I left home at 15 to study dance at a boarding school for the arts in Northern Michigan, and somewhere around the same time, not so coincidentally, my father began an obsession with putting multiple bird feeders in our backyard.
Whenever I’d come home, he’d excitedly call me over to the kitchen window to point out a cardinal or goldfinch. "Do you see it?" he would ask while eyeing supply levels, and moments later, angrily run outside to shoo away lurking squirrels that threatened his little flock.
My dad constantly fussed over hungry goldfinch and sparrows. The birds became a running family joke, and not a Christmas or birthday would go by without a gadget or book dedicated to their care. I always thought that the birds — in their needy, dependent way — reminded him of me.
I moved back home to St. Louis with my parents after living in New York, a college degree in dance pedagogy and several seasons of professional dancing under my belt. Although the birds that I had watched eating seeds from the feeder had long since flown the coop, an assortment of species continued to populate our backyard, lovingly looked after by my dad. In our house, there was no such thing as an empty nest.
I was 24 and unsure if I wanted to continue to dance or if it was time to transition to something new. I felt completely untethered and adrift. The trouble with me is, I’m extremely independent and don’t generally like to accept help. I get that charming trait from my dad.
But as a film producer and editor, my father intuitively understood what I was dealing with and knew a thing or two about following one’s passions. “If I move back to New York and get a masters degree and form a network there,” I’d frantically tell him, “it’s more likely I’ll either graduate with a job or have a degree that will impress people enough to consider me.”
“Sometimes the piece of paper from a respected institution can take you to the top of the résumé pile,” he said, turning my manic planning into gentle encouragement.
Returning to St. Louis at that point in my life, I felt like such a failure and was desperate to leave the nest again. What I really needed — what I always needed from him — was his reassurance. My dad knew a lot about a lot of things, but most of all, he knew me. I was finishing a rather unsuccessful season with a ballet company and told him not to even bother coming to the last show, a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“I’m just a fairy in the back,” I said. “Don’t waste your time.”
“Not many people have the gifts to dance professionally or the opportunity,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you stand on the stage.”
My dad always seemed to know exactly what I needed to hear. I guess that’s what made him my dad. Maybe that’s what true love is all about. I really don’t know.
Shortly after that performance, my father was diagnosed with mesothelioma. After several rounds of chemo, surgeries and hospitalizations, he passed away eight months later. It’s been two years since he died and, more than anything, I miss talking with him, I miss his wisdom, I miss the way he fed my mind and soul.
From time to time, I’ll spot a yellow goldfinch quietly sitting on a branch and it always reminds me of him and the way he took care of us little birds.