I feed the birds that winter over on our property. The vast majority are Oregon juncos, a humble ground forager with rust colored shoulders and a head hooded in black. They are joined by a single lost song sparrow and a mob of noisy blue jays. I use makeshift feeding stations. One is the ground next to the house, beneath two sheltering rhododendrons. The second lies on the dry gravel under my seldom-used pickup truck.
The juncos rummage from dawn to dusk for their treats. The jays rise late and roost early in the evening. The smaller birds scatter when their larger cousins feed. During these interruptions, they perch, silent as monks, on the naked branches of a nearby willow.
Just this week, the first robins returned. Soon after their arrival, five inches of snow blanketed the orchards. Nonetheless, that stubborn song sparrow, which refused to fly west or south last fall, should soon be partnered with his own kind, singing glorious duets from the trees budding with leaf.
In January, I began attending a myeloma support group in Portland. I, too, was migrating to connect with my flock. I didn’t know what to expect but the large number of well-informed participants surprised me. One of cancer’s isolating factors stems from how intensely aware you are of the disease juxtaposed with how hard it is for others to relate. There is so much to learn and naturally I want to share this knowledge and refine my assumptions.
The group meets once a month at St. Vincent Hospital, an impressive nine-story multiplex of healthcare specialties. Hundreds of years from now, archaeologists will proclaim that hospitals were to our era what cathedrals were to the Middle Ages. Medical directors have Bishop-like powers, able to bestow mercy. Throngs of pilgrims arrive daily to worship at the altar of medicine, seeking salvation. Even scientific atheists enter as doubters and depart believers.
Last week’s speaker was Dr. Y, a Portland hematologist. Our congregation resembles those juncos I feed, perched patiently on the branches of the rhodies. The nourishment we seek, though, is not chick scratch, but reassurance in a moment of crisis. The good doctor delivered a sermon full of optimistic realism. The talk avoided dogma; his theme was trial and error, proof not faith. He deconstructed the historical pessimism surrounding myeloma using a Power Point presentation heavy with graphs and acronyms. Our group sat attentively, chirping occasionally to clarify the distinctions between things like proteasome inhibitors and immunomodulators. To the uninitiated, his speech would be as incomprehensible as a mass in Latin.
After the meeting, I nestled comfortably on a couch in the hospital lobby. There, I organized my notes and watched as patients, visitors, and staff busily moved to and fro. St Vincent’s is not exactly Notre Dame; there’s no hunchback or bell tower. The exterior architecture soars only to utilitarian heights. Their parking garage, massive as a pyramid, artlessly blocks the sun. But grandeur in design unveils itself within. The various medical service areas connect to one another with broad corridors that act as galleries of contemporary art. Fountains and courtyards offer sanctuary. Spacious foyers, layered in serene carpeting, enfold visitors like the nave of a church.
Perhaps, in the distant future, should humans still exist, a hand held device similar to a cell phone will deliver our medical care. Technology may one day miniaturize imposing edifices such as St. Vincent’s. At that time, my stem cell transplant will seem primitive. That’s all well and good. The awe-inspiring magnificence of human endeavor will not be diminished. Nor, I hope, will the urge to feed the humble juncos. Our dazzling accomplishments amount to nothing if we abandon our fraternity with simpler species. They will be fine without us, but I doubt we can survive without them.