We're thrilled to share Madeleine Mysko's essay "A Bird's Voice Calls," which appears in our summer 2018 Issue No. 47: Hauntings.
A BIRD'S VOICE CALLS
When I first met Anne, we were both teaching in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. I was in my mid-forties, a new graduate of the program who also happened to be a nurse. At the time, I considered myself lucky to have been asked to teach one section at the introductory level. Anne was also in her mid-forties, but she was a professor, a poet and scholar, a translator of Russian literature. Her husband Stephen Dixon was a professor in fiction.
Whenever I would see Anne making her way down the corridors of Gilman Hall in her wheelchair—slowly if she was turning the wheels with her own hands, speedily if Steve was pushing—she would smile as though she wished she had time to stop and talk. She was very beautiful with her wide blue eyes and her soft brown hair hanging long past her shoulders. I wondered how she got her hair to shine like that. She seemed to me the sort of woman who would never allow anything unnatural within a foot of her natural beauty.
At the time, Steve was Anne’s sole caregiver. For years they had been raising their two daughters—young teenagers when I first met them—while also managing the progressive blows of Anne’s multiple sclerosis. But now Steve was finding it hard to leave Anne alone at home for as long as it took him to teach his classes in the afternoons.
It was Anne who came up with an idea: she would hire me to come over to their house a few hours each week, whenever Steve had to teach. I would perform a few “nursing” duties, such as helping her make the transfers between the toilet and the wheelchair, looking after the condition of her skin, and moving her legs through the range of motion exercises. At the same time I would act as her “teaching assistant”—reading aloud the papers of her students, recording marginal notes as she dictated, and searching the crowded bookshelves and file cabinets of her small study for that particular example of brilliance in Chekhov or Babel or Turgenev she couldn’t put her hands on, not because she couldn’t remember where she’d put it, but because a person with multiple sclerosis loses control over where and how other people put things away.
Anne’s plan was also perfect for my situation. I was going through a divorce and needed the work for more reasons than the salary. I hadn’t actually been employed in nursing for years, and had enrolled in a refresher course, so as to renew my license. But I didn’t require a refresher in the basics—nor was I intimidated by the wheelchair. The rest I figured Anne would teach me as we went along.
There was always a to-do list for those hours of the week I spent with Anne. I would work quickly under her direction, continually amazed that Steve somehow managed to cover all the other hours while also writing whole novels. It wasn’t long before Anne and I were working diligently through the items at the top of the to-do list just for the pleasure of reaching the items at the bottom—which were more fun—before Steve returned and it was time for me to go home.
Sometimes she would ask me to cook something special for her. Though I knew my way around a kitchen by that point in my life, cooking for Anne required some guidance. She had researched alternative treatments for multiple sclerosis, and she believed in the benefits of macrobiotics. I was sometimes using ingredients with which I was unfamiliar—burdock, for example, which I imagined would taste like dirt when I first held the roots under the faucet, but which Anne considered a delicacy.
From her wheelchair parked in the doorway between the study and the small kitchen, she would direct the preparation of each dish, sending me up on chairs or down on my knees to hunt for a particular ingredient or cooking implement that had worked its way to the back of the cupboards. She taught with such relish, heaping me with praise and radiant gratitude for whatever I pulled off. Over time I became the chef of the small luxuries she longed for but didn’t want to ask Steve to prepare, because he was so busy doing everything else around the house, not to mention providing her personal care. She taught me how to make halva, flavored with a bit of lemon zest. Practice did not make perfect with the halva. Some batches were too sticky to form into balls, and others were hard as rock candy. Anne was delighted either way. She would close her eyes during every taste test and declare my halva delicious.
And we had our sewing projects, too, alterations to dresses that Anne had once loved but could no longer wear because it was too hard to get them on and off while seated in a wheelchair. These dresses had been lost somewhere in the bedroom closet or had been packed away in a box Anne only vaguely remembered. She would park the wheelchair at the closet door, and it was my job to dive deep and come up with the sleeveless yellow sundress that reminded her of summers in Maine but hadn’t been worn in years, or that faded denim jumper from before the girls were born. We would celebrate our victory whenever I emerged with the sought-after in hand. And then I’d get to work, cutting each dress open all the way up the back, finishing the edges, and attaching a row of buttons or Velcro closures from neck to waist.
We would also “make” thigh-high socks to wear under the dresses. Anne had an ingenious design: She would purchase high-quality cotton tights from the Hanna Andersson catalog when they were on sale. I would cut the legs off the tights midway between the crotch and the knee. Voila: long, warm, very chic socks. We felt bad about throwing out the remains of the tights, so I would take them home for use as very chic dust rags.
I knew I was the first person for whom Anne had opened the door, the first to enter the domestic intimacies from which all others had been barred. The stakes were high. I was afraid of screwing up, afraid Steve would take offense and toss me out. They loved each other desperately, and it wasn’t lost on me that it was Anne alone who had let me in. And so I was often unnerved by missions into private corners of their home, and could be knocked off balance by the smallest of decisions, such as on which side of the shelf Steve’s favorite saucepan belonged. As I prepared the apples for the oven—stuffing them with nuts, a bit of butter, and a teaspoon of the precious maple syrup Steve had bought at the farmers’ market in Maine—I kept an eye on the clock, like an intruder about to be caught in the act. And when Steve came home, entering wearily through the back door, I would put on an air of offhandedness. It seemed important to erase all signs that I’d been doing anything much at all, at least not anything that mattered.
But it did matter—each move of my hands in place of Anne’s, each step I took across the room in place of hers. With the passing of the afternoons, the weeks, the seasons, the years, it began to matter very much to me.
* * *
Anne had a big old fig tree in a big old pot. In the summer months, this fig tree lived out on the patio. But at the beginning of the fall semester, Steve would drag it back into the dining room. I never actually witnessed the moving in; I would simply arrive at the house one day to find the fig tree lifting its broad leaves in front of the picture window and changing the quality of the light. That old fig tree was both tall and wide. I couldn’t imagine how Steve had managed to wrestle it through not one but two doorways.
It was a big deal to Anne when the fig was moved inside. And it was a big deal, one day early in our friendship, when she asked me to prune it for her. I had been comfortable tending to her houseplants—the family of African violets, the asparagus fern, the several sullen Christmas cacti that were stingy with their blooms—but I didn’t want to prune that beloved fig. What if I should kill it? Anne just laughed and sent me to find the pruners in the shed.
I remember the snow clouds piling up in the sky beyond the window. I remember how, inside in the dining room, the leaves of the fig seemed to float on the light, like a fleet of flat boats, a couple of them dragging pale green fruits. I had to get down on my knees to crawl around the pot and look up through the branches, while Anne leaned forward in her wheelchair to direct me.
“Follow that big branch down to the trunk,” she said. “Now, see that skinny one? That’s it. Cut that.”
I remember the praise she bestowed on me when the job was done. I remember the fullness of the hour afterwards—brewing the tea and reading a Grace Paley poem in the presence of so much green, while beyond the window the snow flew thick and fast in the early dark.
The fig survived the pruning—several prunings in fact. It flourished, summering on the patio and wintering in the dining room, until one day it was suddenly and inexplicably dead, all the leaves fallen, no sign of new growth, every branch brittle and dry. Anyone could see it was dead. But Anne would admit only to a suspicion that we might have over-fertilized, a suspicion that made my heart sink, since I was the one who had actually applied that fertilizer. Anne was certain the fig had merely entered a state of dormancy. She had me cut it down to a few sticks as dry as kindling.
We lived with that dead tree in the dining room for a long time. There did come a day when something green emerged from the dry soil, but that turned out to be a Japanese maple—it must have sown itself when the pot was on the patio. Eventually the maple shoot withered, too.
We didn’t mourn, but we did stop talking about it. Steve was not allowed to move the remains.
Time went by. And then one day I arrived at their house to much jubilation: a green nub had been discovered at the base of a wizened stick. A half-year later, Anne and I were drinking tea and reading Babel in the dining room, where the afternoon light was exquisitely dappled by broad green leaves. I said it was a miracle. Anne smiled beatifically and said, “I told you it was alive.”
* * *
For Anne, the gardening year started in early autumn, when the UPS truck would begin delivering boxes packed with mesh bags of tulip and daffodil bulbs, or an infant tree, or the bare roots of perennials, all of which she had ordered months before. Steve would shake his head and grumble there wasn’t space for it all, but Anne had her plans. From October through November, we’d get out there whenever we could—me pushing, Anne bouncing along with the shovel propped on the arms of the wheelchair, her lap loaded with bulbs or a tangle of damp roots—and eventually we’d get every last thing into the ground before the ground froze.
In December, when our work outside was done, we’d sit in the warmth of the study, admiring photographs in gardening catalogs and trying to narrow down the selections for the spring. Her favorite catalog was White Flower Farm. She would have me read aloud the descriptions of each beauty she coveted. We’d mark the pages, and before I went home I’d carefully replace the catalog on the bookshelf, where chances were better it wouldn’t be tossed out by accident when Steve was tidying up. Chekhov, Babel, Dante, Whitman, White Flower Farm.
As winter stretched on, we’d still get outside once in a while. Some days, after we’d dutifully completed the range-of-motion exercises and made the transfers from the wheelchair to the toilet and back again, I would throw on my coat and wrap Anne in a heavy shawl, and out we’d travel in what little daylight was left to us. There was always something worth braving the cold for—a cardinal flashing between the pines, squirrels doing calisthenics on the bird-feeder, the catkins shining on the star magnolia, and Anne’s old cat Streak following us, going in and out of the shadows.
And then we’d emerge into the light of early spring, watching for the bulbs to push up through the matted leaves, watching for the ducks that sometimes made a stopover, down in the stream that ran beside the road. We were always watching in her garden, checking to see what had wintered well, counting buds, counting fruits on young trees. Once, she locked the wheelchair brakes and waited at the edge of the embankment while I skidded down through the ivy to check on the fern I had transplanted for her in the fall—the fern she would only ever know through my describing it to her. I called back up that the fern was nowhere to be found. “Never mind,” she said. “We’ll plant another.”
The memories of each beloved in her garden rush forward. I resort to a list, for me almost devotional, a litany: the Lenten roses, the daffodils, the hyacinths, the tulips, the irises, the magnolia, the peonies, the lilac, the lilies of the valley, the ferns, the oak leaf hydrangea, the daylilies, the roses, the small peach.
For Anne, the gardening was over by the end of June, when the heat and humidity of Baltimore would exacerbate her multiple sclerosis symptoms. She and Steve and the girls would go off to the house they rented in Maine. During dry spells, I would stop by the deserted garden to give the fig and the roses a good drink, and to help myself to a handful of wild raspberries before the birds got them all.
* * *
It was a shock the first time I realized Anne was confused. I can no longer remember what it was she said, only that she asked me to do something in a sentence that I had clearly heard but couldn’t understand. It was terrible not to understand. I was holding out the mug of tea to her, propping the straw in the direction of her lips, and she was leaning forward, smiling at me, waiting for me to reply to whatever it was that she had gotten so very wrong.
I didn’t correct her. I pretended not to hear and chattered away about something else. Later in the day I would take action, like a good nurse, and speak urgently to Steve, because the doctor needed to know something wasn’t right—maybe a bladder infection, maybe pneumonia again. But for the moment I had to stand there with the warm, familiar mug in my hands, keeping up the pretense that nothing had changed, that we would finish the tea and move on to our chores as always. It was as though she had turned a corner out of reach. I wanted to call her back.
It turned out to be pneumonia. It turned out to be very bad, and within a week she was in ICU, intubated and on a ventilator.
I went to visit and happened to arrive when the nurse had just brought in the alphabet board. I stood to the side while Anne managed to lift her finger to the letters, one by one, her eyebrows knit with the effort. She spelled out “lips dry.” Her eyes turned to me. Her sore, cracked mouth formed a smile spreading away from the endotracheal tube.
“She’s mostly lucid this morning,” the nurse said softly, on her way to get the glycerin swabs.
Lucid: bright, shining, clear, the mind flooded with oxygen, nothing short of pure light. Heaven—to be recognized, to feel the grip of her strong mind holding on.
* * *
There were other pneumonias. I can’t keep straight the chronology. Was it only two times she was intubated? When was it that she said yes to the tracheotomy, and how long before she was gone?
We arrived at the most devastating complication of her multiple sclerosis: dysphagia, the difficulty swallowing, the danger of choking on a mere spoonful of some favorite food that had been pureed and carefully brought to her lips by her husband, or her daughter, or the friend who’d stopped by for a visit. As a nurse, I’d seen the spiral of aspiration pneumonias coming. But as a friend, I hadn’t prepared my own heart for it in the least. The fact that the particulars and the chronology have gotten muddled in my mind is perhaps indicative of my own need to let go of all things clinical at the time of these crises. I gave up studying the monitors. I no longer tried to find out the results of the latest blood work. I averted my eyes from the color of the urine in the bag near my feet. I made it my job to sit at the bedside and chatter nonstop, as though it were just an ordinary day, and of course she would want to know that the weather was remarkably warm and that you didn’t even need a coat, at least not a heavy one.
* * *
One morning, in the dark before dawn, a bird was singing outside my bedroom window, a piercing call. I had been lying awake for over an hour, thinking of Anne, who had pneumonia again and was in ICU on a ventilator.
The bird kept calling, over and over, heart-wrenching. What bird was it? Anne would know.
That was the day they performed the tracheotomy. When I went to visit Anne, I found her weak but alert. She couldn’t speak, but at least her mouth was set free of the tube. She could form words with her lips.
I told her about the bird outside the bedroom window.
“I don’t know what bird it was,” I said. “The song was beautiful, but sort of heart-wrenching.”
Her eyebrows came alive. Her lips formed words I couldn’t make out. It was terrible that I couldn’t make them out.
Somehow, I managed to whistle what I remembered of that bird’s melancholy song.
Anne smiled. Slowly and precisely, so I would get it this time, she formed the syllables: White-throa-ted-spar-row.
I couldn’t name the bird, and yet I could whistle the tune.
She could name the bird, and yet she couldn’t speak that name because her throat—trachea, windpipe—had been cut open.
When I got home, I found a bird identification site and listened to recordings of the white-throated sparrow—two prolonged whistles changing pitch, followed by rapid triplets, which some bird translators hear as Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, and others hear as O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.
I prefer the latter: O sweet—the heart-piercing spondee—Canada, Canada, Canada—the dactyls like palpitations of longing.
* * *
I have been re-reading the exchange of emails between Anne and me. In a few of mine, I make excuses for my not being able to come when she asked—a sore throat, a headache, my mother needing a ride to the doctor’s office. To have made any excuse at all seems inexcusable now. But Anne’s replies are so matter-of-fact and kind. I see now how determined she was not to allow her own illness—that terrible constant—to keep her from being a good friend. A headache is a headache. A headache, Anne said in her email, hurts.
I see, too, how her emails became so compressed over time, while mine remained long and rambling. The multiple sclerosis was progressing, and she was finding it difficult to focus her eyes and get her fingers to the keys. Near the end, she was too weak to use the voice-activated system. But she kept writing. The words she managed to type out were all the more precious for having been held for so long in her mind, sometimes through lonely nights when she couldn’t sleep but didn’t want to wake Steve again and ask to be repositioned.
One day Anne suggested I read Whitman.
“I’m learning to appreciate him even more now,” she said. “Whitman would be good for you, too.”
She would talk to me all the time about what she’d been reading. It wasn’t unusual for her to make suggestions. Sometimes I’d follow through, sometimes I’d forget. I know I didn’t go home and immediately take Whitman from the shelf.
Weeks went by, and then, “You must read Whitman,” she said again. “The Memoranda During the War especially.”
She was reading a new edition by Peter Coviello. “Very good,” she said.
At the time I was writing a novel about the burn ward during the Vietnam War. When she suggested Whitman, I assumed she meant that his notes about wounded soldiers would be relevant to my work.
More than a year after Anne died, while cleaning up a mess in my office, I found a slim brown paperback—Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War, the Coviello edition, published in 2004. It took me a moment to remember how I happened to own it.
I left my office and carried Whitman downstairs to the screened-in porch. It was summer, the garden muggy and still. I turned on the fan and sat reading, riveted as much to Coviello’s introduction as to the Memoranda. After a while I put the book down and cried. I felt I had missed something crucial Anne had been trying to tell me, and now I would never get to talk to her about it.
“Whitman would be good for you.” I now believe she meant not only with respect to writing a novel about wartime. She had meant also with respect to our friendship. She must have understood, even before I understood myself, how complicated it was going to be as she got sicker—as complicated as it was for Whitman, intimate with suffering, stricken with love.
During those days when Anne could barely muster the breath to speak—and sometimes it was all she could do to keep her eyes open—I continued to chatter away. I would allow no silence between us, no sign that she really hadn’t the strength to talk to me anymore, or worse, that she was losing the ability to focus her mind.
By then I had stepped back from working in her employ. It was too much responsibility—too complicated—and sometimes it was too physically demanding as well. Together we figured out what to do: I would continue to come to her when I could, as her friend, but she would hire nursing assistants on a regular basis through an agency. And so I got accustomed to arriving every now and then to find someone else in the kitchen preparing the tea—lovely women, as quickly devoted to Anne as I was. I was so glad to see them. I was so grateful.
But whenever it was just Anne and I, we held fast to our old routine—the brushing and braiding of her hair, the toileting, the tending to her skin, the lifting of her edematous legs to put them through some semblance of motion. All the while I chattered away.
We had to resort to a Hoyer lift. Late in the afternoons, before Steve came home, the last challenge would be to get Anne safely out of the wheelchair and onto the bed so we could do the exercises. Once I had gotten her settled and pulled the sling out from under her, I would suffer a longing: to stretch out beside her on that sad, rumpled bed and wrap her in my arms.
* * *
Anne’s two daughters—both of them gifted artists—presented illustrated broadsides of “The Three O’Clock Bird” to everyone who attended the memorial service in New York. I framed mine. At this moment I can turn from the computer screen and see the shadow of the poem going down the page against shifting shades of blue. The illustration is a collage, textured papers in the image of a bird on a branch, a bird with a dark eye and a dark beak pointing toward the poem. It occurs to me now that the leaves on the branch above the bird are reminiscent of tears.
In the months after her death, I’d forget she was gone. I’d be out in the garden, taking note that the ants had arrived on the peony buds, or that once again the roses had blackspot, and I’d think, “I must tell Anne.” But in the next breath, it would hit me: no more phone calls, no more emails, no urgency to get over to her house because her French lilac is in bloom and she needs to breathe the perfume.
Now, years after her death, I hear a white-throated sparrow singing its heart out from below my window even before the sun is up. I think of Anne, of her three o’clock bird, and how she lay awake holding fast to the lines she composed in the dark:
There will always be sorrow in this reaching for her. But there will always be this stalwart gladness, too.
*Anne Frydman. The Three O’Clock Bird. Baltimore: Passager Books, 2016.
We're thrilled to share Madeleine Mysko's essay "A Bird's Voice Calls," which appears in our summer 2018 Issue No. 47: Hauntings.
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