It is very cold, and I don’t expect all of my finches will survive the winter. There are feathers floating everywhere — why don’t they weave them into their nests for warmth? We gave them a bunch of soft cotton string for nesting material, but they just play with it — line the nest then toss it all out, over and over. Don’t they understand what we are trying to do for them?
Four months ago, my friend and upstairs neighbor Don, 47, father of three, was diagnosed with kidney cancer and given a year or so to live. We ran down to the hospital. His room was so packed we had to wait for a group to leave before we could squeeze in. All Don wanted to talk about was Batman movies.
I wanted to visit my friend, offer comfort, talk about hard things, discuss eternity… but so did everyone else he knew, and he was a popular guy. People came from cross-country, down state, and seventh floor to see him. His wife issued a press release: May my family have some space, please?
A few weeks later, I saw him sitting in the lobby of our building. I wanted desperately to hold his hand. It was not a familiar gesture for us; he supposed I was after something on the bench beside him and moved his hand away. He introduced me to his visiting relatives as a former band-mate and launched into a history of the band. Their ride pulled up he left with his family.
Later, when the last of the visitors were gone, came two more press releases: “Everyone stay away please”, followed by “Except you few.” My wife and I went upstairs in response to the summons. Everyone on the short list was there, three deep in the hallway outside their apartment.
We paced in our room. We had a light fixture of theirs that we had repaired a week or two earlier. “We have to go hang this lamp!” my wife cried. “No one is asking for the lamp,” I assured her. “When they need the lamp, they’ll ask. They know it’s here.” I was beginning to learn.
Finally we got to visit. The poor fellow was so gaunt and weak. I wanted to scoop him up in my arms and whisper to him, but instead I asked if he knew which Neil Gaiman books had been made into movies. It took him the whole visit to answer, none too clearly, but I think he was pleased I asked.
Near the end, my wife and I went up to say good bye. There was a son, a neighbor, his mother and a pastor sitting in the hallway outside his apartment. We joined the queue. We finally entered and joined another son, two other pastors and the mother-in-law. I took the seat at the beside. My wife held my right hand.
Don was unconscious, his miles-long, spaghetti-skinny arms trailing along the bed cover. I wanted to cradle him, kiss him, but I knew he was full of pain. I placed the back of my hand close to his, close enough for us to feel the warmth from each other’s hands. We stayed that way a long time, the three of us. Then my wife and I took our leave.
Finches don’t line their nests; not ours, not unless they are breeding. It isn’t in their nature. They prefer to sleep in layers, four to six birds to a nest. It was I who supposed they should line their nests with cotton and feathers because that’s what I like to sleep in. I was projecting my own sense of comfort onto my birds and offering it as salve to what I perceived to be their need. I did the same with Don. It’s me who likes to hold hands; Don likes to slap his chest and belly to demonstrate the beat of his latest Goth-Industrial composition. It’s me who wants to soberly discuss the Infinite; Don is happier discussing the Avenger films. It was I who wanted to spend my last months with Don grieving. It was Don who wanted to spend his last months with me living.
Don passed away the other day; now is the time for me to grieve.