A few years ago I worked at this one company that had a gym on their roof. So every day over my lunch break, I would go to the gym and dutifully chug away on the treadmill or the elliptical. This was before I quit drinking or working out properly, so I thought that doing steady, low-intensity cardio for 40 minutes every day was going to help me lose weight. Which is not the case. But I digress. Every time I would work out I would stare out the long floor-to-ceiling windows and look at the roof. It was one of those roofs with little pebbles all over it, so I imagined the maintenance workers who sometimes tromped around out there felt like they were at the beach.
It was mostly very boring. Sometimes it rained. Sometimes the aforementioned maintenance guys would wander around up there doing precisely nothing but seeming very intent on their non-work. The one thing that was fun to observe was the birds.
Milwaukee has a crapload of seagulls for some reason (okay, I know the reason is because we’re surrounded by water and trash). And one pair of gulls decided that this roof was the perfect spot to build a family. They proceeded to have awkward seagull sex on the roof while I tried to film it like a creep.
I was elated. I got to watch every day as they strutted around, sticks in their beaks, building what would clearly be a nest. Sometimes I worried that the nest was too close to the edge of the roof, but the gulls were spectacularly unconcerned about this and probably would not have taken my feedback anyway.
When the eggs were laid, they were too far away to see clearly, but I knew they were there. Mostly because there was always a very stalwart and calm-looking seagull perched on top of them. I adored watching this familial relationship bloom: One of the gulls would be gone, searching for food, or shitting on cars, or whatever it is that seagulls do on their off-time. Then it would return, nudging its mate, ready for their turn to keep watch over the eggs.
I literally could not wait for the babies to hatch. It was probably my longest streak of going to the gym at that point, and it was also my least effective batch of workouts because I would just mindlessly move my legs, zoning out, fixated on the nest.
Finally, it happened. Three baby seagulls were bobbing around the nest one lunch break and I couldn’t have been more excited. I was going through a terrible breakup during the time, and I had just moved to Milwaukee and was spending a lot of time alone. These hatchlings became an obsession of sorts. I was living vicariously through them.
Yes, I was very depressed.
The months went by and I got to see these gulls grow up. I saw them waddle out of the nest wearing fluffy brown feather coats, I gritted my teeth when they wandered too far from their safe bundle of twigs, I lost my ever-loving mind when they started trying to fly. I imagined ways I could burst out onto the roof and save them if they ever got too close to the edge. Despite being an animal lover, I didn’t talk about the seagulls much. They were my secret family, my own personal nature documentary.
I never gave them names, which was unusual. Perhaps I was trying to protect myself from the inevitable.
One day, not long after the babies were flying on their own and their wings had grown, I went into the gym and looked out on the roof and felt like I had swallowed my own heart.
A deflated brown shape was lying next to the structure that allowed the maintenance guys to get on to the roof. It was one of the babies, and it was very dead.
I felt like crying. I felt like throwing my body through the glass and attempting to save the gull. But it was dead, and for some reason the worst part was that I didn’t know how it had died. I didn’t know if it got sick, or if it fell from the sky, or if it ate some kind of poison.
The nature documentaries I watched on TV would soften the endings. The babies would always live. They would narrowly avoid death, reuniting with their parents.
But this wasn’t a documentary. Life had reminded me that it was real, and it was cruel.
And just as I watched this seagull’s conception, birth, and childhood, I was there to bear witness to its death too.
The weeks that followed had me stonily observing the decay of this creature I had bonded with through a thick pane of glass. Once it snowed (because it’s always snowing in Wisconsin) and I panicked because its body was frozen and buried and I was worried someone might step on it. But the maintenance men didn’t step on the gull. They didn’t move it either. No one had noticed but me.
Eventually all that was left was desiccated bones and scraps of feathers.
Nature had taught me something. I’m not entirely sure what, but it had. I had watched an entire short life cycle play out from an elliptical. The seagull had died young and largely unnoticed, like so many of us. It left no legacy. It changed no lives.
Because I was there, because I was invested, because I loved this seagull in my own strange way, it affected me. This was two years ago now but I remember it all the same. I have a feeling that I will remember it forever.
Our time here might be fleeting, and when we are gone we might not leave much behind except scattered atoms and disintegrating matter, but our existence DOES mean something. You can’t be born to this earth and not leave an impression.
We all have a seagull. And we are all someone else’s seagull.
And that means you won’t be forgotten.