Memoir

Caringbridge® entries I posted while my husband was struggling to live led to a regular writing practice after Steven died. Original ramblings grew into essays and now comprise a memoir-in-progress that traces a grief odyssey interlaced with stories of quirky personalities and an eccentric but solid partnership.

Chapter 1 of memoir-in-progress. Working title: Aftermath, A Widow’s Story

November Sparrows

The morning sky was cloudless, a vivid blue like heaven in Renaissance paintings. I clutched robe lapels to my nose and darted out the front door. Bitter cold stung bare skin. I snatched the frosty newspaper from the sidewalk and paused to scan the northeastern skyline. An expanse of dormant grass stretched wide across the north end of Powderhorn Park. Naked trees had shed their autumn colors in circles like discarded prom dresses. The rising sun cast a golden glow on the old Sears skyscraper on Lake Street. Thirty blocks north, the cluster of steel and glass towers that proclaim “Downtown Minneapolis” sparkled in the morning light.

The sky showed no hint that winter was storming the Rockies and heading our way. We hardy Minnesotans were prepared, however. The yard was raked, the vegetable garden cleared, the roses bushes blanketed with two-feet of leaves. The garden hoses were drained and stored in the basement. The waterline that leads to the outside spigot was turned off, the exterior handle left half-way open to tolerate winter fluctuations. Five years our nest had been empty. Steven had retired from teaching. My passion for my graphic design business was waning. I made a few illustrations, but no longer sought prospective clients. I focused on writing and illustrating children’s picture books now and had just been awarded a mentorship from the Loft Literary Center. Life was looking good.

Days earlier, our younger fledgling had returned home. “It’s just for a few months,” our son said. Jacob piled his clothes and books in his upstairs room. Encased in a large aquarium, his ball python landed in the family room where Steven’s boa constrictor had lived out her days. Our daughter, Tobie, was in graduate school in Toronto. Steven and I were settling into a new stage of our lives in our old clapboard house. We were rediscovering each other, digging into our genealogy, and taking in a movie or museum exhibit from time to time. Twenty-seven years of renovation was nearly done. There were a few baseboards and quarter-round trim pieces to cut to size and install, but the big work was finished. The house had a full basement. All rooms had windows and doors. The wood floors were refinished, the kitchen had cupboards, and after three attempts at color, the house was finally the right shade of blue.

Steven stepped out to the backyard to puff on his pipe. I was still in flannel pajamas, nestled on the 1920s couch we had reupholstered purple. Coffee in one hand and the Star Tribune spread across my lap, I saw that Hurricane Sandy had claimed over two-hundred-fifty lives. Damage was expected to reach $65 billion, the second costliest U.S. hurricane since 1900. I had not yet absorbed the impact when the storm door clicked open and shut again. Back so soon? The thud of work-boots grew louder as Steven crossed the maple floor, his plaid shirt tucked and belted into slim jeans, his unbuttoned shirt exposing his hairy chest. Dark brown hair swept across his forehead and curled at his collar. Steven’s graying beard resembled an untamed shrub. Neither his hair nor beard had been trimmed since May.

Steven leaned on the kitchen archway that opens to the dining and living rooms. His eyes were distant, his lips tightly pursed. He ran his thumb and forefinger through the fluff of his beard. After thirty years of studying my off-beat mate, I knew Steven’s silence meant he had something important on his mind.

“That was a quick smoke,” I said.

“Yeah…it was…”

“Your pocket’s burning…”

“Oh!” Steven plucked the smoking pipe from his breast pocket and tamped the embers with his index finger. “I saw a sparrow fall out of the sky.”

“Huh?”

“Landed at my feet.”

Steven shook his bangs to the side and removed his wire-rimmed glasses. Those old wire frames were older than our marriage and soldered so many times they were half lead. Steven blew a breath on each lens and wiped both with the soft edge of his shirt.

“The sparrow landed on its back,” he said. “It was gasping.”

I sipped my coffee, imagining the scene. Steven pivoted to the kitchen. He grabbed his favorite mug, the glossy black one with the red T-rex graphic. He poured himself fresh coffee, then plodded through the dining room and plopped into the wingback chair.

“Another sparrow flew in,” he continued. “Paid no attention to me, just paced back and forth by that other bird.”

“Its mate…” I whispered.

Steven nodded. The cat jumped into my lap, crumpling the newspaper. Thisbe nestled in her paper nest and rubbed her face against my fingers.

“When the bird stopped thrashing, the other bird poked at the body. Walked all around it—poking and poking.”

“To see if it was dead…”

“Yeah,” said Steven. “The other bird looked around, seemed kind of lost. And then it flew away.”

We sat in glaring quiet. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute. One of us broke the silence as we launched into theories. Birds suffer heart attacks, don’t they? Birds can have organ failure. Maybe it ate tainted seed. Could have been dehydrated. A predator might snag a smaller bird midair and fumble it like that Cooper’s hawk we saw last year. Lost its grip on a starling over the backyard. Yeah, maybe that’s what happened. That bird lived. This bird died. Shit happens. Circle of life.

Thisbe rubbed against my hand and rolled over. I pulled the crumpled newspaper out from under her and stroked her tummy.

“Do sparrows mate for life?” I asked.

“Some birds do,” said Steven. “Don’t know about sparrows…” He popped up to grab bird guides from shelves in the adjoining room. As a middle school science teacher, Steven had amassed lots of science and nature books. He perused several Peterson guides, Sibley Guide to Birds, and Smithsonian Birds of North America. Until then, I never knew there were so many kinds of sparrows. Striped markings indicated these birds were song or white-throated sparrows. “There’s nothing here about sparrow mating habits…”

Steven went on to recite physical details, voice descriptions, and habitat information until we knew everything about sparrows. Everything, but breeding patterns. According to one book, sparrows fly 28 miles per hour. Their life span is three years. Having seen high-strung sparrow behavior at our bird feeders, we figured all those of the Passerine family might be equally neurotic. They seemed to operate as a group, always skittering here or there together. Pairs were not obvious. Months later, I would learn that ninety-percent of all bird species are monogamous for at least a single breeding season.

“That bird will find another partner,” said Steven. “Just like ducks or geese.”

“I suppose it will…” I pictured that lone bird heading out to find others of its kind. Were its friends waiting in a nearby bush? I scratched our old cat’s chin and thought of Thisbe in her younger years. Her backyard hunting had destroyed sparrow pairings a number of times. I had wanted to keep Thisbe indoors. Steven said cats need to forage and exercise outside. Hunting is their nature, he said. I cringed to think Thisbe kept watch on birds at feeders like I had once spied on ducks with a shotgun across my lap, both of us waiting to strike. After my first kill, I was done with hunting—and that boyfriend.

“Nature resets itself,” said Steven. “Think of the food chain. Life forms adapt.”

I don’t recall what Steven did or where he went after our conversation. I picked up the mangled newspaper and flattened its pages. I tried to get back to the hurricane story, but Thisbe demanded attention. I grabbed the brush and preened our aging cat’s long white and gray fur. Thisbe rolled and purred and rubbed against the wire combs while I reflected on Steven’s story. Suddenly, a sharp tremor rippled through my body. "Omen” flashed in my mind.

Steven Miller with pipe
Steven Miller, ca. 2012