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The Morning Before

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Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher ~ Wordsworth    


The morning before John died, I saw a bear.  In the ten years we had lived in Maine, we had never seen a bear.  We had heard stories, over the years, of neighbors who had seen bears in their yards in the light of early morning. We had even found bear scat dropped around our driveway, thick with blueberries, a sure sign, but never a sighting.  As lovers of wildlife, we always felt a bit shortchanged at their elusiveness.  

That morning at early dawn, the light still pink from a rising sun, John's hospice nurse, Ginny, arrived.  As she had done the last few days and would continue to do for as long as needed, she would arrive at the house at daybreak and return at dusk to assist me in administering John's medication.  He was comatose at this point and I knew it was only a matter of hours before he let go, and escaped the torment of a paralyzed body wracked with pain.  

This day, however, was different.  Excitedly, Ginny rushed into the kitchen.  I had just gotten up and was putting the kettle on the stove.  "There's a bear in your yard," she gasped.  "It is just off your porch near the rugosas."  I don't think I even said hello or good morning.  At that moment, the bear was far more important than a simple greeting and I rushed to the front door.  Just as I opened the door and stood behind the screen, the young bear, perhaps two years old, climbed up the porch steps only to meet me eye to eye. 

There were perhaps three feet that separated us, and for what seemed like a very long time, we just stared. I think the small bear was as surprised as I at our meeting.  It was lovely and as beautiful a creature as I had ever seen. I wanted to look at it forever, absorb everything about it, but when I realized it wasn't moving away or frightened, I did what I had to do, I yelled, clapped my hands, shouted "go!" Only then did it lumber off the porch and in a swirl of bulk and soft fur, disappeared into the pines.

I knew all too well that this time of year, bears just coming out of hibernation, hungry and often with cubs, scrounge and scavenge for any available food.  Birdfeeders, trash cans, blueberry barrens, anything that holds promise is fair game until a homeowner pulls out a gun and forever ends the bear's hunger.  It happens time and time again.  I had no choice but to frighten off the bear. The last thing I wanted was this beautiful animal to feel any sense of comfort or ease around a human being.  Even me. In a matter of seconds, it was over.  My first encounter with a Maine bear and just arm length away.

I couldn't help but feel this was an omen of sorts, a sign, a signal, a wonderful gift meant solely for me.  I went into our bedroom and put my lips to John's ear.  His breathing was shallow, his eyes closed.  "John," I whispered, "there was a bear on our porch, a young bear." I felt a rush of excitement and regardless of whether or not he could hear me, I was going to tell him about what I had seen.  

They say the hearing is the last thing to go.  I like to believe he heard me.  His breathing did seem to change slightly, it became faster and I thought I saw his eyes flutter beneath their lids.  

A few friends told me this sighting was amazing in many respects.  One, who had studied Native American animal totems or spirits, thought the encounter was indeed meaningful.  The bear represents introspection, she said, strength and healing.  During hibernation in its dark cave, the bear takes the time to think, to feel, to make sense out of its situation, and ultimately, to heal.  From this time, alone in its cave, the bear gains wisdom and strength.  When it emerges into the sunlight, it is older and wiser, ready to move forward, into the light.  The bear represents a strong healing power, perhaps the strongest healing power of all the animal totems. 

I, too, had been through a hibernation of sorts.  Alone, in my cave, in the surrounding darkness of John's illness and impending death, I had spent much time reflecting, giving way to hopes and dreams for a day when I could step outside once again, into the light of a new world, moving forward.  In all the enveloping darkness, I had never lost hope. After all, even in tragedy, our bond was all about love.  And from the depth of that love came an inner strength, for both of us that carried us through.  

The morning before John died I saw a bear.  It was the first time.  I have not seen one since.  

* the bear was sighted on the morning of June 26, 2002. 

Reprinted from the memoir, In the Heart of the Lily. 

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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a grant (more...)

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