On a sultry summer day not long after Jim died, a young nephew and his two little sisters came to our house on their way to a vacation near a lake in Maine. As they were preparing to leave, laden with an astonishing array of well-used, once neon and now mottled burnt-orange children’s life-vests I retrieved from our stockpiles, my youngest niece happily ran towards her siblings.
She was just on our periphery, and so we did not notice that her eyes had been drawn to a rustic quince-shaped bird-feeder that was hooked like James’ giant peach to a tree with tea-dyed blossoms.
She must have reached, balanced on her bare tip-toes, to touch an index finger to the bird-feeder’s smooth carved surface, possibly even poked her finger into the vortex beyond the hole by which birds were to perch and peck at specialized seeds Jim kept stocked for them.
By then it had been a year since Jim’s diagnosis, and thus since the endless tasks he had enjoyed (and inexplicably accomplished) in maintaining flora and fauna necessarily had been abandoned to his illness, and then to his treatment and exhaustion, and finally added to the massive stockpile of things I simply cannot do without him.
It was at that moment we learned that at some point during those months, a nest of hornets had taken up residence in the plump bird-feeder, which Jim had given to me on a Mother’s Day years ago.
(But for the first and last Mother’s Days, my presents from Jim had tended to be for him to attend to outside.)
We heard high-pitched, wailing screams before even the two Eagle Scouts fortuitously present could process what was happening to my niece.
A buzzing black mass of angry hornets simmered around my niece’s head as she tried to outrun them. Her mother ran after her, trying to pluck the stinging creatures from my niece’s silky sun-warmed hair, as did the Eagle Scouts–my younger son dispatching me for his First Aid Badge kit so he could assess whether she was having an allergic reaction to the stings, or merely encountering pain and entirely appropriate hysteria. The Scouts promptly commenced treatment, first of the patient, then of shaken bystanders. They then handled the nest.
This would not have happened had our beekeeper not been gone.
I and our children are not, however, without keepers.
We have an enduring friend whose melodious voice and calm rhythms in any crisis mirror Jim’s, and she has the distinction of having done a reading both at our wedding and at Jim’s Closing Ceremonies.
She volunteered when, for the latter, I wanted someone to read R. T. Smith’s poem, Sourwood:
When the keeper has died,
whose hands have touched
so much honey,
the village will convene
to elect a successor
and to remember
the sweetness of his voice,
his dependable hymns,
the spell of smoke
and the hush just after.
While the elders
resist the old rhythms
of grief, one will speak
of the ancient belief —
that the bee-father’s demise,
kept secret, could cause
the death of the hives
in the coming winter.
Then the question will rise
in a nervous murmur:
Who will tell the bees?
Only the summer before, more than once, I wondered to myself, Who will tell the beagles? After Jim’s diagnosis, our younger and more emotionally-needy rescue beagle became needier still. He would go to Jim and whimper as Jim sat at the kitchen table. Just before he began arduous treatment, Jim looked down at him and ran his hands along Brady’s soft ears to soothe him: “What’s the matter, Brady? Is it all this cancer business?”
Before Jim’s service, our friend asked me my thoughts about the poem. I offered an inarticulate mishmash that alluded to the quiet wonder of the ways Jim tended to others, including every creature he encountered outside; Jim’s aversion to secrets; his complete lack of guile; his unfettered willingness to discuss his own illness and death, and to help not only in “electing successors,” but in making sure they were armed with what they needed to carry on with the responsibilities with which they would be left.
Our friend is much like Jim not only in temperament but in dedication to others, in living a life that models true priorities, and in unlimited calmness among storms.
Happy Birthday, Auntie J.