Monday, October 13, 2008

Perils with Pigeons (in seven parts)


Grandpa died two weeks ago.  

Around the table the night before the funeral: memories.  Grandpa jingling coins in his pockets: we couldn't ask him (our parents said) but we knew a trip to the general store across the street for penny candy was imminent.  Grandpa suggesting we name our dolls Rasputin and Rupitoo.  Grandpa asking at the end of each semester if we'd been bitten lately by the horsefly of love.  And something lovely my brother told about Grandpa always telling him each time he visited of the day my brother was born: "Your grandma and I were camping up to Kimberly on the Sawmill bench that day" and how they'd "come down off the mountain" to see his squally red face. Hearing that story every time, over and over, my brother called it, “the reiteration of belonging.”

My dad gave the eulogy: Grandpa's hard work in the hard times of the Depression, frozen potatoes all winter long, a single pair of socks washed by hand to wear the next day, his faithful fondness for my Grandma Hannah, who had died exactly 15 years and a day before Grandpa finally joined her. At the end of his remarks, Dad read
"The Last Leaf" by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a poem Grandpa has been reciting to us these last few years, as Dad puts it, "with a jaunty toss of his head and a twinkle in his eye."

Then my cousin, poised and slim, gave a tribute, including her brothers' and sisters' memories of Grandpa: the abundance of the garden, Thanksgiving Day and the song about Tom Turkey, letters written to Grandma and Grandpa while they jauntered off to be tour guides at the Joseph Smith birthplace in Vermont for a year and a half.

Then it was my turn to tell my siblings' side of the story. Looking out on the congregation was like looking at a field of sunflowers, or black-eyed Susans, familiar like that, taking you by surprise in their unnoticed loveliness. I felt bathed in the love of that field of faces as I spoke of our common memories of Grandpa.  The congregation smiled, gentle laughter in the right places, tears on the cheeks of my tough cowboy cousin. I finished by reciting by heart a poem Grandpa had helped me learn when I was very young -- “The Day is Done,” by Longfellow:

. . . and the darkness falls
From the wings of night
As a feather wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight
I could see the nods of the older people, the sound of my voice ringing through the chapel, the peace the rhythmic words bring, like a blessing, or as Longfellow puts it:
. . . like the benediction
That follows after prayer.


Back home again this week, the edges of everyday life begin healing back over me once more. But not comfortably.  I am discouraged.  Irritable.  Blue.  Deep submarine blue.  Swamped by the schedule, running late to everything. Out of that blue, our friend Dale calls.  He teaches at the alternative school, also raises bees, sells honey, delivers fruit to the surrounding towns from an orchardist friend during canning season. And also, it turns out, raises white homing pigeons, releasing them at funerals and weddings: “Doves we call them. But really they're homing pigeons. Pure white though.”  Which is enough apparently to turn feathered vermin into Peace personified.

He has a conflict tomorrow -- will I stand in at a funeral? I think I can probably pull it off. He doesn’t know the name of the person who died but says there will probably be a program I can pick up. “And there will be a family member, who will be assisting."  We arrange to meet at the school parking lot tomorrow for the passing off of the bird.

I bounce downstairs, “Hey, guess what? I've got a job tomorrow!”

My husband looks up while I tell him the plan.  “Doves? I didn’t think there were homing doves.”

“Actually they're homing pigeons -- pure white.”

“You’re going to release a pigeon?  Are casket pigeons related to stool pigeons?” He's inviting me to laugh.  But lately my funny bone is broken. He thinks pigeons somehow are hilarious.  “I can just see it . . ." now he begins to riff on all the many ways this could turn into disaster: " . . . trip over your feet and drop the cage, let the bird go in a big flapping of wings right during the prayer.”  In his words, I see myself turning into Lucy Arnaz.  Without the Lucille Ball charm.


The next morning I get up to make a proper breakfast because we ARE going to achieve normalcy once again.  But it's not ready in time for the girls to have any. Great job, MJ. Winning already, says the Voice of Grief that has taken up residence in my head, sarcastic and aggrieved at the demands of normalcy and just watching for a reason to wreak drama.  I wish I could be free of this spectre.  It's like carrying around everywhere an offended great-aunt.

After setting eggplant to cook for Italian sauce in the crockpot, where its bitterness will melt into a mysteriously deep richness, I discover my black pants are not in the dryer after all. Skirt?  Not in this weather, the Voice is scandalized.  I'll have to wear the dark gray instead. Good enough I suppose, sniffs the Voice. 

When I arrive at the school, our friend's green Corolla is the last one in a row of teachers' cars and next to it, one of those black metal shepherd crook / hanging flower pot holders that forks into the ground with alternating arching hooks from which two white wire cages are suspended.

Each cage holds a white bird as pretty as something in a picture book.

Our friend Dale has me practice with the extra bird. Shows me: how the latch unclasps, how he holds the edges of cage -- top and bottom with pointer and little finger -- while reaching in with the other hand. Has me try. I do, reach in and grab the thing.

“You must have been around chickens before?”

“Not really.”  Not at all, corrects the inner Voice, but I ignore her.

I hold the bird until he says to toss it in the air. Okay. He gives me the shepherd’s crook/plant hanger and the other white wire cage with a beautiful white pigeon — or dove, as it will be from this point forward -- with pink beak and pink feet and tiny dark eyes.


And I’m off, practicing the script as I go: "To conclude today’s service, this pure white dove, a symbol of ______'s soul will be released to his/her maker/ heaven/ God . . ." Driving briskly, but not too fast. The cemetery is between our town and the next — and I'm pretty sure I haven't missed it yet.  "To assist me . . . " I check the time.  Three more minutes only.  "Psalms 6," no, "chapter six." No, no, "chapter 55 verse six, Oh, that I had the wings of a dove for then would I fly away and be at rest.” 

So where is the cemetery?  Did you manage to drive past it somehow? The Voice, touchy and unimpressed, is sure I've mucked up already.  I think it’s still up here. Surely I haven’t missed it yet. It should be just around these trees. Well, it's not, obviously. I don’t remember it being by the railroad track. I can’t have missed it.  Okay, there it is after all, the Voice reprieves me.  This once.

I drive into cemetery, park away from the other cars. Square my shoulders —
set out across the grass, murmuring in my head, then would I fly away and be at rest, over and over.

A man in jeans and a baseball cap strides out to greet me — maybe this is "the family member who will be assisting me in the tribute"?  Not overly formal.  Just as well you wore the pants, these things matter to the Voice.

Jeans-and-baseball-cap takes the shepherd’s crook.

“Where do you want the bird?” he asks.

“Well, that’s up to you.”

He shrugs.

“Usually by the podium?” I offer.

“The head’s this way. Should we put it by the head?”

The head? The Voice does not approve of him.  I don’t think, on second thought, he is the family member.

He leads the way, just beyond the edge of the green canopy and thrusts the shepher'd crook firmly into the ground.

As I’m hanging up the cage, a woman in black comes forward. “Are you the family member who'll be assisting me with the tribute?” I ask her.  That sounds rote enough, murmurs the Voice.

“Yes,” says the family member.  She has long black hair and a face completely white.

From the other side, a grinning skeleton of a man reaches forward with an envelope addressed to Dale.  Pay, and part of it is mine.  It is a little crass, sniffs the Voice, at a time like this.  Even if the envelope is nice. 

I turn back to the woman in black, “I want to make sure I have the name right . . . complete . . .” Or really just a name at all, mutters the Voice.

“Christian . . . ” the pale woman says. Oh, no. A young-sounding name.  Even the Voice is sad to hear this.

“Do you want just the first name?" I ask, "or last name, too?”

“Decisions are so hard for me to make right now.”

I make a sympathetic sound. She is not much older than me and the grief is bare on her face.  More ragged than the grief I'm carrying.

“His father . . . his father's name . . . No, just Christian.”

So I write Christian in the blank. Then ask, “And you . . . ?”

“Sheryl.” I begin to jot her name down onto my notecard. “His mom.”

Her child is dead.  The worst.  Accident? Suicide? This is so unfortunate, the Voice sounds almost gentle inside my head.

“You are his mother,” I repeat stupidly.

“Just say ‘his mom.'”

I ask which she wants: maker, heaven, God? -- feeling ridiculously like a celestial stewardess.

“Released to God. Yes.” She is very sure of this. Then she looks troubled, “What will I have to do?”

“When it’s time I’ll have you come stand next to me. I’ll get the bird for you and I'll put it in your hands. I’ll be right by you and tell you everything you need to do.” I want to do all these things for her.  I want the moment to be as beautiful as I can tell she wants it to be.

Her faces releases briefly, “Thank you," and she turns away.

Then she turns back, her face worried again, "Be sure to say the tribute is from all his family and friends. So no one will feel left out." There is a crease between her eyebrows, the rest of her face is set in stone.


The pastor has arrived now, apricot blond and fluffy-haired as a chick.  Light gray suit, royal blue shirt, pale tie. He wants to know the name of the bird. I don’t know. He wants to know how old it is. I don't know. He wants to know if it is male or female. I don’t know that either, and have no way of determining, but I'm so tired of knowing nothing that I invent freely: “Well, the man who trains the birds called it ‘he,’ so . . . "  Is it more wrong to make up things to the face of a religious professional?  Or are they used to it? In any case, the pastor nods, satisfied. I stand at the cage. When the grinning undertaker turns on the CD-player to blare out a thumping, deep-bass Bible-ballad it throws the bird into a frenzy. I steady the bobbling shepherd’s crook and keep my eye on the bird.

The remarks begin. Christian was a young man, early 30s. The pastor doesn’t mention in the eulogy how Christian died. But it was at the same hospital where eight years ago my own son was born, which brings this death another step closer home to me.

Woman friend comes up, mentions how Christian loved her dogs and her cat, shares memories of watching game shows with Christian and if Christian didn’t know the answer he’d always answer with the name of her cat, “Kitty Bear,” which everyone finds humorous. 

Christian's younger brother now speaks -- embarrassed-looking, trim beard, and tidy in a white shirt and tie, black-and-white sweater, here from Coeur d’Alene -- "My relationship with my brother Christian has been up and down lately. A lot of you here know him a lot better lately than I did. But I want to share what I learned from him. When my mother divorced Brandon and wasn’t able to take care of us, Christian took care of me, made cinnamon sugar oatmeal for me, went to the Island and picked berries so he could buy me a hamburger. When eventually I was homeless, Christian taught me how to survive on the streets, Christian kept me from making some very stupid mistakes.”

It's like a skewed version of Pilgrim's Progress, our present Christian wandering much longer and further afield than in John Bunyan's story, the monsters he faces smaller, but trickier.

A wild-looking man, handsome but untamed, gets up: “First time I met Christian I wanted to strangle him. But I loved him. This was Christian’s walk sober—" he mimes it. “This was him when he was high, drunk, whatever—" arms flapping, bounding at every step.  He continues, “I fight a lot and Christian would say he had my back, then I’m fighting—” suddenly mimes looking around “'—Christian? Christian? Where are you?'" bends down to look under the coffin like it's the front bumper of a car and beckons, “'Come on, Christian, come on out of there.’"

His face lengthens, "I feel bad. I was in jail and I wasn’t there for him. I’m not putting the blame on me, but I loved him. I’m going to miss him. Oh man.” Then he kneels at the coffin as if at a bedside and recites, “For God so loved the world . . . ," he has a powerful voice and seems to be enjoying the moment as much as I did reciting the poem at my grandfather’s funeral the week before, " . . . that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

I look around and know it is true. I feel the wild man is my brother, just as fond as I am of saying the mot juste and hearing the sound of our voices ringing out.  But for all our self-dramatization, some real tenderness at the heart. I love the watery sunlight on the uncovered heads. I love the awkward guests on the other side of the canopy, looking around surreptitiously at each other, and the woman who begins to whoop with sobs on the front row.


More people are crowding up around the edge of the canopy, crowding around me and the bird who thrashes in the cage. I put a hand on the hook to stop the wobbling, which seems to steady our dove. A sweet-faced woman, blond, vague-eyed, bends forward, says something I don’t catch, nods and smiles helpfully. I smile back.

Another mourner stands up to talk. She talks about how Christian loved her dogs, too. How she will miss Christian so much.

Then a big man gets up. He says he remembers Christian and his brother from when they were young, growing up. He is very stern. He says as a Native American his beliefs are different, "At the end today, I will be praying for him that his spirit cross over that divide," he booms out with his huge voice.

There is a gasp from someone near me. I glance down. The cage is open. The bird is still inside.  I go to grab the dove, to close the cage, and our pigeon hops onto the ground. I snatch for it and my hands close in on the cold grass.  The wayward pigeon flies low and away, not fast, but faster than I can reach for it. I leap out onto the cemetery drive — 

and am flooded suddenly with the memory of chasing my 5-year-old daughter’s kite down the beach, which I had promised her I would not let go of -- "Oh, come on. It'll be fun. Of course I won't lose hold!" -- chasing and chasing I went then, pounding down the beach, weaving in and around the knots of unconcerned people, knowing I would never ever be able to catch the kite again, but not wanting to return to my daughter empty-handed, not wanting to fail in my promise already.  The kite keeps happily on, bobbing in the air easily and in no hurry, just high enough and fast enough to stay out of reach.  I ran and ran and ran until my lungs ached and my legs began to clench, and then suddenly the kite lurched - waggled joyously - leaping up into a stronger gust and over the sand dunes inland and away.  And I had no choice but to turn back and face the limits of what I could promise my child.
Beside me now, the sweet-faced woman steps out and watches the bird go, her face glowing with a great peace and happiness. I’m a little worried that the white pigeon is heading south for the City — which is the wrong way, as its home is supposed to be north up the River. I’m sure though it will get itself straightened out. Won’t it? Isn’t it trained? the Voice is dubious about anything going like it ought out of this tangle.  

I turn back to the dark green canopy and the funeral party gathered underneath. A wave of sickness rising up at my recurrent inability, my sudden ineptitude at simple tasks, and what I’m going to say to our friend Dale — whose livelihood this whole business is. And here I’ve gone and played out the script of pitfalls I was so resisting. I am a sad and very unfunny Lucille Ball.  Who loves this Lucy?

I make a pained and sorrowful face, mouthing, “I am so sorry” to the undertaker, the pastor, the crowd in general.  I feel so sorry.  Sorry for myself.  The Voice isn't talking to me, she has turned her shoulder in a huff, but I know what she would say if she were and the tone she would be using.  Still the funeral continues — just as life always does. And I still have to stand, next to the empty cage. My day ticking away. My legs beginning to tire from standing. I imagine briefly the dove/pigeon/dove suddenly flying back and landing at my feet. Maybe?  

Fat chance.  Ah, the Voice is with me yet.

Then the sweetly vague woman goes up to the front and says to the pastor she has a poem to say. She begins, but her words are garbled and too quiet to hear. Much gesturing to her heart.  To the sky.  In the direction that dratted bird has flown.  Back towards the wicked City. More and more, she turns her back to the crowd and speaks directly to the sky, blowing kisses. She is very, very skinny with pale long curly hair and wears she her long black, thin-fabricked skirt with lumberjack boots and a black jacket with dull-gold arms — The Governor Hotel embroidered on the back in posh curlicues. That place President Clinton stayed when he came out this way. Medieval beams inside, lots of wood, lots of wealth.

Wonder how she got that jacket?  The Voice notes suspiciously that it is just like the jackets the valets wear as they stand out in the road in front of the grand entrance and direct traffic around important disembarking guests.

No one can hear what the woman is saying. She speaks more and more quietly, her gestures more animated, no sign of ever stopping. The pastor shifts his weight from one foot to the other. He keeps his eye on the reciting woman, makes a small motion to check her -- restrains himself.  She, all unaware, gestures to her heart, to the sky, dabs again at her eyes and cheek, gabbling—her voice only heard in her own head, her movements not quite under control. Poor lady, my own Voice grunts with grudging sympathy, must be some significant chemical damage, poor girl, living on the streets . . .

Then as suddenly the woman stops -- as if midsentence -- and turns with a queenly graciousness to shake hands with the pastor and the undertaker. She slips away to the back of the crowd.

Could she have slipped the latch?  the Voice has begun to suspect she let the bird go herself.  But I never saw her touch the cage. I never saw anyone touch the cage except myself. Maybe it was just the thrashing of the bird that dislodged the latch. Maybe you should have kept checking the latch, hmm? says my tiresome Voice, gleeful there's always one person she can pin the blame on.

Now an attractive woman with blond highlights steps forward, skinny jeans, big puffy black parka. "I wasn’t going to say anything but when I saw the dove go, I thought - that’s just like Christian. I saw it go and said, 'There goes the dove. There goes Christian.  Slipping out early.'”

That’s making the best of it, the Voice harrumphs, humiliated to be associated in this debacle. My shame burns fresh in my face.

Christian's mother looks up, pale, unhappy. She hadn't noticed the dove's escape before. I will have to give Dale back the little envelope of pay, of course, without taking out the part meant for me. Of course. The Voice is a little surprised that I would have any question.

A vigorous white-haired man comes forward now, a restful looking woman beside him.  He's in a freshly-new white shirt, still creased, at least a size too large for him, though he is a large man, red-faced with a drunken red Scandinavian nose — a sailor, or the grandson of one. He says, “I am Christian’s father,” but can’t go on. He apologizes.

There is a deep-voiced, somehow practiced rumble of support: 
“It’s okay — Not a problem — You can do it, man.”  The Voice sniffs, Like at AA meetings I imagine.

But he can’t do it. The woman with him takes his hand, stands there at the front with him, holding him there. She says, “Christian had a gentle heart. He was gentle. He was a gentle soul.”   Then she urges the white-haired man forward again with a soft tug and a small gesture of her hand, her face very care-taking. Christian's father tries to say something more, but can’t.

Again, the deep-voiced rumble of support from under the canopy.

The big-boned white-haired father kneels and puts a hand on the casket. Silently.  Then he and the woman with him move away, out from under the canopy, pull cigarettes from their pockets, light up.

The pastor resumes. Makes a graceful allusion to God releasing Christian early from his captivity: “while I’m sure it would have been very beautiful to release the dove, it seems appropriate that the dove escaped and made his way home before time.”

I feel so grateful to the pastor that I completely forgive him his apricot-colored blow-dried hair and pale tie and his stupid questions. Maybe it won’t be so bad after all. The undertaker turns and gives me a scarecrow smile of surprising kindness.


And finally a Bible verse from Christian’s brother who says he is reading it for the woman gulping out her sobs on the front row, Bonnie, “who would read it I’m sure if she were able.”  Bonnie cries out louder still.

More music from the CD player -- rough-edged men’s voices singing “Amazing Grace” to the chord progressions of the old blues tune, “House of the Rising Sun.” So while my ears hear,

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun . . .

my mind hears,

. . . don’t do as I have done,
But shun that house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun.
The pastor prays over the casket, sprinkling dirt in the sign of the cross. Christian’s mother lays a few long-stemmed carnations. People begin to mill about. The Native American stands with a fist outstretched over the casket, eyes clenched shut, his lips moving. He opens his hand and dried leaves fall to the top of the coffin.

More flowers. Someone tucks a rolled-up magazine in the handle of the casket on the side away from the crowd. The skinny undertaker in his brown suit and his baseball-capped assistant remove the painted green wooden platform that had covered the grave shaft beneath the casket. Bonnie howls again.

The undertaker and his assistant pull away the first of the metal bars holding up the casket when suddenly the supporting canvas strap snaps.  With a horrible crash the casket falls headfirst and askew into the grave.  Bonnie on the front row drops to her knees, wailing, clutching at her stomach with one hand and her mouth with the other, louder than ever. Christian’s mother, Sheryl, her face frozen and her eyes pained, bends over Bonnie to comfort her.  Then straightens, giving it up as a hopeless task, her face a mask of stone.  She has worked so hard to make this funeral a fitting thing.

Bonnie shrieks, “They’ve dropped him on his f***ing head. They’ve dropped him on his f***ing head.”

Men jump down into the grave, working to wedge the casket back into place. The undertaker has taken off his jacket and his tie, the ragged neck of his undershirt shows in the open neck of his thin white shirt. Christian’s father tries to climb awkwardly down into the grave and they have to shoo him back.

When the casket is mostly straight and almost level, settled at last in the bottom of the shaft, the undertaker and his assistant straighten back up, hands on their hips, breathing deeply.  Christian’s mother walks up to the edge of the grave to address the men there, speaking stiffly, “Can’t you open it and straighten his body?”

Down in the shaft the upper half of the two-part lid is awry. The undertaker starts to shake his head.  Then smiles his professional smile, “We-ll, let’s see what we can do, shall we?”

Gamely he climbs back down, opens the upper-half of the lid and reaches deep, deep down in along the sides of the casket.  Straightening the body, I assume, though I don’t try to see.  Now some of the other mourners have come up around.  They look down.  They see only legs sticking out from under the upper half of the casket lid, twitching.  The new mourners begin to yelp, “His legs! His legs!”

When the undertaker climbs back out onto firm ground, he tells me I can go.  His smile still valiant but somewhat slipped.

At least no one will remember the dove flying the coop after all that, the Voice offers.  She is so horrible -- I am -- that it's all I can do to keep from shrieking with laughter.

When I get home I look up the entire psalm: 

Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. 
Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness.
I would hasten my escape . . . for I have seen violence and strife in the city. 
Sometimes that Holy Writ strikes a little too close to home, doesn't it?  Maybe it's better to leave it with the first line, better to stop with fly away, and be at rest -- leaving the bitterness and trouble to cook down until it's only an unspoken richness to our common meal.

Because no matter how seemly our rituals of grief may or may not be, we still finish up at the same empty beach, a little seawrack of memory.  The same inadequate fondness and loss.  We can name it different things -- this death, this grief, this parting -- but there's the same emptiness of the gulf before us. We can trust that there is land on the other side -- but for all of us the same derisory piping of a bird and the wind riffling through someone’s hair, while we stand there in the face of what is huge and beyond and grievous.

(this was the first ever post, for the final word: The Pigeon Curse Repealed)

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