The Rusty Nail


It is Jim’s birthday.   The last birthday he spent with us fell one month, to the day, after the November afternoon when we learned my husband’s illness was incurable.

It has been said that by one’s 50th birthday, one has the face one deserves.  Jim, barely into his 50s when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, had a classically handsome, serene face.  Gentle humor, occasionally with a devilish edge, lit his eyes.

This was the face he always will have, the way I believe I’ll always remember it, with uncanny precision.

He did not reach–not nearly–the old age that Simone de Beauvoir described as “life’s parody.” His story walking with us ended with the “[d]eath [that] does away with time,” that “transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension.”

(Nor did he live to see the face I would have at fifty–although he would have loved me even if it proved an artistic disappointment.)

Every day is an anniversary of something meaningful to our family, but there seems something extra fraught about the anniversary of a birth and of a death.

The day his beloved parent died, and from which his life unwound, the character who voices The Goldfinch noted “used to be a perfectly ordinary day but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.” The author revived the simile 749 miraculous pages later, musing about the multitudinous kinds of beauty which will become leitmotifs in different lives: “The pieces that occur and recur.  Maybe for someone else. . . it wouldn’t be an object.  It’d be a city, a color, a time of day.  The nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.”

(In the novel, at least two lives become derailed by one painting of a small bird.  Is it a coincidence that its provenance is absolutely settled by two small nail holes visible only from the back of–and only by one who possesses and handles, out of its frame–the eponymous masterpiece?)

Another character understands that “beauty alters the grain of reality,” and the protagonist sees some acuity in “the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful.”

What does any of this have to do with a birthday?

It began with a bird.  (And, to be fair, I’m taking some pretty good medication for my back; this post may make absolutely no sense when I re-read it.)

For Jim’s birthday post, out of all the photos in all the gin joints in the world, I picked one of a Galapagos dove.  My picture is blurry, but it captures one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  Just three Decembers ago I was with Jim and our children when we saw it; he took his own stunning, clear photographs and I am smitten with those, too.

The dove moves across time, taking me back to that moment when every sense absorbed this creature’s beauty in its equatorial setting, when neither I nor even Jim–despite what he already had endured and what was soon to come–felt any pressing physical burden. The dove also somehow springs forward in time, as if it were in my line of vision right now, instead of today’s icy reality of a winter storm and wracking pain in my spine.

I have realized since taking this picture that, especially after Jim’s death, I began looking for birds everywhere.  Apart from our children, little seems as artful, as beautiful, as alive for the ages.  I sought and still seek out these fleeting, singing, sailing creatures.   Their beauty captivates me.

As The Goldfinch’s narrator discovered, “between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”  He continues: “And–I would argue as well–all love.”

Our lives become caught on assorted nails . (In Jim’s voice, I hear, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”)

Zooming in on a memento, or on the pixels or painting or other rendering of an original, we see the stunning color, the patterns, the movement, the life that existed as of one moment in time; “Step away, and the illusion snaps in again: life-more-than-life, never-dying.” From a distance, in time or space, we see the unseeable: layers underneath protective or careless coverings, beauty of one kind, preserved or worn away.  Even when something has deteriorated or completely changed shape, we can see stories and history, life and love in what’s no longer to be found or seen in the traditional way.  

In flesh, feather, and delicate bone, my dove likely has long soared from this mortal coil. But there he is.  A blur from purposeful forward movement on black-tipped coral feet; a dab of yellow and a streak of vivid magenta above earth-toned wings, as if he has brushed against a freshly painted canvas; animated open eyes.

Pulling back, he is part of the landscape where our family took its last trip, part of an enduring species found only in such warmth and isolation, a majestic messenger among the creatures whose sounds I listen for every day.

A year ago on Jim’s birthday I spoke aloud to our beautiful beagles.  They listened.  I did that a little bit today.  But just after midnight, when the calendar called up December 10th and frozen rain tapped like weakened woodpeckers against black windows, I spoke aloud to the magical intersection between past and present.   It’s your birthday, I began. . . .

Perhaps I was revisited by that narrator who understood how our lives become entangled with some enduring facet of beauty and love and never let it go.

“Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.”

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Author: Stephanie

In her spare time, Stephanie works full-time, and then some, as an attorney. She has published articles and delivered talks in arcane fields like forensic evidentiary issues, jury instructions, and expert scientific witness preparation. She attended law school near the the banks of the Charles River and loves that dirty water; she will always think of Boston as her home. You are welcome to take a look at her Facebook author page, or follow @SMartinGlennon on Twitter and @schnitzelpond on Instagram. Bonus points for anyone who understands the Instagram handle. All content on this blog, unless otherwise attributed, is (c) 2012-2023 by Stephanie M. Glennon and should not be reproduced (in any form other than re-blogging in accordance with the wee Wordpress buttons at the bottom of each post) without the express permission of the domain holder.

63 thoughts on “The Rusty Nail”

  1. You write your pain and joy so eloquently I feel that I am holding your hand. Jim would be proud and dare I say perhaps a bit embarrassed by all the fuss. I’ve never lost a spouse (to death) but I know about loss. I never remember the days they died but on their birthdays we have their favorite meals; just like we always did.

    1. That sounds like a great tradition. You are so right about Jim. He would have been embarassed by the way everyone spoke of him at his “Closing Ceremonies” and since, but he would have been glad for us to have whatever outlets we need to keep his memory close.

  2. OK, well. first, wishing Happy Birthday to a human who has passed on is a bit odd…but celebrating the glorious moment when some nurse or doctor spanked Jim’s little bottom (they did that back then) as he cried out gasping in his first breath is a wonderful thing! 2nd, had to look up ‘leitmotif’ – an associated melodic phrase or figure that accompanies the reappearance of an idea, person, or situation – and then felt ashamed that I didn’t know the word. After all, I am an accomplished musician and all….cough cough…huff huff….oh, I’ll get over it. How come the ‘e’ is before the ‘i’? huh? 3rd, baby, if pain meds fueled your writing prowess to create this work of art…party on! I love this entry. Birds, birds, birds, they are ‘IT’ for me. I never grow tired of watching them, capturing them (very challenging as they move continuously almost non-stop, but then so do I) with my camera and then loading them on the computer and seeing what ‘goodies’ I got! Today a tufted titmouse posed for me and gave me some serious glam shots for which I am very grateful. My soul mate (this was before I met my husband, ok?) decided to shoot himself in his kitchen one day at the age of 49. His face is etched in my memory just the way it was the last time I saw him…energetic, funny, gifted musician and humorist, and a passionate Italian… He made damn sure none of us was going to see what he looked like at 50. Personally, aside from the aches and pains – ringing in the ears – complete new life adjustment in the food department – using a cane – insomnia, I find 60 to be much better than 50. I like hanging out with me now and my liver and colon are clean! A new development that really gets on my husband’s nerves is the talking to myself. It’s fairly constant throughout the day and into the night and dreams. I am completely entertained by the whole thing, having no idea where it is coming from. I never know what I am going to say next! One thing – I am very careful NOT to say everything that is on my mind when others are around, except for…my husband. I love you Stephanie, you are my soul sister for sure. xoxo Carrie

    1. We are indeed soul sisters. You know what Jim always said about the aches and pains of getting older when his patients complained, right? “It beats the alternative.” With a wink and a twinkle, of course.

  3. I have seen the pain of cancer. My grandson had brain cancer at the age of two. There are only six doctors in the country who handle this situation. I blogged on it. He beat the reaper. Today he is thirteen and although their is a scar in the back of his head where they surgically removed part of his brain. It was a miracle. I wish Jim had that miracle too.

    1. I am so glad your grandson had his miracle. Jim would have been the first to wish that the miracles go to those like your grandson who hadn’t had the chance he’d have to grow up and have families and work they love. The best to you.

  4. This was a beautiful piece of writing about something that I’ve grappled with – not the death of my spouse – but the loss of others. Anniversaries of things one can’t even explain to others, triggered by dates and by sightings of things like your birds – they do indeed snag us and your husband would be right when he said, “and what is wrong with that…” Thank you for this.

  5. I have a problem with death, I admit it. Losing “Jim” at 50 makes me glad to be alive at 60. I never thought I’d make it this long, and yet 50-60 is considered the prime of life. From now on, I will think of “Jim” (and Harry, my father) when ever I see, paint, or describe a bird. The spirit soars!

    1. It is amazing how love and grief are parts of the same experience, and influence one another. Thank you–and it’s so interesting that you picked those two posts, because those are the only two posts another of my children has commented on to me.

  6. First let me say I want to begin following your blog. Now let me tell you why. My fathers favorite animal was or is the hawk. We even found a book on birds earmarked to the page on hawks the day after he passed. He left us on January the fifth of this year and since then everywhere I or my siblings go there seems to be a hawk. It actually started with my sister the day after he died with an unbelievable incident concerning this stately bird. If you have the time or the inclination I want to invite you to read my post Look To The Sky. There are pictures that my sister took that will blow your mind. I love your post and am looking forward to reading more.

      1. Thank you–I can’t wait to read. Of all places, I recently had an eagle loudly swoop down over my head as I walked by Fenway Park, wondering whether Jim had caught the World Series from an eagle eye view.

  7. Nice, very lovingly written. Thanks for sharing, I could sense you were sad in between the lines. But you did cope up well. May be I am thinking aloud.. but just felt that..

    Loved the post!

  8. Such a beautiful post.
    I am so sorry for your loss, I know the pain. My husband died at 51 of a heart attack, or an embolism…it doesn’t matter. The result is the same, he’s gone.
    I had to laugh at your comment earlier that Jim would have been embarrassed at some of the comments at his “closing ceremonies”. My Tom? I am sure he enjoyed every word, every laugh, every piece of music….he was the center of my world,and our son’s, and our friends. The flame to all of our lowly moths..
    I still talk to him all the time too, and get responses. (I call them winks)…I think the universe is very mysterious and the veil very thin.
    The gratitude is in the time we had…sounds like you had some immeasurably lovely time.
    Thanks for this lovely writing.

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