Final Migration

Elizabeth Ann “Liz/Betty” (Clemens) Duchi
1939 – 2004

My sister Liz knew everything about everything—and what she didn’t know—she made up. Her library was lined with books from architecture, antique lamps and art nouveau to tomes on history, the human body and Henry VIII. She also had every field-guide on flora, fauna, and all things feathered.

Liz was an avid bird-watcher and the aristocratic and ancient crane was her favorite. A “craniac,” she could tell you everything about their habits and habitats, their migration patterns, and their courting rituals. She even knew their mating calls. The birds inspired her, weaving their nests into her daily living. A life-size bronze statue stood sentry at her front door. A delicately feathered watercolor flew on her plaster walls. Cranes perched on her shelves, danced on her Japanese robe and winged across her glass lampshade.

Every fall, thousands of greater sandhills streak across the Pacific Flyway, migrating in families to feed and roost in the safety of the Central Valley wetlands near the Sacramento River. They are one of the world’s largest birds, the males standing at a stately five-feet all with a seven-foot wingspan. They are long-legged, long-necked and bustle-bodied, sporting ash gray plumage, a black chiseled bill, sleek white cheeks, and a bald red crown. Their trumpet can be heard for miles. Between feeding and roosting, they dance this peculiar choreographed avian ballet: first one crane starts out slowly, then a second, the tempo picks up, and soon the whole flock is hopping and bowing—wing flourishing and stick tossing in wild rap-like abandon. My sister loved their elaborate floorshow, cackling her delight.

In February, Liz was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In September, she had experimental surgery at the UC Davis Cancer Clinic in Sacramento. Two weeks later, she came to stay with me. Two weeks after that, pneumonia set in and I took her back to the hospital. Three days later, she died.

Just after she took her final breath in that cool early morning, her husband Tony stepped outside to call the family. Dialing hisTony & Liz Duchi crop cell phone, there was an overhead cacophony of long drawn-out bugling and clanging so loud he was unable to converse. Looking up, his irritation turned to slack-jawed wonder. A feathered cortege of two-hundred greater sandhills passed directly over his wife’s top floor hospital room in single and V-line formation—first one string, then another behind the first, then another behind them, then another, and another, necks extended, legs and tails outstretched, the slow rhythmic beating of their wings vibrating the crisp October sky, incessantly declaring GAROOO-A-A, GAROOO-A-A.

As is their nature, the whole flock trumpets most raucously when concerned or alarmed. As was her nature, Liz was probably disturbing their flight pattern on her way out. Or maybe she was joining them on their migratory trek. Or perchance, the winged ones knew she was ready and arrived to escort their friend in style—blessing my sixty-four year old sister with an exquisite tribute and a final accompaniment.

October 2004
Catherine Sevenau

Joyce Coletti, 2013, paper collage

paper collage, by Joyce Coletti


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