Courtesy of Modern Love | By | Illustration by Brian Rea | Originally Published 02.23.2018 | 03.08.2018
We heard the strangest sounds coming from the front porch, a squawking and an unworldly scream. The children fled into the kitchen, scared and yelling, which is what I wanted to do, too. But I had to handle whatever this was.
I looked out to see our family cat, Echo, with a cardinal in her mouth that was flapping and screeching, struggling to get out. My first thought was to call my husband, followed by a realization: I couldn’t. A month earlier, he had died. I still woke up every morning feeling stunned by this new reality.
Don had learned he was sick in September and had died in June. As a college professor, I couldn’t help but notice the timeline: death in one academic year. He was not supposed to die from this cancer. Two days before, I was still being told, “It’s a bump in the road. We got this.”
And I passed on my own affirmations to the children: “We’ll be in the Poconos by August. We’re still going fishing this year.”
Call it denial or magical thinking; I thought it was true.
The children were too young to visit him at the end in intensive care, so they never saw the tube down his throat or knew he was in a medicated coma or that his albumin range was below starvation level, evidence of his rapidly compromised state. I wasn’t told the last bit, either, until it was too late.
All I wanted now was to save this bird. I ran into the kitchen and got a broom and ran back outside, ignoring my children’s questions about what it was and how I was going to handle it.
I told them to turn on the TV and stay inside. Then I went out onto the porch and started swatting at Echo, trying to get her to release the bird. The children were too afraid to look out the picture window or come to the front door, but I could hear one of them call out, “What’s happening?”
The broom was having no effect. I was hitting Echo too gently, but I wasn’t about to hit her harder. Feathers were flying, and even in the moment I still thought how beautiful the floating red feathers looked and the brilliance of the bird’s red wings against Echo’s black fur. It took me several swings to realize I was screaming now, too, a shrill “Aiiiiiiiiiii” with every bash.
I had imposed a gender on the bird, and she was a she — a lovely, brutalized thing. I had never seen a cardinal this close and found it incredible that such color could exist in nature, could belong to something that flies through the sky.
Echo dropped the cardinal and snatched her back up, and in the seconds the bird lay on the porch, I could see she was badly damaged, deflated. The red everywhere was only her feathers, though; there was no blood. My own blood was thrumming in my ears.
Don died in about three hours one Sunday morning. Sepsis set in; his organs shut down; his heart was the last thing to give out. My parents drove me home from the hospital and came in with me to be additional sets of arms for the children.
I wanted to touch all three of them as I said the words, and when I did, my oldest backed away in disbelief. Then they were standing up and saying it couldn’t be true. I had told them we were going fishing.
Their grief and confusion was too huge for them to understand that I had said what I hoped would be true. At 13, 11 and 5, they still took everything I said at face value. My parents cooed and tried to quiet them, but I accepted their accusations, their anger, because I also believed I had failed and felt like a liar. I had not saved him for them.
And now I held still on the porch, the broom horizontal in my hands like a rifle. There was nothing for me to do but watch the bird’s end. Echo was dropping her and pouncing on her, again and again.
The bird stopped screeching and the children came to the front door as a group, their three heads in a staggered row, each finding enough space to see. We didn’t speak. They took in the scene and turned away, leaving me alone.
It was my job, after all, as a single parent, as the “grown-up” (which will forever have air quotes), to sweep up the feathers, to deal with the aftermath. That’s what I had been doing all day every day for weeks now — dealing with the aftermath.
I thought about the day of Don’s funeral, the moment when eight of my female friends, from different parts of my 40-year-old life, ended up on that very porch with me.
We talked and drank wine, grimacing over how many of us wished we still smoked. At one point I was standing at the top of the front steps, looking out, and I could feel those women behind me. I stayed quiet and just listened to the sound of their talking more than their words, and I could feel myself getting stronger for it, my spine filling with liquid steel, and I knew I would be able to go on.
When my children were born, other people wanted to be in the birthing room — my sister, sister-in-law, mother. For me, the birth experience was as intimate as the conception, and we made a decision that felt automatic: Of course it would be just the two of us in the room.
But from now on, parental and household decisions would be mine alone. I hadn’t known what to do with Don’s body. We hadn’t discussed his funeral wishes because his prognosis, up until his final hours, had been so good. And now I didn’t know what to do with this destroyed bird.
I got a garbage can lid and swept the feathers and bird up into it, and again was struck by its beauty. Her eyes were not closed and I made a mental note to look that up: Do birds have eyelids? Echo whined at the front door to be let inside, and I ignored her. I imagined the children inside in a row on the couch, watching something on TV and waiting for me to tell them it was over and everything was O.K.
I lay the lid on a wicker side table and picked the feathers from our porch furniture, some stuck in the wicker of the sofa, some stuck on the velvety throw pillows. I placed each feather on the black Rubbermaid lid and hoped I would be able to find a shovel among Don’s yard tools, which I hadn’t even looked at yet. Burying the cardinal became a nonchoice, too. I had buried Don; I would bury the bird.
Three months later, back at work, I would remember those red feathers when the children were home without me, and the cat — always the cat! — came into the house with a gash in her tail, spurting blood everywhere as she whipped her tail around.
The children scooped her up and rushed her out to the porch, and then, even smarter, into the yard. They assessed the situation and our supplies and fashioned a bandage out of folded paper towels and duct tape. They put Neosporin on the wound because I had put Neosporin on pretty much every wound they’d ever had, no matter what it was. Doing so made me feel like there was a process to be followed, a protocol.
When I came home, they told me the story all at once, interrupting each other and showing me Echo’s tail, how well the bandage was fixed, how they knew a Band-Aid wouldn’t have worked on her fur. They seemed most proud of the fact that they hadn’t called me; they had handled their own emergency with ingenuity.
After kissing and praising them, I went into the kitchen to make dinner and cry for my brave children.
I tell my students that life’s biggest moments — car accidents, graduations, even deaths — may not be the best fodder for their writing. I tell them the most significant moments happen on a random Tuesday.
The day of the cardinal was, in fact, a Tuesday. And I had not saved that bird, and I had not saved my husband. But I had cleaned up the porch and sheltered my children from the worst of it, which was the best I could do. And my children had learned a lesson in resilience, which is everything.