I am doing my best to keep Luna the cat in today. All around the landscape is bursting with life, including the season’s first broods, young birds preparing to take a leap of faith (in the legacy of evolutionary adaptation) and fledge from the nest. On the ground, flapping their wings, learning the coordination of movement that becomes flight, they are easy prey for a house cat. Hence Luna’s confinement.
I’ve been watching a nest of Eastern Phoebes since the adults returned in April, and more closely the past few weeks when it became clear that the birds were actively nesting. The parents have been feeding the nestlings for the past two weeks, a pattern that runs sun up to sun down: fly away from the nest, perch, catch an insect mid air, perch, fly to the nest, shove said insect into the mouth of one of five hungry babies. I can tell when the feeding is happening because the babies all cry out in a thin screechy harmony that I’ve learned to recognize from anywhere in the yard. They are ready to fledge any day now. I’ve taken a particular shine to these phoebes, and it is especially with them in mind that I put up with my cat’s protestations and keep her firmly behind closed doors.
While the world is about to be richer five flying phoebes, our family is one fewer today than we were yesterday. We lost our oldest member (at 97 years) this morning. Technically you would call her my step grandmother, but we just called her “Diddie”, in fact virtually everyone called her Diddie. She loved gardens and flower and birds; when we first met her she was the president of the Garden Club and lived in a perfect Hartford suburb we called Diddieland. The child of Norwegian immigrants, to the end Diddie paid attention to social form, careful to ask the dinner hostess (even if it was just me, filling in as an evening caregiver at her home) “now where do you want me to sit?” because in Diddieland, where you sat was important, where you sat was a reflection of the care someone put into planning and orchestrating a meal, paying attention to where you were supposed to sit was a sign of respect.
Diddie fell in the night a week ago, breaking her hip, setting in motion the common series of events that lead to death in the elderly. A fall, a broken hip, the physical stress of anesthesia and surgery, the inability to recover, the slide into anoxic incoherence, the transition to palliative care, the quiet room at the end of the hall, the hours spent having your thin white hair stroked and your hand held as your loved ones listen to you breath deep vacuous breaths separated by long still silences. There is no way to tell how long it will take someone to die, so I said my face to face good byes yesterday afternoon, just in case, though you never really end a death watch, until of course, it ends itself. Looking at a clear moonlit night sky, hearing a fox call out to her kit at two thirty in the morning, watching the eastern sky brighten as the Earth spins around once again, these moments take on weight and you feel gravity holding you in place. This morning dawned clear and perfect, June in Maine. The last family member to see Diddie this morning was my niece. That brave nine year old walked out of the sunlight and down the long hall way to see the woman she knew as Nana on her death bed. Caitie took Diddie’s hand, squeezed it, said her loving goodbyes and left. Having received her final blessing Diddie took her last breath minutes later. The oldest passing the torch to the youngest, both fledging into a reality they had not known before.
It is humbling to watch another human being die, especially one at the end of a long journey, either with time or disease, or both. And not just because it brings your own mortality into sharp focus. No I am in awe of what happens when we die because of how hard life fights it. I am astonished by how difficult it can be to die, how long it takes, how tightly the body clings to the animus. Every cell fights for life, it is our biological imperative. Save the traumatic injury or the momentary (and blessedly rare) confusion of a few key cells, we are designed to live. We are hard to kill. We fight till the end.
Maybe we fight so hard because coming into this world isn’t any easier than going out of it. Birth mirrors death in the intensity of the experience, if not the pace. This has been on my mind as well because simultaneous with all of this gravity of death I am also standing a birth watch. Just across the Maine New Hampshire state line my good friend and his dear wife, swollen with twins, await the moment of ignition, when their lives dramatically change course and their family grows by two. We will watch the patterns of their daily lives adjust to include the feeding and cleaning and comforting and keeping alive of their nestlings, we’ll learn to note across time and space the chorus of hungry babies. In a way it is no surprise, the close contact of this birthing and dying, when the wheel turns and the door is open we pass through in both directions.
Next spring those phoebes, the parents or perhaps the young of this year will return to our nest, circling back from their winter in a loop of continuity as old as time. And that continuity, that loop upon loop upon loop is such a comfort. I don’t know how many loops I will get, but today I can see clearly that I’m riding around in a circle and it eases my heart.