It being Christmas, I thought I’d write a column about volunteers since this seems to be the right season to remember all those who offer freely of their time and energy to make our world a little better place. I was thinking of everyone from CASAs to the ushers at the PAC. Each gives a little of themselves to something that is particularly near and dear to their hearts in the hope that by doing so, they can share their enthusiasms with others.
During this holiday season, people seem more in tune with the need to return some of the great gifts they have received in life by helping others. I go to Curves and there is a stack of food climbing the wall for the family my gym has “adopted” for the holiday season. I go shopping and find volunteers in stores wrapping gifts in return for a donation to the cause most dear to them. I bring my foster bird to a Christmas fundraiser and a kind soul puts money in his stocking so he can have a treat in the new year. I marvel at how this amazing spirit of giving becomes so strong once a year and wonder where it goes the rest of the time.
As I pondered this, something very sad happened. My friend Barbara Doak died. Barbara was a volunteer at Bird TLC, Anchorage’s wild bird treatment and rehabilitation center. She’d been there from TLC’s beginning in the late ‘80s. She was there the first day I arrived as a volunteer. She was there every Tuesday keeping the birds and me in as many dead rats and mice as we could possibly need.
Now I could go the sentimental route here. I could talk about how Barbara always represented to me the way I want to grow old – feisty, independent, never giving up a life of her own, never expecting someone else to make a life for her. I could wax eloquent about her sharp mind and wit, about her refusal to let her brain age in unwarranted directions just because her body did. But I won’t because Barbara would be horrified if I did and the last thing I need is someone else in the afterlife mad at me.
Barbara loved her family, her friends, birds and Ralph, her junkyard dog and ever-faithful companion except for when I showed up with a pocketful of treats. But Barbara was also a realist. There were no sentimental edges around nature for her, no Disney induced misconceptions. I think that’s the most valuable lesson of the many she taught me. Life is for the living. You mourn the passing of any creature and then move on because that’s the way life happens.
So if a small bird hit a window and was brought in to Bird TLC and died, it was fed to a goshawk or merlin. It was not wasted because its death also had value. In my first years at TLC, when that horrified me, Barbara would have none of it. She taught me that you faced life, you dealt with it in all its vagaries and you marveled at its efficiencies and beauty.
This has been a hard year for Bird TLC. First we lost Old Witch, an eagle that had been with us for almost twenty years. Then we lost One Wing, the symbol of all we stand for and the love of Old Witch’s life. We think he died because he simply didn’t want to live without her. And now we’ve lost Barbara and are reminded once again of how transient life is and how precious those times we can share with each other really are.
And that’s not a bad message at all for this holiday season. Because when all the gifts have been unwrapped and the food eaten and the eggnog drunk and the carols sung, the memories that remain are not of things, but of the people who shared those things with us. It we are very lucky, the ghosts of Christmases past in our lives are the ghosts of those we loved who are no longer there to sing Silent Night with us, but whose out of tune, off key voice will forever be the sound of that song in our minds.