An avian valentine

I was a young yuppie with my first house, two young children and a third on the way. Of course, in the early ‘60s, no one used the word “yuppie.” But that’s what I was

I believed in dressing well, acquiring all the material possessions I could and climbing the social ladder. Years later, the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” about a man who neglects his son and is neglected by him when he grows old, put guilt in my heart. By then, however, divorce had divided my family.

Early on, a messenger had tried to teach me the value of nurturing love, but I missed the point.

I met her on a stormy fall day in New Jersey. My first account for the day was the South Amboy Boat Club, on a peninsula at the end of a dirt road.

When I caught sight of her she was huddled against the wall. She looked beat-up, nearly dead. But as I approached she became scared and tried to run.

She couldn’t fly. I made a halfhearted attempt to catch her, thinking, “Why mess with an injured duck?” Of course I blamed her for not wanting help—after all, she ran away from me. So I went about my business, serviced the account, and left without looking back. I was on schedule.

As I was driving back, I noticed a pack of dogs on the road heading toward the club. I turned the van around.

I found her still huddled against the building. But seeming to sense the danger that was coming, she let me pick her up. I got her into a cardboard box and placed it in the van. We beat it out of there just as the dogs arrived.

It was still storming when I turned her loose in the shed behind my house. When I opened the door to check on her the next morning, she stepped out and spread her wings. The food I’d left the night before was gone; she was beautiful, and all her parts seemed to be working.

I left her in the yard, figuring she’d be gone by the time I returned from work. Our yard was small and fenced, but a wild duck could fly out easily.

That night when I came home, she was still there. Days passed, and though she seemed to be in good health, she stayed in the backyard. Every night when I came home, she would run to greet me, her chest bouncing off the ground as though her feet couldn’t get her to me fast enough.

After a few weeks, I knew she was in perfect shape. Each morning as I left for work, she would fly after my van, giving up after about a block and waddling home.

Buddy, my letter carrier, saw this and explained that her wings should be clipped. It was now obvious that the duck had decided to stay. I was reluctant to do this, but she could be killed in the road.
Following Buddy’s instructions, I clipped the tip of the last feather on each wing. It’s amazing that 1 inch off each wing kept her from flying, and of course they would grow back.

My duck stayed through the winter, never failing to greet me even in the snow. She made her home in the dirt crawl space under the house. That spring she did a strange dance at my feet. Buddy saw this and said, “She needs a mate.” He volunteered to get a mallard duck, noting that it was illegal to possess wild ducks. We both laughed, knowing it was the duck that possessed me.

One day Buddy brought the most colorful male duck I had ever seen, and that was the last day my lady duck ever welcomed me home. It’s hard to explain my sense of loss over the love of a duck. But as nature would have it, she and her mate were a great match, and the following spring, six cuddly balls of fluff came out from under the house, peeping up a storm.

Meanwhile, we also had a new baby we named Tammy. My life went on, and I became more of a yuppie than ever, with a bigger house and more property. And of course we kept the duck family, which eventually numbered 65.

I could no longer pick my lady duck out of the bunch, and she never came to me. But as I lost contact with her, I also lost sight of the message she’d brought.

That stormy fall afternoon, I took the time to help that wonderful duck out of her trouble, and she returned my favor with love. I lost money that day, but the gift I received could never be replaced. If I had understood her message better, my life and the lives of the people I’ve loved might have turned out differently.

I’m much older now, and another messenger showed up at my fence recently: a beautiful goose in distress who was nose-to-beak with Prancer, my canine. As I picked her up, I noticed she was bleeding from her mouth. With one riveting blue eye, she looked deep into mine, totally relaxed in the palm of my hand. I took her to a safe place, where she seems to be doing great.

Somehow, the goose triggered a flashback. My guilt was still there: I never got it right. I’m estranged from my daughter, Tammy, and son, Jeff.

Meanwhile, my wonderful wife, Jackie, is ill and in constant pain, but through it all she worries about me. Maybe nurturing love doesn’t come as naturally to us humans as it does to most of God’s creatures. Jackie, though, is one of those exceptional humans. Love you, Jackie—Valentine’s Day 2009.

[Freelance writer Bob Collins, aka Radical Bob, has contributed to various national publications.]

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