Better Than Fiction
Go Go Go Said the Bird
by Judith Ford
Go, go, go, said the bird: Humankind
Cannot bear very much reality
—T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets, 1 Burnt Norton”
I leave the house before the sun comes up. It’s a chilly autumn day, and the front lawn is white with frost. My breath makes clouds in front of my face as I begin to run. It’s a Sunday and most Sundays I run ten or twelve miles. Today it will be twelve. I begin slowly, my body stiff from sleep and from sitting still with clients for hours and hours the previous weeks, listening to their stories, mining my long experience for what might help them have peace, or change, or learn to be stronger. I give myself away hour after hour, to my clients, to my kids, and until recently to my parents. This time, these next two hours are all mine.
I begin to warm up around mile two, and after that the rhythm of my feet and my breath will carry me anywhere my mind needs to go. Today I’m thinking some about my mother. I scattered her ashes in the Colorado Rockies just a week ago. I’m just now beginning to feel the relief of that. She took a long time dying, a long, hard time. Hard for all of us. I’m grateful not to be planning a visit to the nursing home today. I visited her three times a week for five years. No more need for that.
I’m at mile six now, my turnaround spot. I’ve been running along the edge of a road that in a few hours will be loud with traffic. Not now. The sun is still so low in the sky that the trees on the east side of this road block my view of it. The shoulder here is rough, uneven and rocky in some spots. My foot is beginning to ache. I almost welcome the feeling at the same time that it concerns me. I welcome it because it’s evidence that I’m running longer than just a couple miles. A few years ago, I damaged that foot and couldn’t even walk comfortably, much less run, for six months. But now I can run all I want. The foot is mostly healed, and I know how to stretch it back when it starts to hurt a little. And there is no aging, sick woman lying half paralyzed in a bed waiting for me to come shed some light on her dismal, hopeless situation. All I had to do was show up, bring my young son with me maybe, and, as cheerfully as I could, tell her stories about what we all were doing that week. Bring her bits from our lives out in the real world where she would never live independently again.
No more of that. No more walking out to my car after a visit and feeling the relief of fresh air and my own mobility. No more guilt that I could drive away, and she couldn’t. No more guilt about how thoroughly I managed not to think about her between visits.
I stop to stretch my sore foot, leaning my toes against a tree, bending my knee and leaning into my Achilles tendon and the bottom of my foot. An early riser drives by as I turn to start my return run. The sun is higher now, and I can take off my gloves, loosen the scarf around my neck.
As I pass Calumet, with five miles to go to get home, I hear a bird call, a cardinal. When I run, I always stop when I hear a cardinal. It’s a good excuse to take a short walking break, something I’d otherwise resist. I stop now and look around to locate this one. The cardinal is my favorite bird because of its distinctive song and brilliant red. Cardinals are easy to spot. This guy is singing his heart out at the top of an almost bare oak tree. He seems so vulnerable, so obvious and visible up there in that bare tree, and I wonder how it can be that there are so many of them, exposed to threats of all kinds, kids with BB guns and hawks and owls or an occasional eagle. But there they are, hundreds of cardinals singing in these suburban trees, all year round.
I start running again, thinking about the apparent immortality of these birds. So flashy, so unafraid. I’m not flashy or unafraid. I used to be unafraid, I think. But then things happened: I got sick and almost died, my father died, and then my mother died. My own mortality is all too real to me now. I’m forty-nine years old, and already the years ahead of me are way shorter than the ones behind me.
Running makes me unafraid for as long as I’m running and for hours afterward. The repetitive motion, the working of well-trained muscles, the breathing — they all block out fear. Sometimes I go out for a run just because I’m carrying some anxiety — a stubborn worry, a regret from the past — that I can’t relax or meditate away. Running erases whatever it is, like ironing wrinkles out of a shirt. Running now, after the cardinal, with the morning sun warming my shoulders and the top of my head, I might say I feel immortal if I was thinking in sentences right now. Running doesn’t leave room for thoughts like that. All I’m aware of is feeling strong, alive, free.
I’m running on sidewalks now, with grass between me and the road. I’m just a few blocks from home when I see a black shape lying in the road ahead of me. I’m worried it’s a dead dog or cat; I don’t want to see a poor dead animal, but I can’t take my eyes off of whatever it is, the way you stare at a traffic accident even when you tell yourself you could see something you’ll never forget. As I get closer, I see that the black thing is a big crow, lying on its side. The sunlight bounces off its glossy black feathers, making subtle shades of indigo and green show on its wings and its back. I stop to get a better look. To see if it’s dead or injured or what else might have caused it to be lying there so still. As if it’s asleep. There’s no blood. Just stillness and a slightly gaping beak, as if he’d been struck down in mid-caw. My eyes begin to tear up.
I’m standing on the sidewalk staring down at the dead bird when a small child and her mother approach. I look up at them with my damp eyes, thinking they, too, will pause and mourn this dead creature. That’s what I’m doing, I realize: I’m grieving a dead bird. The mother smiles at me nervously, then glances away, and she and the child walk on. I take a deep breath and resume my run.
But I’m still thinking about the dead crow. Still feeling sad. Maybe, it occurs to me, this is about my long-gone, beloved Dusty, the parakeet I taught to talk when I was sixteen. He used to fly around the house to find me and sit on my shoulder, cooing in my ear, spitting up seeds for me (an act of birdy love). When Dusty died I cried for a week. My friends made fun of me. For heaven’s sake, he was just a bird. But he wasn’t just a bird. He was my friend. But this crow was just a bird.
As I run up a slight incline, noting the tightness returning to my left foot, I wonder what might have made this crow fall out of the tree. Whatever it was it probably hit hard and fast, before the crow had a chance to fear it.
As I turn the corner at Lake Bluff and Marlborough, it occurs to me that maybe this sadness I’m feeling isn’t about Dusty or the crow but about my parents. Or for my late golden retriever Timmy, or Dick Olney, my beloved, recently deceased mentor who saved my life more than once. I was so sad when my father died, I couldn’t speak at his funeral. I lost my mother in bits, not all at once, so by the time she was all-the-way dead, I wasn’t really that sad.
In this moment I have nothing left to grieve. Except for myself—for that summer when I nearly died. I don’t think about that summer very often anymore—seven years have passed—but the memory of it still has the power to make my heart race. I was so sick back then that at one point, when I thought I was close to dying, I considered simply letting go, closing my eyes and leaning into the darkness. I didn’t think about the aftermath of my death, the effect on my husband or my children. I just wanted my pain to end. It seemed like a good idea: just let go and be dead. Be free. So easy. No big deal.
But when it came right down to it, when I actually closed my eyes for a moment and felt myself sinking away, I was suddenly terrified. Not only did dying seem like a big deal, it seemed like the biggest deal of all. So I did what I had to do to not die. I crawled out of bed and asked my mother-in-law to call an ambulance to take me back to the hospital.
I stumble over a crack in the sidewalk now as I remember how it felt to be so close to my end. I regain my footing and reestablish my running pace.
I will die one day. Of course, I know that. In a way, I know it better now from having come so close. One day I’ll be like that crow. It will be my turn to lie down in the road and be dead. I probably won’t be able to choose the time and place. I’ll be rolling along in my life, not expecting anything bad, preoccupied with some nonsense or other, like paying bills or playing computer solitaire, or arguing with Chris. Or doing nothing. Staring straight ahead at nothing, maybe. And then it’ll be over. My life snapped off like a dry twig. All the to-do lists in my head irrelevant. I’m not scared of nonexistence. I don’t feel scared of emptiness. I am a little disturbed, however, by the thought of all those unfinished to-do lists.
My father died of COPD in 1995, two years before my mother died. He struggled to hold onto life. He resisted the pull of dying, even when he couldn’t get enough breath to walk across a room. He had no impulse to lean toward the darkness to end his pain, like I did when I was at my sickest. His impulse was to resist. He was a stubborn man, and he hadn’t agreed with death that it was time for him to leave.
In his last few weeks, he moved in and out of reality. He imagined his mother was there making him dinner and baking for him. He thought his old dog Abby was still alive and I should go to his house and feed her. And he asked me to bring him a bottle of whiskey. He was teetering between worlds, holding onto his own husk of a body.
I picture my poor, frail father during his last week. I visited him in the hospital two days before he died. He was barely conscious. They’d medicated him to keep him from pulling out his IVs and also fastened his hands to the bed rails with leather straps. I sat down next to his bed and talked to him. I think I told him how sorry I was that he was going through so much struggle. I reached over and unstrapped his right hand, thinking it would be okay to free him while I was with him. But it wasn’t okay. He instantly grabbed an IV line. I snatched his hand before he could pull it out, and a nurse who happened to come in right then recaptured his hand with the leather strap. He moaned. He didn’t know I was there. He didn’t know he was dying. I wondered as I watched him if he was having peaceful dreams or maybe nightmares.
I slow down and walk as I turn the corner onto my street. Every time I return from running, especially when I’ve run a long distance like these twelve miles, my whole body effervesces with energy, with life. My muscles are warm and relaxed; my mind is awake and clear. Running is how I remind myself that I’m alive. That I am fully and completely alive, even when thinking about death.
I’ve been staring down at the ground for the last several blocks. I make myself look up. Five feet away there’s a squirrel spiraling up a maple tree. The houses on both sides of the street are snugged up tight inside their storm windows, their closed doors and bundled rosebushes. The morning sunlight bounces off someone’s picture window. The bare branches of the trees above me rattle like bones in the light November wind. A few leaves cling here and there, but most of them have fallen long ago and been raked into piles and munched up by big, metal, leaf-eating machines roaring like dragons as they sucked the streets clean. The few leaves remaining on the trees look ancient, parchment-like, drained to a pale brown. They’re speckled, with veins standing out against their transparent flesh, like the backs of my father’s hands.
I walk through the gate to our yard and find the key hidden under the doormat at the back door. I walk up the stairs to our second floor flat, and as I reach to open the door, my nine-year-old son, Nic, throws the door open and shouts, “Mom’s back!” He wraps his arms around my waist and hugs me hard. My husband calls from the living room, “How was the run?” James Henry Bird, our cockatiel, flies to my shoulder and twitters a hello.
Judith Ford’s writing has been published in Caveat Lector, Young Ravens Literary Review, and many other journals. Judith received Pushcart Prize nominations for fiction and poetry and won first place in the Willow Review Prose Award (2005).
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