counting birds

dscf0309Yesterday morning, as my husband sat in a hospital bed for the 3rd morning this week, I took a long stroll in the woods. With a friend. To count birds. Perhaps Thoreau would have called it a saunter in the way that he elevated such non-efficiency to the realm of the sacred.  I simply understood that after a week where it seemed as if each twilight-to-dusk was spent navigating hospital corridors, first with my mother who had fallen earlier in the week and now with my husband, my feet needed the touch of the earth. After staring hypnotically at flashing numbers and dripping IV’s, my weary eyes yearned for the poultice of sky.

Indeed, that same sapphire sky had been gracing my morning drive all week. Cresting the ridge, the whole of her expanse on display, she offered her spacious embrace, whether to low lying clouds playing a colorful game of catch with the cockcrow sun, or to the thousands of snow geese winging their riotous expectancy of spring, or to me making my mechanical way along the conveyor of cars.  Into that vast dome, ever constant in a way that even the earth beneath my feet is not, whether watching over the wilds of an Algonquin landscape of lakes or the wilder alien streets of the cityscape, I need only lift my gaze to find my place.  

And so I went to count birds, not consciously thinking at all about the way these ones also find their way home in the sky, but simply saying ‘yes’ to the invitation to a habitat nearby that welcomes a heart such as mine. We strolled, noting the presence of the ordinary – Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, Juncos, Woodpeckers- Downy and Red Bellied, Crows and Vulture-Turkey and Black.  At last, our eyes were drawn skyward by the cornflower blue of the late winter sky, to be elated by the snowy belly and ink dipped quills of the undersides of an uncharacteristically soaring Harrier Hawk.

I’ll not pretend that I didn’t have to fight every guilt-laden brick in my psyche to take that quiet walk, especially when I learned that my son and his wife, along with two of my granddaughters had visited my husband in the hospital that morning and I’d missed them. (Yes, I’ve noticed myself trying to repair that chink in the wall ever since.) On the morning of my husband’s surgery, I’d run back and forth from his room to the waiting area on the first floor as much to care for the needs of my friend as she was caring for mine. And I kept my commitment to babysit a granddaughter later that evening… mostly because I really had wanted to connect with her (it had been a long time) when I’d offered my time last weekend during a phone call, and I still believed that some one-on-one time with the child of my child would be good for all of our hearts.  She and I had also noted the sky that evening, walking back from the playground after dark, when Venus, that bright evening star, showed us the way home as my granddaughter regaled me with some magical story about her glowing hair and its secret pull to that particular planet.  

When I’d gotten the message from my younger sister that my mother had fallen and she had been taken to the hospital, a larger regional trauma center, nearer me, I immediately went. Willingly. Dutifully. Guiltily. Lovingly. Perhaps a bit Hopeful.… oh, the whole of that cloth comes when a single thread is pulled, does it not? …that I might at last step back into a place of belonging with her in some life-giving way.

It seems my mother and I have reached a strange kind of truce now that each of us has at last stopped demanding that the other be what they are not, or give what they have not to give, as if I might actually come to peace with her here in the end, now that she cannot see, cannot hear, cannot speak, cannot remember. And I feel sadness, in this deep-and-forever emptiness inside of me, that I won’t ever truly know her. I’ve noticed the shift in me over the years, from that all-about-me wanting to be seen to this longing to see. Her. As she is. As good.  

I have for some time now wanted to know what it was like for her as a young woman, then a young mother, a tired mother, a defeated mother, a finished mother, an after-mother. I’ve inspected old photographs like a detective looking for clues. I wonder if any of us can ever really know our mothers, the way they deserve to be known, as whole human beings with gifts and flaws, hopes and disappointments, desires and griefs, strengths and fears. I can only imagine the one-sided perspective my own children surely have of me. With only a chapter of the story… perhaps the tired mother we experience when most of us reach full consciousness… the rest can at best be inferred.

As I was maneuvering the transition that comes at the end of the constricting birth passage that is motherhood, my youngest son completing his last years of high school, three of my older sons were married, three of my grandchildren (of eight to come in a span the next 7 years) arrived, my husband retired (he is my second marriage and had joined this circus just 6 years before this whirlwind began), and we sold our home to begin trying to craft this ‘one wild and precious life’ of our own. Not to mention the heartrending and constant refrain beneath all of that chaos that was the constant ringing (read 20+ times a day) of a cellphone reminding me that my daughter had been badly broken by it all and was suffering deeply.

Of course, that particular whirlwind was occurring about 10 years after a 20 year marriage came colliding into wreckage, leaving me to process that grief (which pulled up with it the buried-alive griefs of the lost 16 year old girl who had married and the babies who had died during those treacherous long-ago years) with a child in elementary school, one in middle school, two in high school and one in college.

That was a lot to hold. I can see that now. How could my children see me then as anything other than tired mother, overwhelmed mother, exhausted mother, broken mother, finished mother.  And so it was that I wondered this evening, as I beheld my own mother sleeping on the hospital bed, what unfulfilled life she had also yearned for once upon a time. I knew her only as tired and overwhelmed mother- a forth babe in her arms when I was yet a baby myself- as  depressed and detached mother, as frustrated and angry mother.  My own children coming into her life before she was ready, I knew her as distant and unwilling mother.  In the midst of her own profound grief, when her dreams of ‘after-mother’ died with my father at such a young age -58 years, I knew her as lost mother. When my own grief overwhelmed me, I knew her as dead mother. Always, you see, I knew her in relation to what she could give me, as mother, never through eyes that could see her as woman, like me.

I am nearing the age that she was lost to me now. She’d seemed so old to me then. Foolishly, I’d judged her ‘What could she possibly want for herself at that time in her life?’ or more condescendingly, ‘Why did that she let that one grief so destroy her?’

Perhaps it wasn’t one grief.

Perhaps I project.

My own husband has been hospitalized this week for a 4 month old surgical wound that just would not heal, a surgery that some part of me fears he has had to attempt to defy his own death, which of course is coming. He is 10 years older than I, a truth that I knew when I married and chose to love him til death. Next week, another surgery is being slated, scheduled on a day I had excitedly promised to spend with another granddaughter, whom I’d love to hold closer. Lately, the vision of George Bailey on the railroad platform with suitcase in hand has been rising from my subconscious again.

Yesterday, yet another new grandbaby girl arrived in our family. I made the trip from one hospital to another to welcome her. As I sat welcoming her to this terribly beautiful place we call home, from the designated rocking chair next to the window, my gaze was drawn from her new sleeping face to those long lights of the city, reflected in the darkening water, now stirring the apricot-and-raspberry palette of that fabulous, welcoming sky. This baby girl’s own mother, seated on the bed across the room, juggling her yet unconscious toddler sons, did not notice the salutatory gesture of that wondrous sky, just outside her window. The miracle inside those walls was enough. I remembered that too.  

After receiving the salty kisses from those little boys, I drove from that place to sit by the hospital bed of my mother, now in rehab, watching her face as she also slept soundly within those four sterile walls with no view at all.  She stirred, noticed me, and smiled. I’ve not seen her smile so much as I have this past week. Smiling has not been part of her countenance in the years that I’ve been aware of her (though it was there in those pre-me photos I’d poured over once). We chatted for a bit, me grasping as much as I could of her babble, likely no less than I ever could hear, until the intercom announced that this sacred hour had also ended.  Kissing her too, on lips cooler, thinner, and quite a bit less salty now than once, I left her room to navigate yet one more unfamiliar corridor on my way out.

Exhausted, I opened the door to the star-littered embrace of the sky.

Juncos. Chickadees. Nuthatches and Woodpeckers. Vultures and Crows. In the midst of these ordinary miracles, the snow geese are finding their way home. Beheld by a sky that can somehow hold it all in her arms when we cannot, the circle of life ever spins. We are not called to be sky, I suppose, to be all, see all, know all, encompass all, or even love all, but to let ourselves simply be earth…humble as one small bird, sacred as one quiet star, let ourselves  simply Be …enough. Be seen, be known, beloved, beheld by whatever it is within this great arcing dome of our lives that does the holdingAnd perhaps, occasionally, if we are lucky enough to follow the lift of our hearts with our gaze, the snowy white underbelly of one, who rarely soars, just might make her surprising appearance.


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