Covid, Grief and Moving Forward
While I find myself finally moving through the heaviness of being sick with Covid this week, I am reminded that at this time last year, my mother was moving more deeply and aggressively into it. The irony isn’t lost on me. I do not take this life, my family or my health for granted. Heath is everything. Without health, the rest falls away.
Covid has been a cold bitch to us. She took two years of visits away from my immune compromised mom. She stole the closeness that I craved as I watched my mom slip farther and farther away from me, lying unresponsive, like a tiny helpless bird in her hospital bed, in the Covid unit. Me behind a mask and shield, swathed in a bright yellow gown and latex gloves, air cleaner droning on beside my head. Afraid to get sick, knowing now that she won’t get better. Trying to cry without wiping my eyes or touching my face, unable feel the actual touch of my mother's frail and lifeless hand. No way to comfort a dying parent, certainly no way to find comfort as a grieving child. How helpless she looked. How helpless I felt. How did we get here? How did this happen after all we had done to protect her? How can this possibly be the way we say goodbye? How?
February 14th, 2022, in the snowy darkness of early morning, was when my mom finally found peace. When I finally threw off the face shield and cried recklessly into her shoulder. In honour of her anniversary, I’m sharing a story I’ve been wanting to tell about a tiny little bird on a warm summer weekend in August. I hope you’ll stay to read it.
This tiny little bird appeared to me months after those final days, sitting with my mom in the hospital. It was a warm Friday in August that I arrived back in Welland, to help my dad prepare for a contents sale that weekend. This was the last big push to unload all the things that defined a chapter of their lives, to downsize for his big move to an apartment back in the city. It was a painful and exhausting weekend for us both, putting on brave faces for one another while feeling the constant sting of loss and longing. Late that night, as we we finished organizing everything on top of crates and tables, before they would be welcomed into their new homes, I spotted a little bird fluttering around the garage. It moved so quickly and then would stop. Move quickly again and stop. Around and around it went, never stopping for more than a moment or two. It became clear that this was a hummingbird - one of my mom's favourites. This little bird was fascinating but excruciating to watch - it would flutter around aimlessly, and then in an effort to escape, would fly into the lightbulb on the ceiling, fall, and repeat, time after time. Concerned that it would continue to get more and more disoriented and hurt, I opened the garage door and tried to encourage it to leave, gently motioning and making whatever ridiculous bird sounds I could come up with. It flew at the light again. Then onto the opened garage door ledge, either unable to find it's way out or afraid to leave the safety of our home. Either way, I knew that if I didn’t act fast, this poor bird would be stuck, alone, and afraid in our dark garage overnight. Again, I tried to gently encourage it to fly out with another wave of my arms, one, two.. and with that… she was gone. Whew. I was relieved, then in awe and grateful that I was able to experience a hummingbird so close for so long. Relieved and spent, my dad and I both retired from the garage and went to bed, and I secretly felt the heaviness of the next day when we would watch each memory wash away with every quarter, nickel and dime.
Early the next morning, there were a few things left to move and tidy before the sale began. I lifted a cardboard box tucked between some tables and books. To my horror, I found the wee hummingbird from the night before, lying in the box, lifeless. She looks tiny and frail and even when I touch her gently she doesn’t budge. She is soft and warm. I decide that this won’t be her ending, as a I quietly wipe a tear from my face; she clearly hadn't made it out after all. It is now 8am and garage sale veterans are starting to arrive. I hustle inside and ask my dad to get me a small dish with maple syrup, some sugar and warm water - “stat”. I have no idea what hummingbirds eat, but I think my grandmother had told me this tip about sugary syrup. My dad concurs - syrup it is. I find a spoon, a towel. I sit, and I get to work.
After what feels like an hour, (probably eight minutes?) the wee tiny bird lets her tongue reach into the spoon and begins sipping the sweet juice. Elated, I continue to hold her as long as she will drink. People are asking me “how much for the records?” and “do I have more power tools?” and “what’s IS that?” and I become lost in the moment with this little creature. My mom would have loved everything about this, she would have let out a hearty laugh and said "poor little bird". The bird eventually stops drinking off the spoon but still won’t find the will to fly. I gently pile soft towels into a box and lay her carefully beside the bowl of syrup, letting her rest while I take people's money, wish them well and watch them head out with some family treasure I hate to see go. I continue back and forth to the box. Is she awake? Are her eyes open? Is she gone? The day continues to go on this way.
There is a lunchtime lull, and I decide to poke through some old books. I find a few sweet memories tucked inside - a piece of paper keeping score between my mom and I as we played “hangman”. An old ditto copy of the invite to my kindergarten school Christmas concert, the one that had my mom scrambling around to find me “something red or white” to wear. Cards that I made and scraped together by ripping apart my Dr. Seuss books for her as a child. In a hurry someone shoves a small hardcover under my nose and asks “how much for this book” and they buy it with reckless abandon and then leave. I instantly regret selling it - a tiny book about the war that my mom would have read decades earlier, and that had held one of her notes in it. Dammit. At least I had found those notes and papers in time. I proceeded to rip through every national geographic and every box in the garage to make sure I didn’t miss any other valuable treasures. Then.. back to the bird.
She is still there (yes by now I have officially decided it's a "she"). I can see her breast rising and falling as she breathes. I slowly lift her up again and gently stroke her tiny head. She sits comfortably, calm in my hand for what feels like a long time and I feel her crawl up onto my shirt. I feel peace that she is surviving, but still worry that she may never fly out of my hand, destined for her final days in this box with a lonely towel. Suddenly I feel her flap her wings and I have to catch my breath - she is moving... “Dad, dad! She’s moving!!” I move away from the box and extend my hand in expectation, as she wills herself up and flies away, through the trees and into the bright blue sky. I watch her fly until she is just a tiny speck of dust, high in the sky. It felt like magic. It felt like religion. It felt like god. I screamed. I cried. I joyfully went back to work. She closed the chapter, my mom. She closed the chapter for me so I could move on. So we could move on.
I felt her presence that day as we literally closed the last chapter of her life. She came to us to say goodbye. To us, to the house, to the place she made a home. She let me care for her and nurture her and touch her one last time. Without the mask and gloves. She let me watch her fly away, and find peace, and live on.
This anniversary will always be hard. It will be even more difficult as it falls on the same day I brought my own cherished daughter into the world. But this memory of my mother coming to me that summer night will always be the solace that I seek in remembering her, and will give me the peace to live on and move forward.
I love you mom. I miss you. I hope you’re still out there, somewhere, flying in the bright blue sky.