The cardinal was in her mouth before I could save it. The red, feathered tail stuck out from between black gums matted with drool, offered with enthusiasm, the dog holding the discovery in its teeth, as if to say, “for you, a gift.” By the time I batted it out of her grip, the bird was beyond resuscitation. The thing looked an uncomfortable brightness against the dehydrated New England day. The winter had sucked the life out of the landscape and sent any remaining into hibernation. Sticks bundled together along patches of already worn snow, the limbs of trees stretched exhausted from their base, curved tentacles seemingly minutes away from retirement. The grounded wings of the small bird seemed to be the last bit of color in the dulling acreage, and now they were no longer capable of flight. Scout beamed, her black tail whipping the wind rhythmically. I shook my head and patted hers, eager and unknowing of fault. It was two days after the call and eight days before the funeral, and this, it seemed, was a joke being played on me, the world, and perhaps her, mutually organizing a prank to crack the stillness. I used a stick to form a small crater in the dirt and set the bird inside. A few branches and some brushed over dirt would cover it in its makeshift resting place before it would eventually grow out of consciousness and become a forgotten thing.
On the morning of her golden birthday, I woke before the sun. At five in the morning, I fished for half an Ambien from the crack in my nightstand to prolong the process of transitioning into full awareness. By then John had already left the bed. He woke at the same time every day. It wasn’t the rustling of the closet or the sounds of daily routine that roused me from my sleep, but the smell of his coffee, wafting as he walked from bedroom to bathroom, sneaking into the vulnerability of nostrils and welcoming the day in without invitation. On this day I thought it might be different, that he might extend his time in bed, his ritual shifting to allow for a moment or two of reflection, remembrance. The drifting steam from the Keurig’s product showed me it wouldn’t be altered, if not never, certainly not today.
I often studied the hardness of my husband’s face, searching for spots of weakness, a lapse in self-control to allow for glimpses of vulnerability. His eyes revealed nothing. If there were some kind of internalization seeking escape, he had mastered the resistance. Did he cry in the solitude of his office? During his commute? I couldn’t say for sure. Initially he had moments of decent consolation, rubbing the small of my back as we sat waiting in the hard plastic chairs inside the sheriff’s office. His palm squeezed mine in repetitive pulses as we stood at the front of the greeting line at the wake. For the first week, he held me with a grip firm enough to keep me off the floor and let my stream of grief fall into his shoulders. By the second, the distance had edged its way back in. After a month, his decision had been voiced, chosen as if objective. “We have to move on.”
He had long since retired from his days as a marine, but still assumed the duty of severity. The stiffness was ingrained. Everything he did, he seemed to do separate from emotion. I knew it when we married, but never thought of its place in the later. After the holidays had passed, her name was dropped from conversation entirely. When friends inquired during dinners about the progress of my grief, what we now knew and still didn’t, he would change the direction of the dialogue, slip from the table into another world, the detour like an obvious transition, the only. When the what ifs fell out of my mouth like reflex in our shared seclusion, he rose from his recliner in the living room, making space in some other part of the house where my wonderings couldn’t infiltrate. He made it clear that the era had ended. There would be no more to consider.
Would you have wanted to keep paying the bills for another ten, twenty years? He asked once when my frustration again spilled out without warning. Yes, I wanted to respond, not needing a second of consideration, the cost of her survival never a thought. I didn’t question the payments, the heavy leftover not covered by insurance. The bills from the rehabilitation center chunked out large parts of our savings, but it wasn’t a price worth contemplation. If it meant selling the house, my car, the wedding ring, it would be a certain sacrifice. I would have even welcomed an arrest, the hefty price of posting bond. I would have settled for an unintended pregnancy, accepted the premature role of grandmother made primary caretaker if it meant having her, our daughter, here still. Everything, anything but.
What makes a mother? For 22 years I was that and that was all I was, what I wanted to be, what I had always wanted, and now I wondered whether I was still. I thought about my friends and their children, now grown but alive somewhere, out in the world, functioning, existing, at a distance but no further than a phone call away. My friends were mothers, fathers, parents to someone, even if the role no longer held the same weight of responsibility. The abrupt shift in my life flashes a constant reminder. I was a mother and now I am only someone who was one, who no longer knows who she is and what she is, if she can no longer be that.
On the morning of her golden birthday, when the day’s weight could no longer be hidden from, I got out of bed, took a few audible breaths, and opened the front door for the dog to run out into the yard. The day’s paper sat flipped over on the kitchen counter. In it, I’m sure, something about fentanyl’s growing invasion into the community, waiting for acknowledgment. I tossed it aside and began cleaning.
Guests started arriving closer to five. The invitation, sent digitally, welcomed a starting time of six, but like the many events held here in the past, a specific hour was negotiable. John was of little help. His disinterest in celebrating a birthday of someone who could no longer reach life’s ultimate fruition was obvious. When asked who he might invite, a silent response answered no one. The tv blared from the living room as I searched for a pump to inflate balloons.
The idea had been brought up by my therapist. A celebration, she suggested, thrown similar to how she would have wanted it. Before or after the indifference took over? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. I nodded along to the possibility, considered it, decided it might be a good thing for everyone, if not entirely for me. I’d invite her friends, new and old, those who had grown up with her, spent summers at the house, on the island. I’d invite the girls she met in recovery, who had known her most recently. They would all gather here, at the home she was raised in, on the anniversary of her birth, four months after her death, to celebrate something I still couldn’t make sense of.
Streamers stretched from the wood panels on the doorways, banana bread baking in the oven, a childhood favorite. Nancy assisted in the decor, as did her daughter Marie, friends of the family who had been kind enough to make the three-hour drive from Providence. The two of them cracked glow sticks left over from birthdays a decade before, set out snacks and cutlery. What if nobody showed up? Would anyone make the trek to the house way out in the woods for a party for their dead friend?
By the half hour before the official start time, cars were pulling into the driveway. Arms wrapped around as they greeted, how they had at the wake. Hugs of sympathy, I learned, differ from those motivated by reunion or casual affection. Hugs for the grieving, whether presently or past or continued, grip slightly tighter than normal, pause with intention, lingering longer than often comfortable, as though attempting to send a message through the quiet. The message, although clear, did nothing to reduce grief’s overwhelming presence. I had grown used to their frequency. I encountered these hugs more than I had anticipated, or frankly desired: at the drycleaners, the grocery store, the vet. The embrace felt telling, often obvious, as if calling attention to the loss for everyone unknowing to witness. A hug of that sort, in public, felt more revelation than it did comfort.
High school friends poured out of a single Jeep and into the house through the front door, their arms full of family-sized bags of chips and sleeves of Oreos. Scout ran out to greet them. She whimpered as familiar hands ran through her freshly washed coat. Was it recognition she experienced? Did she, too, like the rest of the party’s attendees, share the longing of her owner’s unreturn? At first it felt an impossible consideration, that a dog might have the ability to comprehend loss, or if not comprehend, at least know it, experience it, perhaps without name but with equal weight. It was then, as she sniffed through the crumbs dropped by the current inhabitants of the house, that I wondered if she too was waiting, much like me, for a homecoming that would not come.
The hours of the night passed swiftly, without much recognition or attention. Six became eight, and then eight spun into eleven, and the day had slipped from my hold without any effort, too quickly. The descent of the event terrified me. Soon, today, the 23rd of April, would be over and forgotten. The friends sharing laughs in memory would continue on with their routines, their lives, their 9–5 jobs, evidence of adulthood blooming. John’s abandonment would grow, a suggestion of moving south later becoming an insistence. “We need to get away from what we know.” The day would pass, and much like the majority of life’s intrusions, the moment to consider this one would dissipate as well.
As the group reached its peak and slimmed down, two girls from the rehab she had attended joined me on the couch. They had known her in her last days, months, maybe more than those who had her entire life, maybe more than me. A frightening thought. “Six months sober next week,” the one with the misshapen teeth announced proudly. The other had arms like alleyways, their pallor littered with scars and graffitied tattoos. She followed with her accomplishment. “Eight in May.” I smiled to cover that which stung. All that would never be achieved was sitting in front of me in the form of young women other than the one I raised. The goal would never be met. The thirty days of sobriety chip blinked in memory, the pride radiating from her smile on the day she earned it. Thirty days clean, a weapon to fend off doubt, from friends, from family, from her father. She was getting better and here, proof of it.
“Congratulations,” I offered. “I’m proud of you both.”
When everyone except those who offered to clean up had left for the night, I sought the refuge of her bedroom. John, having escaped from the night’s events at the early hour of ten, had taken claim of ours. He announced his retirement to the remaining crowd as though he was going to sleep, clarifying the satisfaction of his participation. He stretched a hand over a theatrical yawn and followed it with a single nod of the head before closing the door behind him. Half an hour later, sounds of an action movie hummed out from under the frame.
I adjusted the photos on the dresser, the necklaces hanging from their stand. I repositioned the mirrored box that had always housed secrets, once diary entries, later evidence of disease, discarded syringes and a bent metal spoon she made little effort to hide, and when discovered, would demand the door’s removal, an executive decision.
Her bedroom, with its missing door and all, still felt a time capsule of youth, holding the artifacts of the little girl who had evolved there. It was then that I missed the days of my yelling for tidiness, insisting on a made bed or folded clothes. If she were here, cleanliness would never again be demanded. She could litter the carpet with empty bags, stain the sheets with whatever she liked, stand in the shower until the hot water ran out and steam filled the entirety of the house. She would be allowed to sleep the day away, and when resisting the decisions made without her consultation, she would be granted refusal. Imagining anything that might have kept her here has grown an obsession for the nighttime. A stuffed dog stared out at me from the top of the undisturbed comforter. Her real one stepped from the hall through the doorway and stopped at the foot of the bed, stretching out before lying down, exhaling.
There was no sleep to be found that night. Even the dog seemed eager to stay up, unwilling to lend closure to the occasion. The kitchen, now dark, glowed only with the clock on the microwave. Three in the morning. I grabbed the local paper from its neglected corner on the island and brought it into view. The previous day’s date stood on its cover, the 23rd of April, alongside the leading headline and an enlarged photo. A bird’s bright belly stood out amongst formal type. “Cardinals in Brattleboro: is their extinction reversible?”
In the picture she’s 10. The day is somewhere in summer, set under a hot mid-August sun or at the tail end of July. She is terrified of the creature she is standing next to, intimidated by its greatness, the size of it, unreal and daunting. With time, she will grow to love horses, obsess over their impossibility and set a goal to someday have one of her own. In the moment, it takes convincing, close to a half hour of it, to get her to approach the beast, and when she does, she does so hesitantly. Her small hand grips a carrot as a peace offering. The animal takes it, crunches. And then, a release of giggles. Relief, joy, and now curiosity, she, as big as the horse.
It’s hard to imagine that here, in the now that has become, that a girl who was once terrified to approach an animal she hadn’t before seen, would willingly entertain something that could kill her, and would eventually allow it to.
When I pass by the frame above the fireplace, I have the urge to take it down, put it somewhere it would demand less attention, distant from the television, removed from my focus, away from John’s. I keep it up. An act bravery, perhaps. A promise to remember, more likely.
I opened the door to the yard and Scout stepped out onto the terrain, the night sky displaying the vastness of elsewhere’s possibility. I walked over to where months before, I had laid the creature to rest, where there was now nothing. Not bones, or feather, or evidence of its being. Maybe an animal had taken it in its teeth. Maybe Scout, lacking supervision, had retrieved her proud finding and swallowed the remains. Regardless of how or where, the bird was no longer. Gone, into the earth maybe, or more likely nowhere, as though it hadn’t been found to begin with.