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I am sitting on a small porch looking across a broad glacial valley in Cooperstown, N.Y. It is summer, and the morning air cools my face.

Susan is gone. She died suddenly, and we came to comfort and be with Gerry. Susan was preparing for her annual trip to central N.Y. to spend the first summer in her new home. But, a persistent headache marred the preparations. The doctor said it was caused by a small aneurysm and it could be taken care of easily enough by a simple procedure and an overnight stay in the hospital.

Gerry remembers kissing her softly as he dropped her off at the hospital that morning and hurrying out to make final arrangements for their trip. After shutting down the house for the summer and gassing up the car, he planned on picking her up the next day for their journey north. Later that day, as he pulled into his driveway, his cell phone rang. He heard “Mr. Strauss, please come to the hospital immediately.” The doctor met him outside Susan’s room and told him he was sorry, but Susan had suffered a massive stroke during the procedure. Now, she was being kept alive by a respirator until the family could gather.

Seems strange, but we are staying in her dream. What she had envisioned, talked about, planned for and built; only she is not here. Neither is the Gerry she dreamed with, nor the Jim and Jackie she shared it with. We have all been changed by her death.

We were awakened that first morning by a small bird banging against our window. I didn’t think much of it other than how determined the bird was to get into the house. It tried each window in turn, smashed into it hard, bounced off, and then flew away to perch in a nearby bush before trying again. It did not seem to matter if the window was screened or not.

Later, the bird settled on attacking one panel of the sliding back door. The door opens onto a deck, and the door, along with the many windows, affords a panoramic view across the valley meadow and of the rooftops of the homes and barns in the distance below us. Susan and Gerry had taken an architectural class and had carefully planned their windows and doors to capture this view. How wonderfully they had succeeded.

Susan had visited several times to oversee the construction, but now it was finished. This would have been her first stay in her finished home, her dream.

The bird focused on a closed window next to the door and tried flying through it. The back of a deck chair, about 6 inches from the window, became a perch from which it launched its incessant attacks. It lunged against the glass, only to bounce back to its perch. Now and then it interrupted its routine and sang the great, throaty song of the song sparrow.

It flew and hopped, cocking its head from side to side as it walked around the house, as if inspecting it. It fluttered up to the porch rail and then back down to the ground. Hopping, then running, then flying away to a tree, and then back to the porch where I was sitting. Sometimes it flew out of sight and stayed away for a few minutes, but then it would return. It jumped up against the window from its chair perch, hit the window with both feet and bounced back to the perch. Jump. Bounce. Repeat.

The cycle continued for almost two days as the bird became increasingly worn out. Its feathers were no longer sleek but fluffed and unkempt, and lightly flecked with blood. What could this bird possibly want? We have bluebirds back home in N.C. that attack our patio door and glare at us inside, seemingly viewing us as trespassers, but none continue to the point of hurting themselves.

Two days following, it was still at it! Hurling itself at the window with a mighty effort. It tried different windows; sometimes downstairs, sometimes up. Why was it so persistent? It used to back off once in a while and give out with a hearty song, but on this morning, it moved constantly from window to window. I looked away and across the valley to the rounded, green hills dotted with horses. A few neat white or red houses decorated the sides of the valley. But, mostly I saw wide meadows interspersed with trees. The cool air caressed my skin on the fourth morning as I sat on the porch. It was slightly overcast. Bird songs filled the air from many species. The loudest, at times, was the bird that was trying to get into our window.

I began to wonder, “Could this be Susan?” That’s crazy. I am a scientist schooled in rational thought, but… 

On the fifth day we were waiting to drive to Albany for our flight home, while our little sparrow continued to try to get into the house. Jackie had called a state ornithologist, but he could offer no explanation for the behavior. He suggested that the bird was just attacking its reflection in the window glass.

But the bird was clearly not seeing or attacking its reflection in the window, because while she sometimes flew into the glass windows or doors, she usually flew into screened windows. She hit repeatedly above the middle of the screen and clutched futilely with her claws as she slid down until falling off at the bottom. She flew off to a tree then, before returning to try a different window. Often, she left a trail of bird droppings behind.

I wondered what she would do if Gerry covered all the furniture with sheets and towels, covered up the rugs and bedspreads, opened every window and door, and removed every screen and sat on the porch and watched. Would she fly into her home through the window over the sink? Would she perch on her sink and look out back through the window and see the long green valley sloping away from her house? Would she fly from room to room inspecting her dream home?

Would she perch on the back of her sofa and inspect her gas fireplace with its beautiful Indian tile border? Would she fly into the bedroom and perch for a moment on the ceiling fan and examine the soft earth-tone paint on the walls? Would she fly into the bathroom and study the new mirrors installed over the tiled cabinet with the sinks? Would she then take a final flight through each room, perhaps hovering for a few moments near the family pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren clustered on the wall, before flying back out the window, becoming part of that lovely view?

Our car is ready. It is time for us to leave Susan’s dream.

Jim McGrath

Dr. Jim McGrath is retired professor emeritus of physiology at Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

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