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).

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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.

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

 


 

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