The Grief Bird
A small piece of my grief resides in London, where I learned of my mother’s sudden death—a car crash—more than half my life ago. Since that time, I’ve suffered from insomnia. My acupuncturist said I’m holding onto mother-grief, that’s why I can’t sleep. She said grief gets trapped in the body, in the lungs in particular. Maybe she saw grief radiating from my lungs, similar to a shaman who could see tar rising from a heavy smoker’s chest.
I usually fall asleep fine, but grief wakes me in the night, as if a trapped bird, its wings fluttering, banging against my lung’s upper and lower lobes. When a child might scream at the “top of her lungs,” when a mother runs to lull her back to sleep. As if I have a protector, I often sleep better next to a partner, a shield from outside fears and worries, but when I’m alone, anxiety takes over, when breath is constricted, when I throw my covers off and hold my ribs.
Psychologists say anxiety is your friend, your guidepost, if you listen to it, its roots from the German word “angst,” meaning “narrow,” referring to the narrowing of the bronchial passages. The lungs regulate the sweating process, enabling water vapor to ascend and scatter to the skin pores, controlling the skin, sweat glands and body hair. Along with anxiety, grief weakens the lungs, demonstrated by the heaving that occurs when crying. It’s a fact that anxiety and grief can cause asthma, which my mother developed while pregnant with me, her fourth child in five years. Although I didn’t inherit her asthma, perhaps I inherited her grief. Grief from giving up her art—painting and drawing—to take care of four children, grief from being an only child of Russian immigrants, grief she inherited from Grandma Becky, who told me she never loved my grandfather and had an affair with his best friend. Inherited grief, transferable grief, like frequent flier miles.
Another piece of my grief might be walking the streets of Rome, the city where I woke from a nightmare of a burning car, at precisely the same time my mother took her last breath, the city where an old man wiggled his tongue at me, where young men pressed up against me on crowded busses, where, as if he were an omen for what was to come, a man with a half-burned face sat down next to me while I ate lunch in a park. I rose up slowly and ran, abandoning my sandwich and souvenir postcards from the Sistine Chapel.
I missed my mother’s funeral. No one knew how to find me. Maybe this is why most of my mother-grief has set up home in my lungs. I thought I’d find closure a year later, when my father drove my siblings and me and Grandma Becky to the cemetery, to the unveiling ceremony, where we removed a veil covering the headstone, a reminder of days when family members erected a monument themselves, where we said a prayer and left stones.
Even birds need closure. When a crow is struck and killed by a passing car, a convoy of companion crows descend and walk circles around the deceased for fifteen to twenty minutes—a roadside service so to speak. The magpie holds similar rituals. They’ve been known to place clips of grass alongside the departed bird.
Some say insomnia is a form of holding onto control, of not wanting to let go of consciousness. Might holding onto grief be a form of holding onto my mother? She wasn’t the nurturing mother I had imagined mothers to be. Instead, she hoarded junk and spent hours at the shopping mall, only to return most of her purchases the next day. In a recent dream, my mother was still alive but in a nursing home—the accident left her with a terrible brain injury. I walked around lower Manhattan with my father and asked him over and over where she was, but he wouldn’t tell me. “Where is she?” I screamed. Finally he wrote the address down with a marker on a shiny sheet of paper. I couldn’t make sense of what he wrote. I yelled, “Tell me where she is!” He said she was in a Jewish nursing home in Brooklyn. Maybe a piece of my grief lives in Brooklyn, the birthplace of my mother.
I used to be a great sleeper. I stayed in European youth hostels with forty or fifty to a room. At times, I’d wake up to the sounds of anonymous tooth-grinding or sleep-talking, but always fell back to sleep. Not after my mother’s death. Now when I wake up in the middle of the night, I read, or listen to a podcast. One night I listened to a podcast about a woman who felt a succession of heavy drips landing on her bed in the middle of the night. A leaking pipe, she thought, but later learned it was a dead man decomposing in the apartment above. I couldn’t get back to sleep, thinking about the drip of death.
The morning I awoke in Rome, sweat poured from my body and my chest thumped wildly. I wrote in my journal, pen sweeping across the page: You need to come home. You need to come home now. You need come home to the truth. Somehow my body knew, from across the Atlantic, about my mother. Although asthma didn’t kill her, two collapsed lungs as a result of the car crash did. During my childhood, my mother often wheezed and gasped for breath, asking one of the kids to find her inhaler. “Hurry,” she whistled from her tightened throat. “I can’t breathe.”
“Be careful whom you love,” Djuna Barnes writes in Nightwood, “—for a lover who dies…will take somewhat of you to the grave.” Although my mother wasn’t my lover, she took somewhat of me with her, and still a piece of her lives in me. The breakup with my most recent ex who wasn’t my mother but was a mother, compounded my grief, making it my mother/lover grief. I didn’t see the most recent ex often because of her three children and the geographical distance between us. When she slept beside me, I slept well, but when we were apart, I stirred through the night with hot and cold sweats. Perhaps it’s that time of life, I told myself, when I’m supposed to have hot flashes and not sleep well. Yet when we called it quits the sweats went away. My lungs opened wider. My body knew the deal. Maybe a piece of my grief lives in the Midwest, where I was born, where my most recent ex lives, where my mother’s chest first tightened, entrapped by Southern Illinois cornfields.
I told my therapist about a dream: I traveled to London and dropped my luggage off with a woman I had an unclear romantic connection with. We went to a pub and she drank one pint of beer after the next. When I returned from the bathroom, she was kissing another woman. I knew I needed to get my luggage and get in touch with my friend Jacky, who in real life, met me at London’s Victoria Station and broke the news about my mother’s death. But in my dream, even though I didn’t have my luggage, I had my wallet and passport. I’ve had recurrent dreams of traveling in a foreign country, where my luggage is stolen but I always have my wallet and passport. According to a dream dictionary, lost luggage is a request to let go of baggage from the past. I suppose it’s my grief baggage. “Having your wallet and passport is a good sign,” my therapist said. “You always have your identifying papers. You always have your sense of self. You don’t need anyone else.”
Similar to liberated Holocaust survivors who didn’t know what to do when the gates opened, maybe my mother-grief, that trapped bird, is comfortable speaking the language of grief, the only language it knows well, despite the cage door wide open, like the survivors who stood there, paralyzed, comforted by confinement because that’s all they knew.
There’s an ancient Chinese saying: “To name a thing is to tame it.” So I imagine the grief inside of me as a bruised-up bluebird, accustomed to waking in darkness and flailing about, the darkness that grieves for the mother I had and never had. And I picture the exhausted bluebird finally flying from the confines of its cage, falling into a deep slumber and waking in the quiet sun, like the sun had been there all along, its bluebird bruises transforming into the color of sky, blue on blue, until you can’t tell the bird from the sky.
About the Author: Lori Horvitz' creative nonfiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including The Chattahoochee Review, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, Epiphany, and Hotel Amerika. Her book of memoir-essays, The Girls of Usually, was published in 2015 by Truman State University Press. She is a professor of English at UNC Asheville.