A death half a world away

Since starting research as an undergrad, my seabird fieldwork has required me to disappear to some odd end of the world for a few months each year. My family and friends have always been supportive, though I was usually met with a slew of questions like you’re going to go live on a … volcano?, wait so you’re telling me you don’t shower at all?, and, one of my all-time favorites, don’t you just get bored looking at birds after a while? But I was always extremely fortunate that things at home stayed the same while I was gone (minus a missed few birthdays and anniversaries). My partner managed our lives while I was away, I still had a job for when I got back, and my friends and family have been safe and healthy. Until I started my PhD.

The first field season for my project was in 2017. My advisor and I flew to New Zealand to meet with collaborators and iron out the field logistics behind my project. I also tagged along to a variety of New Zealand’s seabird islands with other PhD candidates to assist with their work (and to be inspired by the birds).


On a choppy trip to the Mercury Islands late-March, the boat bumped in and out of the range of cell service. It was just enough for me to receive a message from my dad:

“My dad is in bad shape. Emergency surgery.”

Beyond the obvious emergency surgery bit, I knew this was a big deal. My dad isn’t one to send updates about small things that might make me worry unnecessarily. If he sent me a message about this now, it was important. I tried finding out more about my grandfather. Just after receiving the message, we had moved far enough away from the mainland that attempting to get a message out on my cell was futile. I kept my focus as best as possible. The songs of territorial Bellbirds and the occasional sightings of ancient tuatara offered a welcome respite from the worry building in the back of my mind. I would find out more the next day when we were back in Auckland.

“He’s doing better. Still under sedation but breathing tube’s out.”

Skeptical of the message, I called home to everyone that might have information and was told the same thing. He’s ok. He’s in the hospital but he’s doing better. So I accepted it and cautiously resumed my island lifestyle. I became less concerned as more days passed without messages from home. As April approached, I made plans to fly to Wellington for more island opportunities.

Wails: Messages from dad They are taking dad off of life support. He has only hours left. No need to do anything. He just passed.

I saw these messages from my dad at the wee hours of the New Zealand morning, and from there it was a blur. I’m sure I muttered something along the lines of oh god or maybe an expletive, half-awake and all-hoping this was some awful dream. What do I do? He was on life support? When did that happen? He was ok! I was supposed to fly later that morning to meet with collaborators and spend the weekend doing seabird work on another island. But in that moment, I was lost. Can I put this on pause? How do I get back? How do bereavement flights even work? When I was finally able to reach my parents, the first thing I blurted out was what do I do? And independent of one another, my parents told me the same thing:

“Don’t worry. He would hate it if you did.”

So I listened. In between bouts of tears, I packed my bags, hopped the bus to the airport, and found myself sitting at my gate staring at my ticket to Wellington. I was flying to where my parents encouraged me, where I’m sure my grandfather would have preferred, where adventure awaited. But I was swamped with guilt. I wasn’t going north, I was going south. I was going to go do the work I had carefully planned. I wasn’t going home. Somehow, I was going to stick with my New Zealand itinerary.

I was met at the marina docks by more people than my introverted-self had anticipated; I didn’t realize the seabird team was overlapping with other volunteer organizations for a working bee weekend. But I’m so grateful to have been part of that group. They were so warm and welcoming. Their cheer and excitement was contagious. And as I sat with a Sooty Shearwater fledgling on my lap the morning of the funeral, I started to come to terms with my decision to stay.

Coming up on the second year of my grandfather’s passing, I still feel guilty. Though I understand I would have felt equally guilty for betraying my grandfather’s wishes if I would have dropped everything to go home. There is no right or easy decision, only what’s best for you and what will honor your loved one’s wishes. Now when I think back, I recall youthful childhood memories: the amusement park train ride rushes through the cool pine grove as I sit with my grandfather. I recall my time on Mana: the sun warms my face as I inhale the scent of the musty shearwater on my lap. I feel the kind of warmth that comes from the kindness of strangers and the love of my family.


My dad and grandfather with one of my younger cousins in the mid-90s



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