Birdsong Yahrzeit

My relationship with birdsong is complicated. The music, the signal of rising light and warmth and nesting and babies of all sorts returning is intoxicating.

But it’s forever stamped in my mind with the explosion of cancer cells in Eric’s body, the cancer that killed him. He first started to seem sick in early spring, just as there was enough light to get out for a run before we both had to leave for work in the morning. Stepping out on the porch every day I heard more and more birdsong.

Then one morning as we headed up the small hill past the cemetery to the dirt road that turns into a woods road that turns into nothing, Eric touched his chest and said, “I think I pulled a muscle swimming the other day.”

I thought who pulls a muscle in their chest swimming but buried the thought. We both  became adept at denial over the next month, as he got sicker and more consumed with pain and we kept acting like this was an inexplicably recalcitrant bad back.

It was a body full of cancer and by early May he was dead.

Everyone who knows me knows this story. How does it become more than just another story of someone losing someone they love? Especially now, when there’s a whole new category of how to lose a loved one? Maybe recognizing cycles and honoring them is a story we all need.

Yesterday morning I had a committee meeting of the land trust board I’m on and I did the Zoom call on my porch. Other people on the call could hear the birds in my yard and there were texts about the birds, asking what they were. I know I have robins, sparrows, chickadees, mourning doves, bluebirds, mockingbirds and bob-o-links in the pastures across the street.

But when I was asked what the song was punctuating the call, I didn’t know. I pay attention to the birds in my yard, but I’m not sure I want to be able to name the ones that mark the descent into illness for Eric.

I feel like a write a yahrzeit post every year on the anniversary of Eric’s death. But I know I don’t because I checked, and it’s now over a week past the day he died and I’m just getting this post up now. Maybe I was waiting to deal with the birdsong.

This is the first poem in my book about losing Eric, The Truth About Death. I’ve posted this poem before and I’ve certainly talked about losing Eric before. But as I said, maybe that’s the point, to remember that life has cycles and cycles and learning to turn with them can leave us in a better place. Like listening to and appreciating birdsong.

Birdsong

Now the song varies, mocking chains of notes,
the catbird flying from maple branch to fence post.
All spring I noticed the rise in birdsong
as we went out each morning, stronger chatter,
the brakes off, cells dividing and dooming themselves.
I sit in your chair, I wear your clothes, your ring.
I talk to your photographs. I watch the sky,
watch birds in the yard and realize how many flocks
I’d missed. For weeks I washed you, watched you,
lay next to you, all we could do was touch hands,
all you could do was whisper, your eyes black
morphine disks. Yet you turned back for me.

Happen In Darkness

I woke to a dusting of snow and the chatter of birds. A robin has made the old maple tree outside my study window his morning hang out, caroling notes that rise and fall — cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily.

Cheer-up is a needed but sometimes hard to heed message these days. But it does remind me of an old poem, written so long ago the room that is now my study wasn’t built yet and the body in the poem has been gone for 14 years. Still, the message is the same. Life moves in cycles. No matter where we are right now, we won’t always be here.

Happen In Darkness

There’s this sense of diving in
as blackbirds flock back to my feeders
and poppies break old ground
as my body comes in line
to reach for yours
with a single urgency that rises
as the sun does earlier
and earlier in what feels
like a long rush back
to the long hot hum
of a summer afternoon
already past the zenith
we’re traveling to now
aware all along
of what can and will
happen in darkness.

Falling In Love With Lilacs

February 16, 2009 — An Island Journal*

Eric and I found a lilac bush and a house to go with it. It was 1981 and we needed to move. For the past five years we’d moved around New England as Eric built his career in food service management. I didn’t care where I lived, as long as I was with Eric. I was a poet, I could write anywhere. The shifting landscape of Eric’s work had landed us in New Hampshire two years before. We rented a house and got married in the backyard. Adrienne was born in our bedroom. We settled in. But after a year the couple who owned the house needed it for her parents. We wanted to stay in New Hampshire, Eric had a good job, it was time to stop moving. We began looking at houses to buy.

Eric fell in love with the lilac bush by the front door of the house we bought, the only house we ever owned.  When we first saw the house it was a mess. Old, wide-reveal aluminum siding left smudges of white on your skin or clothes if you rubbed up against it, metal gleaming through in patches like a bald skull under thin hair. The rows of windows on the porch running along the south and west sides of the house had peeled to bare, raw wood, the glass barely held in place by dried caulking that flaked off in chunks. There had been a grease fire in the kitchen the year before and black soot still crawled up the walls to the ceiling, an echo of the flames. An old corner room had been turned into a bathroom, a toilet and free-standing sink and tub spread across the space. It was an upgrade from the two seater outhouse in a corner of the barn.

But the massive lilac bush was in full bloom by the front door and the air was sweet with scent. We stepped over the threshold into the living room and looked at each other.

“This is it,” we said to each other with our eyes.

In the week after Eric died, the lilac blossoms burst open and I sat on the porch, next to the bush, and wrote and listened and watched. The world was all new again, focused around absence. A catbird I wanted to believe was speaking to me for Eric sat on the wires crossing through the crown of blossoms, and sang over and over. The songs varied in pitch and melody, as if the bird was trying out for parts as other birds, other beings. A pair of sparrows was nesting in the yew hedge on the other side of the porch, and when the catbird wasn’t singing I listened to the chicks squawking as the parents brought them food. Birds became my porch companions. They occupied my grief and gave me a new language, one I didn’t have to write down or try to remember.

The passage above is from the The Island Journal, the first iteration of the memoir I recently completed — a book I intended to write only on islands, in a handmade journal David gave me in the first months we knew each other. There are many reasons there are very few traces of that original Island Journal in the finished draft of the memoir (the primary reason being that people who read it couldn’t figure out what was going on), but there are so many memories packed into that journal that come to me at different times.

Like right now when the lilac bush is coming into peak bloom. I still live in that same house, the lilacs still make me think of Eric, and I still bring a bouquet to Eric’s grave every year. I’ll bring one tomorrow.