came— to remind us how not to be, and how to be.
Like a truck, we put on our brakes. And when we can’t, like a hawk—we fly away.
Dad’s old adages that stand the test of time
- Don’t joust with windmills.
- If you take care of the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.
- Sometimes you get the bear; sometimes the bear gets you.
- If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
You can’t take it with you.