The Eagle

Laura is busy raising a family and taking care of her son with complex medical issues. For more than two decades, there is no time for vacations. When the unthinkable happens, a long-awaited trip to Northern Ontario has the power to heal.

As a child, I played in the shade of the Hamilton steel mills. The closest thing to a forest was a lone elm tree, growing despite the odds in dry patch of grass across the street from my home. In the shade of that single tree, I consumed stacks of library books, extending my world beyond the hardscrabble landscape that surrounded me. Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens was a favourite. Jamie and Awasin’s adventures in this magical place called “the North” thrilled me. In my mind, “the North” was a real-life Narnia, a place filled with snow, sheltered beneath lush forests. But better than Narnia, it was a place I might someday visit.

A sandy beach on Lake Superior; the sun is low and the lake is reflecting the very blue sky and bright gold sunlight. There are silhouettes of trees on the bank in the distance.
Laura's dream of the north was soon to become a reality.

It was my high school sweetheart who animated these beloved childhood wilderness stories. Jim took me hiking and spent his summers leading canoe trips in Northern Ontario. While I earned money to pay for university by toiling in the factory where my father worked, Jim taught children to paddle and portage. I jealously listened to his stories when he returned each fall and dreamed of the day when I might venture North as well.

But life, as it often does, had other plans. Jim and I parted ways, though we remained friends. I graduated, found a job, married, and in quick succession gave birth to three boys. My middle son, Matthew, was born with severe disabilities and complex medical issues. Doctors’ appointments, therapy visits, and medications were crammed into days already filled with diapers, laundry, and skinned knees. Any dreams of camping, canoeing, and hiking Northern Ontario with my young family evaporated as the demands of Matthew’s care expanded. Most wilderness hiking trails aren’t wheelchair accessible, and you can’t plug a feeding tube into a tree.

Laura MacGregor's son Matthew, looking up and smiling joyfully with eyes closed, 3 other youths standing behind him. All are sporting pink shirts, pompoms and flowered necklaces.
Matthew—Photo credit: Laura MacGregor

This busy life of 24-7 parenting and care continued for over two decades. Two days after COVID-19 shuttered the province, Matthew’s breathing became laboured and wheezy. Concerned, I called 911 and he was rushed to hospital. He never came home.

Pandemic restrictions prohibited all meaningful rituals. No visitation. No funeral. No murmured words of comfort shared over cups of weak coffee and egg salad sandwiches cut into triangles. We celebrated Matthew’s first birthday heaven-side by collecting supplies for a local food bank struggling with soaring need and dwindling supplies. 

Escalating grief 

In the early months of 2023, my grief and disorientation escalated. After a prolonged illness my father died, and I made the difficult decision to leave a teaching position. In September I watched friends return to the classroom eager for another year of learning, while I remained at home staring at the barren pages of my calendar. Matthew’s death had coincided with the launch of my other boys, and my days were suddenly empty.

Time outdoors has always been my most powerful coping mechanism, sustaining me during years of extreme caregiving and complex grief. When Matthew was alive, and I could secure a few days of respite care, I found peace and solace in hiking sections of Southern Ontario’s Bruce Trail.  I read trail guides like novels, dreamed of footpaths, and had a bucket list of fantasy hikes. 

That autumn of 2023, as I navigated my trifecta of loss—son, father, career—I realized I finally had the opportunity, bittersweet though it was, to venture North. I could finally visit the places that had called to me, persistently tapping my shoulder since I was a young girl. I planned a camping trip to Northern Ontario where I would climb to the top of the Sleeping Giant, cross the White River suspension bridge, and gaze at Old Woman’s Bay from the top of Nokomis Trail. 

A plan to venture north 

I arrived at Lake Superior Provincial Park in late September. There I settled onto a campsite steps from Superior’s grey pebbled shoreline and watched ribbons of orange and pink stripe the sky until the sun finally dipped below the horizon.

Laura McGregor smiling on a suspension bridge over a rocky riverbed filled with green spruce forest, under a bright blue sky.
Photo credit: Laura MacGregor

The following morning, I walked along the water’s edge, passing a skeletal structure assembled out of bleached driftwood before arriving at a rocky outcropping. There, I scrambled up the grey and black striated rocks hoping to find a vantage point to photograph the fall foliage; an endless landscape of vibrant reds, oranges, and greens, perched atop grey rocks and periwinkle blue water. It was as if I had been dropped into the colourful swirl of a Group of Seven painting.

After snapping several images, I sat on the smooth rocky surface, grateful for the view and the quiet. Suddenly, I heard a loud rustling noise directly behind me. Terrified I had disturbed a resting bear or some other wild animal, I whipped my head around to locate the source of the sound. Looking up, I saw that an eagle had landed on the branch of a nearby tree, about ten feet above my head.

The visitor

Like many grieving people I looked for signs after my son died. A dragonfly landing on my shoulder, or a scarlet cardinal standing in a field of pristine snow, these were creatures that had passed through a portal from the Great Beyond carrying a message that my son was at peace. Perhaps the absence of meaningful rituals amid COVID lockdowns made my vigil more acute? I turned to look at the massive bird sitting directly above me and recalled that this magnificent creature could soar to unimagined heights, able to touch both heaven and earth.

A bald eagle sitting high in a green pine tree, in front of a brilliant, clear blue sky.
Photo credit: Laura MacGregor

Could this eagle have travelled from Beyond? Might it return? Hopeful, I whispered in the bird’s direction. I remembered my son, my father, and spoke of my yearning for a path through grief. I concluded with gratitude to the Creator, and for the Anishinaabe People who have cared for generations for the water, the rocks, and the land on which I sat.

I am not sure how many minutes passed while the eagle and I stared at one another. I marvelled at the creature’s graciousness and hospitality, sharing its home with an interloper. I was Goldilocks—an uninvited, unwelcome guest determined to remain even after the rightful occupant had returned.

Eventually, I stood, and under the eagle’s steady gaze walked down the rock’s surface to the shore. Fifty meters along the driftwood-strewn beach I turned and looked back to the tree where the eagle had landed. The branch was empty. Perhaps the eagle was diving for fish just beyond the rocky stretch where we had sat together, relieved its annoying visitor had finally packed up and left. But I like to think that the Eagle was flying high, to the portal leading to the Great Beyond, carrying the words of a mother who missed her son.

Laura MacGregor, smiling on a lakeshore in front of a beautiful orange sunset over the water.
Photo credit: Laura MacGregor
About Laura MacGregor

Laura MacGregor is a lapsed academic who fills her days by writing, hiking, reading, and knitting. She is a recent graduate of The Writer's Studio (SFU) and completed a PhD in her early fifties. Recent publications include ‘Felt Faith’ in Broadview Magazine, and Beyond Saints and Superheroes, a church manual exploring how faith communities can support parents of disabled children.

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