The other day, I had a conversation with a writer friend of mine about those inspirational moments when a memory or a thought or an event suddenly causes us to want to find the nearest coffee shop to set up camp and start writing. In one of my creative writing classes at the University of Montana, the professor assigned us the task of keeping a daily journal of these inspirational moments. We were to write down the event or thought or memory, but not find the coffee shop.
“Just keep a record,” he’d said. “That way, when you think you have nothing to write about, you’ll always have a list of ideas to turn to.”
I’ve been keeping that journal ever since. Many of the moments will never go further than the ink splotch in my journal, but a few of them have transformed into prose—a short story or poem, my first full-length novel (now collecting dust on my shelf). And one of them plays a significant role in my debut novel, I Am Lucky Bird.
On May 25, 2003 one of my oldest brother’s best friends, Travis Dolphin, died at the age of 34 from complications of a brain tumor. Mike and Travis became friends in 1983 as freshmen at Polson High School in Polson, Montana. After graduation, Mike went to UC Boulder and Travis ventured off to Eastern Oregon. But the distance didn’t interfere with their friendship. When they returned to Polson for holidays and summers, it was like they’d never been separated. Travis was not just my brother’s friend—he was a friend to our entire family. To me, he was a fourth brother.
Travis returned to Polson and eventually married and had two sons. My brother moved to Seattle to attend law school. He also married and has three children of his own. Again, the time and distance did not interfere with their friendship. They didn’t see each other as much, nor did they speak regularly, but Travis was, and always will be, one of Mike’s best friends. In 1996, it was discovered that Travis had a brain tumor. It was removed, and Travis was required bi-yearly and then yearly check-ups. It appeared he would be just fine. But seven years later, he was hanging onto his life.
And here comes my inspiration moment. Mike called me on a Thursday afternoon to ask me for my advice. Travis was dying. Mike hadn’t seen him in quite some time, and he was scared of going back to say goodbye. By the end of our conversation, I wasn’t sure what Mike was going to do. He knew he needed to see his friend, but he wasn’t sure he had the courage to do it. Early the following morning, Mike was awakened by the sound of a bird clumsily banging itself against the kitchen window. He went downstairs and watched this crazy robin fly back and forth against the glass, as though it was convinced if it kept doing it, the window might eventually magically open and let the bird in. This continued all day and into the night, and by Saturday morning, Mike couldn’t take it anymore. He needed to get out of the house. He jumped in his car and drove to Polson—an 8-hour drive to the east. When he arrived at Travis’s house, another best friend—Matt Moderai—greeted him at the door. In high school, Matt, Travis and Mike were inseparable. Travis lay in his bed, paralyzed, his breathing labored. Mike later told me that when Travis saw him, his eyes widened. He couldn’t physically smile, but Mike knew he was. Travis’s family was there—his parents and brother, his wife and kids. Mike said goodbye. The following morning, Travis passed away.
Within a few hours of Travis’s passing, Katy (Mike’s wife) called to tell him that the robin had finally stopped banging itself against the window. The bird had just…disappeared.
“When?” Mike asked.
“This morning,” Katy replied. “It just stopped, but when I went outside to see if it was still on the ground, it was gone.”
To this day, my brother is convinced that Travis sent that bird to bug the crap out of him until he’d have no choice but to get his butt into his car and drive the 8 hours to say goodbye to his friend. Forget courage.
I Am Lucky Bird is not about Travis or my brother. It’s not about a crazy robin banging itself against a kitchen window. But there is a bird, and this bird plays a significant role in Lucky’s turbulent life. Before her mother disappears, she tells Lucky that birds are responsible for bringing the souls of the dead to heaven to become angels.
Thanks, Travis, for this inspirational moment.