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The Dance of the Sand Hill Crane

 It is Saturday morning in Feburary and here in Michigan it is clear and cold.  The sun has risen a while ago but there are still streaks of red in the sky, lighting up the clouds, high and wispy.  I am standing by my car after completing some chore, cleaning something or retrieving something and I am slow breathing, trying to calm my heart. It has been a difficult week. My son has a fight tonight, full contact MMA, his first, and I am full of conflict and anxiety about it. Not because I don't believe he will do well, because I know he is as prepared as anyone can be for such a thing, but because I am a father and I feel like I should be protecting him from the violence of the world. Even though he turns nineteen in a few weeks and is stronger both physically and mentally than I could ever hope to be, he is still my boy, and I am scared for him. My other son is fifteen and this week was embroiled in some stupid conflict at school, a misunderstanding that had led to meetings with the dean and absolutely annoyed parents.  He is a great kid, better than I was at that age for sure, and it was nothing he did, he was just a side character in this garbage teenage drama, but it is something that can stick around well past its sell by date and stink up the place. Like sitting in gum on a bus: it's not that big a deal, but what the hell man, I don't need to be dealing with this today.  

So I am standing there slow breathing in the cold air, sharp and crisp in my lungs, counting in one two three four five, release one two three four five, in one two three four five,  release one two three four five, and what I am thinking about is not my kid, fighting in a cage tonight, and not that my other kid has some unnecessary trash at school.

What I am thinking about is my friend Will, who died on Wednesday. 

(and here I sit days later at my desk throwing my head back and staring at the light in my ceiling, clenching my jaw because my eyes are filling with hot tears, and I have to hide my emotions from everyone because I am a big man, a big stupid tough guy that is afraid of being emotionally vulnerable even in front of the people that love me most)

Here in Michigan we have Sand Hill Cranes. They are a large bird, standing between three and four feet tall.  They are mostly grey with streaks of brown, except the top half of their heads are a bright red. They have long, pointed beaks and wild orange eyes.  They walk slowly and pick through the grass looking for whatever food they can find there, seeds and bugs and worms.  They migrate, and so usually we don't see them much in the winter months, though I am not sure when they leave and when they come back. Some people find them a nuisance, because they can tear up your lawn and they poop all over your grass, but I think they are magnificent and couldn't care less about the condition of my lawn.

I am thinking about Will and I am sad, of course I am, but there's this anger built up as well, and guilt, and what is this?  Is it shame? The fucking injustice of it all galls me; it is so completely unfair that it hurts extra, somehow. And we can cry out and wail and gnash our teeth but ultimately the world doesn't care that a genuinely good person has been taken from us, and standing there in the cold morning air I clench my fists and my jaw and I quietly scream, hiss through my teeth in frustration and fury. I am trying to hide it, how badly this has affected me because I have a kid that needs to focus on his fight and he is sensitive to me and my mercurial moods so instead of talking it out and feeling whatever I have to feel, I am standing in the driveway, furious at the callous and indifferent world.

A lot of people don't know this but Sand Hill Cranes dance.  They do it for similar reasons people do: as an expression of joy, to impress a potential mate, to show off to rivals, and sometimes just because they are feeling it and it is nice to move around.  It is a nice thing to witness; they jump and throw out their wings, they thrust their head into the air, they prance around and even grab sticks and leaves and throw them into the air. It is beautiful, and again like dancing people, it can be a bit goofy as well.

 When a friend dies you feel like a part of yourself was taken from you and the closer they were to you the bigger the piece is taken and since I truly wouldn't be who I am without knowing Will, since he was such a huge part of my growing up and such a huge part of my young life, I have this hollow feeling that I keep trying to put my feelings into and so the place that Will held is now filled with this sick anger and bitterness and sadness and joy and I have no idea what to say or what to do with any of this-

(and here at my desk my eyes flood again, and I have to wonder who any of these words are for, what the hell am I even doing here and why write about birds and friends and loss who the fuck cares about any of this, but here I am, trying to get it out of me so I can see it and examine it and edit it and make it real)

We were in a band. For a long time it was just the three of us, Will and Eric and I in Marty's Garage, and we made music, music like us: some good, some bad, some silly and fun and stupid and angry. I was the singer and I sing still, sing along with the songs that mean so much to me. Sometimes when I am home and there is nobody else here I sing hard, like I did when I was in the band, I sing until my voice breaks and my throat hurts, I sing in this great release, because music to me isn't just a series of pretty sounds, but is the realest I can ever get, and when a friend dies, I sing Eulogy by the Flatliners: "You will always be remembered, you will be celebrated. You will never be forgotten, these tears still haven't faded" and I sing and I sing. 

Cranes are symbolic, because in a chaotic and unforgiving world we seek meaning, even when there is none to be found.  We impose meaning on a meaningless universe.  Cranes can be symbols of rebirth, and of peace. they are symbolic of other things too, but we take what we need and leave the rest behind.

As I stand here in the cold Feburary air slow breathing, seeking my center, trying to find a bit of stability, to find a solid place to be, I hear a crunch in the leaves that were left unraked from last fall, and I look over and there is a crane, very close, watching me.  Oh hello, I say, where did you come from?  I think of my brother who, when my grandma died, saw a goldfinch at one of his feeders for the first time, and when he told my mother about it, she told him that it was grandma's favorite, and he got a bit of peace from that like maybe she had sent him a little message. I think of myself seeking a bit of peace here in the cold Feburary air, and there, a few feet away, is what appears to be a walking symbol.

I talk to the cranes that come visit my yard, I say Hello and I'm sorry I don't have any food, and I am not supposed to feed you anyway lest you become fearless of humans and people can be real fucking assholes sometimes, and they are not all bird lovers, that's for sure. Best to stay away and not get too attached. People can hurt you. 

Something people also do that can hurt is die and leave you behind, feeling lost and alone, and in such a state that you think that maybe this enormous bird is a message from your dead friend that it's going to be okay, and that you have to hold your shit together because you have people counting on you. 

I stand very still and the crane and I regard each other.  I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend I tell it. You deserved better.  I'm sorry I left you alone when you needed me when we were young, and I am grateful you had the heart to forgive me when we were old.  I'm sorry that I never took the time to visit and I'm sorry I never got to witness the good life you built for yourself.  I thought I had more time. I always think I have more time, and I never do. 

The crane, of course, says nothing.

I stand and I slow breathe, thinking about how we cling to symbols, how we seek meaning, even when there is none to be found, how dumb and ridiculous I can be, and then the crane tips its head, bobs it to the ground.  It hops and flaps its wings.  It thrusts its head to the sky.  It dips its head to the ground and picks up a small stick and throws it into the air. It is dancing.  

I travel back in time and I am seventeen years old in the passenger seat of the world's shittiest white station wagon, it has no back window and no power steering, we call it The Beast and Screeching Weasel plays scratchy and thin through the blown speakers and that is all that will play in that car because the cassette is stuck and so Weasel it is, all summer long, and we have a show tonight and our entire lives ahead of us and yeah we have problems sure, life isn't always easy even when you're seventeen but goddamn is there anything better than riding in a shitty car with your best friends singing along to all the songs you love? 

I watch the bird dance, at once beautiful and goofy, graceful and silly, and I sing, softly, just for me. "You will always be remembered, you will be celebrated. You will never be forgotten, these tears still haven't faded.  You're not lost, you're not lost, you're watching over us..."

(and here at my desk I can cry, because I am alone in the house and there is nobody here to witness me cracking open, nobody to see how shaken I am, how much I hate this sick empty feeling, how much I hate losing another person that knew me before, here alone at my desk I can whisper through my tears goodbye old friend I will always love you and I promise you will never be forgotten)

The bird is unimpressed with my singing and just walks away because you will never impress a bird with singing, you need to do something that involves thumbs like opening a door or riding a motorcycle. It is just a big goofy bird and not a message from my old friend and not a symbol of any kind.  I breathe in the cold February air, and release it in a sort of laugh. I need to go inside where it is warm, where my family is. Godspeed I say, but the crane is gone, wandered off to wherever they go.  Be safe, I tell it anyway. Maybe I will see you again someday.

Still writing, 

RP 2-28-24

I usually write an afterword here but instead,

Here is a video of dancing Sand Hill Cranes:

Here is Eulogy by the Flatliners:

Here is the GoFundme organized for Will's Family


  1. Sorry, Ralph. Hell of a gut punch to come out of nowhere.


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