bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mothers and Other Creatures

by Charles Bergman


In my mind, travel and forgetting have always been linked.  I’ve lived much of my life as if I could outrun memory, or, if I got good and lost, erase the past.  Though I never ran away as a teen-ager, I’ve sometimes thought of myself as an adult run-away.  The farther away, the more remote, the better.  Never mind that I know rationally I can’t really leave anything behind.  It hasn’t stopped me from trying.  It’s a core illusion, a mistaken belief that’s been hard to eradicate.  Maybe I’m typical of many Americans in this way, in love with cars and frequent flyer miles and the open road. 

That’s why I was startled when my sister called me in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I had only just arrived earlier that morning, and was standing in line at a money exchange, travel-weary and jet-lagged.  The last thing I had expected was a call from home, much less from the past.

“Mom died last night,” Carole said, getting right to the point.  “A stroke.”

Jolting news, but no real surprise.  Our mom was well into her eighties, trailing a long medical history.  She wore a pacemaker for her heart and had long seemed frail and failing.  But she also had a wide streak of the hypochondriac, in all honestly, and loved the attention of doctors.  And that made it hard to know exactly what was going on with her medical condition.  Plus, she had a huge lexicon of medical terms—from her long career as a medical stenographer—which made her an expert at stoking all her worries about her health.   

Recently, though, she had found a renewed zest for life.  We had moved her out of her subsidized apartment in Seattle, where she had lived alone, and into an “assisted-living” home.  It was low-income, nothing fancy.  But she loved it, with all the people and a whole new social life. She even took up watercolor painting.  Carole and I began to think she might have several more years.

Her declining and ambiguous health had given us lots of time to prepare in practical ways for this moment, arranging cremation and paperwork.  What surprised me though was how emotionally unprepared I was for this moment.   

 I considered returning home, but quickly decided that that wasn’t really possible or necessary.  Buenos Aires was just a stop-over on our way much farther south—to Tierra del Fuego and, beyond that, Antarctica.  My wife, Susan, and I were traveling with twenty undergraduate students for the month of January.  Without me, the students couldn’t go on.  Plus, Carole and I decided we could easily schedule our mom’s memorial service for a time right after I got back.

I asked our local guide to take the class on a tour of Buenos Aires, while Susan and I headed back to the hotel to talk—to remember.  Memories and scenes I’d worked hard to put behind me quickly came back.   My mom’s adoration of doctors had escalated during my childhood to an addiction to prescription drugs.  She had several bouts of electroshock therapy, which was confusing and disturbing to me as a boy.  Terrible fights with my father, loud and bordering on violence, exploded into an ugly divorce by my early teenage years.  Once single, mom was gone every weekend, hanging out in cocktail lounges, becoming an alcoholic.    

My sister and I?  Left at home on our own.  I hated imagining what our mom was doing in bars and lounges, and grew increasingly angry.  These memories are still painful, even as I write this. 

When I left for college, I didn’t just go off to school.  I tried to leave my mom and my childhood behind—my first attempt at leaving and forgetting.  Not only did I think I could reinvent myself, I tried to become mother to myself.  At key times in my life, when things got tough, I hit the road.  I grew expert at leaving.   

Charles and his mother, Ellie
Much later, when I tried to talk to my mom about those chaotic years, she would grow defensive.  Every conversation became about her and how hard it had been for her.  Whatever I wanted from her, she couldn’t give.  The only solution I could see was an emotional compromise.  On one hand, I learned to be polite and dutiful toward her, a good son.  On the other hand, I quit trusting her with deeper feelings, nothing vulnerable.

You don’t have to travel to create emotional distance.  Mom felt the “it” between us, but I don’t know if she understood it.  I do know it hurt her in her later years.

As Susan and I talked in the hotel, deeper memories and lost images also began to surface.  I had forgotten how much, as a small boy, I adored my mother.  She was full of life and had a great sense of humor.  Her oldest child and only son, I loved to make her laugh, to entertain her.  Embarrassing to admit, I did routines for her—even singing for her— and she affectionately called me her “little clown.”  I remembered a blue and green dress she had.  When she wore it, I thought she was the most beautiful woman ever.  Once, in seventh grade, I faked being sick to stay home from school and try to bake a birthday cake for her.  It was a disaster, but mom doted on me for the effort, which was all I really wanted. 

In a darkened hotel room, I found myself revisiting some of the darker corners of my life.  That early love for my mom was a casualty of my later anger toward her.  And it explained why her nights in cocktail lounges when I was a young teen hurt so much, felt like a betrayal.   It was sad, but it also felt strangely satisfying to feel that early love for my mom again, before it proved dangerous and painful.

Next morning, we left for Tierra del Fuego with the class.  The students had heard the news and were gracious and sweet.  I thought I’d done some good emotional work and was ready move on, leaving mom behind once more.  But she was waiting for me in the far south.


          If the Andes Mountains are the spine of South America, then Tierra del Fuego is the continent’s tailbone.  Ushuaia calls itself the southernmost city in the world, “fin del mundo,” the end of the world.  Of course, there’s a lot more world south of Ushuaia, but the idea captures the frontier scruffiness the place—gaping holes in the sidewalks, rusting buildings, relentless gray skies. 

          Landing in the plane here can be its own minor adventure, dropping through snowy peaks and skidding to a stop at the end of a runway that sticks far out into the windy Beagle Channel.  We emerged from the small airport to find our guide, Marcelo de la Cruz, waiting for us. 

          “It’s terrible about your mother,” he said immediately, wrapping me in a huge, sympathetic hug.  The news had traveled ahead of us south.

          Marcelo is like Ushuaia, disheveled and full of rough simpatico.  His curly dark hair is never combed, his shirt-tails always un-tucked, and his coat rarely zipped up, even in the rain. 

Marcelo de la Cruz
          Marcelo is also a recognized expert on the birds of Tierra del Fuego.  People come from around the world to find the region’s unique species with him.

          “I got something special for you,” he said in heavily-accented Fuegian Spanish.  “Tomorrow night we’ll find an owl.”

“The owl will help you,” he continued, referring to the loss of my mom.  “You must let yourself be brushed by the wings of the owl.  You must be wrapped in the wings of the owl.  The owl will take care of you in this moment.” 

          Marcelo knows I love owls.  We’ve birded many times together in Tierra del Fuego, and with him I’ve seen many of the great birds of the far south—Magellanic penguins, Magellanic woodpeckers, Austral pygmy owls, and more.  This time he wanted to show me a rufous-legged owl, or “la lechuza,” a handsome, strictly-nocturnal, and hard-to-find “specialty” of the region. 

My traveling is not only about forgetting, of course.  It’s also a search, and often the object of the search is a pretext for something I don’t fully understand until I encounter it. I very much wanted to see this owl. 

          The next night Marcelo and I raced down dirt roads through Tierra del Fuego National Park in his small Renault.  He drives as he speaks, fast and sometimes careening toward recklessness.  We stopped several times, listening intently for owls in the dark forest.  Nothing.  Then, about 2 a.m., Marcelo heard something and plunged down a trail.

          By the time I caught up with him, about 300 meters into the forest, Marcelo was standing in a small clearing beside a huge beech tree.

          “Shhhhh,” he whispered.  “It’s here.”

          Marcelo pointed his flashlight at the fork in the tree, perhaps ten feet away.  A little owl stared unblinking into the beam.  A quick glimpse, maybe ten seconds, and it flew.

          “It’s still here,” Marcelo said.  “Above us.”

          Directly overhead, the owl peered from a thick branch.  I strained my neck backward to look up at it.  About a foot tall and heavily streaked, it peered left and right.  I squeaked like a small mouse.  The owl spun its round head, stared at me, and clacked its beak.  It was aloof but sharply curious, sweet-face and big-eyed. 

Rofous-legged Owl by Charles Bergman
          Owls are irresistibly anthropomorphic, with their human faces and upright posture.  They have ancient associations with darkness and graveyards and death.  And also with wisdom, perhaps from their ability to see in the darkness, which is why I love them so much.    

          “How did you know that the owl was there?” I asked Marcelo later, as we clattered back to Ushuaia, rocks clanging off the undercarriage.  I was impressed that he had heard it from the road.  I’m experienced with owls, have found them all over the world, including all nineteen species of North American owls.  But I hadn’t heard this owl at all. 

          “I will tell you how I find the owl.”  Marcelo waved his arms passionately as he spoke.  “I penetrate into the life of the bird.  I feel the owl in order to see it and hear it.  You must feel the bird in order to find it.”

          “Maybe I’m crazy,” Marcelo laughed, by now almost yelling.  “But people do not know what’s possible in nature anymore.  Now you have been embraced by the wings of the owl.”

          I loved the quasi-mystical connection he asserted with the owl.  He was not being metaphorical.  Marcelo is a hard-headed ornithologist.  He keeps careful, scientific records of all the birds in Tierra del Fuego.  But the owl is not just a biological being to him, known intellectually by data and statistics and maps.  It’s also a presence that he knows in his gut, by feeling it.  Still, for all my sympathy for Marcelo’s views, it was not until I returned home a month later that I felt the owl’s embrace. 


When I got back from Antarctica and Argentina, my sister and I organized a memorial service for our mom at the assisted-living home where she had lived her final two years.  A big, impressive crowd showed up to remember her.    

          Every relationship consists of a unique mixture of remembering and forgetting, and sitting on the fold-out chairs in the chapel in the home, I found myself thinking that death gives us our most intense, perhaps the ultimate, experience of both. 

The chaplain at the home called my mom by her nickname, Ellie.  He talked of her life in the home, focusing on one story from her painting class. I knew she loved the painting class because she had shown me several of her paintings.  But this was the first time I heard this particular story. 

          He said that my mom had wanted to paint a picture of a photograph from one of my books, a photo I had taken.   Her idea was to paint the image and give it to me.  According to the chaplain, she tried over and over again to paint the photograph, but she was never happy with her images.  She never showed me anything. 

“It was a photograph of an owl,” the chaplain said.

At those words, I almost wept, bending forward with my face in my hands.  I knew exactly which photograph, which owl, she had tried to paint.  Immediately I remembered the owl that appeared to Marcelo and me in Tierra del Fuego, just after my mom’s death. 

Susan, my wife, was sitting next to me at the service. She leaned toward me and said quietly, “The owl in Tierra del Fuego was your mom.”

Susan has no doubt about it.  In that moment in the memorial service, I believed it too with an overwhelming clarity of feeling. 

All my traveling, and there she was at the far end of the world.

          Now, over a year later, I love to recall that moment in the chapel.  I’ve told others the story of my mom and the owl, and many believe that my mom was that owl. But I no longer feel that clear and immediate faith.  I’m less certain about what happened.  Who or what was that owl?

Without doubt, the chaplain’s story added meaning to the owl and other experiences in Tierra del Fuego, but I can’t pin it down.  Often in Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica, I felt animals were speaking to me, offering consolations in languages that I don’t know, but which, like music, moved me irresistibly. A pod of humpbacked whales, for example, was feeding amid a wilderness of surreally-shaped icebergs along the Antarctic Peninsula, surfacing over and over again within feet of our Zodiacs.  They breathed in vaporous whooshes and their breath drifted over us in misted murmurs from other worlds. 

Humpback Whale by Charles Bergman
Now though I’m left feeling mostly two things about that owl.  The first is awe—an overwhelming sense that something powerful and indeterminate was given to me by the owl.  And it reduces me to the state that comes before knowledge and faith and even words, which we call awe and wonder.  It’s the feeling that lurks behind all the big questions that give shape and meaning to our lives. 

          The other feeling is gratitude.  To Marcelo, who showed me the owl and insisted that I be wrapped in its wings.  To the owl.  When a wild creature presents itself, reveals itself, it’s like a gift that nature makes to whatever longing we carry with us inside.  The owl in the forest is now completely tangled up with my memory of my mother.  And finally to my mom.  One of the best things she ever gave me is this last, ungiven gift.


Photos:  All photographs are by Charles Bergman.

Charles Bergman teaches English at Pacific Lutheran University. He's the author of three books, including Wild Echoes: Encounters with the Most Endangered Animals in North America. He's written extensively on wildlife and animals, including the 2009 cover story in Smithsonian magazine on wildlife trafficking in Latin America. He has a weak spot for the Southern Hemisphere, has completed two Fulbright Fellowships in Latin America, and has led four classes on study tours of Antarctica.

No comments:

Post a Comment