Nonfiction from Julie Flattery
“You should put bird seed on the floor and open up all the windows,” my mom tells me. Her icy blue eyes stare past me at something I cannot see.
“But we might get in trouble, Mom, like Eloise, when she went to Paris,” I say, recalling a favorite childhood story. “Remember how she left all of the windows open, and the birds invaded her apartment?”
She squeals with delight at the thought of it, then wraps her arms around her waist and winces. Colon cancer does that. It robs you of your dignity and then tries to take away your joy. But she’s not having it.
I moved in with her to help. The living spaces in our condo are upstairs and are lined with windows that look out onto the treetops. “The treehouse,” we call it. We call our balcony “the nest”. Since her cancer diagnosis, she has made a morning ritual of sipping coffee in the nest while enjoying the show of bluebirds, robins, and cardinals as they dart about the live oaks.
Now she has a new nest: a home hospital bed personalized with an array of pillows and double-lined with foam mattress toppers to pad her lean, 78-pound body.
I bring her tiny animal sculptures to adorn her room and I plug in the fairy lights on a wooden birdhouse—made by her own hands—that lives on a shelf next to the bed. It’s not the balcony, but it has its charms.
My head is resting on the bed next to her and she leans in close.
“Never mind me. I just flit about from flower to flower.”
“Like a hummingbird?”
“Yes!” she says. She laughs again and holds her stomach tight.
I wonder if the cancer has spread to her brain or if it’s the gummies, which she calls her “happy pills”. It doesn’t matter. My only concern is that she’s comfortable, which she is.
“Bring me some more paper towels,” she says.
When I return, she smiles and tells me that she can ask for whatever she wants now, and it appears. “Bing!” She says this while snapping her fingers. She then begins to fold the paper towels into neat squares.
“Is that a squirrel up there in my tree?” she asks, pointing to the ceiling fan.
I laugh. “There’s no squirrel in here, Mom.”
What would happen if I went along with it?
She tucks the paper towels around her right side. She has lined her whole bed with them—more padding for her nest.
Our world has turned inside out. She sleeps all day and stays awake all night. I’m the exhausted mother bird and she’s the fledgling, wide-eyed and full of wonder.
I bring her bits of food until she can no longer chew. She puts the uneaten morsels on a tray by her bed, telling me that she wants to save them for later.
I feed her water with a straw like an eye dropper.
I collect the paper towels that fall to the floor and tuck them back into her nest.
I do what I can to prepare her for something neither of us knows how to do.
Eventually I try to sleep with one eye open in her old bed, pushed into the corner of her room. Sometimes I wake up to find her lying with her arms raised, bent slightly at the elbows and wrists. She flutters them up and down, her lips moving rapidly with no sound escaping her mouth. Her bones are slight, her skin almost transparent.
“Is there someone up there, Mom?” I’m hoping she can offer me some insight into my own future.
“Somebody pinched my toe,” she says.
I make her promise to reach across the ether and pinch my toe someday and she agrees.
She chirps all night, talking and laughing as her eyes begin to glaze over and her feet begin to swell.
Tomorrow she will stop chirping, and the next night, she will fly away. But for now, we are nocturnal birds, hunting for whatever we can find to sustain us.
Julie Flattery‘s work has been published or is forthcoming in Idle Ink, Red Fez, Emerge Literary Journal, Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog, and Meat for Tea. Six of her plays have been performed at the iDiOM theater in Bellingham, WA. She writes professionally about architecture and building design. For the past two years, she has been temporarily living in Texas as a caretaker for her mom, who recently flew away.