I've been thinking about our letters a lot lately, reading through them in the mornings when I wake and again before bed, when I tire of scrolling through the apps on my phone, when I need something to temper the hollow and unsatisfied feeling social media often leaves me with.
These letters—in fulfilling contrast—have helped me pay better attention to the parts of my life that don’t fit into work, that don’t fit into daily emailing or my attempts at Twitter or Instagram, that don’t fit into the stream of quippy group text messages dinging through our phones.
I see how many of my own letters, for example, begin with the landscape up here. I’ve lived in the Skagit Valley over fifteen years now, but its natural beauty becomes real to me—or I more truly enter it—only when I trace its expanse with words. Emails, text messages, tweets—no room for tracing the hills and sunsets there. So all that finally busts out in these letters.
So get this.
I went back to Brennan’s house on Sunday during Rachel’s baby shower. And as Brennan and I pushed our sons in adjacent tree swings—the huge yellow leaves dancing above us—I asked Brennan if I was correct in assuming that the tree was, in fact, a cherry tree. It was.
“Why?” he asked.
When I told him I’d written about my last evening there, his eyes lit up.
“Really?” he said. His quiet, unseen world, his private life on this farm—his friend had painted a portrait of it?
I told him the story: watching baseball in the garage, sure, but mainly the baby owls. I told him how they stayed with me. How I couldn’t shake them.
After a few more chilly minutes at the swings, Brennan tucked inside for a sweater and returned with his new Dodger hat on.
“How often do you, you know, write?” he asked after a while, the kids like mirrored pendulums before us. “Just, you know, write about what’s going on in your life?” I assumed he meant about stuff beyond the prison ministry.
I told him I hadn’t really written like this for years up until I started swapping these letters back in January with my two high school buddies: one now in New York, where he’s an actor, and another, an English professor, still in Southern California where we grew up. I’m not anxious about a larger book or audience, I told Brennan. “I’m just writing to my two friends. It’s easy. But now, I can hardly stop. I write way too much, most letters. I see my life again.”
Abram and Brennan's boy August wanted to see the snorting pigs in the distance, so we left the cherry tree and started out across the field of tilled-under pumpkins. Trumpeter swans honked as they cruised beyond the phone lines. The boys ran ahead in their sweaters.
Brennan was curious still. “Now you got me thinking about the baby owls.”
“Yeah? How they doing?” I asked.
“I haven’t visited the owl box since you were here,” he said.
So I suggested we go check them out. He nodded his head like a happy kid.
As we walked, I asked him about all the saplings we passed, about the thickets of little hazelnut and chestnut trees he was growing. He spoke of others as well, gesturing towards the budding grove that stretched all around us: Oregon ash, alder, big leaf maple, sugar maple, red maple, more chestnuts, aspen.
I asked if he was making a tree nursery, to sell or transplant when they got bigger.
“Nope,” he said. “Just our own little future forest.” He smiled. “I can grow my own firewood, too.”
We took another step or two in the early afternoon sun. “That only works,” I finally replied, “if you’re here for decades.”
“Exactly,” he said.
In the barn, the tall ladder reaching the rafters had gone missing. As we searched the windblown property, Brennan’s daughter Annabelle, newly awake from her nap, came outside and made her way to the barn, braving the wind in a tiny cotton dress and bright pink galoshes. She and Abram began splashing in a long, winding puddle just outside, a shallow river where the tractor had traveled, now reflecting the cloudy sky. It was beautiful for a moment—before Abram ate shit, <quote-01>face first into the mud<quote-01>. From joy to misery in an instant, screaming as frigid mud filled his little boots and corduroy pants. I took all three of the children inside to warm up by the wood stove.
Fifteen minutes later Brennan came back inside. “Found the ladder.” I looked up. “And I checked the owl box.”
“They like twice as big?” I asked.
He shook his head.
He’d found them motionless and far too skinny. Their parents probably never came back, he said. Abram and August remain fixed on their cartoons.
I wondered aloud how the owl parents may have died. Brennan didn’t sit down as he explained how cars routinely kill off barn owls; their attention is so focused on what they’re after—their tunnel vision scanning for voles in the tall grass along rural roads—that when they soar out of a field they don’t see the oncoming trucks in their peripheral vision.
I remembered, then—no, I’m remembering right now, while writing and recalling this conversation—one night ten years ago, driving through the Eastern Washington dusk after fly-fishing all day: something the size of a football slammed into my windshield and made a hard flapping sound across the roof above my head. I remember too the silence of the road returning.
<quote-02>“So I’m guessing these two babies just waited,” Brennan said, “and died of starvation.”<quote-02>
I asked if they were still up in the box. “No,” he said. He’d brought them down in a canvas bag.
“What are you going to do with them?” I asked.
He shrugged. Sometimes dead critters on the farm just end up on the compost heap, he told me. But he felt like we needed to bury the owls. I agreed.
“That’s a good question.” He looked to his daughter, now watching cartoons with Abram and August. “Hey, Annie,” he said. “Where should we bury the owls?” She didn’t answer. I repeated the question to her.
Without taking her eyes off the screen, she said, “Where our family always takes things. The future forest.”
That’s when I began writing about this day to you both, in my head.
I brought you both with me as I followed Brennan out through the biting wind, holding his toddler August Light in my arms (Abram and Annie were adamant about staying inside with the warmth and their cartoons). You were with me as I watched Brennan push the spade with his shoe into the grass beside an aspen sapling in the middle of the future forest. It opened so easily, this new earth. He reached into the canvas bag and held out the downy, limp owls for us to behold before burial.
I couldn’t tell if his red nose and watery eyes were from the wind and cold or <quote-03>from the owls<quote-03>. He cradled one of their round faces, as if it were simply asleep, brushing back the soft fuzz from its eyes with his thumb.
Then he gasped. “Gosh. Look at this,” he said. As I leaned in close with August, Brennan splayed open one of its wings like a fan between us. It was—what’s the word to use here?—wonderful, like an Ojibwe dream catcher or an elaborate ceremonial headdress, an entire architecture of brand new feathers spaced with exquisite precision, like the inside of a grand piano. <quote-04>This wing had never opened until this moment. The owl’s beak hung limp toward the dirt over Brennan’s wrist.<quote-04>
They’d been dead in a plywood box—these owls—invisible to all the world. <quote-05>For a moment, though, before their burial, we saw the intricacies and beauty of their small existence, just us<quote-05>.
Brennan kneeled and gently tumbled the two siblings into the opened earth. Flop. Flop. He grabbed the shovel and filled their wings with dirt, covering them in an instant.
“Bye bye, baby owls,” I said softly for August’s sake as much as mine. He held my neck and watched, not repeating when I prompted him again, just staring at his father’s work.
I remembered the last homie’s burial I’d attended here in Mount Vernon, last year, and told Brennan about it as he filled the hole: how I’d been to the funerals of many young men in my line of work, but how I’d never seen what had happened at this one. After the hired priest said some things at the gravesite, after the straps that lower the shiny casket into its deep hole had been removed, after the wailing from the mother and sisters and aunts had pierced the crowd’s silence, all the young men in attendance climbed onto the groundskeeper’s mounded truck bed. The funeral director looked confused. He called the Spanish-speaking groundskeepers over. They’d kept a respectful distance but now rushed to the back of the truck and handed shovels to the young men in their dark sunglasses and nice clothes. All the friends then pushed the earth over their brother’s casket. No symbolic flower-toss or pinch of dust here. Forty hands clamored to reach and push this mountain of soil off the flatbed and over their dead friend. Guys with stoic jaws and gangster bandanas climbed onto the truck and took turns with the shovels. “It was the most complete participation in closure I’d ever seen,” I told Brennan. “They all literally had a hand in putting their friend to rest.”
Out there, with these nameless owls, it was just us—the five of us, I like to think—bearing witness to these two beings’ hidden existence, even if only through these letters.
I don’t know why I’m taking these pages to tell you about this small event. Something huge, after all, happened this week: the culmination of a massive election. Our text messages have been as endless as the news and our nation’s collective anxiety.
I also have a baby boy due any day now.
Everyone in my life knows about all that, though, and, frankly, I’m weary of talking about it.
But these owls. Whom can I tell about these baby owls? Who will care?
How can I do justice to this little story with social media? How do I mention it out of nowhere to family or friends, honor those owls without taking time to describe the future forest, the cold land? Who else could properly commiserate without some shared memory—that first visit to the owl box last month, the magic and hope of that dark night?
I’m sorry I read Rachel your story of grief, Murph, the tale of your father’s jarring death right out of your wonder years. That wasn’t my invitation to make.
I’m crying now on a Wednesday morning, maybe for the loss of your father seven months before I knew you, Murph. How did those owls open the floodgates to this wave of emotion, and so suddenly? Can new, shared memories between people create bridges backward to feel and mourn another’s loss as if in real time?
We walked back to the house through the future forest in silence, little August in my arms, his chin on my shoulder. I heard his little voice finally whisper, “Bye bye, baby owls.”