When the Planet Shifts



Before we married, Jim promised me we would have five boys.

Because I was very young, somewhat gullible, and only took college laboratory courses because I had to (notwithstanding my lack of scientific skills), I believed him.

We had two boys in under two years. Promising start.

On a windswept January day the following year we had a few extra hours on our hands: my scheduled delivery had been moved to make way for an emergency one.  (I did not prove much more successful in the childbirth department than I had in the hard sciences.)

We took our toddlers to breakfast at a riverside restaurant where I managed–just barely–to slide my mid-section behind a sturdy stationary pine table where the boys laughed and gave us sticky kisses before we dropped them off to play with friends–and Winston, the venerable bulldog.

Jim had only sisters and I had only brothers, and despite having some experience growing up as a girl I never felt equipped when among girl friends to understand how that is, or should be, done.  I assumed that we would have a third son by mid-day; he let on to me that he thought we’d be bringing home a Holly or Fiona.

We stopped at a nearly empty restaurant near the hospital and Jim had something to eat; I was not allowed to partake before surgery.

The owner looked at me and smiled, “When are you due?”

I glanced at Jim’s watch.  “He should be here at 12:42,” I said.

She gave me a hug.

Then the two (almost three) of us went to the seashore,  and walked hand-in-hand down a snow crystal-glazed path to the ocean. A few hours later, beautiful Emma arrived, not with a howl but with a thoughtful, piercing and curious gaze from the second her enormous eyes adjusted to what we then knew as light.

The Wings of an Angel, the Wings of a Dove


Emma was a teenager when her father died. She is in such important ways like him, the man who taught her to love finches.

As sunset gathered on her birthday this winter I felt compelled to turn my steering wheel off course and drive back to that seashore spot, where layered gold and orange clouds settled in one spot to form unmistakable wings so bright they lingered as an after-image even when the sky turned gray and only the smudged plum outline of a single bird soared over the sea.


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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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