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Kathy and the Woodpeckers

February 1, 2011


My wife Kathy’s passion for birds did not match my own – though I thought it did when we were courting.

Courting, as some of you may recall, was a quaint and elaborate pre-marital ritual of testing and pleasing your prospective partner to determine whether you were more than temporarily compatible or deluded. (It’s since been superceded by immediate co-habitation.)

When I was writing my PhD thesis, I signed up for a ten week, non-credit “course” in birdwatching to allow me one sane day per week. The course met at dawn on ten consecutive Spring Saturday mornings. Kathy showed up every Saturday at dawn.

I thought I had hooked up with a perfect mate: a beautiful, smart, sensible, sensitive woman. BONUS: she too loves birds. It turns out she was my ideal mate for near forty years; but she loved a certain birder (me) more than she loved the birds.

That’s not to say that she didn’t like birds. She did. But they had to be special: i.e., big, colorful, stationary, and close. The little flitty ones she didn’t have much patience for, no matter how rare, delicately beautiful or sonorous.

Birds were just one of many things she was interested in: her family, skydiving, camping, traveling, Star Wars paraphernalia, garage sales, gardening, photography, water-colors, wretched soap operas, lighthouses, hot air ballooning, animals of all kinds, a good mystery, the internet – and especially the frail, difficult, and rejected kids that she tended as a school psychologist. The list of enthusiasms is long.

When she saw Pileated Woodpeckers this past summer, she was delighted. Here was her perfect North American bird. Although I’d seen them often, even in our own yard, she had whiffed on them repeatedly for over forty years.

We were on a small, hilly island in the middle of Lake Temogami in northern Ontario. Our hosts suggested that there was a spectacular vista on the other side of the island. Although Kathy could barely walk and was in excruciating pain (from what we thought was sciatica but turned out to be bone cancer of her sacrum and femurs), she couldn’t resist an opportunity for a mini-adventure or the possibility of a good photograph.

Even in her pain, Kathy somehow got ahead of the rest of us. When we caught up at the top of the island, Kathy was beaming. She showed us what she’d just shot on her digital camera. “My new favorite bird!”

There was not just one but three spectacular Pileated Woodpeckers, just as she had wanted them: big, colorful, stationary and close. The photograph of them above is the last nature photograph she ever took.

Rest in peace, my “Lifer” Kathryn Manix Walz
October 16, 1945 — January 20, 2011

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Wood permalink
    February 1, 2011 9:15 am

    Lovely tribute Gene. Our condolences on your loss. it sounds like you had many wonderful years together.

  2. Kent permalink
    February 1, 2011 10:19 am

    Gene, A beautiful tribute to clearly a beautiful person. My condolences to you and your family. Every time I see a pileated, I will forever think of this essay.

  3. February 1, 2011 11:47 am

    Poignant and beautiful. My thoughts are with you, Gene.

  4. February 1, 2011 1:54 pm

    What a moving story and a tragic loss. I wish I had had the privilege of knowing Kathy, but thank you for sharing this glimpse into her life, Gene.

  5. February 1, 2011 3:58 pm

    What a beautiful story, yours and Kathy’s. Do you know the spiritual meaning of the Woodpecker is ‘guardian’? Perhaps this event was a message to the future — that she is watching over you now. Native Americans believe that birds are spiritual messengers from the after world… I like to believe this, too.

    Keep looking to the sky, Gene. There is magic everywhere.

  6. Dolores Hoerner permalink
    February 1, 2011 4:17 pm

    God Bless you and your family.

  7. Pete permalink
    February 2, 2011 2:04 pm

    I am so sorry Gene. I can’t imagine your loss. This is so nicely and lovingly written.

  8. Lu Giddings permalink
    February 8, 2011 12:54 am

    A lovely note. I am so unutterably sorry Gene. My most sincere condolences.

  9. Rosemary Allen permalink
    February 10, 2011 5:35 pm

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful love story Gene. My condolences on your loss.

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