THE SEA GULL
two words I’ve heard most often in the wake of Katrina
are “devastation” and “God.”
the night of the storm, listening to people call in to the one
radio station that remained broadcasting -- some on cell phones
in attics that were filling with water -- I heard constant pleas
to God. "Please, God, help us." And in the aftermath
of the storm, God’s name was invoked for strength, guidance,
blessing. God dead? Hardly. Out of a natural disaster people’s
thoughts turned heavenward. They spoke His name.
to my apartment three days after the hurricane. When I got out
of the car, eyeing the roof shingles that littered the grounds,
a furtive motion caught my attention. There was a large bird
on the walking path that wound around the manmade lake in the
middle of the complex. When it saw me it strutted rapidly out
of my line of sight. Why didn’t it fly off, I thought?
Something about the bird being there struck me as odd, even
unsettling (I had just driven through an ominous landscape,
altered by destruction). Egrets normally patrolled the edge
of the lake; but this was no egret, and I had never seen a bird
use the concrete walking path. But I hadn’t the time to
investigate. I hurried upstairs to check out the damage to my
was none. My place had survived intact. Others in the complex
were not so fortunate. In the next weeks carpeting, sheetrock,
box springs, mattresses, couches, tables -- all manner of furniture
-- accumulated near the overflowing garbage container. Yet I
didn’t even have a water stain on my ceiling. Some claimed
that the storm was punishment meted out on the sinful by God
(another way His name was used); does it follow that those spared
the experience of devastation are the virtuous?
next afternoon I sat on my patio -- I live on the third and
top floor. I was reading the collected stories of William Carlos
Williams. For forty-two years the author had been a practicing
physician in a town in New Jersey. Mostly he treated poor immigrants,
and his stories were often about his patients. I mention this
because perhaps my reading that particular book has meaning.
up from its pages and saw the bird, again walking on the path
around our scenic lake. I recognized it this time as a sea gull.
gull, five miles from the sea? -- in this case Lake Pontchartrain,
the lake which separates the small city I live in from New Orleans.
I studied the bird intently, recognizing that something was
amiss. It darted about, pecking at the concrete and the grassy
verge of the walkway, searching for food, carrying on that basic
necessity of survival. I waited for it to turn, so that I could
view it from the other side. When it finally did, I saw that
the right wing jutted out at an angle, clearly broken.
was all there for the imagination to recreate. Snatched up by
the wind, the gull was swept aloft, carried inland at a speed
well over a hundred miles an hour; then, on a sudden downdraft,
slammed onto the ground or into some structure, perhaps the
wall of one of these apartments. Or it could have struggled
to this little lake, for it could still fly, though only for
short distances. I witnessed one floundering flight from the
walkway to the water.
the bird carry on its strutting search for food. It looked OK,
active and alert, except for that wing. Its plucky vigor brought
to my mind something a vet had told me years ago, in regard
to my newly-stitched up cat. Injured animals will try to carry
on as they normally would. Thus my cat, if she felt herself
observed, would likely continue to jump up on things. In this
world of claw and fang, instinct tells animals to appear fit
and able, so that they are not spotted by the eye of the predator.
I thought of how we humans are so coddled by kindness. We complain,
seek help and sympathy even from strangers. Dumb animals suffer
was nothing I could do for the bird. If I approached it on the
walkway it would make that pitiable flight to the water. Anyway,
there was no veterinary office open. The city was largely abandoned.
I shrugged inwardly -- such is life -- and looked down at my
book: Dr. Williams treating with tough compassion the sick and
the dying and those giving birth.
that day I would never see the bird again.
next morning the phone rang, a surprise in itself, for service
was rare; the man on the line knew my name. He informed me that
he had just taken my mother to the emergency room. She had fallen
and broken her arm. "It’s pretty bad," he said.
had called out to the stranger as she stood in the doorway of
her apartment. She held her right arm against her chest; it
was the least painful position she could find. He had immediately
driven her to the hospital. She spoke of him later as her "guardian
young doctor and nurses were also kind. Their most generous
act may have been to give her a morphine drip. I watched her
tense face relax; this smoothing out of her features happened
in seconds, right before my eyes; the shoulders sagged in relief,
a serenity took over her being. She sighed.
Morphine, I thought, for future reference.
this is not a medical narrative, nor an examination of the personal
dynamics between a mostly-helpless eighty-seven-year-old woman
and her aging son. This, rather, is an inquiry into the supernatural.
the sea gull an omen, a prophetic sign?
been surprised by the many people I’ve known who have
had experiences with the supernatural. One person, kneeling
at Dostoevski’s grave, felt herself infused with a message
from the Master. A friend vanished, disappearing from the palpable
present into the body of the ancient Celtic ancestor. There
are more mundane stories, mostly of omens and premonitions.
Often these stories involve animals. A friend’s dog was
found curled atop Granny’s quilt in the linen closet,
a place he almost never went. The next morning a phone call
gave them the news that Granny had passed away in the night.
when I observe the world I see it teeming with belief in, or
at least fascination with, the supernatural. We humans want,
perhaps need, another dimension in which answers reside.
remained unremittingly earthbound. When I jump into the air
I always return immediately to the ground. I’ve not even
had a dream auguring the future. Just the quotidian. So how
do I react to the stories friends tell me? Silently. But disbelief
and, increasingly, anger lurk behind my nodding smile. It’s
their complacency that bothers me -- why should they be granted
the security of a universe that cares for them?
course, skepticism is a common response to the type of tale
I’ve related. And it is socially acceptable to scoff at
levitating swamis, tilting Ouija boards and pin-studded Voodoo
dolls -- to the whole world of the occult. But there is one
point to consider: the smallest belief you hold that is outside
the rules of the natural world is a supernatural one. You have
passed over a line, to the other side.
are in a realm that is dominated by religion. God’s domain.
parts of the New Testament recently and was struck by how many
miracles Jesus performed. If I lived back then and I was in
one of those dusty, sun-baked villages and I witnessed Him---
as it is written by His disciples -- cure the sick, give sight
to the blind, raise the dead, walk on water, I would have followed
Him. I will follow Him now, tonight, if He will give me a sign:
maybe a luminous cross on my bedroom wall. I only ask that I
actually witness the miracle with my eyes, with my senses.
grant me any transgression of the natural laws; a passing, however
small, over to the other side. At least I will be there.
caused me to contemplate the sea gull.
the bird’s plight meant to be an omen of my mother’s?
Broken wing, broken arm? Was there supernatural meaning for
me encoded in the events I’ve described?
toyed with the idea. But -- no. The story I’ve related,
unembellished, has no meaning beyond the natural events themselves.
An odd coincidence occurred. A sea gull was injured in a storm;
days later my mother tripped and fell. Her arm healed. And the
gull, with its broken wing? As I said, I never saw it after
that day on my patio. But there are feral cats in a wooded area
not far from these apartments, and fish over three feet long
have been caught in the lake --predators, capable of dragging
down the vulnerable.
me only a passive pity prevails. Life -- the natural world that
holds sway over us -- is cruel. I give an inward shrug and return
to my book.
where does this lack of belief leave me? No place good. I understand
that fact more clearly as I grow older. I am left with the bitter
quotidian, which offers no answers, no solace. And which presents
me, ultimately, with a handful of dust.
a week after I returned to the area I drove the five miles to
Lake Pontchartrain. The lake had been the source of the huge
surge of water that had done most of the damage. As I got within
three miles of its shore I began to truly understand the word
the end of the road, on the rocky bank of the lake, I got out
of my car. Around me, like bones picked clean, were posts and
studs, all that was left standing of waterfront homes. Perched
on them were sea gulls. When I walked toward a clump of the
birds they all lifted off on strong wings.