How to find depth in human relationships
The Bird Woman
"Can you hear the bjirds?" she asked.
I was new to the place and to her, and did not know what she had in mind, or very much else.
'Swedish,' I guessed wrongly, the way she added a "j' - feathering the word which I soon learned was indeed intended to describe her winged friends. 'Swedish,' I guessed, since most residents nursed there were Sverige and Lutheran and old.
"Can you hear the bjirds?" cheerily she asked again.
"You mean the ones outside?" I wondered, not knowing or able to tell by following her look, her owlish eyes magnified by lenses a dozen times, grown weak from nine decades and more of seeing, and trying to.
"Do they not sing sweetly?" she asked once more. "Listen. You can hear them now."
I did, and I did.
But sweeter still was the sound of her voice. In time it helped me come to know the child of southern France, and the young girl who came to this country new and bright, and the woman so familiar with things that matter -- laughter and love and spouse and child, sunsets and rises, rain and shine, work and play, then years alone.
A life stretched out before me, echoing in my ears, as week after week I came to listen and learn, enthralled by the bird woman.
But it was her voice, after all, that stayed. Her face has long since gone from view, the aged skin too, and wren-like wrists and bones too frail for flight.
It was her voice that captivated and called to me, more lyrical than any nightingale.
It was her voice and her joy that cheered me through the night, that gave me hope and urged me on as week by week I made the rounds of rooms inhabited by senile souls and urine-tainted sheets.
Until that fateful day when, wearied by the ordeals of life and dreading the stale dank air that awaited me within, I dashed first to her room and found the cage . . . empty, lined with fresh starched sheets, and bare.
Anguished, I searched the halls and adjoining rooms, to no avail.
Finally, from a nursing attendant came the answer to my cry: "Dead" was all she said.
The bird woman's voice stilled forever.
Or . . . does it echo yet from every branch of every tree, sung out in shades of blue and red and yellow thatch?
Can it be that joy lives on beyond this fading fragile life, and does it speak sweetly still in every gentle touch and human smile that come as gift?
[based on experiences at the Lutheran Home for the Aged in Middletown, Connecticut - 1965]
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