My mother and father are living on borrowed time. Both of them realize that they are now past their statistical life expectancies. They are looking forward to their 60th wedding anniversary this summer and appear in good enough health to make that pleasant experience likely.
Dad has reacted to the fact of his twilight years by greeting each day with the same exuberant spirit and wonder of nature that I am certain he enjoyed in kindergarten. He is an avid bird photographer and often shows his work at local galleries and in the newspaper.
Although they only live 8 miles away, we only see each other a handful of times each year, often for a birthday, holiday, or special occasion in the community. Yesterday, I accepted his invitation and joined him on a bird-watching trip at nearby Claytor Lake State Park.
Never been one to follow the Boy Scout creed of “Be prepared,” dad took nothing more than a digital camera equipped with a humongous lens and a single support leg. I, on the other hand, took my nice pair of binoculars that was a hand-me-down from dad, an extra jacket, a snack, a bird book, and a bottle of water. Dad is so familiar with local birds that he doesn't even bother to carry a bird book anymore.
As we arrived at the lake at the park, it was evident that we would have it nearly to ourselves. We parked our car in a large parking lot designated for boat owners, but ours was the only vehicle in it.
We walked slowly around the various coves including the beach where I have vivid memories of playing as a child. We alternatively scanned the lake for ducks and the land for songbirds. Dad complained many times about how skittish the ducks seem to be this year, often flying away as we’d approach on shore. He also complained about how cold his hands were on this frosty, late February day. “When you get old,” he said, “your circulation is not as good and your extremities get cold.” Most of the sheltered coves had a sheet of ice on them. The ground had snowy and clear grass areas.
I followed along dutifully. Although I have always enjoyed bird watching and can identify most common local species, it is a few rungs down on my latter of favorite things to do. Still, it was nice sharing this experience with dad, particularly having in the back of my mind that the future will probably have a limited number of occurrences.
We passed a sign that explained how the shoreline was being eroded by the constant activity of waves on the lake, caused primarily by powerboats. The park had made extensive use of riprap piled against the shoreline to inhibit this erosion. It seemed to me that prohibiting powerboats would be a much saner and more pleasant solution. But I am well aware of how fervently powerboats enthusiasts enjoy their sport.
We stopped to tour the old mansion that now serves the state park as its office. There is a nice museum on the main floor with an interpretive display focused primarily on the types of fishes that inhabit the lake.
At one point, I fell behind as I watched a canvasback duck with my binoculars. Dad ambled onto a long boat dock that in places was crusted with icy snow. This struck me as a relatively reckless maneuver and I dutifully followed him thinking that I could perhaps rescue him if he fell in. I did my best to step around the numerous piles of seagull poop sprinkled about the dock and we returned to the shore without incident.
As we concluded our trip and sought refuge in the car for the warmth it would soon provide, we compiled this list of sightings:
Dropping Dad off at his house in Christiansburg, I walked inside to say goodbye to mom. To her horror and my embarrassment, my shoes were still soiled with seagull poop which left stains on her nice living room carpet. I apologized profusely and stepped outside to clean the remainder off my shoes. I felt guilty about it all afternoon.
A high school friend said to me recently, “Both of my parents are dead and gone. Yours may drive you crazy but someday they will be gone as well. Be sure to treasure the time you still have with them.” Good advice, indeed!