The Swans in May

It was May when a pair of mute swans came to the lake, making their home in a marsh along the northern end.  This was a rare appearance for upstate New York, normally too far north for such birds.  ( It was later thought that they were instead trumpeter swans, but they are so close in beauty and majesty, it hardly matters.)  They were lovely, pure white, majestic, graceful, and a little out of place in the swampy water.  The lake was named after its shape–Round Lake.  Two-thirds of the lake is rimmed with trees; along the remaining third is a two-lane highway that runs along the base of the Victorian village of  Round Lake.

A small boat launch and pebbly beach draw a few swimmers and boaters, but most of the time the lake is quiet.  In May it’s too early for much activity.  In autumn, sunrise over the lake brings bright rays of orange filtering through banks of fog.  In winter ice and snow bring skaters, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen.  In spring the ice begins the break up into patches of inky water which soon changes to deep blue and then clears into smoothness.  I love the lake.  I’m fortunate because for years I had to take the road past the lake to get to work.   It always started my day with beauty and ended it with peace.

A few years ago the peace gave way to lines of cars parked along the guardrails and spectators–men, women, families with children, the old and the young– all looking out over the lake at something I could not see.  For days I watched curiously from my car as I drove by, but on the fourth day I knew I had to stop.  I edged close to a young man holding a child in his arms and pointing eastward.

“See?  There,”  he whispered in the child’s ear.  “Between those clumps of weeds.”

I followed the direction in which he was pointing.  There was the most beautiful white swan I had ever seen, resting on what looked like a muskrat den.

“There are four eggs in the nest,” the man explained to me.  “There were five.  She’s trying to hatch them.  And out there, through those trees, is the father.”

Sure enough, out on  the lake swam another swan, not far form his mate.  I was unable to leave.  I wanted to watch this forever, but after about ten minutes I pulled myself away from the rail and walked quietly back to my car.

During the next few weeks, I stopped every afternoon after work.  There was always someone there, and they seemed to know exactly what was happening.  An officer from the Department of Environmental Conservation was apparently filling everyone in on the drama unfolding on the lake.  There was a problem with the eggs.  So far none had hatched.  The number dwindled to two, and then to one.  Matched for life, these two swans were joined together in the greatest miracle of all–creating new life.  They were also joined in one of life’s greatest sorrows–life that would never be.  No eggs hatched.  The next week the swans left the lake.

The following spring I began to look for the swans again, long before white ice melted into the jagged-edged circles of black.  I longed to see them.  For some reason they represented hope to me.  A few miles north of the lake my father lay dying from cancer.  The pair of swans, mates for life, reminded me of the kind of love my parents had for each other.  Just like the eggs that never hatched, there would be no more years ahead for my parents to share.  If only the swans would return, I could hope for a miracle.

But the swans did not return and no miracle came.  In May, the same month I had first seen the swans, my father died.  I still search the lake in spring, slowing down when I get to the swamp where the muskrat den had been.  I’m not ever sure what I am looking for anymore–maybe the swans, maybe something else.  The lake seems lonely without them, even though they were there for a brief time.  Somehow the loss of my father and the absence of the swans in May have become linked in my memory, and I cannot drive by the lake any longer without a twinge of pain and regret that the joys of life are always mixed with sorrow.

(See post “Trumpeter Swans,” April 6, 2011)

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