Consider the bird.
Consider the dreamer who witnesses a bird flinging
into a church, the windows yawned open.
Consider whose death will follow.
– “Sign” by Forrest Hamer
Upon rebuilding the memory of our gone, we tell ourselves that all things are true and happened exactly how we remember. It is through the repetition of the supposed memory (was it this she said? That he said?) that we come to answers and certitudes. It was the summer between sixth and seventh grade when my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer. No one discussed it directly; my family believed at first they could successfully hide it from me, and my grandfather continued his Saturday morning ritual of driving across town before nine with straw hat, shorts and socks pulled up to his knees while sipping a Diet Coke. He’d ring the doorbell until someone—usually myself—stumbled from her sleep to answer. By the time I’d get to the door, he’d be four houses down and across the street to my cousins’ house. You could see him standing on their porch with his arm near the door jamb. Ringing their doorbell, probably. It went this way—through the summer and into the school year—until chemo and radiation broke him so we had to take his keys and he no longer came to pick me up each day after school.
His sickness did not keep me from spending days at a time at his house. It might have increased my desire to see him. We’d spend afternoons in front of the wood panel box television that sat on the den floor and watch Gilligan’s Island or The Andy Griffith’s Show or Lassie in black and white. Between his labored breathing assisted by the oxygen machine we positioned permanently by the couch, he’d drift off to sleep and I would step outside to ride my bike. I don’t remember what other grown-up would be in the house with us—my grandmother had not yet retired from her job at the mental health facility hair salon—I just remembered that many, many days during those final ones, I was mostly at my grandfather’s side.
Maybe memory has robbed me of the context of our conversation. My mother was in the bed with him when he inhaled his last breath, and my grandmother was just outside at the point of his departure. I asked my mother a couple of months after his death if he had ever mentioned a white bird or maybe a dove. She said no. I asked my grandmother if she had heard of the white bird. She said no. They did not have the words of his I had. I remember the night he told me about the white bird there was a Styrofoam cup with a bendable straw and water in one hand, and a Bayer pill in a medicine cup. It was around the time when he was too weak to get the pill to his lip by his own hands, so I would wait until he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. I dropped the pill in his mouth and set the straw to his lips, and then waited for him to swallow. Where was everyone else? I don’t remember. Why was a seventh grader tasked with giving a dying man his medicine? I don’t remember. How did we get to the point where he told me about his dreams?
After he’d finished taking his medicine he had a few breaths left to tell me about this white bird. In the first dream, the white bird was perched on the foot of his bed. In the second, the white bird was in the carport. Maybe I asked him what he thought it meant. I do not remember my words in this conversation, or my reaction, but my grandfather went on to explain he thought the white bird was there in his dream to take him Home. But you are home. I remind him with my seventh-grade understanding. He said, No. Home. He seemed sure and confident and comforted by this message.
Why me? Why tell no one else the dream of the white bird who will come to help him cross over? I wasn’t at his house when he did cross, but it was morning—when we usually hear the doves in their hollowed whistle perched in the eucalyptus tree in the backyard—and he was in his bed, and my mother was in it with him. She got up to tell my grandmother he was heading Home, and I am told later the men in white came, and they carried him out in a white bag through the door connected to the carport, and I just know there had to have been a bird flanked there, calling.
Grandma Griffin lived by herself until the fall. Daddy called me at school to say she had broken her right arm and that he was going to Charleston to bring her back to Columbia until she got better. It was October of my first year of college and I had managed to befriend graduating seniors who had cars which meant freedom from the school campus on weekends and unlimited trips to Wal-Mart or SouthPoint Mall whenever I needed. Upon leaving my parents’ house to attend college a state line away, I decided early that I would embrace the Christian tradition my grandparents had tried to instill in me because my parents didn’t. My college senior friends who I trusted and admired believed in God with such fervor that I wanted to have what they had. I started going to church and writing in a prayer journal instead of partying on the weekends into Monday. Tangentially, my mother—who I did not know as a church-going-woman growing up—started going to church and for the first time I could ever know, we had something to talk about whenever she called.
My friends scheduled a road trip to South Carolina during Fall break. I was invited. In the triangle of the three planned cities (Chapel Hill, NC; Clemson, SC; Mullins, SC), Columbia was in the middle of the hypotenuse of the five-hour drive across South Carolina from Clemson to Mullins and I had a feeling that we should stop through to my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, the house my grandmother was only visiting. I asked if that was all right.
The state of the house when we got there spoke volumes to how quickly a whole world in which you are familiar and a part of can change when one variable is removed or altered. We—all of us, myself—were guests and not allowed past the dining room; my room had been converted into an in-house hospital room, and at the back end of the living room Grandma Griffin was positioned in the cushioned rocking chair facing the television tuned to The Bible Network. She was slouched over a bit, the cast covering her right arm was secured to the arm of the chair. There was of course the familiar back-drop buzz of a breathing machine behind her. From the dining room guest-only vantage, it was hard to tell if she was watching the televised church service or if she was sleeping. We passed the moments with my parents, talked about school, how we all met, our time in Clemson, a city so close to my birthplace. We would need to get back on the road soon. Daddy told me I could say hello to Grandma Griffin and granted me passage into the living room.
Escorted by my father, I walked over. He spoke loudly.
“Mom, you have a visitor. It’s Lana.”
I was closer to the breathing machine and the church service on the television. He turned around to lower the sound. He did not lower his voice.
“She’s visiting with her friends from college.”
Her glasses were on the tip of her nose. She woke up and looked around, I think trying to focus on something, but couldn’t quite. Maybe we never had eye contact. Maybe she did not know who I was, that I had come and stood before her and she had told me never to break your good arm if given a choice and that she loved me.
Halloween came two weeks later. I was back on campus with midterm papers and a lost wallet. There was nothing else to do except call my father in tears. Daddy listened as long as he could and then he didn’t. I called Mama instead; she had a greater patience for my crying. How did we come to this point? Mama listened as long as she could, and then she hung up. I called back. No answer. I needed to know what to do: I had no money, no photo I.D. My family was hours away and no one was here to comfort me, and it was dusk and students were walking through the campus in Halloween costumes and I was alone in the Pit in the middle of the campus sitting on the concrete steps, crying.
At some point, I made my way back to my dorm. Students were knocking on doors, playing trick-or-treat. I did not answer any knock. I did not call anyone again. I pulled out my Bible and prayer journal. The phone rang. Daddy tells me Grandma is gone; she had not been well since I last saw her and he didn’t want to worry me while at school. He said he was sorry. I hung up the phone.
When I made it back to South Carolina, I heard the story: mama was home. The oxygen tube slipped from Grandma Griffin’s nose. Mama was cleaning. Grandma was positioned in front of The Bible Network without her breathing machine, her good arm secured to the chair. I had called to talk about my missing wallet, and Mama noticed Grandma slumped over in the chair. Mama hung up the phone. She was there, at the last moment, to watch Grandma cross over. She was there, as with my grandfather, praying the words and crossing her forehead with oil, making the blessings. I had come just in time, they said. I had come to stand beside her just in time.
Once I walked around with a camera in hand. I wanted candid shots—a way to capture the moment, to better spark the mind to remember. It is easier to remember the context of an action shot than one posed after the action—eyes facing the quick-open aperture and bright light.
Where was I when I first heard it? I don’t know. It changed me. It was before I heard the saying again years later and began to believe it was one of those sayings that people have in-pocket to exude some level of intellectualism over a moment and the validity of the statement is questionable because the sayer is questionable. Anyway, it was a man who said it. That is not to say that is why it was questionable. But it was a writer I was trying to capture in my camera. He saw the silver mechanism held up to my face and stopped whatever he was doing. He held up his hand in protest. I pulled the camera down and looked questioningly. Why not? I asked. The man said he doesn’t like picture taken of him; the camera is a taker of souls. Maybe I laughed him. I did not take his picture.
I did take a picture of small bird not long after that, though. It was summer and I was at a writer’s retreat and there were lots of beautiful moments I wanted to remember for when I left that dreamplace. I snapped and snapped. A woman and I walked around and took in the nature surrounding us. We were walking and talking about growing up in the South, black and women, and wanting to be writers. There was a gazebo we set our eyes on and because it was summer and warm and everything was so green we removed our shoes and trekked through the grass because the concrete was too hot for sandals.
What we thought was an empty gazebo had a small visitor. We walked closer and saw a small bird just under one of the benches. I turned on my camera, trying to snap it before he flew away. He did not leave. I could see him moving, trying to open his wings, but as I positioned myself to take a picture—wide eyed and brown, I think he was a type of wren or sparrow—he stood as if posing. The gazebo’s shade triggered the flash to turn on and later I saw it reflected in his large, glass eyes. Satisfied with the picture and that I had caught this moment, my friend and I found a bench a bit away from it to finish our talk. She was writing about women of the Bible, and I was writing about a half-brother I’d never met, but found pictures of in our albums—trying to imagine who he was. He died so young. What was it like to see the world for just a few days?
As dinner time was nearing, we gathered our things to head towards the cafeteria. We left the way we arrived. In our path, the bird was no longer on his feet. A line of ants were making their way towards him. How quickly we are here, and then gone. Rigor mortis twisted his small legs like tree branches.
Sula’s return to Medallion was trumpeted by a plague of robins. This was the beginning of the end for a lot of the characters in Morrison’s novel. The September I read Sula, intrigued by a woman’s entering a town flanked with a body of birds with amber-lighted chests, I walked around Newark stepping over an unusual number of dead birds on the sidewalks. Any number above a singular dead bird on the sidewalk within the short span of weeks would be unusual, however. At first I thought it was merely a case of heightened awareness—here was this character I admired for many reasons (You think I don’t know what your life is like just because I ain’t living it? I know what every colored woman in this country is doing…Dying. Just like me) whose entrance was so grand and cloaked in mystery—I saw the birds only because I was looking for them. You know, the usual anomaly that occurs when you acquire something new you believe is unique only to you until everyone is driving a champagne-colored two-door Honda Civic because you own one. Even when I wasn’t looking for them (dragging my laundry to the Laundromat, walking to the corner store for a Pepsi) there they were: dead, on the ground. I could only wonder what was about to unravel. Of course, I have history now to allow myself to rewrite most things or create narratives where there is first only chaos, but you should know in those days, walking through a city that would nearly kill me with dead birds manifesting at my feet, I lost my first uncle. That was just the beginning. A first cousin, godmother and another uncle would soon follow.
When I get the call that my father was in the hospital, I make provisions to move back South. Or at least, I get the feeling I need to leave Newark and its roads paved with dead birds.
C and I give up sleeping in on Saturday mornings to run miles and miles of New York City as training for a half marathon. We make our way through the fog-lighted early morning along Fulton Street—Brooklyn’s main throughway—towards the Brooklyn Bridge where we will cross the East River into Manhattan. I don’t learn until we’ve completed the seven miles that our run had a destination: a hospital near the Financial District of lower Manhattan. C told me he wanted to make a visit to see his friend who was admitted into isolation because of the vast amounts of chemo coursing through his body. It was the second hospitalization of the month; it was the countless trip to the hospital over the course of two years’ battle with stomach cancer. Everyone marveled that he saw himself past six months.
I know how to handle this. Because I know how to handle this, I steel myself as we sign in on the visitors’ log. I am prepared to erase the last image of his friend—healthy and pot-bellied, booming laughter, large smile: always how we remember our ailing—with whatever I would face in the small white room.
Still in our running clothes, the nurse instructs us to utilize the hand sanitizing station and put on gown and gloves. I believe this to be for our own protection, but just as I didn’t want the memory of C’s friend to be traded in for what will undoubtedly be the devastating image behind the white curtain, so too his memory will be forced to replace us in street clothes with us in blue gauze and latex, and no matter how hard we tried it was near impossible to achieve a genuine, unwearied smile under such conditions. You enter the room so well-meaninged and with only good intentions. And then all of that leaves you when you see your lover’s best friend curled into a fetal position on one-half of a hospital bed. His arms are so wire-thin you wonder what vein was large enough for the I.V. needle, and you recognize that oxygen tube resting on his upper lip like a plastic mustache, and all you can think of is how exactly like your Grandfather this man looked. Without anyone knowing, I say a prayer. Protect him, I say. C’s friend looks at me when we walk into the room while C is saying hello. He doesn’t acknowledge C. He is looking me in the eye, and I am saying the prayer in my head, and trying to smile. C is saying we just finished a training run and wanted to check in. How’s everything? C’s friend looks at me, and I swear, looks out the window. He doesn’t answer.
Despite the fact that the nurse was holding the spoon to his mouth five minutes before we walked in, he lifts his matchstick fingers to his face with a quickness and with such purpose that it made me believe for an instant my prayers were premature. He looks at me.
“This is the wrong one. Can you change it?” he says. Now he is looking to C to make the change.
My grandmother removed her oxygen mask when she sat in the rocking chair in front of the television set to The Bible Network.
C looks behind the bed. There is nothing to change out. He says he doesn’t understand.
“This is the wrong one,” C’s friend says again. C pushes the button for the nurse. In the meantime, he tries to talk about sports.
I am trying to be in the background, to not impose myself on this intimate time between two friends, but he keeps looking at me and I think he knows I am praying for him. I think my face is saying what my mouth isn’t. I tell C that I think he’s uncomfortable with me in the room—the last time I saw him we were eating Mediterranean food on Fulton street after a film screening, and his laughter sounded throughout the restaurant—and that I’ll wait for him in the lobby. I tell his friend, Good-bye.
An hour later, C meets me in the waiting hallway and says they talked about the NCAA tournament for a bit, and he helped him eat a few pieces of pasta. And maybe I was right, C said. He perked up a bit when I left the room. We leave the hospital and I say I’m worried.
“I know, me too,” C says.
Because I had the young hatred for my mother I believe most daughters have at some point in their lives, I once blamed my mother for the death of my grandparents. She was there. They both died within her reach. Why didn’t she do anything else to stop it? Then she was the bird in the building announcing a death; she was the white dove at the foot of the bed. My last living grandparent is going on several tours of ICU each month. I pray my family won’t call to say they are bringing her to their house “for a while,” as I believe that will be the beginning of the end. As long as she leaves the hospital each time and can call me from her own house—she is alive and on this earth still and breathing the same air.
C calls me a few hours after we left his friend at the hospital. His exact words: “He almost went home a few hours ago.” At first I am delighted and elated. I was wrong. I cannot tell if his “home” is the capital-H Home. Heavenly Home. So I assume he meant back with his brothers, up to the Bronx, out of the hospital. But the gravitas in his voice—Where are you? I ask.
“Leaving the hospital. They called his friends and family in,” C says.
I ask him how he’s doing, and he says all right. I start preparing myself, for him. The next morning we wake to find his friend is Home. He struggled as he did when I was in the room, as my grandfather did before he fell to a stroke, at the last moment to free himself of the hospital wires and tubes. Of the things holding him down.
Only hours ago, he was on this earth and breathing the same air. Am I the bird? My grandmother calls me and I don’t answer. She says she misses me and when will I come home to visit? Am I the bird? Mama and Daddy fuss because it’s been over a year since I’ve been home and Grandma just got out of the hospital for eleven days and they don’t know how much more her body can take. When am I coming to visit? No one else knows about the bird. C’s friend is gone. Only hours before I walked into his room in my blue gauze and latex gloves, stood at the foot of his bed, and called his name.