A Bird Knocking Again and Again on a Window
When I was little and stayed at my grandmother’s house I would wake up in the middle of the night because my grandmother was awake. Sometimes crying. Sometimes cleaning. Sometimes working urgently on a project. I could hear her in other parts of the house or see light pushing its way beneath the door of the spare bedroom where I slept. I remember thinking that the sound of her, awake and pulsing—a bird knocking again and again on a window—was the loneliest sound in the world. I felt all the lonelier for being the one to hear it.
My grandmother sewed sachets and other things. She filled these little packets with lavender or scented them with strawberry oil and tucked them into drawers with underwear or socks or shirts. I still have tiny bundles of lavender I’ve brought with me from house to house, dresser drawer to dresser drawer. The scent is long gone.
Once, my grandmother got the idea to make pillows filled with plastic bags. When I put my ear against these pillows, I could hear a hundred bags settling and crinkling—a thousand tiny bird heartbeats and a million slight wing adjustments.
When I was 15, I stopped going to school halfway through the year. It was an El Niño year and the rains had come suddenly and heavily. Hillsides slid away, tearing out hundred-year-old pines. An invisible leak in the car made for a half-inch of water on the floorboard. Things were not as they’d always seemed. The ground couldn’t hold me. And when it rained, the worms rose up from their flooded homes and crawled onto the sidewalks of my high school. All over campus, there were waterlogged worms bulging on the overcast gray cement. I was careful to step around them. But this was before I decided to stop going to school. Then I stopped going.
She was born too soon, my mother says of my grandmother. Prematurely. Her nerve endings didn’t fully develop. They didn’t have a chance. Or she didn’t have a chance.
I consider this story as I watch the robins overwhelm the tree outside my window.
Recently, the robins have taken over my town, keening from tree to tree, eating winter berries and congregating for warmth. There hasn’t been this much snow in decades, the locals say. I’ve been here 11 months and the mob of robins seems to portend something important, though a write-up in the paper explains they come every year. It also says they can get drunk from eating fermented berries.
She was born too soon. I consider this story of my grandmother. When a mother talks about the birth of her own mother, is it a reverse birth story? A just-so story? Does it explain certain things about her or does it explain things about us—the family? Or perhaps it explains how we are able to, but also cannot, love in my family? Is it a divination?
Sometimes, the robins seem violent in their mass joy.
Sometimes, their shrieks fall onto my ears like foreboding.
The robins have migrated from the north looking for water and juniper berries. They’ll leave in a couple weeks. They’ll look for mates with an instinct for spring. They’ll get territorial. They’ll have babies. They’ll eat their fill of fermented berries and, when the ground begins to thaw, they’ll search forearthworms by cocking their heads to the side, using one eye and then the other to scan the ground.
When I was 15, I stopped going to school. This was the first time depression bloated me with gray. No longer would I spend my days walking around campus with a blue plaid blanket wrapped around me. I slipped instead into the deep blue sea of my bedroom. Feeling like the tea leaves clumped at the bottom of a porcelain teacup, or a stunted lifeline on the palm of a hand. To imagine a future, one must be able to call a past to mind. Suddenly, I remembered nothing.
When I was 17 I stopped going to school. Again, when I was 19 and then 20. I was a good student. I still got my work done. Time was still measured in semesters and quarters and credits and grades. Somnambulant and bleary-eyed, I somehow dotted i’s, crossed t’s.
My grandmother moved into my family home when I was in high school. She had dementia. She was pleasant. The forgetting had stripped away the sadness that made her nocturnal. The forgetting made her more accepting of the world around her. One morning, she came into my bedroom confused by the diaper on her body. She was calm. She was looking for help. An explanation. It was more than I knew how to give. I pretended to be asleep. Played dead.
And when my mother said of my grandmother that her nerve endings hadn’t fully developed, she was saying that my grandmother felt too much. That she went out in the world feelings first, vulnerable, raw, exposed. That this might explain her in a way nothing else could.
Sometimes, my grandmother would spray-paint the step from the kitchen to the garage a bright orange. So people wouldn’t forget it was there and fall.
Sometimes, my grandmother would snap the rubber bands around her wrist, reminding her of something she needed to do that day. Because, in a pinch, pain will help us remember.
What other ways of being have I learned from her?
Sometimes my grandmother held me close enough that I felt the bristle of her upper lip against my cheek. She would hum to herself and make us dinner. I would lose time looking at each button in the overflowing metal tin in her sewing room.
When my grandmother dies, I am the only one not in the hospital room. Is this true? Or is this a just-so story I tell myself? A story that describes how a person who looks just like me must continue to play dead? Lie fallow. Lie in wait while the living are dying, while the ground is frozen beneath the low angle of the sun.
All last week, I go to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Then I come home and lie in bed from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. I am in hiding again. Time is measured in hours, by a workday, by years alive, but also by the snow piling up outside my window and the number of consecutive days it has been below freezing. It is winter. I forget, then I remember.
The upstairs loft in this house is where I write. Last summer, I angled and lowered the blind pull to raise the slats and let light in over my desk. Another dead bird on the roof. It must be the way the light reflects off of the window, showing a path where there is only obstacle. There is something to this, I think. Something to there being another dead bird on the roof. There is something to only being able to look at things peripherally, singularly, twisting from side to side, craning for the sight of a worm. I worry I don’t know how to see what it is. I worry—now that the tilt of earth’s axis has brought me back to winter, to the beauty and the monotony of the white landscape, the snow piling up—that I will go dormant waiting for the spring melt.