My Father Becomes a Beaver

The year my father died I fell in love with beavers. All summer I watched them at dawn and dusk gnaw down the poplars, drag them to the plume, observing keenly how the trees slid so easily into the stream. As the kits grew, little furry heads accompanied their parents carrying whittled sticks in their mouths to help shore up their ever-expanding lodge. I always sat quietly so some evenings around dusk the kits would swim right up to me. Occasionally one would slap a leathery flat tail before diving deep.

When the call came on All Hallows Eve, my father sounded sad and resigned. He was having a surgery for colon cancer that week. The shock of finding out so suddenly choked me up with grief so intense I could barely respond. He had told no one he had cancer. The trips to NY and the hospital were distressing.* I saw my dad twice. The first time he barely acknowledged me; that night he looked into my eyes and called me “his girl,” words he had never used to describe me, his daughter, during our entire lifetime together. Two days later, after returning to Maine, I awakened from a dream with the words, “Your father has become a beaver” just as the phone rang. My father had died minutes before.

A second frantic trip to NY was cut short. My mother had decreed there would be no funeral.

An extrovert who tried too hard to please, my father could be overly kind in public, and privately had a problem with explosive rage. As a child I was terrified of him—I never knew when mindless chaos would erupt and it destroyed any sense of safety I might have had being with him. Yet in retrospect, it was he who held my head while I threw up, carried me in his arms when I fell asleep after a long car trip. My father took me to the hospital, the circus; he read to us at night, helped his children climb the circular stairs of the Statue of Liberty, bought me my first prayer book when I chose to become Episcopalian, told me that when he prayed it was always to Mary. 

The morning after I returned home a pure white wild dove appeared on the ground amid the other mourning doves I routinely fed outside the window. I had never seen one before. I had the uncanny sense that my father was trying to communicate with me through that bird, perhaps as an aspect of Mary. The dove stayed only one day, leaving me more bereft, if that was possible, when s/he departed.

My uncle Alex, my dad’s only surviving brother, told me an even more incredible story. One night after we had been planning a memorial service for my father, my uncle was eating pasta when he bit into something hard. When he pulled the object out of his mouth it was a tiny white stone dove. The presence of the dove sealed the rightness of what we were doing, although I had never had doubts and neither had my aunt and uncle.

As soon as my father was cremated and his ashes returned, my mother pawned them off on one of my sons who promptly gave them to me. No one wanted them. 

I placed the ashes on a table where shafts of light lit up the plain brown box almost all day long. My father loved the sun. The little prayer book that he had given me found its way to the top of the box. I kept it open to a passage that I pored over during my two-month vigil … “ in my father’s house there are many mansions…” 

It was November. I cleared a place within a copse of cedars for my dad’s ashes, dug a hole before it became impossible to do so. I spent Thanksgiving alone except for the beavers who I had been visiting every day until the week before, when thick ice froze over the stream. Oh, how I missed them; by then I understood, on one level, why I dreamt about my dad becoming a beaver when he died. He was a man who got things done, a doer just like the beavers; even in his spare time he was always busy building something. 

That Thanksgiving morning dawned frigid and clear. I took a crowbar down to the stream and punched a big hole in the ice. Then I sawed up a few poplars and stuffed them into the black water—my Thanksgiving gift to the beavers, and an offering to my dead father. The next morning I raced down the hill to see if the beavers had accepted their thanksgiving feast. The poplars were gone, and a solid sheet of ice covered the open water.

On January 9, 1994, two months after my father’s death, my aunt, uncle, cousin Billy and I attended my father’s memorial service; the church was festooned in deep crimson, a color that suited my dad. The trip down the day before had been a stormy one made in a fierce blizzard – heavy clouds still hung over the horizon. January cold penetrated my bones. 

Afterwards we met at my aunt’s house for a feast. When we sat down to eat, a shaft of golden sunlight struck one of the plates, lighting up the entire room. My aunt had set an extra place ‘by mistake.’ Chills crawled up my spine. A ripple of shock ran down the table. “Oh,” Terry exclaimed, “Pete is with us.” My father’s presence in that room was palpable. . 

 When I returned to Maine, I immediately dug through mountains of snow to place my dad’s ashes in the earth. The two – month ordeal was over; I could hardly believe it. Peace that literally ‘passes all understanding’ flowed through me as I felt my father’s spirit join me in that snowy cedar grove. All winter I dreamed of beavers…

In August, the summer after his burial, I had a vision. I saw my dad’s face and heard his voice. He was thanking me; all was well. I’ll never forget his smile – he was so HAPPY. 

 And then I saw so clearly: Funerals are not just for the living; they bring peace to the dead.

I am editing this last sentence when a mourning dove SLAMS into my bedroom window. I race out thinking it must be dead, when miraculously, the dove flies away, unharmed. Every living being is connected to everything else.

About the Author

Sara Wright is a dedicated eco – feminist, naturalist, ethologist, and writer. She lives in a little log cabin in the western mountains of Maine with two small dogs and one dove. Sara writes weekly columns that appear in The Bethel Citizen and The Abiquiu News. Sara has Native American roots, which may or may not be why she has dedicated her life to speaking out on behalf of the slaughtered trees, dying plants and disappearing animals. Please visit her blog “Over the Edge and Beyond: Journal of a Naturalist.”

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