The Circle of Life

{I have thought about this post many times, knowing it would be special, and knowing it would be shared but I have held back to wait for the “best time to post”.  It is not so much about birds although there are some birds involved.  It is about family and spirits and … magic.  Since it is also about the passing of my father in August 2007 and an incredible trip to Kenya and a very specific moment while there in November 2007, I thought about waiting until the 10th year anniversary of one of those times.  But I decided that it is time…now, today.  Why?

Maybe it is my own feeling of mortality and a discussion I had yesterday about “bucket lists” and doing today rather than waitng for a tomorrow that might not happen.  Maybe it is the deep sadness that I feel as the people and politics of 2016 play out so horribly before us.  Maybe it is the heavy rain and heavy winds that are with us and may significantly increase.  Maybe it is something that I can only feel but not understand.  In any event, I want and need to revisit and repeat and share something I wrote a long time ago about the Circle of Life…me, my father, my children, all of us.  Here it is…}

Prior to his coming to Seattle, my father had always had a “quiet” appreciation of wildlife but other than on television or at the cinema, it had never been a part of his life in any active way.  When he retired and switched coasts and moved to Seattle, in part as a way to become active in the community, he became a docent at the Seattle Zoo with his favorite animals being the leopards.  Much later, his health no longer allowed him to continue as a docent but the fifteen year service pin from the Zoo was a prized possession.

My Father and Mother on their Wedding Day – Julian and Evelyn Bernson


In late July 2007 I learned of a cancellation by one traveler in a bird/animal safari to Kenya for late October/November and I was able to arrange my work schedule to allow me to take the newly vacant spot.  My father was very pleased when I told him of the opportunity – he had never been envious of my trips – just happy to hear the stories and see the pictures later – and that was his way with all of life – pleased for others without at least outwardly regretting any of his own limited experiences.

In early August I saw my father just before heading off to Portland for a two day business trip.  We shared details of the itinerary and hopes and expectations.  Mostly he wanted to know if we expected to see leopards on the journey.  My answer was “Very likely and I certainly hope so”, as the big cats are my favorites and I wanted very much to add leopard and cheetah and lion to the experience of seeing a jaguar in the Pantanal region during my Brazil trip in 2005.  Dad smiled and his last words were that I “say hello to the leopard for him.”

My Father in Early 2007 – Age 89


Two days later, as I was in the Portland office of the company with whom I was finally concluding a lease negotiation for a client, I got a call that my dad had been rushed to the hospital and that he had developed a fast moving infection that had led to pneumonia.  The drive back to Seattle was even more traffic delayed than usual and took “forever”.  When I got to the hospital my father was sedated, barely conscious and slipping.  His “communication” was completely non-verbal but he would respond with a squeeze of the hand to my words or touch.  I was told that the very strong likelihood was that this was a battle he was not going to win – indeed it was one he may have decided not to even fight – and that he could “go” at any time.

Adding to the drama was that purely coincidentally this was the day that my daughter was due to come home for her one week of vacation following her summer of research at NIH and before returning to Boston to start her second year of medical school.  She was very close to grandpa and it seemed important for her to “be there”.  And my son was heading to the hospital from his work and he too loved his grandfather very much and although he had been spared “death” so far, he knew the fate and he, too, had to be present.  My daughter’s plane fortunately arrived on schedule and she made it to the hospital in time to see her grandpa still “alive” and still responding to familiar touches and familiar voices with clearly felt changes in the pressure of his grip if not in any other ways.

As she sat by his bedside, I saw my child, his grandchild, as a doctor of the future, bedside manner already comfortable, an adult, a professional, a caring human being full of all of the gifts that she had received from each of us and enhanced and grown in her own ways.  And then my son moved over to the bed and held his hand.  Although I could not hear any of his words, I could see his own wonderful spirit and care and maturity as he held a “final” conversation with his grandfather and said his goodbyes and expressed his love.  And instead of an impending death, I felt only an ongoing life, the passing of one life into another – not a replacement but a continuation – indeed the circle of life from father to son to grandson or granddaughter and so on – as it has always been.

The Circle of Life


My father held on another day and then went as peacefully as anyone could ever want someone to go.  But no matter how easily a death may transpire, no matter how long and full the life that was lived, no matter how shared the goodbyes at the time, there is the unavoidable finality of the death itself.  Gone.  No longer.  Passed.

Or is that really so…?

Exactly two months after my final real words with my father – after his request to “say hello to the leopard”, I was in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.  As it neared its end, the day had already been by far the best of any of the already marvelous days of my trip with many wonderful birds and mammals.  Our two vans were down by the river and all eyes were trained to the west looking for a Lilac Breasted Roller that had been spotted but lost moments ago.

Samburu Serena Lodge


Elephant in the Brush


Martial Eagle


Secretary Bird


Lilac Breasted Roller


All eyes searched for the beautiful bird, but for whatever reason, I suddenly had an urge to instead look out the opposite side of the vehicle and as I did so at first I “sensed” more than “saw” a movement in the brush and then I clearly “saw” the form of the movement as it bound out of the brush and ascended the acacia tree.  I instantly screamed “LEOPARD” and everyone turned in unison as I pointed to our first big cat of the trip perhaps 200 yards away.

The vans moved as close to the tree as we could and we were rewarded with not just a spectacular view of an even more spectacular creature but with a spectacular unity with that animal – it was SO REAL – and it was deeply felt by everyone in the group – but by none moreso than by me, as I clearly and strongly felt my father’s presence and guidance and participation.  This was HIS leopard, his gift to me.  Not gone…  And for the first time since his death, I broke down and sobbed helplessly and joyfully in the splendor of that African place under the eyes of one of its most beautiful and magical creations.

Leopard in Acacia Tree at Samburu N.P. Kenya


Again the circle of life – there at a place that may well have been where “human life” at least was first born and began its own trajectory.  But some gifts keep on giving, some circles continue their revolutions.

Christmas 2007 – my first without my father.  I am now the oldest of the family – there are none surviving from the preceding generation or the generations before that – at least none corporeally.  My daughter was there as was my son back from his second year of college.  We are not a religious family and if we were to follow our beliefs, there would be ideas and values of the Hebrews and the Buddhists and animists and Universalists as well.  So for us, Christmas is a “feeling” a celebration of values not of a life or a lord or any other such biblical revelation – true or not – but of LIFE in its goodness.

Presents under the tree and the ritual of giving and receiving are important – usually played out in highly personalized expressions of what each of us finds important – in ourselves and in each other.  The night before, my daughter had said she was particularly looking forward to the morning – not for what she would receive as a gift but because she so very much wanted to see how her gifts would be received as they were even more special this year.

When it became time for me to open her gift to me, she handed me a very large flat package that, if I were to guess, might have been a Japanese print from a favorite artist (another of my passions) – but given med school costs, that would have been an extravagance that I would have had trouble accepting.  Or perhaps it was one of her own art works as she has endless capacity for creation.  Instead what I found was a frame around a certificate and a picture – a certificate of adoption through an African wildlife organization of a leopard in Samburu National Reserve and a picture, MY picture, of MY Leopard – MY FATHER’S leopard.

My Father’s Leopard

Samburu Leopard
Samburu Leopard

And it all came back – ALL.  The sighting in the park, his last words to me before he died, the visits to the Zoo, the Disney films as a child, and baseball, and hotdogs and watermelon, and gin rummy and the basketball games and her birth and his holding her in his arms as I held her in mine and his reading to her and her reading to him, her good bye at the hospital and his joy at her graduation from high school and from college and acceptance to medical school and her awards and concerts and them just holding hands and her sitting on his lap as she had on mine…and the same smile on all of the faces …And the same with my son: Grandpa’s pride in the boy that was now a fine young man, the trips to science centers and zoos, and lacrosse games and his jobs with responsibilities and accomplishments way beyond his years, his kindness, just like grandpa.

NO, NOT GONE; just a circle and it rolls on and on … and always will as it always has.  The spirit of the leopard is in us all … as is its beauty.

Yes, Christmas is a “feeling” a celebration of values not of a life or a lord or any other such biblical revelation – true or not – but of LIFE in its goodness.  More tears – more joy.

Two Wonderful Kids – Two Wonderful Grandkids


I miss my father.  My kids are “back east” and I miss them.  I miss the decency of the world I grew up in.  Happy for the memories and hope that there will be many more…

3 thoughts on “The Circle of Life

  1. Very moving and so well said. This is what is important, our family, our friends, and our relationship with life forces. Keep up the good work!


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