A FLUTTER OF CROWS WILL DO
RUTH GILA BERGER
My father is dying and I am every daughter; nothing is unique.
It is February in Minneapolis, a month of frozen mud and sodden wings, except now oddly warm enough, it rains an iron rain. My wife, Christi drives. Her tires sluice. Exhausted windshield wipers perform accidental beauty; the patterns they leave fracture our light.
My father, Charlie, a mathematician, is dying.
* * *
During my sophomore year of college, Charlie taught an accelerated algebra class for high school freshman at Lehman college, where he worked, in the Bronx. He loved his young students and their presence lasted in his letters to me. Halfway across the country, through the phone lines, he beamed.
“The moment they understand,” he trilled. “There’s a light.”
Easy for me to picture him bouncing on his toes. Sneakers and khakis. Hair off the back of his head so thin and wild.
Charlie called me to make sure he got their Halloween candy right. He worried they were too busy with school and work to ever go trick-or-treating. A pen scratched crazy. He had to write my recommendations down, not to forget when overwhelmed by packaging at the market. He and I both cotton to shiny and he didn’t want to risk bringing in what was cheap and shitty.
“Rena?” his bleat. “Goddamn it. Could you get me another pen? Please?”
I heard my mother’s slippers sshussh on the tile. Her shuffle. The sound porcupines my neck hairs and chills me.
“Snickers and Reese’s,” I said.
* * *
Charlie’s career as a mathematician began while he was a student at Cornell University, where he was the youngest in his field to be awarded a PhD. He taught at Rutgers, NYU, Yeshiva University, and at Lehman CUNY, where he stayed thirty years. For over twenty, he was awarded NSF (National Science Foundation) grants to continue his research in operator theory. His first grant was as a graduate student. They continued through my childhood. Research and teaching, and on the other side of the equation, little free time. Charlie was invited to speak on his research at math conferences around the world. At one in Ontario, I sat through a lecture he gave—I was eight, his Athena—yet the adults were stupefied I lasted. I drew; I took notes. My memory is percussed by little sparks of chalk.
Grading papers made Charlie crabby. Those stacks of pale blue. To mitigate the Frankenstein veins that gave his impatience away, he chomped through pounds of lemon drops at the end of each semester, and when offered a new bag, he gave me a smile. I’d extend my little hands. Back then, the bag seemed heavy. The plastic crinkled and the door closed.
At seventy-five, my father tottered at the blackboard long after he should have stopped teaching. I don’t know why I went to rate my professor dot com. Maybe I wanted to witness other peoples’ admiration. Maybe out of some weird jealousy. Of his being their teacher? Of his ability to teach? Stupid fucking website. There, he was slammed as a doddering old man allowed to drone on past his expiration date. He was also weighed in on by students of earlier decades, and by them, he was praised. Of course, I didn’t recognize any names. The praise slips away. I marinate.
This is a what’s wrong with education. They never get rid of anybody.
What the fuck is wrong with these people? Don’t they know my father’s teaching was his everything?
He loved his work and I’d always held that to mean he was an excellent teacher.
As the world spins, his passion meant nothing; they were students spending money, complaints justified.
No to that. Bronzed with a pocket protector and briefcase, I will never allow my father to lose his heroic bath of light.
* * *
Now, on my city street, a crow lands on some spread remains. It flaps a dare before pulling up intestines. Crows have language. Six others are scattered around. The two in my yard are not graceful as they scrabble over a candy wrapper. Milky Way. The slightly smaller one gets it. The other tilts its head at me and I see that history of its losing tangle with a goddess. Crows recognize faces. It is only a second. In assemblage, the murder is many flecks in the sky, rising, falling, their feathers left are drifting ash, a memorial of their banishment.
Crows have always born me witness. An unnerving whir of black on the fringes, crows are noted to be Athena’s familiars. Familiars but not symbols. The owl was one of her symbols. The owl was her bird; the crows, just part of her story. There are different versions. In each story a head crow reports bad news to the goddess and her rage always stays the same. Those crows were supposed to guard something they didn’t. They will take this failure forward as black feathers singed from the original white. I picture crows as the goddess’s hair. Shimmering and full of those glassy bird eyes. My image as Athena is nowhere depicted that way. It’s only mine.
In dreams, I conjure crows often. It is an old fantasy one will step forward and befriend me.
* * *
Charlie is dying. Once brilliant, he is now a tube of failing systems. His mind degraded, degrading. I don’t know what it means for him to exist solely as a body.
Across the country, a little too loud into her phone, my mother, Rena, reports how Charlie told her he understood he was being punished, that the two health aides who cleaned his diarrhea-burnt ass were a punishment, because they were disappointed in his mathematics. My mother says this and I think how perfect: his brain desiccated, left only as Freudian lace.
The word Freudian is bitter, unironic, my parents of a generation whose small knowledge did damage; when they fought, each raised the specter of the other’s parents, that ability to wound, fierce and stupid. I don’t ask who my father’s “they” is supposed to be. There isn’t any knowing.
“Charlie’s had Crohn’s for fifty-three years. And he’s always bounced back just fine,” Rena says.
As a child, I’d answer the phone and people would just continue their talking. I don’t remember learning anything. Just they’d realize the silence and tell me they thought I was my mother, I sounded so much like her. I was probably six when I started running to get the ring. Was her voice then that chirpy, or sing-song? Now it is defensive, end syllables punched.
If she is in her kitchen, she sits with the Hudson River at her right and with slight waves, the water echoes light. Her shoulders are slumped and her neck juts, turkey-like.
I am silent. In recent conversations, I’ve responded that my father’s baseline is missing.
“He’s not. He’s just not.”
Instead of a brain, I see a tangle of broken zippers, a bloody grotesquery. Betrayed and betrayed. That his body could outlast his mind? Unimagined.
* * *
Christi and I married shortly after Charlie stopped teaching. We wed in New York, our decision made in December after his second hospitalization in less than two months. With his digestive tract one inch from abdication, we knew he’s never travel. We assembled our wedding long distance, in my hometown, for March.
Charlie’s confusion eased some. He retired. I wasn’t present for that argument (he loved teaching and had planned to continue) but a Trevia leave (of absence) allowed him a little dignity and the illusion of easing out. I wonder if the day he talked about returning to research was a good one or simple delusion. Either way, the wedding became a destination to rally his healing.
Our wedding day brought forsythia and the blooming magnolia tree. A few minutes after he saw Christi in her tie, Charlie came back down the stairs, gingerly holding his out.
“Help? It’s been thirty years. Damn thing’s not like riding a bike. Not like you’d think it would be.”
Christi raised her hands to attempt it, then giggled and turned him over to her best friend and his boyfriend. My momentary galaxy of men. They gambled about with lots of arms moving, laughing and muttering.
When asked, Charlie kept repeating how pleased he was to see us married.
My parents’ best friends hosted our wedding. Christi and I stood in front of their fireplace, in front of a painting of a ship and votive candles on the mantelpiece. I historied the room, introducing our thirty-odd people who leaned in. The friends who set my parents up, the woman who babysat me, the couple in whose house we gathered, how Charlie first met them. The room was fanned and glittered and shared. In her preface to our vows, Christi described herself as a shirt, soft with use, a favorite one she was happy I’d chosen to wear and bop around in. Our family laughed and gave us an ovation. My father sat there with such a grin, his teeth browned from antibiotics, cracked and lined. He didn’t move from his seat, wild-eyed at the intensity of his day, holding a metal cane tight.
“I’m pleased,” he beamed. “Just so pleased.”
* * *
My middle name, Gila, from the Hebrew, means joy, like Barack, in Swahili, loosely, is blessing. Pleased. Joy. Delighted, yet the word happy seems to have been oddly missing from my family’s vocabulary; still, I remember my first awareness of it being fully within my father’s emotional range.
I was eleven, starting sixth grade when Charlie and I went to the ASPCA for a kitten. Our last cat had vanished and finally it was time. A tabby with a red collar batted the pen in my father’s pocket when he walked by her cage. The archipelago of her black paw leather made him happy.
Tigger became Trouble after she’d broken a window chasing a fly, shattered the hallway Bakelite phone, and caught a robin twice her size. My father snapped pictures of kitten and bird on the windowsill as they advanced and stepped back, cha-cha-cha. Trouble, he called her. Then there was a series of garden snakes, pinecones and cicadas she brought in. Trouble Kitty, the world’s smartest kitten. Charlie bragged on her and for two years, she carried a fuzzyball with googlie eyes in her teeth, her cry like it was a baby or a kill, depending. There were a few times he went into the yard with a flashlight to find the toy. He never said how he knew she lost it, but he did. For two years we called the fuzzyball Briminot. It was almost a tease.
Trouble Kitty, where’s your Briminot?
Then ,hit by feline leukemia, so quickly she died.
Charlie kept both bedraggled Briminot and Trouble’s red collar with all the things I’d made as a child in pottery. For a pool of time he stood, listless in the knees, spacey. But I don’t remember if, so grey and tired, he cried.
He may have cried six years later when his father died.
Not his mother, (after another decade) that I know. Her, he despised.
As per tradition, he threw dirt on her coffin, and said a few words in her memory.
“Bess worked hard. She worked. It was. It was how she showed love. It was what she did, I guess.”
She had her moments, I wanted to say, to push towards a possibility of loss, but his glare stopped my breath.
I’m sorry daddy. I don’t think she enjoyed her life.
He, my mother, and a cousin all walked away. Remaining from that day is a red velvet background, whether it was the banquette at the nearby Chinese buffet we went to, or of my parents’ red empire loveseat, I can’t say.
“Every generation of Jews gets saner,” my cousin had said.
Charlie nodded and from there the image fades. I never asked if my cousin meant since the Holocaust or their grandparents’ immigration.
Immediately following 9-11, my grandmother’s death of old age restored our sense of order. The old still died. It wasn’t only people around town now suddenly burying their children. That weekend has red air in my memory.
I wonder about grief, the color of it—what Charlie would say. In my late twenties, he sent me a poem charting how his father was hospitalized when he was five, a nervous breakdown in the parlance of the 1940s. When my father’s letter arrived, it was a step together after a year’s estrangement when our conversations were careful, about the weather, whichever election, our cats. Stand-in language. His poem exposed how he didn’t want to be a father unable to express his feelings, that he loved me, and he grieved; we grieved how we knew.
Silently, as cats do.
* * *
In February in Minneapolis, the car window is too cold to tilt my face against. A film covers the glass, chemicals and dirt, inanimate depression. The avenue theater marquees are roguish in color. Everything is angles sliding by. On the phone half the country away, Rena is speaking. Her voice dips and gets lost in the backbeat of my father’s health aides’ conversation. And the tires. And the stuttering of brakes. Rena laughed at something happening in her kitchen and I asked her to repeat what she was saying.
We have a new relationship; we talk almost daily. The decision I made to listen, and each breath let out before snapping, reminds me of a dedication to flossing, that focused ritual discipline.
The longer I hold the phone the weirder my arm feels. It floats in space unconnected to me and I wonder if my words of counsel construct me, beyond an outline, who I am, solid, for my mother. What lines and scars might she realize?
I’ve revealed precious little to her. Like the night after my friend Tom died, I didn’t mention this loss of a beloved co-worker. My mother has not been someone I have ever turned to in grief.
Thirteen years Tom was an office sunbeam. I said nothing about how my entire company raced to the hospital when his wife called to say we should come, how we all stood in the hallway, a dark flock of fifteen, having missed him, hands in our pockets, dumb and bobbing. The light in the hospital hallway was so strange. Tom loved color, perhaps that was why me and two others slipped into his room to say good-bye.
Good-bye and here’s my love for your journey.
Tom’s hand was a stone, a comforting one, soft with worry. The feel of purple and blue hadn’t settled his flesh just yet. His chest was jaundiced.
“Good-bye,” we said.
Then with Sarah, now a widow, we told stories, quick in the hallway. She was laughing with us for a second before she started crying and we were all broken icicles falling. There was a planetary pause until the one of us most intimate with Sarah drew her into her winter jacket wings.
What’s left is the sound of windshield wipers clacking, thwapping.
Christi’s CRV rattles over potholes and again the image of Tom’s body blazes, with the weird set of his head and half-open position of one eye. That eye stares eternally for me, the lower lid separated away and red, its pupil rolled back.
On the phone, in the car, I am silent and can almost feel the itchy heat of my parents’ kitchen. Its pinkish walls need washing.
Rena tells me a doctor ordered a culture taken from Charlie’s PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) port used to administer TPN (total parenteral nutrition). She recounts how he had a fever so she called the village ambulance, then drove to the emergency room behind them. There is a pause where she corrects herself, his mediport (another delivery system for the IV nutrition, both are surgically placed, the mediport being a recent change) to make sure there’s no staphylococcal bacteria in it.
“At Nyack Hospital. He’s on vancomycin.”
My mother uses the full formal names of things. Vancomycin, not VANC. One of the many abbreviations in the house of cards that is my father’s life. Our conversation is a repeat. I’ve lost track of Charlie at the ER. Staph infections treated over the years add up to five, ten, twenty?
I’ve flown to New York on notice at least five times, maybe seven, less than ten. In my narrative the accuracy of math is relinquished. I wonder if my mother has any sense of these numbers. Her voice wavers, going on about treatment options, what would happen if the mediport is contaminated, and what the implications are if it has to be removed. How he will get enough nutrition will be an issue. She mentions a surgery. I do not interrupt or cut her off with facts. No matter how new the surgical knowledge, technology, and refinement since that first surgery in his twenties, now he will not recover to dancing. His barb-wire nerves will remain, his feet a foreign settlement.
* * *
At the office, we thought Tom was relishing a break between chemo and a surgery. He was going to buy a motorcycle from the UPS guy for joy and life and tinkering. History disobeyed our hopes.
The question: what is the point of a treatment that is merely churning medicine, not quite a pause before the next painful emergency? When the result of treatment is not exactly life? Abstractly the culture bandies phrases: quality of life. Early on Tom had mentioned this. He told the office (and his family) his cancer was caught early and at the end of it, he’d be fine. Looking back, it was clear he knew the version we’d see. But Tom had shielded; he hadn’t lied. At the end, Tom and his family made that decision. They gathered; his children said thank you and I love you and good-bye. Treatment had ended. They had their last moments in each other’s eyes. Regardless of relationship, everyone’s father dies. This story filters to dust in my silence.
* * *
“Treatment. To what end, ma?” I ask. “To what end?”
* * *
At home, off the phone, in the bathroom, the two sides of my face are uneven and continue their slide towards cubism as I stare. Minute after minute after minute. A blink and my reflection holds my father’s face. Our eyes were once a similar shape. Such a self-study needs to be focused on the middle distance where the facts of two eyes, a nose, and mouth break away, otherwise a deepening sense of monstrosity sets in. I want to know if enlightenment exists on the mirror’s back silvering, scripted before my gaze. The admission I am a daddy’s girl feels like a betrayal of strength. Even so, I give voice to these words, worried that without his gaze, I will cease to exist. It is only now that Charlie is dying I realize the power of my position—that I am a point from which he might discern his own sense of self, father.
Men like to feel competent, Tom’s ghost repeats.
Fathers want to feel that in their children, they have accomplished something amazing.
I don’t have a Congressional medal. Shit Tom, I can’t even rebuild an engine.
That’s not what I mean. You have memories.
When I was a kid for whatever reason, maybe preservatives, hot dogs and bacon were rare and Charlie combined them into a whistling pig. It was a hot dog split halfway filled with cheddar and a piece of bacon wrapped corkscrew-like around it, secured with plain toothpicks and broiled. My favorite thing. He drank Celery Tonic, disgusting.
* * *
Mid-afternoon Tom would stand by our building’s entryway, watching the stand of trees across the street for his murmuration. A group of us talked about different things, how to make hummus, human hair in a garden did not keep the rabbits away, how being cold was the better climate option.
I didn’t get to ask Tom how he said goodbye to his father, not really. He had talked about the last time they took up the dock, wintering—but I wanted, I wanted. I assumed I could count on his conversation. Tom and his starlings. Me with my crows. I know and don’t know their difference.
* * *
A crow’s dark image, a time frame.
Then suddenly in Minneapolis, there were thousands and thousands of them, so many they seemed unreal. I wondered if they weren’t thoughts, bird-shaped, black shards carefully arranged where someone had taped them to the city sky, a paper that rippled in the wind, hundreds rising and falling at a time. The notion of taping and splicing, collaging, arranging anything together with anything else, using existing content, and hoping this thing would be it, this juxtaposition would allow us meaning, new significance. Images and insight collide. Glimmering purple green blue and black, the crows flock with an opulent ugliness; their eyes are black-red, opaque, unreachable, yet unique in creatures we might objectify. Crows recognize faces. A seemingly infinite number leaf the trees. There are miles of them, murder upon murder upon murder. There should be black feathers covering the streets, drifting down, visible somehow at the very least—by sheer volume there should be some evidence that they shed. If they did I didn’t see it. Thoughts vanish. There was a shit storm I didn’t even notice. No trace.
One of those strange conversations likely overheard about crows: you never see them dead, maybe sometimes crows, never pigeons. Except there was a summer large numbers of them were dying. Down from the sky. Instead of scientific tags, I assigned them memories, to each bird a bad day—like the day I brought an ex-girlfriend to New York. Charlie came (through traffic) to LaGuardia to meet us; he’d been ill and had an accident waiting. In the car I opened the window and swallowed—a decaying bird in Minneapolis now crypts that story.
Much of Greek mythology cyclones the rage of a goddess. There was something mythic about these thousand crow deaths, like the ancient wrath of Athena revisited. West Nile virus was epidemic that year. Truth, but not nearly as interesting, death of murder after murder after murder. Ornithologists do not call a group of crows a murder—the thought is poetic—and its sound, like Poe and his raven, suggests a darkness, a concession to the world of story, as if story and science aren’t intimately related. What I worry: that without any of my father’s stories I’ve only got our current interaction to put flesh on his frame. Feathers, math, glue and bone.
* * *
I’ve not taken the time to investigate dementia. There is too much to parse given Charlie’s was Crohn’s-related and his decline so fast and sharp. Even with an advance directive, (there wasn’t one) end-of-life care remains a newspaper abstraction. All the check-boxes on that form evoke hospital plastic, screens blipping, green light, immobility, dependence.
Don’t let me be kept alive hooked up to some machine. If I can’t eat, if I can’t breathe… Charlie never said this. He had been kept alive by intravenous nutrition for fifteen years. Perhaps at first it was extraordinary. His machine lived below his collarbone, surgically placed beneath the skin, above his chest. I have witnessed his evening routine, his head bent, black hair more haphazard thistle then a mane year after year after year. He’d totter on neuropathy-damaged feet, mostly silent at the table while he administered his TPN. The first syringe used to clear any residue or bacteria. Several steps before sitting shirtless, with a line of clear plastic tubing that connected his body to a bag of cloudy liquid. He could put the whole thing in a knapsack and later, carry it to bed.
* * *
At seventy-three, with the house heated to broiling, Charlie began to tell stories. He told Christi and I about how just after he met my mother he did his best work. Right out of graduate school, a friend of his told Charlie about an equation currently vexing the seniors of his field. Because he was curious and competitive, my father got carried away and solved it.
It was this burning equation Charlie solved that brought him into a tangle with the Mossad. The Mossad detained him at the airport. At gunpoint he was scuttled away and interrogated by a general who was grew more and more threatening until the physicist foil (brought to translate equations to Hebrew) threw up his hands in disgust.
Mathematicians are lazy bums and an embarrassment to science. This American wasn’t lying; he didn’t know the Hungarian Peter Lax; the man was useless and good riddance, he should leave.
“Do you know how important the work your father did was?” Christi asked me.
He only said his mind was fast. I heard that growing up. That he was fast and his collaborator, Lew, knew the literature. They were good together.
The equation Charlie solved brought about the end of nuclear testing. That proof predicted each new iteration of a nuclear explosion. Testing bombs in the atmosphere were rendered unnecessary and the world became a slightly safer place. As a research scientist staunchly against the military, Charlie looked back and shook with relief he had not brought his family with him to Israel. I remember I made him feel bad at the time. I was seven. I cried.
“You might have been snatched and held for leverage against me,” he said.
While I’m beyond the age of bragging, my dad is smarter than your dad, knowing something about the hundreds and hundreds of legal pads he filled might have started an interesting conversation. Instead I have this story in a clear Lucite case, my father the museum exhibit, obscured bydust, dependent upon fickle neurons. What other stories might he have told me if I’d known what to ask about? He didn’t discuss his work. There wasn’t any real human translation without a background in advanced mathematics. I write; my mother paints. Over the years, the conversations we did have were about how pure mathematical research was closer to writing than painting.
Maybe at five, maybe seven, I was often holding my father’s hand at the curb where we waited for my mother; Charlie and I walked fast in Manhattan. Strange evidence now of that early triangulation. I understood the power of my mother’s shuffling feet; if exhorted to hurry she’d twist an ankle and cry. Silent, I sucked my cheeks. Either way, she was my father’s baby, simpering, and I, his Athena. Perhaps even then I used Athena’s genesis as a way to describe me, to elucidate my father and our relationship. I have not found much about Zeus fathering. Suffice to say her adulthood wasn’t a question.
Charlie’s work in mathematics was the creation of language whereas I only used one that already existed. Even as I listened to my father then repeat the same story, to every new person who entered his kitchen without variation, I think he understood my work writing wasn’t so easy, that I too grasped for a specific translation. When I was a baby Charlie followed me around jotting down the stories I told him. In seventh grade, I brought home my first assigned essay with a red-circled C-minus, and he helped me complete the required revision. For both of us, crow language, decoded.
* * *
In the year after Christi and I were married, alongside a string of several hospitalizations, Charlie and my phone conversations shrunk.
One often: I love you, daddy.
“I love you very much,” he responded.
I told him thank you, but I don’t think he understood as he continued on how he loved Rena in an almost recitative voice, Rena being his wife and my mother.
Yes, I said and the conversation ended.
The air caves in, there is no witty tale from my day.
How to share my thoughts and feelings about things—what those were—even interesting trivia—the words I needed were rocks against my teeth, they would break if I tried to swallow or speak. What would that story be? Who and where I am now is confusing. How do I rearrange the silence? I don’t know how to engage, to show my father who I am. Charlie had not called about the latest outrage the Republicans were perpetuating for a long time. He used to, frequently. We have not moved from there to the melodrama of my political disillusionment and while we’ve had that exchange a zillion times, I’d love to return to its soul holding repetition.
My hand on the phone feels cracked and cold; my father in New York is far, far away.
“It’s good to hear your voice,” I tell him.
“Yes,” Charlie answers. “I’m so glad you called.”
“I love you, daddy.”
There is no pause.
“I love you too, daughter. Very much.”
And I still don’t know how to create myself. My voice continues up-up too bright.
I ask, “So, how are you doing?”
The question is reflexive as I’ve not trained myself to stop it. I hear his panic building till he yelps.
“Rena? How am I doing?”
And in his confusion hands the phone to my mother who tells me about how the home care aides have become friends and hang out for a while to chat as their shifts switch in the evening. While the fact of this is a happy change of subject, it is anything but soothing.
Then a moment I linger on: long after I graduated from college, Charlie called to say he’d cleaned out my desk. There was stuff from high school he told me. Did I want it? I didn’t.
My next visit there were three ancient liquor bottles in my old room, on the floor, in the middle with varying but small quantities of liquid. When I turned around Charlie stood smiling. They’d been walled in by papers where the back of the drawer caved in.
“I’m impressed,” I said. “You have no idea how much time I spent trying to find those. My friends used to joke my desk ate my homework and the kitchen sink.”
We laughed. It was a nod to things we survived together. My father let me make my mistakes as a kid. He’d meet my friends and let us know he’d be there to come fetch us home if we were drinking. His approach had been what would now be called harm reduction, so we didn’t fight when I came home wasted and late. We’d play cards while I drank enough water to not be so sick the next morning. We talked about William Safire’s column, “On Language”, words, how we got Ronald Reagan’s horrible Republican administration, and how since we didn’t have a TV, and had listened to him debate Carter, we’d had such a different impression of who won. There was no way Bush/Quayle could win. Yet they did. We’d talk about our family, about nothing.
Those bottles. I think he was grateful I failed as a phoenix, that I didn’t need such dramatic ashes to rise up out of. I scared him enough with the depression I’d inherited from his father. Or maybe he was disappointed I was only a crow tapping on coals, flapping away on singed feathers. Maybe he dreamt about that fire. And I aspired to the focused heat of a singular blue flame. I don’t know. What if I didn’t know him at all? Does anyone really know me? That silence, a year, ten seconds. What if I am nobody—how then can I assume he loves me other than as daughter—the same museum exhibit—his daughter, a crow who dreamed herself a phoenix but only scorched her own nest.
* * *
Once hatched, crow chicks stay in the nest for their first three months. When they do leave, full grown in the world, those juveniles are only distinguishable with training. Young crows are as imaginatively agile as children and like both me and Charlie, they cotton to things glittering and glinting. But while they might make a game out of such an object, the fact is, crows are not specifically attracted to shiny things. Their iridescent feathers flatter the story of nests with tinsel lining, an attraction to lost earrings, bits of foil, candy wrappers, fish hooks. The story is a fiction.
There are moments I remember of truly being a child. Charlie taught me to bat, throw long; we spent hours at catch. We drilled grounders and I scrambled backwards to catch his tossed-up pop-fly. There were a few times he stood behind me over and over trying to master the French braid for me as I described it. Even Trouble Kitty’s Briminot was an old compromise. I don’t recall if this was the result of one of our fights. A hinged desk became my dollhouse. Briminot was one of three fuzzyballs I played with in it—they must have been a fair prize. Even as I say neither of my parents bought me many toys, the dollhouse furniture all came from Charlie, one new piece each time we walked past the fancy store that sold it.
Decades later, when I started to write, I don’t think my father understood my obsession with our past, my need to meld sound to such feeling. Narrative, proof of my existence. That I told him what I wrote might cause him pain—after—was his silence out of respect, fear, or simple disinterest? It’s too late to ask him.
Some of things I tell Charlie he immediately repeats to his home health aides. I wonder if this is because he recognizes he won’t remember otherwise. My words drift, deflated balloons, sinking down in corners, behind radiators where they might be cleaned up only after a decade. I have not met his caregivers. With bad backs themselves, traveling long distance to be overworked and underpaid, they are not there to transcribe my father’s intermittent headline statements:
“Ruth had a long day.”
“The three cats seem to have made peace.”
“Christi started a new painting but doesn’t yet like it.”
* * *
On the phone with my mother, this time, many times, I stand at my dining room window. The thin plastic that helps to keep in heat bounces softly. Outside, people on the street jerk in their speed. Spinning wheels, a turn signal reflected, someone’s indecipherable shout join the air cluttered with snow and grey. I listen for what will always evade me, the song of my body, magical kingdom, beyond the obvious heartbeat, beyond that flimsy proof my blood still flows. I think a sensory deprivation chamber might solve me, one of those room so quiet you can hear your organs in their glory, a music I imagine might locate me, beyond daughter, wild in my vulnerable container of skin. Internal music. Echolocation.
On the phone my mother relays how Charlie, her husband, my father, is doing. The things he says play within the limits dementia has scripted.
His friends are all dead; they aren’t.
Nothing has meaning; this from a man who scraped pressed sawdust into design, who found meaning in everything.
He wants to go home; that’s where he is.
And, “Oh god,” he bleats. “Oh god. I’m peeing.”
There’s more but I can’t hold onto it. Here I think of words as functions, a proof where error must be dissected and revised. Like the hieroglyphics on my father’s legal pads. Meaning what? That the square root is my wanting to know if daddy was ever proud of me? This idea, a mawkish parody of who I want to be. Nothing is unique. Every daddy’s girl’s father will eventually die.