Monthly Archives: February 2021

Dragon’s Tongues and Eagle’s Wings

I am, for better or worse, a prattler. If my burger was really good, the sunset was stunning, or the school’s egret was particularly beautiful, you are going to hear about it.

I don’t think I get enough credit for my happiness because it is different from other people’s. I am not a day-to-day happy person. I’m not going to (consistently) greet you with a sunny smile, and you’re not going to admire my festive clothing. I have never, not once, been able to go to a masquerade party or dance at a concert–I can’t pull off group happiness. Still, the things that make me happy make me profoundly so, and I snatch these soul-feeding moments, pocket them deep–moments others may entirely miss.

I spent Friday afternoon lying in my daughter’s bed, a cat on my stomach, a puppy at my side, and a dog at my feet. Ab was doing homework and mindlessly deejaying, and the comfort in that hour amid the pile of mammals and the space of the music was beautiful.

I have never liked the drive to Jacksonville–four lanes and a treeless median, all those tired houses and abandoned hotels. I hated it even as a child–the only part of the drive I ever found pleasure in is what my family has always called the “Dragon’s Tongue.” On the stretch right before the first Florida weigh station, there are three hills, and the cars disappear. I don’t know if my parents invented it, or if they humored my own imaginativeness, but those few minutes, where we pretended a dragon was ingesting us and while simultaneously spitting up rejected northbound cars was honestly the only pleasant part of the trip.

When my husband was ill, trips to Jacksonville were particularly grim. We drove down facing cancer, heart surgery, and stressful doctors appointments. There were no idyllic shopping trips or date nights. Everything was medical, always.

We would head out early in the morning, munching Chick-fil-A biscuits, light fog shrouding the pine trees around us, listening to Chris Stapleton and Eric Church, watching the sunrise through the patchy trees.

As we went over to St Marys River on the Georgia/Florida border, I would always slow to look right, the black river an alley between the trees. I would dream of boats, canoe trips, placid days.

And then we would be in Jacksonville, in the quiet, poor neighborhood near Shands, jolting over the litter-strewn railroad tracks, taking a right to face God knew what, wondering–would the next hours hold fresh horror or sweet reprieve?

On a heart day, we would be flying down the interstate towards St Vincent’s. I-10 East is its own brief Autobahn. For me, this was the more difficult trip, the harder unknown. We would leave the interstate, where we had been flying, speed so high I would question myself: do I run with traffic or obey the law?

We would whoosh into a neighborhood with wide avenues and organic vegan donut shops, bicyclists everywhere, our speed from 85 to 30, suddenly.

We would not point out favorite houses. We would not make plans for leisurely lunches. We would not wonder about the architecture of the church: Is that Doric or Gothic? It was, sometimes, like we were driving to see the hangman. We were so silent between the interstate and the hospital. Maybe a small prayer, a few mildly encouraging words–nothing effusive, nothing certain. Our lives were, after all, past that point. Past false assurances.

We spoke no cheap words, fed one another no platitudes.

So, in those final few minutes, there was never a lot, there was simply enough. The acknowledgment: here we are again. But, also, here we are again. We are together, in this, again.

Even that reminder in itself wasn’t comforting–because there was no comfort to be had.

I know–you don’t like that truth.

There are others who are living their whole lives with no comfort.

We don’t like to contemplate the fact of this space. We want there to be a world where self-care will, truly, fill in empty holes, where a fizzy bath bomb and retail therapy–and perhaps a weekend by the sea–will be enough to soothe the hurts, patch the wounds.

And, when that doesn’t work, we are powerless. We do not want to face our impotence–our inability to restore the truly broken. We want our casseroles to heal–our sympathy cards to mend. We want time to heal things.

We want the sayings to be true.

But some people know that they are not.

Some people know that there is a pain so deep that a spouse cannot cross it. That even a laughing toddler’s sparkly grin–the best earthly medicine–is but a BB in the chasm of the heart.

Some people can feel every drop in the bucket.

And, so, in this chasm-filled space where we were living, we acknowledged the canyon. We did not try, ever, to leap it–and certainly not in the minutes before these appointments, on the days where we were so afraid.

There are streets in that Riverside neighborhood where the melancholy is so profound. The places we were when nothing was good, The roads we drove with our world freshly-tilted.

Drive us home were more positive because at least we were going home. Some blanks had been filled in, some questions answered, a bit more was known.

Sometimes, we spotted a hawk over the fields between Callahan and Hilliard. Swooping down from the telephone wires, he always delighted me. And we would talk about birds, about him.

He was predictable, a touchstone of the drive.

Last weekend, my younger daughter and I woke up early on a Saturday to run to Jacksonville–to pick up middle-age necessities: support hose and pet food. It was, like the trips her father and I had made, a service run, a business trip. We didn’t even stop for lunch.

The music was good, and the day was sunny, and as we neared the field, I started chattering about the hawk. How even on the bad days, her father and I enjoyed seeing the hawk always perched above. I told her I hoped she would see him swoop, that he was such a clever hunter, a powerful bird.

I bragged on him as if I knew him, as if he were a treasured pet that she was finally getting to meet.

I drove slowly so that she could.

He wasn’t on the telephone wire. It was a cloudy day, so, initially, I thought the hunting was bad.

But then, as we pass the median, I saw his left wing flap in the wake of the silver truck ahead of me.

I saw his wing rise from the high grass, then collapse.

I doubled back.

I pulled over. I got out.

He was dead.

So beautiful, the soft yellow of his underbelly pointed towards the sky, only the slightest bit of blood underneath his beak.

He’s dead, I told Abby, It’s him, and he’s dead.

I started crying in the way that you’re not supposed to cry in front of your children, or, really, anyone, ever, anywhere.

All I want is a little thing. I don’t even want big things anymore. All I want is a little thing, a little bird, to just watch him fly. Is that too much to ask???

Losing my dad, losing my marriage, losing my granddaughter–If I have to have all those things happen, can’t I just have a bird???

I wasn’t raging. I was broken-hearted.

Abby has a new thing she says. She says it very simply: “That’s so sad.” And she said it that day, and, after a while, I didn’t want to kick out the windshield anymore.

After a while, the music was enough again.

Today, I drove alone to Jacksonville, waking early, my appointment timed to allow me a sunrise view from atop the Dames Point Bridge. But this morning was foggy, the kind my grandparents would have declared pea soup. (Once, my CRV “saw” a vehicle ahead of me before I did.) I couldn’t see the top of the bridge as I approached it, couldn’t see both towers simultaneously, even on the bridge. I was listening to Chris Stapleton’s wail as I peered up at the towers, and, for the first time ever I couldn’t see the top.

The doctor talked about neck fusion, about where the arthritis is, about the bone spurs and disc space, about the pain. I told him I would just never turn my head again, and we chuckled.

I went to Target and Publix.

I went to Freddy’s, Where I let them put mustard on my burger because they seemed to want to.

I drove home lazily, going 53 MPH most of the way, in no rush for this isolation, for this same house and yard.

I slowed near the open fields, but the bird’s carcass was gone–I’m afraid that I might have taken it if it had been there–and there was no bird on the wire, but flying in the distance and swooping to perch in a tree, there was a hawk, so small I could barely see him.

But knowing he was there, however distant, felt good.

Out of habit, I slowed entering Georgia. I was on the phone, so I didn’t even look at the river, but I was looking for blue herons in the ditches–I am always looking for blue herons.

And I saw brown fluttering. Up from the flooded ditch, a paper bag rustle, but then there was white, and my mind went brown and white.

Brown and white.

Pull over. Brown and white.

Brown and white means eagle.

It was impossible.

It could not be.

The hawk in the distance had been enough. Really, it had been the crumb I needed. It would have fed me for a while.

I pulled over, and the eagle perched above me as the semis whizzed past.

And I just sobbed.