About a year ago, my father and I were on a long drive. Our journey was mostly through rural countryside, narrow roads winding between wheat fields, alongside which poppies craned their soft heads to the July sun.
Earlier that day I had collected the sour apples that had fallen on our car and eaten them, core and all; previously in that week, on a visit to a nature preserve, we had both departed from the path to collect wild blueberries and mushrooms. My father, his bulk supported on thin legs and fragile ankles, moved between the trees and shrubs in a gait somewhere between a lumber and a trot. I found and followed deer paths and trod the slope delicately, movement unhindered by the wearing of age. We left the park with our hands stained purple, edible mushrooms held gently in my father's palms.
In the car, both of us sitting quietly, I could not help but think of missing my partner. I wished so much to share this, this wilderness and rural summer on another continent bringing deer, raccoon to surface every other moment. I resolved to document all I saw and did for the remaining week, to collect, to present. I picked flowers, collected feathers, pine cones, snail shells, seeds, took photos, wrote. And in that absence of my love I felt horse as I had not in years - the feeling of running, of pulling, of the strength of my chest and back and the speed of my legs, all for another. As I gazed out the window of the car I felt a gallop, thick knees and flat hoofs pumped by legs, pulling the welcome weight and importance of purpose.
And thinking about this animal that I had not felt in years (then 21, I had not understood myself in terms of horse since age 13), realizing it and understanding myself in it, I thought of what parts of us are animal. What parts of our personality translate into the form of another creature and take off, informing our actions and senses of self?
I thought about my father, who, I am lucky to say, is one of my truest role models and influences in my life. I thought about his infallible work ethic and energy, his persistence, the sacrifices he chose to make to create a comfortable and safe life for his family. I thought about how burly he is but on such thin legs and delicate feet, about his perpetual beard, eager laugh, and warmth in welcoming old friends and new acquaintances alike, his slow words and thoughtfulness. And I thought, what animal is my father? I expected some sort of ungulate, perhaps because of the sudden revelation of horse I had just had - perhaps another equine, perhaps buffalo, perhaps caribou?
After letting this sit on my mind for a time, I formulated the question in my head, and asked it. I framed it from the back forwards, presenting my thought in the expository way that my father and I have in common that often drives so many others to frustration, that always makes me think of Treebeard and his cautioning to "not be too hasty."
I asked him, "If you were an animal, what would you be?" And, "I don't mean what your favorite animal is, or what animal you would WANT to be. I mean, what animal do you think is most like your personality?" I clarified, "It can be anything - mammals, but birds, fish, and bugs too," and told him to take his time answering.
I sat waiting for a while, listening to the quiet as he thought. And as per request before he answered, I explained to him how animal identity works for me: how deer, raccoon, hyena, lion, and horse each explain parts of me and allow me to know myself. Knowing now that he could choose more than one, he fell back into thought.
When he finally answered, it was first with, "Bear." When I asked why, he explained that bears are often seen as something other than they are, and a lot of what he thought was "truer" about them was what he felt about himself. They are perceived as vicious but are often gentle, shy, and silly; they are perceived as slow and lazy but are often quick and suddenly powerful; they are perceived as carnivorous but spend much of their time feeding as much as possible on berries, sweet little snacks; above all, their most passionate actions are in protection of family. He paused for a short time, and then with a wry smile and sigh, added, "And bee, because I feel the need to keep working constantly, until I'm dead." (This last I struggle to articulate, because my father's words are written here in translation from Polish, and the way he said it in our native language somehow lends an extra flavor of doggedness so self-necessitated as to be pathetic.)
There wasn't much to say after that - I took a while to digest what he'd said, to think about it, understand, and muse on what it is we understand about ourselves. My father is not notable for how much he loves animals - certainly, he is affectionate with family pets and as excited as anyone to point out footprints of a fox in the snow - but his thoughts are in the beams of houses, stone and mortar, roofing tiles and drawings on graph paper. He thought only for a matter of minutes, but it seemed a testament to how well he knows himself to be able to say what he is in the context of animals so quickly. For an older immigrant man, a gentle, sentimental, devoted workaholic with a strong sense of family and surprising sweet tooth to think for only several minutes understand his self in bee and bear - it made sense to me.
Talk turned easily to family we were visiting, to landscape, to plans for the next day and return home. We never returned to the subject, but it's a conversation that comes to mind quite frequently. It was easy to talk about. And of course, I can understand my father the way I do myself - through the lens of an animal.