The summer my father died I bought a book on Southwestern birds. It was he who had given me my first feeder on my 8th birthday, back when we lived in New Orleans. He’d gotten the bird-feeding bug, I’m guessing, from his mother. At his parents’ house in Springfield, Pennsylvania, there was one of those open platforms—a plywood landing about six feet high. My grandmother would go out every afternoon at four, reach into the barrel of feed with a tin can, scoop it full, walk over, and dump it on the landing. She’d taught me when I visited to clank the can three times against the wood, a sound to which she believed the birds were trained. “Now you watch,” she’d say. “They’ll be having their supper before we get back inside.”
The feeder my dad gave me so long ago was a short, maybe eight-inch-high cylindrical thing that filled from the top. He helped me hang it from the high bar of the swing set. We would always alert each other when the pair of cardinals showed up, around our own family’s dinnertime. The male was shockingly red and flashy; his female mate, a muted mocha color. While I loved the cardinals—the repeated surprise of that scarlet in the otherwise drab palette of our backyard—it was my father who got the most joy out of my birthday gift. Joy is perhaps too strong a word. He was clinically depressed, incapacitated by it several months a year. Satisfaction maybe is what he got from the feeder—filling it, providing, waiting, and then, predictably, the red-crested reward. Like my sisters and brother before me, I moved into the inertia of adolescence, my forays into the backyard solely about tanning, my bikini barely big enough for a sparrow. But Daddy fed cardinals with that birthday feeder of mine the whole time we lived in New Orleans.
Our father had been, in the early years, exciting, dynamic, entertaining—a brilliant, funny, musical man who we all longed to impress. As a psychologist, he was invested in each of us as his own personal experiment in child-rearing. He was maybe more intrigued with us, fascinated by us, than he was in love with us. While my mother’s love flowed freely, indiscriminately, I felt I had to earn Daddy’s. Making the Honor Roll, for example, earned you a lunch out with him, at a fancy restaurant near his office. I won an art contest in Jackson Square, taking First Place in the twelve-and-under category, when I was only five. That had me in good standing for a long time. Even later in life, when I published my first story, got a fellowship, got a faculty position, started a magazine, Daddy was the one I’d call, the one I still felt a need to impress.
We grew awkward around each other the older I got, and the more pervasive his depression. There were months when he never left the house, days when he never left the bedroom. Alcohol use was proportionate to the depression—drink as anesthesia—but when the numbness wore off, his pain seemed worse for having had the respite. Our local pharmacy in New Orleans had a delivery service for prescriptions, and they also carried booze, so, you guessed it, boxes of Beefeater’s Gin—my father’s prescription—delivered to our door.
Given his bipolar/alcoholism seesaw, you never knew which end of the spectrum you would find him on. Passing him in the morning in the kitchen, he might avoid eye contact altogether; he might say good morning; he might give you a hug. Or, you might come home late one night from a date to find him awake, high, exuberant with drink and music, lying on the living room floor with the stereo speakers on either side of his head, Barbershop Quartet harmony blasting. “Hey, it’s the Melanie-bug!” he’d say, suddenly overjoyed at the mere fact of your existence. “You have to hear this, honey. It’s stupendous!” And you would play along, lie down where he told you to, between the speakers, while he set the volume just right, the needle on the record at the desired song. This was easier than the no-eye-contact dad. And the four-part harmony was, in fact, stupendous.
But when he was steeped in depression it was so evident, he was so low, that all you wanted to do was not get in the way, not expect anything of him that he might not be able to deliver, thereby adding to his sense of uselessness, worthlessness, pervasive guilt. My teenage awkwardness was nothing compared to the suffering I heard coming from the master bedroom, or saw on my father’s face when we encountered each other in a hallway. In that moment before he looked away, you saw it: utter panic at the whole notion of existence. All of us kids learned the fine art of invisibility.
When I was sixteen, we moved to New Jersey so my father could start a new job, and things got even worse. The new job came with new anxiety, which led to more drinking. My mother lost confidence to drive the car—all the highways, entrance and exit ramps, the whole pace of the northeast so much faster than we were used to. We were southerners, displaced. Their marriage grew more strained. But even in those New Jersey years, there was this constant: birds provided solace. I lived there with my parents until I was twenty-one, and I witnessed my father, through his highs and lows, filling the feeder that hung from a tree. Each passage out the sliding glass doors to the small stone patio was strengthening, cleansing—evidence to himself that he cared about sustaining something. I was probably late-twenties when I bought myself a few feeders, and got back in the habit of communing with winged things. I’ve fed birds everywhere I’ve lived since. What my father aimed to pass on to me stuck.
As irony would have it, when my father finally licked depression—a combination of the right medication, less alcohol, retirement in Austin, Texas, and doing things he loved with my brother, like fishing and golfing—he was diagnosed with cancer. He’d spent a lot of the seventies and eighties desperately sad, sometimes suicidal, but the nineties saw him enjoying life. Even he and my mother were nicer to each other, loosening their long-held grievances, finding a way to simply co-exist, a quiet balance. They loved and respected each other. They’d lived through a lot, and had earned these good years.
He’d always hated the phone, but he picked it up and called each of his five kids to relay the news: Stage Four Bladder Cancer. It didn’t look good, he said. Treatment would’ve meant surgery to remove the bladder, followed by rounds of chemo. He’d done some research and found the prognosis was the same with or without treatment—somewhere between six months and two years to live. He opted out of all that hospital time, those side-effects. He was a man who liked his privacy, the comfort of his own home. He qualified for Hospice, signed a Do Not Resuscitate order, paid for his own funeral in advance.
Of that six-months-to-two-years window, we scored a whole year. We were so damn lucky. My mom, my three sisters, my brother and I all had ample opportunities for quality time with him. I was teaching in Prescott, Arizona, and that March I went for Spring Break. He declined so rapidly that I ended up staying for three weeks, a sub having to cover the two college classes back in Prescott. He almost died just before Easter, but then he rallied for a while, so dramatically that we all returned to our homes, families, jobs. I finished out that semester and then rushed back to Austin to find my father worse again. “Forgive me if I don’t stand up,” he said, and I gave him a lean-down hug.
He lasted two weeks from that moment, and I got to be with him every minute of every day of those final weeks. Like I said, so damn lucky.
If given the chance, of course I would bring him back, have him live to be ninety instead of seventy-one. Let him have his fair share of life not ruled by his disease. But barring that, there is very little I would change about my experience of my father’s last year, and his exit. He was at peace with the fact, and his attitude set the tone for the rest of us. His Hospice nurse said more than once, if only he could give other people lessons on how to do this.
It makes perfect sense that once he was gone, birds delivered to me the rare instances when I felt contact with my father. Most mornings that June after he’d died late May, I would hike up Thumb Butte and spend time at a bench close to the top on the steepest side. I went in a state of receptivity—some combination of prayer and meditation and séance. I went to receive whatever might be possible—words from God, a message through him from my father, maybe even a visit. During these weeks and months of grief, my notion of God and my father blended. When I’d close my eyes, it seemed it was my father I was praying to. Realizing the error of this, I aimed to readdress the prayer, but I’d arrive at the bench, sit, soak up the view, close my eyes, and then: Dear God and Daddy. Both up there somewhere, both mysteriously located, they had merged.
After expressing gratitude, asking for grace, and begging for contact from my father, I’d open my eyes, and more often than not, there would be a Scrub Jay in the brush below the railing. We’d look at each other. I’d say a quiet Hi. The Jay would cock his head, assess me from a few different angles, hop branch to branch. If I was sure I was alone, no one approaching from below or above me on the trail, I’d sometimes talk to the bird as if he were my father. In the preceding month, since his death, I’d combat my grief by communing with him through an ongoing letter—things I thought he’d want to know—how his funeral had gone, how Mom was doing, something in the news that would’ve interested him, or something funny I’d seen. The letter totaled fifteen pages at that point, yet on the Butte, facing the bird, I had trouble finding language: Is that you? I miss you. I hope where you are, you’re okay. Of course birds don’t answer, but I felt heard. And the next time I hiked up to that bench, that Western Scrub Jay or one of his buddies would show up again.
Among the most helpful of all the random advice I’ve heard over the years, given to writers, is the importance of developing a practice, a discipline, a routine—showing up for the muse. Sit at the computer or the blank tablet every day from nine to noon, or noon to three, or whatever. Even if on many days you aren’t able to write a word, sit there for those same hours anyway. Eventually, it is said, once you’ve established this habit, the muse will know when and where to find you. I saw my ritual of time on the Butte bench this way—a time I would show up, a place wide open and elevated, certainly lovely, possibly holy, accessible to birds, God, muses, and dead fathers. The thing was, after a while, it didn’t matter at all if anyone but me showed up—the regularity of going there provided comfort and communion.
In Talking to Heaven by James Van Praagh, he says that recently departed humans can contact their loved ones in a variety of ways, but the most common ways are through small creatures or electrical currents. He believes there is something about the place where recently deceased people dwell that allows them to affect small beings and electricity. Van Praagh says, from his experience with those grieving, that a radio might turn on by itself. A light may go on or off. A clock may stop at the exact time the loved one died the previous week. With birds and other small creatures, the experiences were less defined, but Van Praagh believes the dead person can sometimes affect the energy of the creature, make him move this way or that, fly closer, stay longer, behave outside the norm. Believe me, I know this sounds crazy, but in my grief state, I was ravenous for such information.
Another thing Van Praagh says is that we can invite communication from the deceased loved one. He believes everyone is capable of tuning in, but not everyone exercises that capability. He suggests asking, before you go to sleep, to dream about the person, to have the person appear in the dream and say anything he might wish to say. You can ask for a sign that the person is okay, wherever he is now. You can invite any sort of contact that is possible for the deceased one to make. And a prime time to do this is before sleep, since there are fertile zones between levels of consciousness.
One night, after reading this section, I try it. I make it like a prayer, and I invite Daddy to visit me in the night, through my dreams or any way he can. The request gets repeated like a mantra and eventually works as a lullaby. I don’t remember falling asleep really, but the next thing I know I am being woken by a large and busy fluttering in the corner of my bedroom. It’s coming from the little shelf, high in one corner near the bathroom, where I have some framed pictures of Daddy, and a little dried flower arrangement from his funeral, assembled for me by my mother. As I am aware of this fluttering—I don’t know what else to call it—I’m still in between waking and sleeping, but much more in this world than in a dream. It’s not a sub-conscious experience. The movement gets larger and has a sound. It’s clear that it’s birdlike and big; quickly it overwhelms the small room. Still, I don’t feel wide awake, don’t get up, don’t turn on the light, don’t do any of what you might normally do if you heard something strange in your room at night. Whatever level of consciousness I inhabit, I know that the movement is Daddy, shown up in the form he was able to. It isn’t frightening, nor is it particularly comforting. I feel no fear or weirdness. I eventually return to deep sleep. A few more times that night, I am awakened by the large and fluttering presence in the upper corner of my bedroom. Finally, I am ashamed to admit, I ask it to go away. That’s enough, I say. I need to sleep now.
In the morning, it is equally clear to me that it was Daddy. In the morning, it is inconceivable that I sent him away.
Consulting my bird book now, I see that the new birds I listed that summer were the Western Tanager, Hepatic Tanager, Canyon Towhee, Plain Titmouse, Phainopepla, Black-headed Grosbeak and Northern Flicker. The journal I kept that summer reveals this note: If the bird isn’t my father, the fact that I’m even noticing him, paying attention, is my father’s influence, so isn’t that the same thing? Doesn’t matter if the winged visits from my father can be verified as authentic; doesn’t matter if they are plausible or implausible, real or imagined. What matters is this bird love is something he gave me.
My father had always had the lead role in our family, sometimes because he was so charismatic and other times because he was flattened by depression. He got our attention, either way. My mother was best supporting actress, and, like the female cardinal, content to be the woman behind the man. Despite his occasional mistreatment of her, she adored him, revered him, sought his approval as much as we kids did. After he died, she was without a rudder. At first she found it liberating—the stress of his illness over, living alone for the first time in her life. She hired someone to redecorate their condo, a thing he would’ve discouraged had he been alive. He had left her a sizable amount of money and she began to spend it freely.
On the anniversary of his death, our family gathered in Florida, where we’d spent all our summer vacations, to put my father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico. My brother scouted out the spot, the exact pier where he and my father had fished. Ripped out by a series of hurricanes, all that remained of the pier was the pilings, thick posts dug deep into the sea floor, now skewed at odd angles. We went pre-dawn, in hopes of finding the beach empty, and because that’s when he always said the fish were biting. The sky was lavender when we arrived. Three brown pelicans were lined up, on each of three posts. “Well what do you know,” I whispered to my sister, “some of Daddy’s drinking buddies showed up.”
It was during this week in Florida we noticed our mother was slipping. Her moods were uncharacteristically erratic. One night at a restaurant, she suddenly refused to order anything, got up and walked out in a huff. When I followed her, she insisted she could find a ride back to the hotel. “You think I can’t find a man?” she said. On the day we were all flying to our respective homes, we went to pick her up from her room and it was in total disarray. She wasn’t dressed, wasn’t packed, had a paper cup filled with water in her open purse, one live zinnia inside it. This was only the beginning.
As months passed, she got $3000 credit card bills for merchandise ordered by phone, yet she had no recollection of placing the orders, or receiving the shipments. She gave thousands to a Televangelist. We took away her checkbook and her credit cards and we had her tested. After seeing the results, the doctor said she wasn’t safe to drive, use a stove, or administer her own medication. The doctor suggested Assisted Living and within a couple of months, we got her into a place nearby. She saw all of this as betrayal. We’d taken her keys, her car, her autonomy in purchasing things, and worst of all, the home she’d just redecorated.
Allegiances form in families, and I’d always been on my mother’s side. When my parents fought, which was frequent, I’d gravitate toward my mother. When she left a room crying, I followed her, and tried to comfort. She did the same for me. We were allies and we were friends. When other teenage girls went through the phase of hating their mothers, I never found mine bothersome in the least. She was always kind to me, and generous, taking me shopping or out to eat. It was not uncommon for us to get the giggles about something we saw, or heard, or remembered.
The 24-hour period during which we transferred all her stuff from her condo to her suite in Assisted Living, my brother, sister-in-law, and one of my sisters loaded and unloaded the truck, set her new apartment up to look as identical as possible to her condo, putting all the same art on the walls, and getting it ready for her to move right in with the least amount of disorientation. My job, and there was never any question that I was the right one for it, was to stay with my mother at a local hotel, keep her calm and away from the chaos. She and I got Mexican take-out that night—enchiladas; we shared a cool, long-neck Corona beer; we swam in the pool. She asked me at one point if we were on vacation, and I said, sort of, yeah.
During this time of my mother’s early onset dementia, my poor sweet brother was always the one who had to be the heavy, to deliver to my mom each new piece of bad news, each freedom retracted. He would preface all his comments with “All the kids agree that”… fill in the blank. And my mother would say, “I can’t believe Melanie agrees with that. Does Melanie think I can’t drive? Does Melanie think I need Assisted Living?” “Let’s call Melanie,” she’d say. This was utter heartbreak for me. Even I had let her down.
She became bitter, suspicious and paranoid, calling me up once when I was back in Arizona to ask me if I had stolen her pressure cooker. My father, during his physical decline, had to rely on me increasingly, trust me implicitly. He and I grew closer during the end of his life. Conversely, my mother, during her mental decline, trusted me less and less. We lost ground.
In a very short period of time, her brain betrayed her to the point that she didn’t know how I knew my older sister. Nor did she know that my older sister was her daughter; she thought she was a woman from whom she bought makeup. She was incontinent and had frequent accidents, even with the diapers. She was on anti-psychotic, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety meds. The vibrant, gorgeous, golden woman who’d raised me was now anti-life in general. There was nothing for which she wished to stick around, and she told me this on a daily basis. After nearly a decade of dementia, several different facilities, charges up to eight grand per month, we had to find a much lower-budget option for her long-term care. Her own mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age eighty, had lived to be ninety-three. So we moved her to a care home in Prescott, a couple miles from the house where my husband and I lived. It was definitely a step down. She had a tiny bedroom, and had to share a bathroom with the other residents. She complained about the food, the staff, how long it took them to change her bed or her diaper. I saw her once or twice a week. She was not happy, and these were not our best times.
Despite her ill temper and negativity, she relaxed a little in my presence. I’d take her on Wednesdays to get her hair done, an appointment with beauty she’d kept her whole adult life, and this usually put her in a better mood. After rejecting six different hair stylists, she really liked the seventh. Vera’s shop was in Chino Valley, a half hour drive, but we would make the trip every week, and after, she always wanted to go through the Starbuck’s drive-through for a Mocha Frappuccino. We made this our tradition. She even chuckled one time about the sound a straw makes being pulled up and down through the clear plastic lid. The first time it happened by accident, the squawking sound. After that she pushed the straw up and down, making the noise again and again, and smiling. I did my straw too and smiled back at her. It wasn’t like getting the giggles, but it was what we had.
Ten years, four months, and eleven days after my father died, my mother joined him. It came with no notice, no signs of illness or pain or physical distress. She was just eating her lunch at the care home, got up to go to the bathroom, and collapsed on her way there. They called, said to come quick; your mother is dying. I made it there in seven minutes, but apparently not quickly enough. I did not get to say goodbye.
It was a harsh grief for me, incomprehensible pain. I thought that having been through the loss of my father, when the time came for my mother to leave, I would be experienced, I would do grief well, like someone who’s practiced. Instead, I was a wreck. This grief was an entirely different beast.
For months, I could not reconcile the way things had unfolded. While siblings moved on, happy for Mom that she finally got what she’d wanted all these years, that she was “with Jesus,” with Daddy, and free of all human encumbrance—the meds, the delusions, the fear, the diapers—I was angry, cheated, bereft. I knew she was better off, but what about me? Questions I wanted to pose to God went like this: How hard would it have been to let me get there first? What difference would three or four minutes have made? I tortured myself with thoughts of if only we’d known she had less than a year, not ten or fifteen or seventeen years, we could’ve put her in the ritzy, beautiful, expensive Granite Gate out by the Dells. Could’ve let her spend wildly, instead of limiting her to new shoes one month, and a new dress the next. I was gagging on regret. Month after month, there was no peace forthcoming. My mother did not visit me in the form of birds or any winged creature. She did not come via electrical current. No matter how many times I invited, at the edge of sleep, my mother did not show up.
On an April morning, while trying to do my thing of showing up for the muse, I look for ways to procrastinate. I don’t know what I’m trying to say in the essays I’m drafting. There were things about grief I could make sense of, in the context of my father’s death, but that was before my mother died, when things still felt straightforward. Now, mess that I have been, who am I to shed light on anything? What worked for me when I lost my father isn’t working for me this time. Grief comes in different shapes and sizes and flavors. Some flavors we cannot stomach, though every day we are forced again to swallow. Doing grief once does not prepare one for doing grief the next time. Losing one parent does not strengthen us for losing the next one. I had been foolish to think myself experienced.
There are plenty of ways to avoid writing, and on this day, the dishes seem a welcome diversion, a fine way to spend time. Dishes are easy; they are dirty and then clean and orderly in the dish rack. Nothing complex about the task, and every time you face it, it’s the same task. Dishes do not throw you a curve ball.
As I look up out of the window above the sink, I see something snowing down. White curls land in the street in front of my house and I want to know what they are. At first I think they are plant matter, like what blows off Cottonwood trees. Then, briefly, I think Styrofoam peanuts—someone left a box outside for trash and the packing material is being lifted by the wind. But then several of the unidentifiable things come down at once, conjoined, and I see they all originate out of the Juniper tree that sits between two neighbors’ yards. Is there a cat up on that high branch, dismantling a bird?
As I dry my hands and head outside to observe at closer range, I am sure that what I’m seeing are feathers. I pick up a couple of tufts and then some larger feathers come down, twirling horizontally in an elliptical orbit—little helicopters or boomerangs on their descent. I cross the street.
I have never stood on my across-the-street-neighbor’s driveway but I am standing on it now. There’s a sudden flutter of wings and I look up to see a hawk perched in a fork. He has a hooked beak and spotted chest and I drink in as much detail as I can. Clusters and knots of feathers are now visible all over the branch below the hawk and on the ground right under the tree. I pick up one of the bigger, long feathers—white and grey—a Mourning Dove, which seems a large meal for the hawk, who is not so big himself, and is looking at me now. For a moment, we consider each other. In an attempt to shield my eyes from the noonday sun, I raise my right hand, and it is then that the hawk is done with trusting me, and he is up in one quick lift, flying off behind the house, holding what’s left of his meal.
I gather a few more feathers of different sizes and cross the street back to my house. The blacktop of our road looks as though it’s had a snow shower of plumage. Once inside, I grab a bird book. By the spotted breast, I think either a Swainson’s or a Sharp-shinned; then I rule out the Swainson’s—it has the spots but it’s too dark.
After this, miraculously, writing sounds more fun than dishes, and I welcome the complexity of the task. I start writing, renewed by what I’ve seen, and I notice too a level of involvement—me watching all this—that was not possible only a month ago. It is evident in this moment that I’ve shifted, however slightly, out of the drowning hole where I spent most of fall and winter. I realize just how far away I’ve been all these months, and how right now, right here and right now, I have found my way back. It’s not done with me, this gnawing pain, this savage regret, this missing the mother I love. But there is evidence that it can lift or transform.
The hawk ate the Mourning Dove. Grief slowly dissipates, digests, its painfully-plucked feathers becoming something new, graceful, snow-like, airborne.