We were so astonished to see the bald eagle on that rainy Sunday in February, we didn’t realize it was Jan, saying goodbye.
The eagle flew across the sodden snow and perched in a pine at the far end of the field. Her head and tail appeared like patches of snow caught on the branches, drenched silvery with rain. After a while, she flapped to the top of the tallest pine, only her silhouette visible: dark, immovable.
She stayed there for hours.
Tim said, “There must be a dead deer in the field.”
We pulled on boots and rain gear to go look.
Sure enough, a young doe lay with her body pecked open, her life gone, and a calamity of animal prints in the pink-tinged snow.
Later, the eagle perched in an tree close to the house. I went out to snap a photo. She turned her head and blinked.
Sometime later, she left.
Eagles are still rare in Vermont, but common in Alaska.
Bald eagles are making a comeback in Vermont, but to see one along our small river and at this time of year is rare.
In Juneau, Alaska, eagles are nearly as common as sparrows are here. Last summer, we saw eagles perched on the lights arching over the road into town, lurking by the salmon hatchery, and – famously – wheeling above the city dump.
Since our trip to Alaska, I can’t see an eagle without thinking of Jan. But that Sunday, I didn’t know what that eagle augured. It wasn’t just that up until that day, I didn’t have the spiritual literacy to read the flight patterns of birds; I also didn’t have any reason to imagine my vibrant friend Jan suddenly lifeless. Gone.
The Long Trail
In 2016, Jan and I celebrated turning sixty by hiking The Long Trail. We walked and talked for twenty-five days, catching up on the previous thirty years during which we’d lived our lives and raised our daughters on opposite sides of the continent. Somewhere north of Camel’s Hump we started talking about what we wanted to do with what we thought would be our next thirty years. Like the college students we were when we met, and like the mature women who’d witnessed their elderly parents decline, we never imagined death would come for us any sooner.
I didn’t learn that Jan died until the day after the eagle came and went, and I couldn’t believe it until my confusion cleared enough to remember the eagle: how it hung around all day in the rain; how it drew our attention every time it flew past the living room windows; how it came closer and closer, until it was staring us in the face.
I’m not usually one to interpret birds as messengers from the spirit world. And maybe I’m telling myself this story to feel better. But it’s hard to feel better about a loss like this even when I scratch for reasons: Jan died too swiftly to suffer; while alive, Jan vibrated with life and adventure.
But if this is a world where Jan could drop dead on a Saturday morning, it seems just as possible that the eagle was Jan, saying goodbye. How else could her spirit travel from Alaska to Vermont as it made its rounds to her loved ones around the world?
Written to educate and entertain, Living in Place is where I publish my sometimes pointed, sometimes poetic and sometimes irritating essays about the human condition. By subscribing, you will have an essay every week delivered to your email and you will be supporting my independent, non-commercial voice. Thanks.