Bird Woman


When the mailman demanded I come outside to receive a package a short breath ago, I found an orange and black thrush on the ground. It was male by its markings and quite dead. I have many floor-to-ceiling windows that birds mistake for an entrance, bang up against and break their necks. I brought him inside for closer examination. What a stunning fellow he was. The name thrush fell short in holding the splendor of his design. His colors looked like a blazing orange sunset against a black sky; the markings on his wings and collar were intricate. He had grace in his countenance even in death, or maybe especially in death. What a gift to hold him in my hands. I will save him for my granddaughter’s afternoon visit, then we’ll walk down the hill together and bury him.

Last year, while walking the library paths, I saw a Canadian goose flaying in the middle of the pond. Other geese were gathered around making a great ruckus. I feared he was caught in fishing line, so I waded knee-deep in February water to see what I could do. No one else was around. The others flew away as I gathered him in my arms without a struggle. He was gasping for air and panicked. I sang to him and lay his head against my shoulder as I walked back along the paths to my car. I was driving him to the vet when I realized his spirit had gone. He was suddenly cold, heavy and without movement. I pulled the car to the side of the road and wept at being too late to help.

Part of me felt I had stolen property from the park and wondered if I should return him, but decided it would only cause bureaucratic confusion, so I drove him home. I had a marketing meeting scheduled, which I had no time to change for. I brought the bird inside and put him in a basket while we did our business. Anthony, my marketing guy, kept looking over at him the whole time. He was having a little trouble concentrating on business with this large dead Canadian goose staring at him for a full hour; the unexpected is part of doing business with Karen. I took his body down the hill and buried it as Anthony’s car pulled out of the drive.

I believe I was a bird in another life. Birds are my people, my tribe, my feathered friends. I stop to collect their bones and feathers whenever I see them.  Others comment on germs and lack of wisdom, but I will always reach for them, because I remember – and because their flight reminds me of the freedom I’ll have once again after I leave this body.

For Dicksie

The child is goneumbrella-in-air

Bonds broken

The fabric weak from too much mending

is asked to rend once more


The earthly witness records the trauma


while heaven sends its angels

to take its traveler home


With useless shell discarded

No need to struggle more

It’s just the pain of parting

that stands constant by the door


So in the evening shadows

when grief hides just below

listen for his whisper

and in your heart you’ll know


That though we walk with feet

cemented in this place

his heart is now expansive

his soul is filled with grace.


The men in my family, the men I have loved, are in the cemetery now. I spent two days with them when I went home to New York. On the first day I rode my sister’s bike to the gravesite, being drawn by their spirits, like a bird migrating to its kind. An emotional damn broke as I held each gravestone and spoke with each spirit.

Excuse me, Could you spare a Kleenex?  I asked a woman only yards away.  I never meant to cry like this. I surprised myself.

She was typical of the pioneer farmwomen in our village.  Use your sleeve, that’s what I do.”   She raised her gnarled hand to demonstrate.  

As I fingered the gravestone of my father, an army of ants burst free, crawling up my arms in great red legions full of bites and stings. A warning from my father, I thought, even in death. Don’t get too close or you’ll get hurt.

I pulled out my sketchpad and rendered the way branches of white birch sheltered their tombstones. Now I had a visual reminder of the place the men in my life reside.

written 5-25-05

Death Visits

Death is around my mother now like an energetic cocoon waiting to merge with her physical body and dissolve its solidity into an expansive freedom.

It doesn’t stand by the door the way it does during childbirth. It is more a curious observer there, wondering if mother or child will pass beyond the edge of reality and need a companion to guide their spirit home. No, it is not that kind of death that awaits my mother. That kind of death comes for an otherwise healthy body. Its occasion is sudden, accidental or unexpected.

The death that waits for my mother is slow and subtle. Each day it sucks away minuscule amounts of desire, until her once-active body can no longer will itself to turn the pages of the latest mystery novel arriving in the mail.

The slender hands that once fashioned silky strands of childrens hair into intricate french braids, now struggles to hold a comb or press the spring that fastens her silver hair clip.

The morning reunions she enjoyed with friends at her favorite breakfast café, have been replaced with bottles of painkiller and a glimpse at the newspaper before returning to bed.

This was the woman who danced, sang heart-felt blues at the upright piano and raced around the globe in search of adventure and inspiration. She has no desire to die. Her grasp on life has always been full and present, holding as much of it in each hand as she could manage.

But now she swallows anti-depressants so she can stomach her reality, the reality  of having life’s brilliant dance move farther and farther from her feet. I am not living. I am only existing, she admitted with sadness and resignation. My mother does not believe in complaining, finding fault or dwelling on the negative. She has never referred to herself as old, and continued wearing prom dresses into her eighties.

Death has not claimed her yet, but has moved close enough to examine her breath, weaken her heart and shrivel her body. Her mouth is flung wide in sleep, her breathing open and labored. I know she is fighting. She is thumbing her nose at death and saying, You will not close my mouth or steal my connection to life. Witness the strength of my breathing. Witness the power of my will.

But death does not come at her like a warrior or an avalanche. Death is patient and quiet. Death has time and the confidence that comes from assured victory. It moves slowly, taking back a tablespoon of vitality here, a cup of life force there. It has already stolen the radiance from her smile and precious memories from her heart.

Can she hear death whispering? It is coming closer every day. It’s okay to sleep, death assures her. Let your bed comfort you now. The world is too fast and too noisy. Enjoy the softness of your sheets, the twilight haven of your room. Feel your chest move up and down. There is nothing else that’s important. Just watch your breath move in and out. Begin to surrender. Begin to think about letting go. I have you. As soon as you’re ready, I have you. There is nothing to fear.

One day soon my mother will free herself, like a ship coming untethered from the shore, and we will have her no more.

written 9.25.2008

My Grandmother’s Hair

She was alone in the upstairs bedroom of the farm house, my father and his wife tending her in a hands-off kind of way.

Grandma Lottie is pretty much gone, they told me. You can go in but she won’t notice you. She just lies there day after day waiting to die.

I opened the tall wooden door that led to her bedroom, noticing the familiar resistance of the latch and the slow turn of the crystal doorknob. I peeked into the dimly lit room through a small opening as I gathered courage. The doorway extracted me from my own world, beckoning me forward into the quiet nothingness of hers. She slept in a large double bed to my right, which seemed too big for her diminishing body. Soft light cast afternoon shadows near her vanity reflecting remembrances of a well-ordered life. I smiled as I studied stacks of neatly folded and ironed handkerchiefs piled near the lamp. They stood like small embroidered trophies to a feminine life from another era.

I don’t think she’ll take note of you, my father repeated, closing the door behind us. I opened lace curtains that moved inward on a quiet breeze, whispering her name as I sat carefully on the bed. There was no response. Okay, I thought, I know you’re still in there and I’m going to find you. I pressed the clasp on my long leather case, removed my silver flute and assembled it. I held it to my lips, playing low and slow, to ease my way into her hiding place, hoping to coax her spirit gently back and awake. Her body startled in surprise at the unexpected sound, her head turning to face the music. I had her.

I stopped for a moment to trace the lines of her lips with my fingers as she began to smile. Encouraged, I played and played until my fingers tired. When I moved to close, an expression crossed her face that begged me onward, but I had no more. I dismantled the flute, snapped it back inside its velvet nest and crawled into bed next to her. I dove into my memory and found songs we had shared from my youth. I placed my lips inches from her ear and began to sing.

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,

I’m half crazy all for the love of you…

When I got to the next line, she joined me with a voice that came from far away, a voice from inside her private world, a voice that sounded like it was traveling through endless time and space to celebrate life for one more familiar moment. 

It won’t be a stylish marriage, we sang together, I can’t afford a carriage, but you’d look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two..

I sang until I was sung out, all the time stroking her hair and offering words of remembrance and love.  Having worn myself thin, I lifted from the bed and headed toward the door. Thank you, she whispered.

My father peered into the room in disbelief. She’s singing in there, he said. I’ll be damned! She’s just lying in bed alone, singing.

 I listened as her 100 year old voice cocooned around her body like a lost blanket:

From this valley they say you are going

I will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

for they say you are taking the sunshine

that brightened my path for awhile.

written 2-27-08 

The Cornfield

My aunt’s spirit came to visit me the night she died.

I remember it like a midnight fog.

I got up from my bed and let her in.

I don’t remember conversation, just the distinct sense of saying goodbye.

In the morning I woke, thinking it was just another dream, but as I made my way into the living room, past the piano, I noticed the front door ajar, and the reality of the experience came back.

The next week I received a letter from my uncle telling me she had passed, the same day and hour of her visit.

He enclosed a photo of her standing in the cornfield.

He said she was reaching skyward to show how tall the corn had grown, but I saw a farewell wave, a final and loving goodbye.

I’d written a letter ten years earlier, telling her of my love, and expressing all that she’d meant to me. My uncle told me she carried it in her apron pocket until the day she died.

written May 21, 2008


I got an email a few days ago from my friend, Dorie, whom I have not heard from for more than a year. The subject line read, Absolutely!!!

She was responding to a thank you card I had mailed after our last luncheon, probably unearthed on her desk, while doing her annual guilt-driven clean-up. Dorie is a painter and designer. She also creates unique handbags and whimsical mittens. Her spirit is fresh and optimistic, as she divides her time between art, grand-children and caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s.


I had requested we meet again for lunch, soon. The word ‘soon’ being relative in her busy world. I searched my emails to see if I had written her recently and forgotten. Then, I remembered last year’s thank you note. I imagined my card being lovingly read and discarded on her craft table, slipping with the best of intentions below new fabric samples, buttons, shimmering yarns and products that didn’t meet her standards. She emailed her reply like I’d sent the card in yesterday’s mail; as if no time had gone by at all.

Absolutely!!! Karen Dear Friend, let’s meet for lunch, for coffee or everything. Getting together with you is an enormous treat. I miss you. Then she went on to say that a friend of hers had died recently so she was waking up to the value of friendships and wanting to keep in touch.

Ah yes. Death ~ nature’s wake-up call.

I was a new bride in my twenties when I had a similar experience. An older woman helped us find our first house in Circleville, Ohio, home of the pumpkin festival… we won’t go down that road. I wanted to have her to dinner as a thank you gesture and to deepen our connection into friendship, but not until the house was perfect. I thought about her often, but the bedroom needed paint. I wanted to replace the sofa. The house needed to be just so when she came, so she could ooh and aah, in appreciation of all we’d done. A year had slipped by before I learned she died.

Suddenly, it all felt very shallow; the rugs, the paint, the dust in the corners, all just stuff. I had missed her without knowing, as I preformed my vain attempts at perfection. She was a ship leaving the shore of my life with treasures of spirit I would never see again. A hard lesson, but a valuable one. I wish I had sent her a letter, or better yet, knocked on her door. I wish I had said, Absolutely!!! Dear lady, Come over for lunch, for coffee or everything. Getting together with you is an enormous treat. I would miss you if you were not here.

written August 14, 2008