There’s a hospital on a hill in my Southern California hometown. The hospital shares the hilltop with a red-tile roofed church that seems unremarkable other than a lone steeple that reaches stories above, touching the sky.
The steeple is topped by a metal cross that’s a favorite perch for a pair of red-tailed hawks. The perch overlooks a melting-pot urban forest of eucalyptus, Californian and Mexican fan palms, Italian cypress and a mix of native and Mediterranean costal pines.
The view from the hill is urban in every direction, but a more careful examination reveals a landscape riven with corridors of wild space, the wildness delineated by the vein-like forest canopy. If you suffer the misfortunate of spending extended periods at the hospital, assuming you’re inclined to notice such things, you soon realize one of the hawks is almost always perched atop the cross.
The hawk may be the apex predator here, but it isn’t in charge. Below the canopy another bird is boss: the mockingbird. These medium-sized songbirds are fearless. They bully away crows and hawks whenever they venture too close. House cats are dive bombed relentlessly into cover. Even humans are not immune to the bird’s ferocity.
Venture too close to a nest and you’ll meet a pit bull mom with wings. The mockingbird’s raspy, churring alarm calls surround you, forcing a retreat.
I observed much of this while doing what I could to help my mother in a long stay at the hospital on the hill. She’s been fighting to stay alive since the third birthday of my twin daughters. I came home that day expecting a party, but was instead met by the twins’ mother, in tears as she told me Mom had breast cancer and had six months to live.
To give you some perspective, the twins and I celebrated their 24th birthday in November. That’s the kind of stuff Mom was made of. She stood all of 4-foot-10, the child of a Sicilian mother and Irish father, and throughout her life she personified the tenacity and passion of both. In the 1970s she helped lead an effort to manage growth in our hometown, an effort then thought impossible. Still, the citizens passed an initiative that managed hillside development and protected the city’s remaining orange groves — once the driver of the region’s economy.
Later she nearly claimed a city council seat, losing a close runoff, then served on the school board. Education was just one of her passions. She went on to become the city’s first female deputy fire marshal and was long considered a favorite to finally claim that city council seat, or maybe even mayor.
Despite her history of beating the odds, there was a sense of finality last month when she returned to the hospital on the hill. On the morning of the Fourth of July her heart gave out. A medical team reacted heroically, trying to keep her frail body alive, but this time it was too much.
We instructed her caregivers to end life-saving procedures, to provide only for her comfort as she moved on from this world. The doctors suggested the end might come quick, but in one final act of defiance, Mom quietly held on for hours.
The window in the intensive care room looked out over the church, and as we waited I saw a hawk resting at its perch. Then I noticed a smaller bird, struggling up from the red-tile roof. It was a mockingbird, laboring as it climbed to the cross. Once there it swooped and dove at the hawk until it relinquished its spot, gliding off into the trees.
It seemed such a futile act, but I suspect that mockingbird was motivated by a profound sense of injustice.
I love those birds. They remind me of Mom.
Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.