In her tender and wise memoir chronicling both her end-of-life care for her octogenarian father and her stewardship of seabirds on an isolated Florida island, Susan Cerulean brings to the fore the responsibilities and rewards of bearing witness to and advocating for delicate lives in transition. A Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book from the University of Georgia Press, I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird is both elegy and call to action, a beautiful remembrance of a life now gone from this earth and an impassioned plea to serve as caregivers to that same earth and its myriad creatures.
A well-established voice for environmental conservation and activism, Cerulean tells us, “to witness, be present. This is my sacred profession: to be with the birds and then tell their stories.” Her heartrending memoir takes that same storyteller’s dedication in delving into her complex relationship with her father Bob, a veteran of World War II and a former Inco metallurgical engineer, as dementia takes its slow toll on his life and family. Cerulean’s father introduced her to the writings of Rachel Carson and mimicked birdcalls and behaviors for the amusement of his young children, yet his livelihood which sustained this family was made possible by a company inflicting environmental damage, making for a difficult relationship with his environmentalist daughter. Cerulean recounts her uneasy decision to become her father’s primary advocate and shepherd him through assisted living facilities, doctors’ visits, and a colorful cast of dedicated (albeit often low-paid and always over-tasked) caregivers.
With a naturalist’s eye for small details and a poet’s gift for emotionally rich language, Cerulean shares intimate conversations with her father and heartbreaking memories of the endless subtractions, small and large alike, as she loses him incrementally. Yet counterbalancing the losses are the small victories of moments of clarity and connectivity, coming into the orbit of others committed to a lifetime of service, and the privilege of shepherding a loved one through to the end.
“How does tending of one dying old man — his protracted dying — stack up against the urgencies of the world?” she asks. “Perhaps I’d learn something by trying to fix or mend what is close at hand, those to whom I was most closely related and deeply loved. Maybe, I thought, through this impossible task, I would learn the language of tending the world.”
Concurrent with her duties to her dying father, Cerulean is also documenting and protecting wild shorebirds on a tiny island south of the Apalachicola bridge on the Florida panhandle. There, she is witness to the wonderment in the delicate lives of plovers, terns, oystercatchers, avocets, dunlins, sanderlings, turnstones, black skimmers, pelicans, knots, yellowlegs, and more. She sees the small miracles of hatchlings entering the world and a vigil of birds comforting one of their own as she dies, pained but never abandoned. The plight of the birds, the threats they face from habitat loss, climate change, and other manmade dangers, are juxtaposed with the incremental losses of Cerulean’s dying father. The outcome in one case is inevitable, but does it have to be in the other as well?
“We love and care for what we have come to know through immersion, moment by moment by moment, over long intimate years,” Cerulean tells us. “Understanding the place we live in or visit, in this way, leads us to connect and tend and defend.” In sharing the intimate stories of one man and his family as he faces death, and also of a tiny island teeming with lives held in a precarious and threatened balance, Cerulean reminds us how each life matters and touches upon the lives of all other beings through a tapestry of connectivity that binds each of us to one another and to the places we call home. I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird is a heartfelt and necessary reminder to see, to care, to tell our stories, and to tend to one another and our shared natural world. As Cerulean tells us in closing, “That is the single bird we must heal.”
I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird: A Daughter’s Memoir
By Susan Cerulean
University of Georgia Press
August 1, 2020