A few days ago the sun shone just right through the glass doors between my living room and my balcony. A few inches above eye level is a white imprint – a startlingly elegant image, a Rorschach test in the middle of two lines that curve upward six inches on both sides.
It is the impact print of the mourning dove I found dead on the balcony a couple weeks earlier. Even the trace of its feathers is visible.
The dove was folded in on itself under the small marble-topped café table. I determined to remove it before the woman who comes once a week to clean my house arrived. It was my dove, my balcony, my responsibility. Removing dead birds is not part of her job description.
But Onelia arrived too soon, before I had gathered myself to crawl under the table with an improvised bird body bag. Thinking she would not see the body from the living room, I decided to remove it later rather than draw attention to it.
Yet, when I looked later, the body was gone. Onelia had removed it without telling me. We were each protecting the other. Well, she protected me, and I had intended to protect her.
We didn’t speak of it then. We still haven’t. Between us, I am the designated weak one and she the strong one. Whether this is true or not, it is okay by me. People arrange their perceptions and assumptions into relationships without using words, and we do it in ways that tend to bond us, at least for awhile. Strength is her pride. It has gotten her through a difficult life. If protecting me adds to her sense of power and capability, I will not disturb that.
But I will not tell her of the mourning dove’s imprint on the window. I want it left there and she would clean it away. I want it there for a long time. It is flight. It is the moment before leaving.
We are alive and giving and flying until that moment. We leave imprints on each other. We burnish, scar, embellish, and decorate each other. We deepen character in each other. We take on each other. We are a Rorschach test of insights, memories, rituals, and of shared and opposing emotions. We impact each other, interpret each other, and live through each other.
In the last six days, a close friend called to tell me he had had a serious heart attack so wouldn’t be able to have dinner next week. Another friend was moved to a hospice after more than a year of treating her fifth bout of cancer as a friend rather than an enemy invader.
A few days earlier a friend told me he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and my dearest friend for the longest time simultaneously has a cousin dying and a roommate in his twenties being tested for lymphoma.
Two days ago I was with a precious friend at the offices of her primary doctor for management of her chronic lymphoma leukemia. On the table was an issue of National Geographic with a cover photo of a newborn and a lead article titled “This Baby Will Live to be 120.” I realized I needed to look closely at what is going on with people who weren’t born yesterday.
I am surrounded by people who are handling diseases and the threatened end of their lives with such grace that I am slack-jawed. It is enough to accept that you will die, but to plan for it in real time and to be absolutely gratefully alive until that moment is the accomplishment of a lifetime.
One friend with terminal illness was, when we last spoke, gathering her strength for one last trip to Tuscany. Why not? Tuscany is beautiful.
My friend with the cousin who is dying just completed papers for her body upon her death to be donated to a hospital for research. She sent the records to three of us for safe-keeping with the words “I’ve always wanted interns exploring my body.”
I hadn’t given any thought to where my body would go. I live as though I have decades to decide such things – and maybe I do. I know only that I don’t want to be ashes on someone’s fireplace mantel.
I think I’d like to be a print on someone’s window, captured in full flight, until the rain and snow remove me.
Was the mourning dove part of a couple? Was she or he missed? I think so, I believe so. Maybe not so long as humans grieve for each other, but enough that it bothered the other birds who live in my garden. One mourning dove has had a nest in the wisteria the past two years. Was it that bird? Will there be a nest there next year?
People leave, but their imprint remains. A whisper in the mind, a feather, a stranger’s turn of phrase, a holiday tradition, a poem, a piece of lace, an old Valentine card, a farmer’s winter wool hat, a photograph imprinted in the mind more than on paper, a mother’s remembered stroke across a cheek, a bit of arthritis in your pinkie finger that reminds you of your grandmother’s crippled hands, the upper lip of your grandchild that matches that of your mother and all her siblings, a fountain pen with a gold nub, a feeling on a day when the wind, temperature, and humidity are just so, fireflies on a summer night, being alone when winter arrives, being alone when the crocuses come up in spring.
We carry people with us – both as blessings and as scars. As humans we can turn those blessings and scars into lessons. I am a student of my friends. All of the people I have mentioned are peace builders. Every single one. And they are all at peace with their lives and its end.
Is there a correlation between ease with dying and how you lived your life? Has it been full? Has it contributed? Did you live with integrity? Have you no apologies yet to say? Have you no angers yet to release? Did you dare? Did you fly? Have you been loved? Were you able to feel the love that was offered? Did you love? Were you nurtured by your loving?
Yesterday I bought two see-through black lace blouses. I don’t intend to die soon. I plan to make love, eat well, hug people every single day, care for my friends, play with them, create art, go to the theater, write an opera, and learn the capitals of every nation on the planet.
I plan to exercise, snuggle with my dog, swim, dance, finally learn decent (and indecent) French, eat chocolate and candied ginger, and listen to my women peers who have fallen in love for the umpteenth time. I plan to fall more and more in love with my grandchildren and their parents. I plan to be as transparent as the see-through blouses.
I will die, but that is all I will do for death – Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Quote courtesy of another friend and peer – an activist, healthy, beautiful.)