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Personal Essays

My Hummingbird Summer

by Lauren Alise Schultz

Before the summer of 2008, hummingbirds had seemed like a beautiful myth to me. I had never seen one out in the world before, nor do I recall having seen one in a zoo or animal sanctuary. Because I have been intensely afraid of birds (the technical term is ornithophobic) my whole life, I had never had a particular desire to see a hummingbird. I didn’t even really think about it.

But then one sticky summer day in Washington DC, as I was sitting on our apartment balcony and reading, a small blur flew up to the pot of Lantana next to me and hovered there for a few seconds. Startled, I inadvertently let out a little yelp and it flew off. I sat there, trying to figure out exactly what I had just seen. The way the thing had moved was not as languid as the butterflies that would come to drink from my flowers. (Lantana are known to attract butterflies, which was why I had them on the balcony in the first place.) Yet the little winged creature definitely hovered, which was unlike the sparrows that regularly perched on the balcony railing. It had been too small to be another type of bird and too big to be one of the iridescent dragonflies that occasionally made an appearance amongst my flowers.

I wasn’t sure if hummingbirds lived in the suburbs of Washington DC, but a few days later, I was eating lunch near the window and had a clear view of the Lantana. Suddenly, a tiny bird flew up and stuck its beak into the blossoms hanging over the balcony ledge. I slowly crept toward the window and watched as it drank from several different clusters of flowers. After about thirty seconds, he flew away, but I was now sure it had been a hummingbird. Suddenly, the dull, hot summer seemed a bit magical with my new little friend since his presence was unexpected and seemed so unlikely to me.

When he came again a few days later, I was again sitting on the lounge chair near the Lantana. I was only two feet away, but instead of reacting by tightening up with fear, I felt a different thrill race through my body. This time, I did not make a noise. He looked at me for a moment, hovering near the plant as though deciding whether it was safe to drink while I was sitting there. I could clearly see his long little beak and how quickly his wings were moving. Expecting him to be colorful and iridescent, I was surprised that he was mostly gray.

He decided to trust me.

I sat frozen and stared at his tiny body, imagining how light his bones must be. Even so, his wings had to beat so rapidly that they were a blur alongside his steady body. His beak was delicate, like a thin twig that would snap if he wasn’t careful. He seemed so fragile, which also made him seem more magical.

I don’t know how long I sat there, watching him. I felt such an incredible sense of wonder, so close to my magical little friend, that the moment seemed to stretch.

I also felt very proud of myself. For an ornithophobe to be more thrilled than frightened by a bird that was in such close proximity seemed like a big accomplishment.

My hummingbird visited me once more that summer. In Washington DC, the summer warmth extends well into September, so I was disappointed that he did not make any appearances after mid-August. But then I realized that any hummingbirds living near us for the summer must have a long way to fly to reach their winter home. My hummingbird would not be back any more.

When I thought about him, I felt an ache in my chest. My heart felt heavier whenever I looked out at my Lantana, the riotous pink and red blossoms starting to shrivel. I told my grandma I was disappointed the hummingbird was gone, although the ache felt more like grief. But I couldn’t bring myself to say I was grieving for some reason.

Grandma told me that she had only seen a hummingbird once in her life and knowing that also made me feel sad. I had seen my hummingbird three times, once from quite close. I was lucky. I felt sorry for her, that she had only experienced this particular kind of breathless magic on one occasion in all her eighty years. I wished I could bottle the magic and give it to her.

I wondered if my hummingbird would come to visit me next year, but I thought it was unlikely. He might spend the summer in Washington DC again, but it seemed improbable that he would make a special effort to return to the same backyards and balconies. Even so, I would put out pots of Lantana again next summer.

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