November has been a trying month. My joy at working on the 2nd draft of my hockey memoir was tempered by the death of our beloved canine family member. Trying to distract myself with my writing, I ran across an old story I wrote in the 1990's. It's a piece I wrote as I tried to process the grief I felt at that time. I thought I'd share it here, as a break from hockey and polar bear posts. As a reminder of how thankful we need to be for the moments we have with those we love. - Nameste
It wasn't the dog that woke her this time. It had been the soft but clear "thwunk!" of something hitting the outside of the house under her window. She rolled over onto her back, listening tensely in the pre-dawn light. Stiff and still, afraid of giving herself away with the bed's creaking, she waited for another noise - footsteps on the deck, a scraping of the bushes against the siding. There was nothing more so she let herself relax. She had been warm and dreaming of talking to Susie on the phone. Susie! Instantly waves of sadness and pain swept through her body. She curled back onto her side nauseated by grief. Two nights ago, was it really two nights?, she'd got the call from Connie's husband saying Susie had died. At forty-three. Asphyxiation. Asphyxiation? Her brain became a computer - one nanosecond she felt ok and could start to think about matters at hand, then Click!, a toggle switch would go off and she'd feel convulsed, miserable, confused. How could her best friend die? How could she just not be there? Her mind would run over and over the same questions without an answer, like a bad dream where she was caught in a revolving door. Just as quickly, Click!, her rational brain would switch on and remind her that she had to keep going, had to have breakfast, had to work, had to communicate with others. She did it all with her insides in a cloud of anger, confusion, and a complex sadness. On the outside she doubted anyone saw a difference in her. She wondered how long she could keep up the facade.
Sighing, she felt her rational brain click back into place. She rolled back and squirmed to relieve the tension in her back. Every night was tense now - filled with dreams, beautiful, technicolor dreams of when the three of them, Susie, Connie and herself had lived in Toledo. It was like a video compiled and condensed from the two years they'd lived practically in each others' pockets. Some night she was the audience, sometimes the cameraman - reliving conversations, and parties, and dinners, and even the everyday mundane minutia of the hallway at the tech center where they'd worked. She could see Susie's dresses and Connie's different hair colors - images that lasted even after she woke in the middle of the night. Sometimes she could hear their voices, but that faded before she was awake. More often she would just replay the details of their friendships, the places they'd gone to lunch, Susie's love of insects and lizards (from her childhood in New Mexico), Connie's love of horses, the intimate truths of their relationships that weren't always story book tales. She'd trusted these women. They'd held her up so many times. There couldn't be enough nights to replay all the good memories. They'd seen some ugly times together, true. The previous year Connie had fallen while riding horseback and had suffered a closed-head injury. She had trouble talking and required constant care at home. A marked change for the smart, sassy, vibrant database administrator they'd known. And now Susie. At least Connie was somewhere she could visit. Susie was gone. Just gone. Groaning, she let her hand drop from the side of her bed onto her dog, curled up waiting beside the bed.
"Did you hear that, ol' girl?" she asked the big black mutt. Raising her head slowly at the sound of her voice, the dog thumped her tail on the floor in greeting. It hadn't been a dog noise that woke her. Rolling back the comforter she sat up and shivered involuntarily in the coolness of the morning. She put on her slippers and reached out to separate the blinds, peeking between them into the back yard. There wasn't a soul around and nothing unusual to be seen. The concrete colored sky indicated yet another day of impending rain. She raised the blind and, as she had each morning this Fall, marveled at the brilliant red of the bush that was under the window ledge. Her insides winced. That was the kind of bush Susie and Connie would love, she knew. So bright and audacious among the other drab, dying foliage. Fall had been the best time to take walks with Susie and the dogs. Toledo had beautiful parks and deer among the forests and they'd spent endless weekends, she and Susie, avoiding the pain in their marriages by walking the dogs through the parks on the pretense of needing exercise. She'd been with Susie when she'd seen her first Baltimore Oriole. Susie had showed her how to find salamanders again. And, like six-year olds, they'd leaped over small rivers and stomped through marshes and whistled through fields, happy and more peaceful than at any other time of the week. She'd come home drenched or sloppy with marsh goop and mud, washing it all off in the shower but not able to wash the smile off her face. They'd played hide and go seek but wouldn't admit it to anyone but Connie later that week during lunch. "At your age!" Connie had said it in such a way that all three women had heard their own mother's voices and they had howled with laughter until tears ran down their faces.
Her eyes caught the movement of a small female junco on the steps of the deck, her head turned as she detected movement behind the glass. The bird hopped across the deck toward the window and there, lying on its back on the deck, was a male junco, its eyes still open but its legs stuck into the air in an awkward position. That was the sound, she realized. The bird must have just struck the window or the side of the house and fallen. Its little legs were settling towards its body but otherwise it was motionless.
The little female junco continued bouncing up to her fallen companion and rotated her head back and forth so each eye could take in the motionless form. The female turned and hopped away from the body, then flew to a small pine in the side yard where another male junco was sitting among the branches. The two birds chittered and rubbed their beaks against the pine needles, then flew to the fence that separated her yard from the neighbors. The female took wing again and flew to the deck's railing though she didn't face the fallen junco this time. She flew back to the fencing restlessly and the other male suddenly hopped toward her with his beak outstretched as if he were going to push her backward off the fence. The female went air born and soared across the neighbor's back yard - the male immediately behind her. She watched the two birds until their tiny bodies were just specks and then looked back at the dead male they had left on her deck. His eyes were still open. She was reasonably certain he was dead. "Just in case," she thought, and pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt so she could go out and check the body. "Check the scene, check the victim," she mumbled with cynical humor mimicking her first aid instructor, instantly wondering if someone done that when they'd first found Susie. "Not another death," she groaned inside.
Once on the deck, she picked up the little fallen body to keep it away from the dog's curious nose. The bird's soft light weight in the palm of her hand fascinated her. Why had the bird flown into her house? She'd lived here for four years and never had a bird hit the house before. And a junco! She was pleasantly startled. She'd been planning on putting in a bird feeder for the winter and had wondered if she'd get more than the obligatory robin and starling, sparrow or blue jay. She'd never seen juncos here before. She'd also never seen one so close and she was in awe of this one's tiny beauty. She was proud that she'd recognized what kind of bird it was. She carried the tiny bird indoors to check it against the Peterson's Bird Book Susie had given her one year for Christmas.
Maybe he'd been too proud of his looks, she thought. Proud and showing off before his pretty little female friend. She smiled at her imagination. As if a male junco would consider a female junco "pretty" and "little!" Maybe he had been "puffing up" like the guys in the bars where she, Connie and Susie would grab a happy hour beer. "Dunderheads" Susie had called them. The male equivalent to the "Dumb Blonde" stereotype. She and Susie had teased Connie about turning into a dumb blond at her hairdresser's. They'd all gone out to lunch in celebration when Connie had decided that she wasn't going to succumb to fashion and was going to let her beautiful silver hair show.
But surely a male bird wouldn't forget all his flying skills just to "win" a mate? And with what end result? she wondered sadly. The female and the other male had simply looked at their dead buddy and flown away. She wondered if they'd ever return. Of if the birds had been flying to a larger group of migrating juncos to alert them to the news - "our friend is dead! our friend has died!" - perhaps that's what their chirps had meant. She felt like yelling it all over town too, right now. "I hurt!" she'd cry. Or "I've lost my friends!" perhaps. It would be cathartic but it was impossible. She'd cried when talking with Susie's husband on the phone. The two of them, ex-regular drinkers, had opened up beers and talked for hours long-distance about Susie. The way she loved animals, and nature, and the goodness in humans. How she'd wanted to spend the summer at the lake cottage in New York so she could see both the stars in the morning and again at night. How much she'd missed "us girls" when she and her husband had moved out of state.
The night she'd gotten the call she'd been on her way out to play hockey. She was late. Hadn't even meant to pick up the phone but, somehow, she'd reached out and heard Connie's husband's voice. "I've got some bad news," he'd started and she'd instinctively reached for her own husband's hand assuming she was going to hear something worse about Connie. But not about Susie. The news that Susie had died unexpectedly and irrationally was beyond her wildest imagination. She had excused herself from the call, "you understandably need some time to take it in" she remembered hearing Connie's husband say and she had started crying before she hung up the phone.
Oh how she'd cried. She'd sobbed til her sides hurt and she'd remembered that she had been on her way out the door. She still had to go. She couldn't stand up the team. And she'd gone and played miserably, leaving the game with three minutes still left to go on the clock. One of the opposing players had laughed at how badly she'd been tending goal. Another had complained to the ref that he didn't like the rough play, that he had to get up to go to work the next day and didn't appreciate the cheap shot. She'd snapped when she'd heard the complaint. Get up the next day!? At least he'd be able to get up the next day. Instantly she'd wanted to hurt him, hurt anyone and she'd taken herself out of the play because she couldn't predict that she wouldn't. She'd tried to explain it to the team afterwards but was mortified the she started crying again. As she left the locker room she apologized to the team manager who'd, at least, been understanding. "My best friend." she remembered she'd kept repeating. "My last friend" she realized she was crying again now.
She wondered if the juncos would miss their dead companion. She found a small box in which to lay the bird. Maybe the two birds had caused the death, she tried to distract herself creatively. What if the male and female that had lived had been trying to get rid of the one who had died? Some bizarre bird love triangle? Some tangled bird relationship that required the one to die so the others could continue their life together? She wondered if juncos mated for life, like swans, or if this was just a fly-by-night connection. These were details Susie would know. Had the birds even been mates at all? Maybe the three had been siblings flying as a trio for companionship or protection. What would it be like for the little female to find their mother back in the flock and tell her that her son had died in a silly accident. Would her mother blame her? or even be sad? She hadn't known Susie's family though she thought of them fondly because of the many memories Susie had shared with her. Startled, she realized that she didn't even know Susie's maiden name. Susie's husband had taken care of the funeral quickly. Everything was in New Mexico including the spreading of Susie's ashes across a national park for lizards. She smiled knowing Susie would like that - not for everyone maybe but it made all the sense in the world for Susie.
She focussed back on the bird. How soft he was. His head hung loosely from the body and she found herself supporting it to keep it from hanging awkwardly. She wanted to fix it, to put it back onto its shoulders so it wouldn't rock so. She had the oddest thought that she should try to breathe onto its little bill. As if, like a fairy tale, this would bring it back to life. She wished there'd been something, anything she could've done for Susie. Or Connie. The feathers were so soft, still warm. She'd always thought of juncos as a black and white bird, but she realized now that the feathers were actually deep steel blue, layered one on top of the other to look black, The white breast and underbelly were pure light. The wings exquisite in the detail of the stripes, so crisp, so clear. This was surely one of "god's little creatures" as Susie would've called it. She had been so passionate about believing that God looked after the meek, the defenseless, the small. It was an assumption they'd shared and found difficult to explain to their engineering co-workers or their agnostic, educated and hard-drinking husbands. Susie had wanted so to be able to finish school so she could call herself educated. It had been hard to convince her that she already knew more about the natural world from love and observation than she'd ever pick up in an intro biology class. Still, up until the last time she'd talked to her, Susie had wanted to go to school for some degree. She just couldn't decide what. Guess she didn't need to decide now, she thought. Taking the junco back into the yard she began to bury it in a small depression under a Japanese maple. Maybe the little bird could carry a message to Susie that she missed her still and wasn't, despite outward impressions, doing "just fine." "That's your job." she whispered to the little bird lying lightly in his grave.