"Through Birds" 5/1/17
My dad died this January. A half an hour after I left his bedside. I had just been there, as I’d been the last three nights, alone, crying, and listening to his labored, irregular breathing. When I got the call that he had died my immediate instinct was to drop everything and walk, to pump my legs outside and circulate this reality through every part of my body, allowing the grief to affect me the way grief does, with its schoolyard bully blatant disregard, beating you up and abandoning you, broken and confused.
It was nighttime, and I remember the clouds were sort of wispy and transparent, gliding across the moon in sheets and layers, and I kept my head up, tears streaming. It was like I was looking for a sign from him – an owl, a shooting star, some night creature that might cross my path and give me a sign that Dad had taken a new form. I walked for 90 minutes and returned home wet-faced and needing the toilet.
One month after Dad’s death, my dear mother, already chronically ill with lupus, had a stroke and wound up in the ICU with bleeding lungs. The grip of shock took hold of me, swept me up in its disorienting momentum, and forced me to intimately connect with a plethora of doctors and nurses. Mom needed a tube inserted into her trachea to assist her in breathing and slowly the blood was suctioned out of her lungs. Additionally, because she had not eaten since the stroke, she was given a feeding tube that delivered a custom paste directly to her stomach. The reality of her grim prognosis would sit on my chest at night, when the busyness of my day – teaching classes, caring for my two children, and managing my mother’s affairs – was behind me, and my body was physically still. How can she cope with those tubes down her throat? How can she smile, nod, and maintain the sparkle in her eyes that tells me she is remarkably OK? And what can I do for her to break up the monotony of day after day of jail-like imprisonment: IVs in her arms, catheter in her urethra, and at night, constraints around her tiny wrists that prevented her from pulling at the respirator during sleep.
I thought of Colin from The Secret Garden and young Robert Louis Stevenson, both bed-ridden and dependent on others for care and stimulation. I brought Mom fragments of the outside world, and slowly – miraculously – she improved.
It has been two months since Mom’s stroke and three since Dad’s death, and Mom is back in the hospital, as frail and precious as a tiny hatchling. The terrifying part is I’m not sure she’ll make it through the year, so my visits with her have taken on a new intensity. When I enter her room I open my senses wide, expectant, ready to capture the nuances of our every exchange. I talk to her about the things I’m doing – the exhibitions I’ve attended, the projects I’ve worked on with my students – and I listen to her responses - really listen. I watch her glassy eyes, the way they shine and widen with interest, the way they move to things she wants but can’t reach or can’t pick up with her crippled hands – and I respond to her. I smile, I pick things up for her, or I get up and ask the nurse for things I dare not fiddle with myself. The outside world is urgent and rushed, but in here with Mom, time stands still.
I am 41 years old and my hair is turning gray. I often feel like my nerves are bristling and my head isn’t screwed on right. Sometimes I want more than anything to regress, to become childlike, vulnerable, and needy. But I am a rebel by nature, and I’ve become quite strong. So defiantly, I keep myself sane and self-aware, and with the new wisdom I’ve earned I now see the well-concealed bright side of tragedy and loss. After spending hours and hours in hospitals and nursing homes, talking with the sick, the old, and the dying, and on the other end of the spectrum working with hundreds of vibrant and creative children, I’ve been given the gift of perspective. The lives that have touched me are powerful, and I’ve learned to slow down and let it all in. What better gift can we give someone than the gift of our full attention?
I unwind by walking the trails by my house. I keep my head up toward the swaying trees, the busy birds, and I look for signs of my father. I swear he visits me through birds. So when a crow glides deliberately across my path, or a bird sings its heart out from the top of nearby a tree, I say, “Hi Dad,” and my eyes fill up with tears.