David was 15 months younger than Jim. His little buddy, his pal. David died of leukemia when Jim was seven.
No one talked about David’s death then, and Jim doesn’t talk much about it now. But if you meet Jim, you’ll notice a sadness in him. Like when he laughs, he never really gives it all up to laughing.
Yet he gives it up to the hummingbirds.
The first time is 1997. He sits on the front porch while Dee and a friend splash in the wading pool. A hummingbird zips in and around the feeders above Jim’s head, lands on a low branch in the giant catalpa. Jim stands, walks to the tree, reaches his arm toward the bird.
“It flew to my finger, just like that!” He is going on about it over the phone. “Dee held out her finger, too, and the hummingbird hopped from me to her.” He is almost out of breath. This is the most exciting thing that’s happened since Dee said her first words.
I didn’t believe him. Dee told me all about it when I got home from work, but still, I couldn’t see it really happening. If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird stop beating its wings and land in a tree, you’ll know what I mean. You want to shake your head. The idea of those tiny wings not flitting their 80 beats a second — there’s something unnatural about it.
Earilier that same year, Jim found a hummingbird, lifeless, on the floor of his workshop. He figured it got overheated in the skylight trying to get out. He picked up the bird, ran to the house and yelled for me to bring sugar water, quick, in a bowl. He held the tiny limp body cupped in his hands while I held the bowl. He dipped the bird’s beak into the water. “Drink, little bird,” he said in a little bird voice.
After a few dips in the sugar water, the bird’s beak opened then closed, opened then closed. Jim opened his hand. The bird sat, looked around, launched. Whirrrrrrr, into the sky.
“I’m pretty sure it was the same bird,” Jim is telling me the day by the wading pool. “I see,” I say, although I don’t really.
One Saturday the next summer, the hummingbirds fly around our yard like neutron dive bombers. Jim is watering the Spanish Broom; I’m weeding around the Butterfly Bush. A green hummingbird lands on a prickly pear cactus flowering brilliant pink-purple. Jim drops the hose, walks to the cactus, extends his arm. Plop, the hummingbird hops from the plant to Jim. He turns to me, smiles.
My mouth is open.
There are three more hummingbird messengers. Once a hummingbird comes to Jim after landing on the young cottonwood we’ve planted. Another time the hummingbirds hover around a feeder in the lotus before one lands on Jim. The last time is this spring, ten years after the first instance. We are preparing to move.
Jim has his head in the engine of the ’57 Chevy Apache; he is trying to start the thing, which has been dead for a year, so he can drive it to the new place. A hummingbird lands on the hook where the hood latches. Jim looks up, puts out his finger. The hummingbird hops onto him.
By now this has become almost ordinary, yet I still look on as if I’m witnessing a miracle. Even more extraordinary, Jim moves his hand toward me, I put out my finger and the bird hops onto me. It is tiny, so tiny I can barely feel its weight. I feel its tremble, or maybe that’s mine. Jim says the bird has come to say good-bye.
One day last May shortly after we moved, Jim called me on my cell, excited.
“They’re talking about hummingbirds on Native America Calling,” he said. “Should I call?”
Native America Calling is a radio talk show where listeners call in to talk about issues and themes pertinent to American Indians. That day the theme was the importance of the hummingbird to Native cultures.
“Call,” I urged. I had just pulled into work, had a meeting in 20 minutes.
I stayed in my car, tuned in to the public radio station. The host had a panel that day — a well-known artist and a tribal elder. I listened to one caller, then another. I listened as long as I could; Jim didn’t come on.
Later that day, my phone rang. Jim. He told me they eventually put him on the radio. He told them about the many instances where a hummingbird, or several hummingbirds, landed on him. The host asked if he was Native. “No,” Jim told him, “but I was hoping you could help me understand, what is the meaning of these visits?”
The host asked the panelists what they thought. Both said it seemed extraordinary, nothing either one had ever seen. Jim waited. The host told him something silly, like, “They must think you’re sweet.”
“They didn’t believe me,” Jim said to me on the phone, dejected.
“I know,” I told him, “it’s hard to believe if you don’t see it for yourself.”