Nature Knows – Moms, Kids, & Grief

Saying Goodbye to Hans

The Sandhill Cranes of the Lakehouse have had a tough year. The matriarch of the lake, Lydia, was injured early in the season. She was no longer able to defend her territory, be a suitable mate for Bud, or to care for her unhatched colts. In a strange twist, Crystal, Lydia’s colt from the previous summer stepped in as a replacement mother and mate to Bud. Lydia’s fate is currently unknown. She may be living on the fringe of the lake with the other unmated birds, or she may have died. Either way, her departure from the Lakehouse has been a devastating loss.

Crystal cared for the eggs as though they were her own, taking turns with Bud to keep them safe and warm. She has been a good and doting mother to this year’s colts, Hans and Solo. But as any mother knows, it only takes a moment for a child to step into danger. Hans did just that on Wednesday, May 29.

I could hear the horn of the passing car clearly from inside the Lakehouse. This happens from time to time. The cranes are, after all, birds and have very little sense about the dangers of the roadway. Most often, the cranes come away uninjured and unfazed by their close calls with passing vehicles. But in this instance, I felt quite certain that one or more of the birds were injured or killed. Bud & Crystal’s distress calls clearly communicated that a colt was seriously injured or dead. I searched for Hans along the roadside but found nothing. Perhaps I was wrong.

As the day passed, I watched the cranes closely. I saw Bud and Solo together in the bog, but not Crystal. I worried that Crystal, as a new mom, might have been unsettled enough by the event to abandon her new family. Or, maybe Hans was not gone and for some odd reason, Crystal was spending time alone with him. That, however, would be highly unusual. There is safety in numbers, and crane families stay together.

Around 8 pm, I heard Crystal knocking on the basement door. She normally does this to let me know that there is no bird seed on the ground. However, there was plenty, and there was no need for her to knock. She met me at the door and just stood there looking up at me intensely. I don’t know for sure what she wanted or what she was trying to tell me, but I believe she was sharing her loss. I said from my heart in my out loud voice, “I love you, Crystal, I know that Hans is likely gone, I am so very very sorry, I will miss him too. And, Crystal, I am so very proud of you. You did your best. You are a great mom.” She held my eyes with hers for some time. Tears fell as I focused on sending love from my heart to hers.

Thursday morning arrived, and no cranes came to the yard. I could still see Bud and Solo in the bog, but not Crystal. The afternoon passed, and then, the evening came. I could no longer accept Crystal’s absence. I had to find her. Perhaps I could see her more easily from the kayak. It did not take long to locate them. While I was saddened to see that Hans was indeed missing, I was relieved to see Bud, Crystal, & Solo together.

I was disheartened, but at peace. The remaining family was safe and together as a unit. For this, I was grateful. I paddled around the lake for a bit longer feeling my feelings, talking to God, and taking in the sights, and sounds of the lake.  As the sun began to set, I recorded and posted a video on Facebook sharing the sad news of Hans passing.

On my return to the dock, I noticed the cranes settling on their nest for the night. I called out to them, “Come back to the yard tomorrow, ok!” At that moment, I saw something that was not right. It was a patch of orange where it should not have been. My heart sank, and tears began to fall. Hans lifeless body lay below Crystal’s feet. She must have carried him from the roadway back to the nest. The mystery of her absence from the others was now solved. Crystal looked down at Hans and then at me with an expression that was not unfamiliar. It was, in fact, an expression I hoped never to see again as long as I lived.

Grief has its own timeline. It comes and goes without warning. Sometimes it lasts for minutes but often lingers for days or even months. Grief feels like a lonely Godless place. No one, absolutely no one can feel your pain. No one can bare it for you. And, God, where is God when every cell of your being aches for someone or something that is no longer here? With just one glance from a distraught bird, vivid images from my mother’s final days played out in my mind’s eye, and I plunged into the depths of grief. Grief makes no apologies. It is an opportunist that shamelessly marches in, sets up camp, and stays until the heart heals enough to send it packing.

Three days before my mother passed, she was standing in our kitchen getting ready to take her night time meds. Instead of opening one section of her pill minder, the entire lid came off and one week’s worth of pills scattered across the floor. She quickly got down on hands and knees and began picking them up. As suddenly as she started, she stopped and stood up. She was confused. She looked up at me and like small child opened her upturned fists to show me what she held. She said, “I don’t know what to do.” At that moment, my mother realized that the cancer in her brain was winning. Her eyes pleaded in the same way as Crystal’s. Both were saying, Help me, can you fix this, won’t you please fix this. I took the pills from my mother’s hands and then held her in my arms and rocked her gently as she wept. I said It’s ok, it’s my turn to take care of you now. When she stopped crying, I put her to bed.

What is a person to do when pleading eyes ask the impossible? What is a person to do when there is nothing to be done? I could not fix my mother’s failing brain or make the cancer go away. I could not bring Hans back to life. I could not give my mother or Crystal what they wanted. In that helpless, hopeless place, all one can do is show up. To bear witness to the other’s suffering and in some small way, help to carry the burden. I sat quietly in the kayak and held Crystal’s gaze until she looked away.

Grief is a Godless place, but it is often where we find the Divine. It is frequently in our darkest moments that we call on God to lead us out of suffering and into the light. It is the journey back from the despair experienced during grief that strengthens our relationship with God and heals our hearts. As for me, I am shaken, and my heart is badly bruised. But, I know that the grief will pass and that the sorrow will be replaced with gratitude.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Harold and Lynnie Howarth, Lydia, and Hans.

My connection to nature is a direct gift from my parents. It is where I connect most often with them and is where I see God. Without my mother and father’s demonstration of love and reverence for nature, I would likely have never befriended a nesting pair of sandhill cranes. I am grateful beyond words for my folks. They were good people. I am grateful beyond words for the odd connection I have with these splendid birds.

Song of the Post: How Can I Help You Say Goodbye By Patty Loveless


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  1. JoLayne June 3, 2019

    This is a remarkable piece that reaches to the core of tenderness. Thanks for writing it and sharing it.

    • Gail Howarth June 4, 2019

      Thank you, JoLayne. Your words touch my heart.

  2. Krithana June 3, 2019

    Beautiful writing Gail. I hope in doing so you find some kind of comfort. I think it’s a good thing from time to time to remember the rough times in life. It helps us to realize that not all is lost or sad or bad. There were great memories and times that bring us to sadness. Stay focused on the good memories. Proudly display your photos in your home to remind yourself of the good times.

    • Gail Howarth June 4, 2019

      Thank you, Krithana. The writing was very good for me. I understand nature and the nature of things, but sometimes it is hard to accept. I will one day create the Crane Gallery in my home. Ihave a bit of a start now.

  3. Lisa Carlson June 4, 2019

    This was beautiful Gayle! I too look to nature to see God’s presence and peace! Such a loving tribute to these lovely creatures! Your writing is so heartfelt and full of love!

    • Gail Howarth June 4, 2019

      Thank you Lisa. The cranes have blessed beyond words. They are my family. Thank you for understanding.

  4. Jeanne Bock June 4, 2019

    I am so glad that you are writing again Gail…. I am sad that it was the loss of your beloved Cranes that has brought it on, but I enjoy your insight so much….. Keep it up!!

    • Gail Howarth June 4, 2019

      Your words touch my heart, Jeanne. Since retirement, I have been trying to write. Or trying to make time to write. No more excuses. I promise you will see more. Thank you for the encouragement.

  5. Amy Davis June 4, 2019

    Crying like a baby, I am. You’re able to put into words the thoughts and feelings that some hearts cannot express. Tell their story Gail! Tell the story of Bud and Lydia…perhaps a children’s book. Tell your story….of how you came to be the crane whisperer. You have the talent and the heart to do it. Sending my love, and hugs to you….sharing my tears.

    • Gail Howarth June 4, 2019

      I will Amy. I will tell their story. And thank you for knowing my heart.

  6. Heidi Stukkie June 4, 2019

    This is a beautifully written piece straight from the heart. I can almost feel every ounce of grief experienced by you and Crystal, and it brought up my own feelings of grief as well. How fortunate you are to have this place and to experience these magical birds like this — that is truly a gift! Thank you for sharing this. <3!

    • Gail Howarth June 4, 2019

      Thank you, Heidi, for your kind words. They are the most amazing teachers, companions, and friends. I am blessed. Even during the hard times.

  7. Debbie Matthews Wheater June 4, 2019

    Beautiful, Gail. You write so well! You brought back feelings of grief from my parents’ passing and of recently losing my little dog, Lacy. Your write with so much talent and let everyone feel what you are writing about. This is the first I’ve read of your writing and I am looking forward to more!

    • Gail Howarth June 5, 2019

      Thank you, Debbie. I am glad my writing touched you. Losing your folks is tough. I am not sure you know this but you and your sister Joy inspired a long-ago blog called “Tell Me Something Good”.

  8. Jane weaver June 4, 2019

    Gail thanks for sharing this loss is very hard but your words make it so much better.You are an amazing writer never stop.

  9. KathleenLamb June 5, 2019

    Gail, as always your writing has touched my heart. Love you! Kathy

    • Gail Howarth June 10, 2019

      Thank you, Kathy. Love you too.

  10. Renae Wallace June 9, 2019

    Gail, I just now had a chance to read this. You are a gifted writer and a tender soul. Please consider putting your writings and photos together on paper and publish a book. Once again, my heart goes out to you. <3

    • Gail Howarth June 10, 2019

      Thank you, Renae,for your encouragement, your belief in my talents and support during this sad time. I have started writing Lydia’s story. I do hope to publish it one day. And, others too, I hope.

  11. Betsy June 10, 2019

    Loved this, Gail. Love you and wish we lived closer! ❤️

    • Gail Howarth June 10, 2019

      Thank you, Betsy. I am glad you liked it. I wish, too, that we lived closer. Love you too.

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