Many years ago I was a medical intern working eighty hours a week at a private hospital in Portland, Oregon. I was enjoying one of the last old-fashioned “rotating internships,” in which the intern passed through various hospital departments, spending six weeks in each. I’d hoped the program would suit my unruly, jack-of-all-trades personality.
I saw a lot of Death — and his buddies Sickness and Pain. It sometimes felt as though I never left the hospital. I ate meals and grabbed naps amid a haze of dying patients. Occasionally I was placed in charge of cases I barely knew anything about. Asking for help was frowned upon, and I often worked in a panic, sneaking peeks at handbooks written especially for interns who were beyond their depth, while patients’ families watched me with a mixture of hope and trust and terror.
When I did leave the hospital, I plodded home, exhausted and cranky, to bark at my very patient wife, Polly, and my sweet five-year-old son, Ambrose. Then I would gobble some food, collapse on the bed, and fall into a dreamless sleep.
It’s no wonder so many interns succumb to depression and drugs and divorce and suicide. Or even think about quitting.
But then, deep in the wet, gray Northwestern winter, fog swirling everywhere, there came a respite: Four precious days off! In a row! It was just a pause between two six-week blocks, but it was a precious gift. I contemplated how best to spend those ninety-six golden hours. Sleep? No, sleep was for when you’re dead, as a friend of ours always said. Fly to Paris or Tahiti? Too far. Too expensive.
At last, with the enthusiastic approval of Polly and Ambrose, I made my choice: we’d drive a couple of hours to the coast and camp at one of the many beaches along the Oregon shore for four days of beachcombing and storm watching. It being winter, we’d likely have the place to ourselves. These were not the domesticated beaches you’d find in, say, San Diego, but untamed shores pounded by the restless green North Pacific.
We had a truck with a cozy camper on it — small but warm and dry. We loaded up the camp stove and fuel, bowls and pots and pans, plenty of food, rain gear, sleeping bags, a boombox and tapes, rain gear, a book to read out loud in the quiet evenings, a frisbee, rain gear — everything needed for rejuvenation amid the chatter and babble of the surf and the salt-smelling winds.
We ended up at Nehalem Bay State Park, where the west side of the bay is formed by a long, narrow spit of sand dunes and tough grasses. The beach was wide and clean and empty of people, as we’d hoped. We pulled our truck almost onto the sand and camped with nothing between us and the endless Pacific.
For two days we splashed in the ocean, and ran laughing from the waves, and bought fresh crabs in town and ate them with sourdough bread, and built driftwood fires and watched sparks race up toward the clouds, and slept like babies to the murmuring song of the sea.
The third day began with tattered mists and fitful rain. In late morning I left Polly and Ambrose napping in the camper and went for a run southward along the wind-scoured spit with the rain in my face. Light and shadow roiled across the sand like ghost surf. Sometimes I closed my eyes as I ran — a bonus of running on empty beaches.
At some point I stopped to do a bit of tai chi. As I was stepping into White Crane Spreads Its Wings — more like Jewish Guy Waves Hands at Clouds — a chittering squad of sandpipers swarmed around my feet, their little legs going like windup toys. They ignored me and raced off down the beach.
And I had a moment — just an instant — of really doing tai chi, as it was supposed to be done: without effort. Then I spoiled it by trying to make it happen again.
I ran on through mist, rain, and wind.
Then ahead I saw a small, dark shape perched on the sand, well back from the water. As I drew closer, the shape revealed itself to be a bird, sitting back on its tail feathers. It was vaguely penguin-like, about eighteen inches tall, with black back and head, white breast and cheeks: a common murre, member of the auk family. Murres are not really shorebirds and are usually seen over the open sea or nesting on cliffs.
So as not to frighten the bird, I veered toward the dunes, giving it plenty of room. It followed me with its dark eyes, turning its head, and did not otherwise move.
A bit farther on I saw a dead tree washed ashore by some storm. It seemed like a good place to turn around, so I stopped. Beside the tree, in the damp sand, I found a big crab claw and leg. I picked it up and stuck it in my jacket pocket, thinking Ambrose might like to look at it. Then I started my return run, wind at my back.
I came to the murre, still sitting on the sand. I veered seaward this time and ran past. Again it did not take flight but only watched me. I slowed to a stop and walked back.
As I approached the murre, I braced myself for the sudden flap of wings, but it did not fly off. At last I squatted just inches from the bird. I reached out to gently touch its feathers, but it wobbled back a few steps, wings askew. Then it sat down again, beak open, panting.
A few years earlier I’d had a wonderful humanities professor at San Francisco State College named Wilder Bentley — poet, painter, student of Taoism — who used to tell a story about an encounter with a pelican:
An avid fisherman, Bentley was sitting on a pier somewhere in the north end of San Francisco Bay, fishing for striped bass, when a huge brown pelican landed on a piling right next to him. The pelican glanced at Bentley, fluffed its feathers, and then gazed out at the blue bay.
How wonderful, thought Bentley. This wild creature knows I am no threat. See how it sits companionably by me. My studies of the Tao have made me so peaceful that the pelican can sense it.
Overcome with sentiment and pride, Bentley reached out and touched the pelican softly on the wing — whereupon the pelican turned its head and struck Bentley powerfully on the back of the hand with its beak, laying open the skin to the bone. Then it spread its immense wings and soared away. Bentley was left on the pier bleeding and humbled.
Now, on the beach, I withdrew my hand and looked carefully at the murre. It appeared exhausted and a little ragged. Something in its eyes and tousled feathers suggested that this bird had known many summers, and maybe one too many winters. Now here it was, old, waiting on the wide beach to die.
More death — always plenty of death. But this time it was not my job to interfere. So I stood and backed up slowly. The murre followed. I stopped. It wobbled up to my feet, then sat once more on its tail, as if spent.
What could I do? If the murre wanted me to stay, I couldn’t bring myself to deny it. But why would this wild being — which must have spent its life soaring over the open ocean on the ever-blowing sea wind — want to share its last moments with me, a clumsy and pale human in rain jacket and shorts?
I hunkered back down and said, “OK, friend, what do you want with me?”
The murre pecked at my blue running shoe.
“Nothing there for you to eat,” I said. Then I remembered that I actually did have some food, and I placed the crab claw in front of the murre, making the assumption that a wild creature would have no needs besides food. Was this the hidden purpose behind my run, and perhaps this whole trip to the coast: to bring this tired old bird a snack?
But the murre glanced at the claw without interest. Maybe it was beyond such trivial matters now.
We sat quietly for a while — companionably, even — just two living beings together, while the silent play of sun and shadow crossed and recrossed the beach, and the crash and rumble and hiss of the surf went on unchanged.
Eventually I grew restless, as my species often does, and I wondered whether Polly and Ambrose were awake. Perhaps I was also becoming uncomfortable with the murre’s serene acceptance of whatever life brought — a serenity that might forever elude me. I got to my feet, met the murre’s dark eye for a moment, then backed away again. This time the bird made no effort to follow but only turned its head to watch me as it had before. I ran on northward, glancing back once to see the murre’s still, black shape, buffeted by the wind it had ridden all its life.
The next morning — our last day before the long drive back to home and school and work — Polly and Ambrose and I walked up the beach to look for the murre’s body. I was certain the bird could not have survived the night. But there had been a high tide, and the beach was washed clean.