top of page
03_Morris__Amuri_Wedding__Bells (1).jpg

Art by AMURI MORRIS

HAWK ESSAY: FINAL DRAFT
by DEE ALLEN-KIRKHOUSE

Three weeks into the 2021 spring semester, while I wait for a student to realize he is alone with me in the Zoom room, I enjoy the view from my window. My feet rest on my daughter’s old toy box under my desk and a steaming cup of coffee warms my hands. The neighbor’s black and white cat, Bandit, waits under the Rose-of-Sharon bush beside the fishpond. From his vantage point, he can attempt to catch hummingbirds bathing in the stream or one of the doves feeding under the nearby mallow. My companion, Lily, a golden retriever, prefers that the cat hunts elsewhere. She charges out of my office and chases Bandit through the flower garden. By the time Lily returns to the bed in my office, the student’s avatar has disappeared from the screen. 
       I close my com
puter and hurry upstairs. Lily pushes ahead of me into the house. From the doorway I see my husband, Bill, sitting in front of his open computer at the kitchen table. He’s asleep. The fringe of white curls below his navy-blue Warriors cap matches the stubble on his ashen cheeks. Lily puts her head on Bill’s knee. He raises his head and attempts a grin.
       “I fell asleep,” he says.
       “I see that.” I remove his cap, wrap my arms around his shoulders, and kiss his whiskery cheek. “You look like hell,” I whisper into his ear. “How are you feeling?”
       “W
ith my hands,” he says, pulling me onto his lap and kissing me. “How was class this morning?” 
       I stand up and head into the kitchen, grabbing the peanut butter and blackberry jam from the fridge on my way to the counter. 
       “I let class out ten minutes ago,” I respond. “One student who doesn’t participate even when I call on him remained online. His avatar disappeared at the usual time that class ends. I suspected he was logging in and disappearing to do something else. I was right.”
       “Can’t you see him?”
       “Nope. Some students show their faces, but most are black tiles with their names or an avatar. I can’t force them to reveal themselves. It’s frustrating, but those are the rules for an online class.”
       I cut four slices of bread from the fresh loaf on the windowsill, spread a thick layer of peanut butter on two of them, and smear blackberry jam on the others. I place Bill’s sandwich beside him and sit at the other end of the table. We eat in silence. His attention is on the computer games he plays. Mine is on the New York Times crossword. 
       At 1:00, I start collecting plates.
       “I need to get going,” I tell Bill. “I have a Zoom meeting at 2:00.”
       He glares at me. “I thought you were finished for the day.”
       “I have a faculty meeting.”
       “Are they paying you for all the extra hours you work?” 
       “I told you. I get paid for the required stuff like the faculty meetings, all the training, and student-contact hours.” 
       His annoyance is obvious, but I don’t want to engage. I kiss the top of his bald head.
       “I gotta go.” 
 
       Back in my office, I pull out my journal and write:

               

              Bill keeps harping about how much I work. He doesn’t know the half of it. Creating online content,                                            recording and editing videos, answering emails, and grading papers suck up most of my time, hours for                                     which I am not paid. 

               

               He has no idea that my inability to connect with online students causes so much anxiety that I feel like                                     a failure as a teacher. In the physical classroom, I interact with students and learn how to help them be                                     successful. I’m at my wit’s end about this. I know other teachers are struggling, but it doesn’t help me.

             

               I had planned to teach until I was 75 years old, but I don’t think I will make it that long. Between Bill’s                                       COPD and congestive heart failure and the disconnect from my students, I am struggling to maintain                                       my composure. I want to retire. Bill wants me to keep working. He wants to go back to Scotland one                                         more time. I don’t know how the hell he expects to do that when he can barely walk across the kitchen                                       without having to rest.

             

               Continuing to work, is just one more example of how I put his desires ahead of my own. Dammit.                                               Time is running out for me to put myself first and finish writing my memoir. I don’t know what it is                                         going to take, but I need to make changes.


       I push my journal away, put my feet up on the toy chest and sit back in my chair. Little birds—varieties of finches, white-crowned sparrows, and a white-breasted nuthatch—cover the feeders along the retaining wall into the lower yard. The birds explode off the feeders and disappear into the bushes when a mockingbird barrels through their space, followed by a hawk who snags a goldfinch mid-flight. Gliding over the top of our greenhouse, the hawk veers left over the fishpond and lowers its meal into the flower garden.
       My immediate reaction is to grab my camera. While I decide how to get an image, a scrub jay squawks from the top of the bottlebrush near the greenhouse, and the songbirds again flee into the nearby bushes. The hawk sails low across the fishpond and lands on the retaining wall beneath the feeders.
       I take three quick images through the closed window. The hawk appears to be looking at me. I stand and slowly open the window. It watches, posing as if it were waiting. I snap a picture, and the hawk jumps to the ground, strides across five feet of open space, and disappears under the butterfly bush beside the bird bath. The bushes rustle. The hawk leaps onto the back fence, poses for one more shot, and sails across the valley toward Mt. Diablo.
       I am stunned by the encounter and remember my sister telling me that when we ask for help, someone in paradise throws down a sign for us. I laugh. 
       I look at the date in my journal, February 16th, my late grandma’s birthday. Did she send a hawk? I don’t think so. I’d expect a shower of geranium petals from her. Our connection was through gardening.
       I upload the photos from my camera onto my computer and search the Merlin app on my phone to identify the hawk as an adult female Cooper’s hawk. According to my research, because of encroaching development and destruction of their habitat in woodlands and forests, they have moved into urban and suburban areas. A Project Feeder Watch study in Chicago found an increase in Cooper’s hawk sightings at backyard feeders from 26% in 1996 to 67% in 2016[1].
       The predator’s primary prey were pigeons and starlings, but songbirds became a reliable food source at feeding stations throughout their territory. Just as Peregrine falcons have adapted to urban living in places like New York and San Francisco, the Cooper’s hawk and its relatives are adapting to new environments in the suburbs.

       The pressures of online teaching grow during the rest of the spring semester. I spend more time meeting with students, reteaching them concepts they should have learned in high school. New state regulations dismantled the college’s developmental writing program and required all students, regardless of ability, to sign up for transfer-level composition classes and to pass the class within one year. Faculty cohort meetings focus on strategies for handling the increase in underprepared students. Despite my best efforts, six students fail the class.
       I spend three weeks between spring and summer semesters building an online critical thinking class.
       After our first meeting, I realize that many students passed the prerequisite class without learning the strategies for success at the next level. I restructure my class, reteach key concepts, revamp writing assignments. On the Friday before the 4th of July weekend, I spend three hours in private sessions on Zoom discussing essays with students.
       When I go upstairs to fix lunch, I find Bill kneeling on the floor with his arms on the seat of his chair. He’s gasping for breath. His skin is a flat grey and sweat soaks through his t-shirt. I find his phone on the floor, call 911, and report that my husband is having a heart attack. When I was seventeen, I found my father in the same position. Dad died later that night, and I am terrified that Bill won’t survive this new health crisis. While I wait for the ambulance, I kneel on the floor beside him, telling him he will be okay, just as Mom told Dad.
       Bill stays in the cardiac care unit for a week. I continue teaching my critical thinking class from his hospital room and later, from the kitchen table, sitting across from him, watching him nod out in front of his computer. I stay awake at night monitoring his breathing. I have nightmares if I fall asleep. Students complain that I am slow getting their papers returned and answering emails.
       In the third week of July, despite his cardiologist’s orders to stay away from other people, Bill leaves me a message on a yellow legal pad. In purple Sharpie, “Gone to (eye emoji) Dom. (Big heart emoji) U.”
       Rage fogs my thinking. I storm out of the house and back to my office. When I see our daughter’s number come up on my cell phone, I snap.
       “Your father has done it again. He took my car and went to the coffee shop while I was teaching.”
       “I’m sorry, Mom,” she responds. “That’s one of the reasons I’m calling. I don’t feel comfortable bringing the girls near Dad. They haven’t had their boosters yet, and I’m afraid they might infect him.”
       “You have to come,” I plead. “I need to see you and the girls. Please.”
       “No, I don’t want you to get infected either,” she says.
       “I haven’t seen you or the girls for over a year and a half. I will meet you halfway between here and Reno. Lily and I will come alone. Please, let me see them.”
       “I’m sorry,” she replies. “I know how hard this is on you, but I have to do what’s right for my girls. If Dad isn’t cooperating with doctor’s orders, I don’t want to take the chance.”
       After she promises that I can see them after the girls are vaccinated, we hang up. I snatch the stapler from my desk and hurl it against the back wall of my office. I stomp and wail like a two-year-old having a tantrum before I collapse onto the bed and sob myself into hiccups. Lily curls her body into mine. I wrap my arms around her.
       “I can’t do this anymore,” I tell her. “Something has to give.”
       Eventually, I get up and go to the open window. Mt. Diablo looms over the valley. I can see a flock of turkey vultures floating in lazy circles around the peak. I feel serenity around me, calmness throughout my body.
       In my journal, I write:

             

              Twice, I have experienced a moment like this. The first was New Year’s Eve, 1968. I was distraught that                                        night wondering how the hell I was going to fix the mess I’d made with Mom. Bill was gone. Dad had                                          died. I was living alone in a new apartment away from Mom and my siblings. Crying cleared all the shit                                      away, so I could see a way forward. I saw my situation as an adventure. I lived alone, had a job that                                              would support me, and an opportunity to go to college. I still didn’t know how I was going to fix the                                          mess with Mom, but I trusted that I would find a way. 

             

              The second was my fortieth birthday in 1990. I remember sitting by myself on the back stairs and                                                 looking at Mt. Diablo while everyone was in the house celebrating with cake and champagne. I was                                             crying with relief because I had outlived Dad. I was liberated from having to follow what he had                                                 planned for my life. I had already defied him by going to college and marrying Bill, but I felt guilty                                             about doing it. Being forty meant that I was free to do what I wanted with the rest of my life.

             

              I recognize those moments as transitions from helplessness into a new awareness of my own strength.                                        This is another. I have spent thirty years in the classroom. I have nothing left to give my students. I want                                    to spend the rest of my life working in my garden and writing. I want to step away from the idea that as                                    his wife, I should do what is best for Bill rather than what’s good for me. I have the right to live my own                                    life. I’m almost seventy-two. It’s time to disconnect from everything that is holding me back. I just need                                    to be brave and jump!


       I close my journal just as a Cooper’s hawk soars from the neighbor’s redwood tree toward me. As it draws even with the open window, it turns its head and screeches.
       “I think the hawk agrees that it’s time to move on,” I tell Lily. Her tail slaps the bed. She sighs and closes her eyes.
       I send an email to my department chair asking him to give my fall classes to another adjunct professor. I am retiring on July 31. 
       When Bill comes home later that evening, I tell him about Samantha’s call.
       “That’s too bad,” he says, taking a cider from the fridge and offering it to me. I step back and shake my head, no. He sits down, opens his computer, takes a sip from the bottle, focuses on the screen.
       Typical reaction when he knows he screwed up; pretend nothing happened. 
       “I have final research papers to grade. I’ll talk to you later.”
       I know that we will not talk, but it’s okay. It takes too much energy to defend my position. He thinks I’m too emotional to think logically. 
       I wait until lunch the next day to tell him that I am retiring. He pushes away his computer, pulls me onto his lap, and wraps his arms around me.
       “Congratulations,” he says. “I’m glad you made that decision.” 
       I pull away from him and go to the kitchen counter. Outside, a squirrel hangs by its toes and does crunches to retrieve peanuts from the feeder. A Downy woodpecker claims the cylinder of nut cake. Songbirds flutter from the bushes to the feeders and back again. I cross my arms and turn to face him.
       “Why congratulations? I thought you wanted me to keep working.”
       He shrugs. “You know how it is. It took me a while to realize that you were stressed about more than the girls and my behavior yesterday. Teaching takes so much of your time, and me harassing you added to the stress. I’m sorry.”
        By the time the fall semester begins, I have an office free of teaching materials. I fill the empty spaces with writing resources and bird books. On my mother’s birthday in September, the Cooper’s hawk appears on the deck railing outside my office. I decide that Mom sent the hawk and begin an essay exploring why. I finish the first draft on Christmas Eve, 2021. When I leave my office, the Cooper’s hawk is perched on a bird feeder. I won’t see it again.
       Over the next 18 months, I write essay after essay trying to fit together the pieces of the hawk’s arrival and my conclusion that Mom sent it to inspire me to write. I submit the final draft to literary journals in October 2022. Editors send me encouraging comments along with their rejections. I don’t see a way to fix the essay and stick it in a drawer.
       In October 2023, I attend A Writing Room Conference online and meet other writers, several of them offer to critique my hawk essay. One reader asks me why I noticed the hawk in the first place.
       In my journal, I write:

             

              I must have seen Cooper’s hawks around here before. Hawks and owls hunt and nest in the open space                                      behind the school. So why did I notice this one? 1) Her spectacular entrance into the view outside my                                        window and 2) her photo shoot. I have never had a hawk pose for me before.

             

              Ferocious orange eyes, broad shoulders, powerful legs. She seems determined striding across the yard                                          and wrestling her way out of the bushes. The final perch, with her head tilted like one of my dogs, makes                                    me think her visit was deliberate. I wasn’t conscious of that look two years ago. Now that I see it, I                                              realize that she wasn’t sent by Mom or Grandma. She came to me when I needed help.


       Hawks are my favorite birds. I watch them soaring on the wind currents over Diablo valley all year long. In many cultures, they are considered messengers from the gods. They are symbols of awareness, of openness to dreams and intuitive insights. The Cooper’s hawk was a perfect mentor during my transition from teacher to writer. 
       Over that first year, I cleared away the obstacles to writing. At the same time, without realizing it, I was shedding the beliefs about my value based on my relationships. I released myself from the burden of being responsible for everyone else. I gave myself permission to pursue my own dream.
       I have crossed the open space and struggled in the bushes. Now, I am perched on the fence, ready to soar.

[1] Jennifer D. McCabe, He Yin, Jennyffer Cruz, Volker Radeloff, Anna Pidgeon, David N. Bonter and Benjamin Zuckerberg, “Prey abundance and urbanization influence the establishment of avian predators in a metropolitan landscape,” The Royal Society Publishing (2018), https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.2120.  

DEE ALLEN-KIRKHOUSE and her husband, Bill, live in Martinez, CA with their golden retriever, Lucy. They have one daughter and five grandchildren. Dee writes personal essays about her interactions with nature. "Hawk Essay: Final Draft" is part of a collection called The View from My Window.

AMURI MORRIS is an artist based in Richmond, Va. They recently graduated from painting/printmaking and business at Virginia Commonwealth University. Prior to this, They studied art at the Center for the Arts at Henrico High School. Throughout the years they have acquired several artistic accolades. They aim to promote diversity in art canon, specifically focusing on the black experience.

bottom of page