Letting Go

For me summer begins when the hummingbirds arrive and ends when they leave. I remember seeing my first hummingbird feeding at a Mimosa tree blossom in the backyard when I was a child. I marveled then, as I do now, at what wondrous creatures they are, light refracting in their feathers creating jeweled colors. They are small for birds, but quite feisty and not afraid of people though that doesn’t mean that they like us around. I wouldn’t be afraid, either, if I could fly that quickly in any direction with such maneuverability. They are social birds, nearly always in the presence of other hummers, but they are also territorial and aggressive, so they don’t get along with each other particularly well. Hummers, with their energy, quickness, and fierceness bundled together in such a small and beautiful package, represent life to me.

I associate hummingbirds with Daddy. In the mid-1970s, Momma and Daddy first put up sugar water hummingbird feeders at their newly built, larger home next door to the home we grew up in. They initially put up two but quickly had to expand to accommodate the swelling numbers of voracious little birds. For many years they kept four to six feeders up and, in peak summer season, would have to refill them all daily. Momma and Daddy kept nectar mixtures in the refrigerator and were always prepared to refill when needed. They could see most of the feeders through the large breakfast room windows and watched them throughout the day.

If you see a hummer in South Carolina, it is more than likely a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird since that is the main species that breeds east of the Mississippi River. They are migratory and grace us with their lively presence during the warm months of the year. Momma and Daddy’s first couple of hummers arrived on or near Daddy’s birthday, March 23. We called these birds “scouts” because they arrived ahead of the multiple dozens that would feed later in the summer. The hummingbirds leave abruptly by the first week in October on their long migratory journey to Southern Mexico and Central America. Momma and Daddy enjoyed feeding and watching hummingbirds together for many summers.

Daddy kept up the hummingbird-feeding tradition after Momma moved to the nursing home in 2010 and after she passed away in 2013.  He did this as a memorial to Momma and her love of all birds, but Daddy also loved them. He spent hours observing them and recognized individual birds based on their patterns of behavior, as well as nuanced differences in their coloration. He was diligent in feeding the hummers and kept a running tally of how many pounds of sugar he purchased for them.

As his health declined, Daddy enlisted the help of family members to keep the hummingbirds fed. He expected us to help with the hummingbirds, so it was more like an unspoken demand than a direct request, although he was not shy about giving orders to get things done.

I visited Daddy as much as I could in the final months before he entered the nursing facility at age 90. Naturally, I helped care for the hummingbirds (as did other family members) and continued to do so after he left home, even though I live in Columbia, about 90 miles away from his Stokes home outside of Walterboro. I kept up the routine for a while after he passed away in July 2018, which was not difficult, as I made frequent trips to visit family.

During August I became increasingly aware that it was time to let Daddy’s hummingbirds go. There were plenty of nectar-filled flowers and other feeders in the rural community to sustain them. But I hesitated to relinquish this task because Daddy had much in common with his hummers. They were both full of energy, assertive, feisty (at times), and focused on getting the task at hand done. This connection made it difficult to let go of his hummers, but I was able to by September.

I visited Daddy’s house several months later and noticed that the feeders were still hanging even though the hummingbirds had migrated for the Fall. I was consoling myself with the knowledge that they would return when, suddenly, I was overwhelmed with a wave of intense grief, reexperiencing in full the absolute absence of my father. It is sad saying a temporary goodbye to the hummers; it is much more difficult to let go of Daddy. Yet, I am comforted knowing that the energetic and task-obsessed birds he loved will return.