The Other Side

~~Elizabeth Kirschner

Yesterday for one still moment in a still point in time, a hummingbird hovered so close, I could have plucked her out of the air, let my fingers be nipples so she could feed, feed. Tempting hummingbirds into gardens, plotted here, plotted there has been a lifelong quest of mine and now I am aging, quietly so. This hummingbird—and for once, I was her garden—transported me to the hummingbirds of Costa Rice, throngs of hummingbirds in an array of iridescent species where here, in the cold Northeast, we are lucky if we are visited by one, the red-throated hummingbird.

I remember little of my travels in Costa Rica, except for its lush rain forests, and I do love rain forests—how they are filled with the sounds of mossy flutes—those quixotic, exotic hummingbirds, the bumpy bus I traveled around the country in with my then husband, son and sister-in-law. All was as things are supposed to be and we all know that supposed to be’s are thin scrims behind which shadow-dances are played and in my shadow-dance, my husband is lifting his sweaty shirt like a turkey vulture airing its wings and we consign ourselves to sleeping in separate beds where our dreams are but a bloody aftermath. “Not good,” pronounced my sister-in-law when she saw the tussled sheets in the twin beds and she was right, it was not good at all. We lay ourselves down, night after night, as a kind of ungodly offering—death demands gifts and the death of a marriage is horrifically demanding—more, more, more, it cries, more, more, more.

Yet in the midst of ruin and decay, an orgy of hummingbirds, feeding, feeding as we all must feed and it is my father’s death, not of the marriage, that I contemplate while the sun simmers in mist thick as boiled wool. This summer I have been drinking in the mist, drinking in vats of it like milk and yet, my thirst is never slaked.

My father. From the bridge I cross each day, I peer at what I call Bird Island. It is always peopled with birds clustered like angels on not the luminous, but black pinhead. This morning, I thought, “my father is out there” and intuited it as truth. He’s rutting among cormorants, omnipresent gulls, among turkey vultures, but no doves and certainly no hummingbirds.

His death was slow, painfully so. In a coma for four months, my father was in a room like a fish tank in the Neuro-Intensive Care Unit. Think winter. Think the cold pressing its frosty lips upon the windows and although he tried, my father could not, would not die. One night his feet turned black and the sound of dancers filled the room. One day I, from too far afar, visited him with my then baby son. My father’s toenails were long, curled. The TV was on as if he could comprehend what a golf match was. He was, as I said, in a coma, on a vent, feeding tube, could only blink his eyes. His hair was long and wavy, skin clear. I brought my baby near to him to be dear to him. Ah, Father lifted his index finger. Ah, my baby touched that index finger with his, a finger soft and healing as a salamander’s tail.

My father, my abuser, came out of his coma, at long last and when he did he was brain-damaged, put in a nursing home that smelled of horse piss in hay, given a spelling board he could not fathom. One night, he yanked out his breathing tube, climbed, or more likely, fell out of bed and crawled, determined to find his high school sweetheart, Susan. I wish he had. I wish he and Susan could have kissed, held hands.

Instead, wheelchairs lined the halls like antique sewing machines that could not mend a stitch. Instead, he did not recognize me or my baby, his youngest grandson. All that summer, I wrote my father letters, epic letters teeming with the details of what seemed like an extraordinarily ordinary life, our trips to the seashore, a description of a clam shack he would have loved. I wrote on and on, desperate to reach a man who, even when well, could not be reached.

I dreamed a dream, a glorious dream. In it, my son and I were in the old cathedral where I first became a soldier of Christ and a soprano, up in the choral rafters, was singing the Ave Maria. It was during my father’s funeral Mass. She stood close to the organ I played as a child, straining to reach the pedals, to pump the pedals hard, the chords gorgeous and deafening the way God was and is gorgeous and deafening.

My father did die that summer, at the end of August, but not in that nursing home smelling of horse piss in hay, but in a rest home at dawn with a nun quietly praying over him. He needed those prayers. And many more, mine included. That he trespassed against me is an understatement I must live with for the rest of my life. That he is forgiven is another truth I must live with for the rest of my life and I have forgiven him even though I probably shouldn’t have. Even God doesn’t forgive everything and I am but an aging woman who courts hummingbirds, those tutors of high lyricism, tiny prophets delivering breviaries on brevity.

My father’s funeral was grueling. My baby placed a white rose on his coffin. The priest, like all priests, sermonized on his goodness as though goodness alone were binding, which of course, it isn’t. Evil is more tenacious and, somehow, willful. My father’s crimes against me were defiantly willful. So were my ex-husband’s. During that grueling funeral in the old cathedral where I became a soldier of Christ, I nursed my son to keep him quiet. Then, suddenly, a soprano, and once I was a soprano, started to sing the Ave Maria up in that choral rafter where I pumped the organ pedals to make music that was gorgeous and deafening. The voice of that soprano was excruciatingly beautiful and beauty, to me, is useless if it is not excruciating.

At the moment when the priest turned the Host and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, in the midst of that highly consecrated moment, my baby popped off my nipple and said, in a big voice, “other side.” My sister and I, though weeping, laughed and a ripple went through the congregation.

“Other side.” Oh my God how I long for that other side. I practice getting there by crossing the bridge, drinking in mist like milk, peering at Bird Island where the indigestible dead birdwalk in memory. Although my father is out there, I cannot get to him as I have no boat, no wings. Only a pen I wield in utter solitude. No husband. No son with me. No Father, no Mother. Only a dream of an other side, my insatiable loneliness and a hummingbird, quick as a wish, then vanishing.

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