A Murder of Crows
"I have to tell you about Granddad," Mama starts and sucks down air. Blows air out like a stuck valve unstuck. She pulls me to her lap, tucks my hair behind my ear.
I yank the neck of my white nighty, the one I cut the lace off of because it itched.
"I saw him," I say before she says more words.
"Yes," she says with a long S so it sounds like a hiss but I know it's one of her thinking sounds. "You saw him at the hospital," she goes. "With your dad."
"No. Later," I say and tap bare heels against her smooth shins.
She pulls back and tilts her head, fingers the tape on the nape of her neck she wears to keep her hair flat while she dreams.
"He woke me up," I say.
She blinks and her mouth goes O.
"He was on the end of my bed," I say. "With my pajama lion."
Mama makes this funny noise with her mouth like she's tasting something.
"Granddad died last night, Annie," she says and holds still.
"I know," I say, simple.
Mama's mouth stays in O. She blinks. Twice.
"Did he say anything?" She wants to know.
"He just sat there and looked at me," I say. "I could kinda see through him," I say. "Like he was in a movie projector. So I knew he was dead."
Mama looks straight into me. Dark eyes to dark eyes. My almond eyes in her almond eyes. I hear her breathe. I feel her heart.
Out the giant front windows blackbirds squawk in the madrone tree. A family of them.
"He didn't look like an angel," I say and while I say the words I feel a little sad.
Psychopomp. From the Greek pompos—conductor or guide—and psyche, breath, life, soul or mind. Psychopomps escort souls to the afterlife. Crossover guides. Sometimes they're human. Sometimes ancestors. Hand lenders. As we step out of this life to the next.
Sometimes they're anthropomorphic entities, horses, deer, dogs, ravens, crows, owls and more. Sometimes bees are believed to cross between the natural world and the underworld. As birds, they're often in masses, waiting outside the home of the dying.
"Shoo now. Go away," Mama said. Standing at the paned glass window. Eyeing morning. Dewy grass. Stretchy shadows.
"Shoo!" She flicked her wrist. Her hand in little Scoot circles. Sipped black coffee. Blouse and slacks wrinkled. A forgotten cigarette, more ash than paper, curling at the edge of burn, pinched in the metal wave of a red plaid beanbag ashtray.
I'm four. Mama and I had been up most the night. Me with asthma, coughing until I threw up, coughing until my lips turned blue and my hair hurt. Her holding me on her lap, in sway, in cradle, in Sit Tall and breathe in the bathroom with steam curling in fog waves. Her rubbing my back and willing me to breathe when she worried I wouldn't. Couldn't. It was 1962. Pre-inhalers. Pre-nebulizers. "Keep everything as dust free as possible," my pediatrician told her. "No dust catching fabrics. No curtains. No throw rugs."
She was 25 when I was born and scared to have a girl with wimpy lungs. Double scared when wimpy lungs seized to a steel fist. When girl with wimpy fist lungs breathed through a straw. When the straw collapsed and the girl and mom perched on the toilet lid in a steamed up bathroom. Mostly at night. Under cover of stars and the moon shaped moon. The mom pleaded with her baby bird girl to breathe. Just breathe.
"Who?" I asked. Who was she shooing?
"Oh these crows," she said. "They're all over the yard. A hundred of them. More."
I pushed to my elbows and my coughing cranked up. Hard.
"You stay put," she said and frowned, her wrinkles between her eyebrows digging deep, like the number 11.
"But I wanna see the birds."
"It's the weirdest thing," she said, shifting her weight hip-to-hip, swiveling back to the window and yard with the house-sized fir tree with its bumpy bark full of thumbnail nicks. Soggy grass blanketed with crows. Preening. Squawking.
"What do they want?" she said, shielding her eyes from early morning sunspots.
* * *
Polka dot lights on the hospital floor. Light orbs with fuzzy edges flit like fairy lights under the window under the heat register under our shoes. Gossamer light layered with lingering Pine Sol, lingering life.
I'm 32. Huddled with family around Nana's hospital bed, counting seconds since her last breath. 10. 20. 30. Was it the last last? Was it? Then she'd suck in a long jagged breath through her caved mouth. More gasp than breath, shallow with hard edges, raw, oxygen outside the body, inside the body: I want in. I want out. Last breaths in gasps, like the dying are surprised. Rattle of death. Death rattle. Rattle like maracas with dried seeds. Rattle like my kids' baby teeth saved in a film canister.
Nana. Once stout and strong grandmother now maybe 100 pounds. All bones and loose skin and coiled back. If she could roll, if she could expose her spine, I could count her vertebrae without even touching her. Tracks just under skin. Life spine: girl, daughter, student, wife, mother, teacher, grandmother, great-grandmother. Fried chicken cooking queen. Homemade potato roll master. Plant grower. Lover of order. Lover of Jesus and church and organ music. Lover of pearls and rhinestones. Lover of books and Geritol and Lawrence Welk. Loved her boys fierce, her grandkids fiercer.
Silver hair thick and curly. Cut close in a Senior #2 cut. Her mouth a cavity without dentures. Dry. Sour. A morphine drip bruising up her onion thin skin. Her strength and steel a memory. Her "Remember I'm your Victorian grandmother" (when I'd swear or smoke or speak my truth when she'd say those words slow and pat her curly curls). Gone. Motionless as dead. No muscle holding. No tense. Melty. Boney. Squishy grandma. This woman who always held tight. Now letting go.
Her hospital room padded with Peases. Legacy. Her two sons. Three daughter-in-laws. Nine grandchildren. Grandchildren spouses. No great grandkids here even though she has ten.
If people die the way they live, and I'm pretty sure they do, Nana was in her element. Family.
"It's okay, Mom," Dad said, rubbing the top of her boney hand, her tented skin staying where he pushed it. "It's okay for you to die."
She didn't blink or twitch as he said these words.
He said more words.
"We love you," he said, tears leading off the point of his nose. "It's okay for you to go."
I leaned in to hear his love words.
Tears slithered down his jaw like rain on a roof edge.
Cart squeaked in the hall.
My dad who choked on feelings and words. My normally pressed and polished dad here at the hospital, unshaven, unshowered. Perched on the metal folding chair since the evening before. "I have to stay," he said when any of us suggested he take a break. "I have to." And his one eye with the damaged tear duct spilled salt tears. When I was little I thought he was crying as he'd wipe his eye with a fresh white linen hanky. When I was nine and Dad's dad died and Dad cried, cried hard, at first I thought it was his leaky tear duct until I watched his chest swell and shrink, until I heard his sobs and felt his empty.
"We're all here, Mom," he whispered. "We love you. We're all taken care of," he said. "Promise."
My arm hairs stood straight up. Death's breath on my skin. My throat shrunk and throbbed. Like I'd swallowed a peach pit.
I never loved my dad more than I loved him in this moment.
Archangel Michael. Compassion. Assists with whatever people need.
Hermes. Messenger of the gods. Conductor of souls into the afterlife. In winged sandals he moves between divine and mortal worlds.
Anubis. God associated with mummification and the afterlife. Usually a canine or man with a canine head. Guide of the dead. The Ancient Egyptians believed when you died, you travelled to the Hall of the Dead. There Anubis weighted your heart against the feather of Ma'at. You had to earn your way to the afterlife. The way in? A light heart.
Valkyries. Norse mythology. Warrior women. From sky. Feathers of swans coated with iron chainmail. From the heavens, crying warrior cries, swooping battlefields, determining fate of fallen soldiers.
Spirits in nature. The Aurora Borealis as flickering torchlights, lit by spirits, illuminating the way for the deceased.
Sometimes former ancestors and friends greet the deceased at the time of death.
And sometimes they greet them before.
In the dark.
In the still.
In the night sky.
* * *
I'm 52 when my first parent dies.
My stepdad J. in his too small twin-sized bed at the Adult Family Home where he'd lived since dementia snipped his brain and he needed care Mom couldn't manage. Dementia. The slow good-bye. He had a couple of strokes and hospital stays. One where sisters and I felt angels in the wiped down room and he told his doctor he'd been talking to God. "What's God saying, Mr. Upton?" the internist asked and cupped J.'s shoulder with her soft hands. Mom and sisters and I all leaned in. Chewed our bottom lips. "He's saying it's time to come home," J. said. And that still night sisters and I prayed for his suffering to end while Mom prayed for him to stay.
Mom wasn't ready.
Months later and more small strokes and then pneumonia. Hospice's angel some call it. I'm in for a visit. Studying J. as he studies the ceiling. Listening to his jagged breath. The still of the room between breaths. Slow. Deep. Shallow. The time between breaths short then long. This Morse code of dying.
At J.'s headboard. Stretched out and luminous. Kent. My dead husband. Crouched like a gargoyle. Brilliant as the sun. Light or is it wings stretched wide. I know it's him. I'd know him anywhere.
Big mouth ache that can swallow me. My throat shrinks like it does before I cry. Tears fat from my heart, spool up my throat and spill out.
"Hello Beautiful," I say through my chest throb.
He smiles at me then at J. He blinks twice.
In the 25 years since he's been dead he's visited me plenty. Slips in behind. Wraps my collarbones in cool. Tickles my earlobe with a mustache non-kiss. Me with arm hairs straight up. Goosebumpy skin. Him with love words: I love you. I'll always love you.
But it's different in this sliver of time. In this cool room with J. in his too small bed.
Kent swooped in from the stars. Perched above J. Honey light. 12 feet of iridescent wings. Shiny as fairy feathers. Like he could scoop J. Scoop him right now.
"Thank you for being here." I push words up and out my gooey throat. Tight. Paper straw throat soggy with tears. "J. always loved you too."
The truth of those words hit my heart. And I remember all the times we talked about reincarnation and afterlife and how we're all made of stardust. An endless cycle of stardust. My atoms in you. Yours in mine.
Kent leans farther over J. and smiles, this glow smile like a proud parent, a caretaker, a psychopomp.
I almost expect my stepdad to levitate. To leave his body in this moment with this beautiful spirit guiding him.
Psychopomp. Aid to the dead, the dying. A bridge from here to there. A span. A thread strong as steel, flexible as spider spittle, wispy as angel feathers. A light in the deep forest swaddled in layers of moss curtains.
I've heard it said that sometimes souls get stuck. Especially in a sudden death. A violent death. A soul can get stuck and search for a way through the veil.
* * *
I jolt awake. Bulge of the night. Bedroom shadows. Full throat gasp. The heat of a face. Nose to my nose. Fear voltage in my chest zips out through my arms to fingertips, legs to toes, up the terrain of my face—chin, nose, cheeks, brow bone, forehead, scalp. My heart thunders, like thoroughbred horses trapped behind ribs snorting and pawing.
I suck down a scream and bolt upright.
"What?" Scot says. Fear. Panic. Adrenaline. I feel him reaching for the baseball bat under the bed even though it's not there.
"Where?" he says, half out of bed. His Where's The Bat? posture. His Don't Mess With My Family fierce.
"Here," I say and circle my face in a crescent moon.
"Someone was right here," I repeat and wave an open hand inches from my nose.
He flips on the lamp on his nightstand to show me. We are alone.
It happens. And happens. Nights and nights. Someone staring at me while I sleep. Me waking up. Boom, boom heart. Icy skin on fire. Light on. No one. But I know it's someone. My bones know.
Then my sister spends the night. On the couch. Near the sliding glass door that opens to the tiny back yard. To the alley.
"Do you feel someone?" she asks in the morning. First thing. Reaching for coffee. "I swear someone is in your back yard," she says. "They woke me up."
Full body shiver.
I nod yes. Slow. Mouth like the night desert.
"Who?" she asks.
One shoulder to my earlobe. Fingers wide in I Don't Know.
Talking with my elderly next-door neighbor.
"Did your husband tell you about the neighbor behind the alley?" Helen asks. Crosses her arms and rolls her shoulders in. A fine boned bird getting smaller.
"Um, no," I say.
"Ohhh," she goes, the O long like a sigh. "Well it happened just before you moved in." She chews her bottom lip. Her cheeks pale up.
I rock forward in my feet. Backward. Toes. Heels.
"I was the one who called the police," she starts. She swallows hard and I know this memory shakes her hard. I lay my hand on her forearm, her skin soft as worn leather.
When she hadn't seen him for a week, more, when she started to worry since he lived alone and kept alone, when she called the police, "Please come and check," when they found him, dead, asphyxiated in his car in his garage just the other side of the alley from me and my bedroom in the back of our house. His body dead. His spirit stuck. Searching.
The next time the Dead Alley Neighbor woke me, I was still scared but not, because there are rules, spirit rules. "Go to the light," I told him. Prickly skin as a wave of cold fingered me. "Someone there can help you," I said. "I can't help you here." And part of me felt silly saying those words out loud. The bigger part of me trusted so I pushed them out again. "Go. Someone can help you." My heart mush. Fingers crossed that my words were the right words.
I wondered if our yard would be packed with ravens in the morning.
Our dead alley neighbor didn't visit again.
* * *
Dad died last fall.
At his bedside. My sisters. My stepmom. They'd been with him all day. With him all year, longer, as his body failed. With him through doctor appointments and tests. Through falls and splintered bones and cracked ribs. Through pain meds and ER trips. With him in the belly of the night. With him when he told them endlessly how much he loved them.
"I'll stay a little longer," I said as they each kissed the top of his head with, "Good night."
"Just a little longer," I whispered and scooted closer, the bedrail to my ribs. My 58-year-old hand on his 82-year-old hand. His. Purplish. Relief map of wrinkles with mini mountain ranges and flat lakes. Prairies at the thresholds.
My head flopped in the crook of my arm. I smelled like driving and coffee and worry.
My grown daughter Maria across the room on the stiff vinyl mini couch. Feet pulled up under her thighs. Ponytail sagging. Fleece zipped. Searching for comfort.
I did my best to give her the gift Dad gave me. The same words Dad said to Nana all those years ago.
"It's okay, Dad," I said.
My hand on his hand.
My other hand on his head. A bristle of hair. Map of scars.
"It's okay for you to die."
"We love you and we're all good," I said. Echoing his words to Nana. Echoing my sisters' and stepmom's words.
Dad back to boy-size in his hospital bed. Hollow bones tented in skin. Dad still as Nana was more than 20 years ago. Skin bellowed. In. Out. With last breaths. With the space between breaths where I found myself. In the middle of the middle. Counting again. Just like when I watched Nana. Before she left her body. Before I felt her float up and swirl around the room. The wave of her in a slow dance. A 1,2,3 waltz. In her floaty chiffon aquamarine dress from her years in the Ladies' Church Choir.
Dad's jagged breath. Held breath. Rattle breath.
"Can I get a blanket?" I asked the hospice nurse when she stepped from the lit hall to Dad's blinds tight, low light room. "For my daughter," I said with a nod to Maria. My coat draped across her. Daughter. Grown now. Drove the three-hour drive in the fast lane with me when we got the call. When my sister called to say there wasn't enough time. Dad would probably die before.
"Let's go," Maria said back home. Me in the hall. Phone in my hand. My sister's words cooling. Ice crystals weaving their way across my chest, out my arms, down my legs.
"We have to try, Ma," Maria said.
"Sorry. Blankets are only for patients," the nurse said as she checked dad's drug drip.
"He's so sweet," she said, her hand lingering on his all bones shoulder. On scapula. On wing bones.
"He is," I said, soft.
Soft. Because I've let go of the hard edges. Rage parts. Years of Dad and Vodka. Vodka and orange. Grapefruit. A twist. Vodka in first morning coffee. Slathered up underground hurt and rage. Years of mad. Not understanding why he left.
What I hold is Dad when he was Daddy with his horn rimmed glasses and pressed shirts. Daddy at the ranch—wranglers and cowboy boots—swinging me up on a horse. Daddy holding me in his lap the steadiness of him the steadiness before it all tipped sideways. Dad as business owner, boat captain/motor coach captain, horse lover. Dad as husband to Mom for 12 years, husband to my stepmom for 49. Dad as dad to four daughters. Dad who put daughters through college who said, Always look forward, who said, Never give up, who said, Walk in like you own the place.
Here. Perched with my dad in his last hours of breath. My girl across the room. Me in between. The middle of the middle. This beautiful space.
The drip, drip of fentanyl.
No monitor beeps.
No high alert to bring him back.
Anti-bacterial soap smelled like Letting Go.
The hospice nurse listened to his belly with her stethoscope.
"Might not be long now," she said and tucked hair that had slipped out of her ponytail. Tucked it back behind her ear.
That ratchet in the middle of my chest cranked down. Another notch. Another.
"Thank you for taking care of him," I said, new tears leaking out. Not hard crying. Not monsoon tears. Not lagoon tears. Those would come back later.
She pulled the hem of her too tight uniform blouse.
"Do you want one blanket or two?"
Who helped Dad pass? Who or what was his psychopomp?
I didn't feel Kent, which doesn't mean he wasn't there. I didn't feel Nana or Granddad or Dad's three dead brothers, which doesn't mean they weren't there.
I listened. Hard. For the hearts of my dead family.
I wobbled without them.
Who stretched out hands?
Who said, We're here. We got you. Who hummed, "Into the Mystic"? Who sang him out of his body?
Morning walk along the Willamette River in Portland. Sun sparkling up the peaks of rippling water. Channels of current. Clouds. Puffy. Squishy. Wispy cloud wings. Arrow clouds. One long like a dragon on its belly, smoke unfurling through bean shaped nostrils.
Fall. Pumpkin. Saffron. Scarlet leaves. Crunchy on the path. Last leaves clinging to branches. Branches almost winter naked. Washed in the cool sun.
I took my morning walk.
Around the bend: a crow convention. Not a handful of crows. A mass. A swarm. A gang. A murder of crows. Clustered on branches. On grass. On the paved path. Gliding from tree to tree. Cawing. Calling. Cawing. And my heart knew: psychopomps. Dad had been dead three days. Three days the Buddhists say it takes to leave your body.
I stared at the crow coven.
There. Near the top of a tree. Gripping a spindly branch. Elder crow. Wise crow. And New at the same time crow.
Eyes on the other crows.
I have this pinging in my chest four fingers below my collarbone. Pinging when I feel a truth. It pinged, pinged, pinged. Glowed golden. Honey gold. The shade of clover bee honey. Glowed with love.
Could it be Dad?
Or was it my longing that easily swung me to imagining my dad as a crow? With shiny black feathers and obsidian marble eyes.
High in the tree.
Saying Hello. I'm right here. I got your heart.
Saying I never died and I never was born. The me that's me is infinite.
Saying I am the hummingbird that hovered three feet from your target heart and the full circle rainbow just outside the plane's buzzing propeller you saw yesterday.
I'm in the Red. Orange. Yellow. Green.
In the blur of Blue. Indigo. Violet.
It was me.
I am the sun and clouds and wind and ocean.
I am all the water.
When you think it's me.
Dad saying, Don't be in a hurry.
Dad saying, When death comes, I'll hold the stars open.