In his book, “To See Every Bird on Earth,” American author and columnist, Dan Koeppel, explores his sometimes confusing and turbulent relationship with his father.
Richard Koeppel had a lifelong obsession to see every bird on earth. It began at the age of eleven in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher and jotted down the sighting in a notebook. Seeing every bird on earth is an eccentric pursuit and requires a specific mindset: singular, focused and obsessed, often at the expense of everything else. It entails considerable financial outlay. It also cost Richard Koeppel his marriage, jeopardised his relationship with his son, and disrupted his medical career.
In researching his father’s life and passions, Dan Koeppel made this important discovery. He says
“My father is a brilliant man who has lived a life that, in so many respects, didn’t turn out the way he wanted. He buried the sadness of his disappointments by watching birds, by tending his log books and checklists the way a gardener nurtures his blooms.
I realised what such a lifetime of counting contains: the desire to find one’s own place in creation. Seeing every bird is a way of seeing everything, of attempting to know everything.”
Dan Koeppel accepted that his father wouldn’t agree with everything he said in the book. But the telling was a way of honouring his father’s legacy, 7,200 species – the culmination of 50 years of watching. It also provided a way of communicating his love and understanding.
Personal stories are not always neat and tidy. They often contain struggle and pain. They may end in tragedy.
Since my son’s death over six years ago, I have often considered telling his story. I even came up with a working title, ‘Preacher Boy.’ But how authentic would my account be? How well did I know my son? How well do any of us know ourselves, let alone someone else, even if we love them?
Much of life is ordinary, our relationships predictable, our achievements modest, and our imperfections amplified, at least, in our own minds. Then there is the unseen part. For many of us, our interior life is off limits. We hide our personal fears, we conceal our present insecurities and we deny our lasting doubts. We portray ourselves as competent, able to rise to every challenge while fearing exposure as a fraud.
When I think of Adam I accept that it is difficult to understand the trajectory of his life. While there were aspects of his personality I recognised in myself, there were behaviours that caused me concern. I saw his anger. Yet I have no insight into the root cause. Was he frustrated by his personal shortcomings? Did he see himself as a failure? Was he confused about his own identity? Did he think he was a disappointment to others? It’s not difficult to formulate the questions. It’s the answers that prove elusive.
I also knew Adam to be generous, generous with his time, and generous with his finances. But I don’t know his motivation. Was he an unselfish person? Did he recognise the worth in every individual? Was his commitment to giving inspired by a spirit of gratitude? Did he believe he could make a difference in people’s lives?
Life has its moments of exhilaration and despair. I saw Adam’s love of fly fishing and observed the intensity he brought to the rugby field. I also saw the fear and despair evident when his life was unravelling. I don’t know why Adam took his life. I can tick off some of the factors that may have contributed – the shame, the sense of loss, the regrets, the rejection, the confusion, and the condemnation.
I was speaking with a man recently who had lost a brother to suicide. There had been a falling out. He was struggling with guilt. We discussed how the nature of the death can overshadow everything else. I said I felt a responsibility to ‘redeem’ Adam’s life. He wasn’t sure what I meant. I explained it can convey the idea of ‘to repair or restore.’ When suicide is present we often view a life through the prism of their death. We conclude their life was a disappointment, a lost opportunity, a failure. I want people to remember Adam for the life he lived not the death he died, and that needs a retelling.
One of the things that make humans unique is our ability to tell stories. Stories allow us to connect at a deeper level and challenge us to re-evaluate our lives. They offer us alternate pathways, ways of imagining our future. They provide answers to the big questions, the life and death questions.
One day I might sit down and finish ‘Preacher Boy.’ It will be my take on a person I love and miss. It won’t be the complete story. I don’t have God’s perspective. I look forward to the day when I’m able to read Adam’s story through the eyes of his Creator. After all, it’s His story to tell.