Helen Keller once wrote, “I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad.” In the spring of 2000, as I was being treated at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City for a recurrence of stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the body’s lymph system, I was faced with my own set of limitations. Besides the feeling that my time on Earth might be limited, I was physically restricted by extreme lethargy, a by-product of my chemotherapy regimen. I was also emotionally burdened by the effect the illness had on my employment, relationships, self-esteem, and future goals. Perseverance was not enough at that time; I needed a hobby.
Any hobby I chose would have to be high interest and low impact, subdued enough to allow for my lack of stamina, yet engaging enough to matter to me at a time when other issues loomed larger. My mother-in-law, the quintessential problem-solver, presented me with a pair of binoculars and a birdwatcher’s guidebook. Here was a hobby I could do as I walked at my maximum speed of sluggish through the parks of Queens.
I began with the convalescent limitations of my bedroom window. From there, I was able to check off positive identifications of sparrows, cardinals, robins, mockingbirds, and starlings. The occasional chickadee or titmouse might pass my gaze as well, bringing the total number of species to seven, a lucky number. Once my stamina improved, I found Kissena Park an impressive locale for birdwatching. I added coot, ruddy duck, cormorant, brown creeper, and pheasant to my list. As my resilience grew and as I completed my chemo treatments, I found I was able to walk the two-mile circumference of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one of the crown jewels of birding. After multiple trips, my identification checklist skyrocketed well beyond fifty species. From there, my health and fitness took me to Upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, by 2005, to being labeled “cured.”
In 2007, I was among a select few writers accepted into the new MFA in Creative Writing Program at Queens College. My thesis was a poetry collection called “Flying on the Edge,” which combined poems about my successful battle against Hodgkin’s disease with poems that embodied the spirituality of birds and how they followed me through the process of recovery, stripping away my limitations as my health took flight.
-- Michael Alpiner