A thud on the window beside me jolted me out of the newspaper. Without looking up, I called out, “Hey Bird Woman! You’ve got another patient.”
I heard my wife, Emily, making clinking sounds as she loaded the lunch dishes into the dishwasher. The deal was if I cooked, she cleaned up. Not that sandwiches really constituted cooking, but I wasn’t much of a cook. Sandwiches were something I could manage. And it was usually safer if I didn’t use the stove.
Diving back into the sports pages once more, I was vaguely aware that Emily rushed past me and down the steps to the back door. She returned a few moments later with her hands cupped around a tiny feathery bundle.
“Would you get my stuff, please?” she said as she approached the kitchen table where I always sat with the sports section and a cup of coffee.
Sighing, I stood up. I knew that Emily would just keep asking until I helped her. One of the perks of being married for years-- I knew how she’d act in most situations. “Is your equipment still in the storage closet?”
“Yup. Bring the whole kit okay?”
Still thinking about the latest game results, I opened the closet door. My mouth dropped open in surprise. Since the last time Emily had used her ‘kit’, perhaps a week ago, she’d bought new stuff. I now saw a monstrous black toolbox, the kind with a handle that expanded out for pulling. “This thing is huge!” I muttered in awe.
I pulled the handle and lifted one end. It was heavy. But it had wheels so at least I wouldn’t scrape our new hardwood flooring. I’d just installed it a month earlier and I was very proud of my handiwork.
I returned to the kitchen, dragging the huge box behind me. Emily had appropriated my chair, pushing the paper and cup aside. Well, the kitchen table did have the best natural light being surrounded on three sides by windows and she’d need all the light she could get for examining her tiny patient.
Unfortunately, all those windows also meant it was the coldest room in the house. I mentally added up the cost of replacing the banks of windows, three windows on three separate walls, with energy efficient ones and winced. Maybe next year. We could survive another winter with a chilly kitchen.
“What do you need first?” I sat down and looked at the small, limp bird in front of her.
“I think some pain medicine; it looks like she’s broken a wing.”
I pulled the lid off the toolbox for Emily and was startled once again. She’d completely filled the removable, partitioned top tray with small items. A couple of tiny vials of liquid glistened. I recognized one of them as a pain medication specially designed for birds. I couldn’t help but wonder when she’d bought all this stuff. With only one income we were on a tight budget and I hadn’t noticed any money missing from our accounts. So how had she paid for it?
I chose an eyedropper from the selection she had in another compartment and handed it to her along with the vial. Keeping one hand on her little patient, she checked the label on the vial then gave it back to me.
“I need the other one, this is for bigger birds.”
I handed her the second vial and watched quietly as she went to work, filling the eyedropper and patiently dripping medicine into the bird’s beak. The reddish brown bird quivered slightly under her touch but obediently opened up for the medicine.
I’d never seen anything like it. Emily had a gentle way with birds and they responded to her as if she were one of them. It was actually kind of spooky to watch the way they allowed her to do whatever she wanted. It was as if they knew she was trying to help.
“There. I’ll give it a few minutes to work and then I’ll set its wing, the poor little bird.” She bent down, hair swinging forward and hiding her face, and lifted the upper tray. I saw that the larger compartment at the bottom was also packed full. It looked like a rolling veterinarian clinic. This wasn’t just a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of supplies. It had to have cost at least a few thousand dollars. Where had she gotten the money for all this? I stared down at the top of her head, awash in conflicting emotions, dismay, puzzlement, and more than just a hint of fear.
“Where did you get all this stuff?”
She paused in her search, her face still hidden by her hair. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Where did you get the money for this stuff?”
“From my Registered Retirement Savings Plan,” she said quietly.
She glanced up, a strange look on her face, half defiance and half something else. I had no idea what that expression meant, but I didn’t care at the moment. I was too shocked. I couldn’t look at her and my gaze dropped to the bird in her hand.
“This is important to me,” she said into the silence.
“But… you… what about our future? For crying out loud! You can’t just do something like this without talking to me!”
“And would you have agreed?”
“Well, no, but that’s not the issue. You used our money for this… this frivolousness.” My throat felt dry and my chest tight.
“It wasn’t your money. I put the money into my RRSP; it was mine to use.”
“We’re a team; it was ours!”
“And the money you spent on the floors? Despite me saying I liked the old ones better? Was that our money too?” Emily’s voice was calm, but her lips trembled slightly.
“That’s different. It’s our house and I just want it to look its best.”
“Well, I didn’t want the floors redone and you did it anyway. And I never said a word about it. Because it was important to you.” She took a deep breath. “Just like this is important to me. And anyway, all this stuff costs a lot less than the floors did.”
I started to get angry, letting the anger bury the ache I felt at her irresponsibility. She was comparing my wanting our home to look its best to looking after a few injured birds.
“This isn’t the same at all. It’s just some dumb birds!”
“Not to me.”
I stared at her. This was not the woman I’d married. She would have talked to me before spending the kind of money Emily had just shelled out for a bunch of stupid birds.
My face flushed red. I lurched up from the chair, knocking it backwards and pushed past her. I would not lose my temper over this. I stormed out of the house.
It was chilly without my jacket, but I wasn’t about to go back. The breeze felt good against my heated face. I strode block after block, not even bothering to look at the houses like I usually did. I was too pissed off.
How could she do that? I was a good husband to her. I worked hard to make enough so she could stay at home. I hadn’t complained once about the housework left undone, the laundry I’d been doing for months. The more I walked, the angrier I got. I didn’t deserve this. I was getting over the tough year we’d just had, why wasn’t she?
I hugged myself against the chilly breeze, rubbing my arms.
Gradually, I became aware of a remembered sensation of a heavy bundle in my arms, pressed up against my heart. My steps slowed until I stopped. Tears pricked my eyes. I’d almost forgotten this.
Angrily, I blinked my tears away and scrubbed the feeling from my chest. That had nothing to do with today. It was over. It was done. It was time to move on.
I started walking again, my steps speeding up until I was flying down the street, trying to outrun the insistent memories pursuing me. A flash of yellow caught my eye and I lurched to a halt.
It was the slide in the neighborhood park. Instinctively, I had come here. I hadn’t been here in months and didn’t want to be here now. But my feet were rooted to the ground and I couldn’t leave. I used to come here every day after lunch, grateful that I worked close enough that I could give Emily some much needed time to catch up on her sleep.
A bench in front of me. Two women perched on it, chatting. Toddlers squatted in the sandbox. Another woman across the park pushed a laughing child in a swing, a sleeping baby in a carrier strapped to her front.
Phantom straps slipped across my back and a wriggling body pulled tight against my front. I clutched at it, my arms aching. A wave of loneliness washed over me, dragging painful memories in its wake. They swamped me, drowning me in an agony I thought I’d gotten over. How had I forgotten this?
The women on the bench turned to look at me, suspicion written on their faces, until they recognized me. Then, their faces changed, simultaneously blossoming into “The Look”, sympathy and horror combined into a grotesque mask. The look that said, “Oh thank God this didn’t happen to me”.
I turned, the heaviness in my chest spreading to my whole body. I stumbled away, memories flooding my mind. His smile, his gurgles, those chubby arms waving for attention. How could I have let myself forget him? How could I say that I was over it? I would never be over it. I would never stop hurting.
I pretended I didn’t miss our little son, but the reality was that Colin’s absence was so overwhelming that I didn’t let myself remember. It hurt so much that I couldn’t breathe. I staggered into a tree and leaned my forehead against it, tears burning their way down my cheeks. I didn’t want to remember.
And I wouldn’t let Emily remind me, either. I could see that now. We hadn’t spoken of him in months. Emily had quietly packed up his clothes and his toys. She hadn’t asked for my help and I hadn’t offered. Wet-cheeked, she had done what needed to be done, quietly, without a fuss. She never made a fuss over anything.
But she was making a fuss now. Over some birds.
I pictured her gentle hands cupping the wren. I saw her cradling our son as he cried with an earache. She was so gentle. So loving. So willing to put herself out for others. I remember the day she had shown him the little birds. She’d taught him how to touch them, oh so softly. He’d only just been able to sit up on his own but he listened attentively as she described what she was doing to help the birds heal.
In the past few weeks, she’d focused on those damned birds far more than in all the years we’d been together. Was it her way of dealing with our loss? Was she replacing our son with them? She couldn’t. Could she? I didn’t know anymore. I wiped wetness from my cheeks.
I thought of all the work I’d done around our house in the months since his funeral. Was I replacing him too? With all these renovations and my make-work projects?
Oh God, how I missed him. My whole body ached and I slid down the tree to collapse on the grass. Colin’s death had shattered my whole world. It felt like a huge black hole, sucking me into unbearable agony. I couldn’t stand thinking of him so I worked on the house where he’d never grow up. I tried to forget him, forget all those things I’d never see him do; he’d never go to school, he’d never ask me about girls, he’d never get married.
And I was pulling away from the only person who missed him as much as I did.
In an instant, I realized why Emily had done this. She’d bought all this stuff to ease her own sorrow by healing those tiny birds, but I sensed a deeper intent—she didn’t want to lose me too. She knew that I’d notice the money. It was the only thing I’d paid attention to since the funeral.
I couldn’t even look at her without remembering him. So I pulled away, avoided her, avoided thoughts of him. I read voraciously, worked on the house, and tried to forget.
But she kept dragging me away from the edge of that black hole of forgetfulness. Back to the sorrow of our son’s death. Back to her. Back to real life, not just going through the motions. Back to loss and, maybe someday, acceptance of it.
Emily had a healer’s touch and I felt it now. Despite her own pain, she had found a way to reach me. And pull me out of the hell I was trapped in.
I heaved myself up and faced the playground. It was empty now, abandoned for the night.
I took a final look at where I had spent so many hours with our little boy. I let myself remember his delighted giggle as I pushed him in the swing, his joyous fun in the sand box.
Tears streaked down my face. What was important now was Colin’s memory and sharing those memories with Emily. My Bird Woman. I turned around, ready to face a future without him, ready to go home.
Emily stood at the bench; she’d followed me and now waited patiently. Blindly, tears blurring her image, I walked straight to her and enfolded her in my arms. Grieving for our lost son, our lost future. Grieving together.