We are watching birds disappear from the window.
She sits in his chair, looking smaller. He isn’t gone yet, he’s still in the bedroom at the end of the hall, but he’s barely aware of it. The fact of his existence becomes more improbable with each passing day.
The birdfeeder twirls in the wind.
The parents are camped out in the bedroom. The door is heavy enough to muffle sounds, all but the faint rhythm of worried voices. It’s like a new variant of Morse code. My mother is mostly long dashes. Her sister is staccato dots. Their brother is silent.
I could get more birdseed. The mystery of the birds’ disappearance is that easy to solve. But the birdseed is in the garage, which smells like death, which is already too comfortable here.
Something breaks in the bedroom. The door creaks open and the voices crash in a tidal wave.
The birdfeeder twirls in the wind.
After lunch I drive to the pharmacy and pick up liquid meth. The man asks if I’ve got a boyfriend. I say no, he says good, don’t be sharing it with anyone. He asks about her. I tell him she died a month ago. He says he’s sorry.
I bring the meth home, where one of the parents will inject it under his tongue. I don’t think he’ll notice.
After they’ve given him his meds, they’ll stay in the bedroom, rotating between the chairs and the person-sized gap beside him on the bed. Sometimes I stay too, but it’s always too disconcerting to see him lying there senseless.
We’ve only been here four weeks or so, but we’ve been waiting for him to go much longer. They found the cancer nearly four years ago—since then it’s been treatments, surgeries, one long bout of remission, another tumour, a warning that he wouldn’t make it past the end of the year.
But he did. He made it past his birthday and past Christmas. He made it to another New Year’s and another Valentine’s Day, another long weekend in May. His last day kept inching forward, even as his body kept failing.
She never left his side. She turned down dinners, even stopped going to church. The only way she left was in an ambulance. When I tell that part of the story, I try to make it sound romantic.
We’re back at the window, looking for birds. Maybe we could be ornithologists, or whatever the word is for people who staple tags to their wings so they can track their flight patterns.
He’s still dying in the bedroom down the hall, which feels like Mars from here. I text my mother, imagine the words pinging between satellites. From another planet, she writes back, No changes.
I haven’t texted about the birds. We are still watching them, her in his chair and me in the one she used to sit in across from him. They used to do crosswords together. She says he cheated.
I used to have trouble imagining dating someone for more than a month. I thought that maybe after that long the feelings would expire. I still have no idea how you love someone for a lifetime. Their marriage is 53 years old, old enough for all these lived-in patterns, traditions, sayings, looks.
It’s been like this for a long time, she says.
I don’t really know what part she’s talking about.
Mm, I say.
I’m tired, she says.
Yeah, I say. I get that.
I want to go back to the time before adults trusted me with adult things. It feels wrong to see how much pain she’s in. Like I’m looking through a window that should’ve never opened.
Maybe they’ll die together like in The Notebook. I keep thinking that if you tie yourself to someone for decades and decades, their death must feel like you’re dying too.
I want to ask her what this feels like, but there aren’t any words for that.
During summers at their house, I used to write little stories on the computer downstairs, printing them off and signing my name on every page. I must’ve written at least a hundred of them, some only a few sentences long, most completely incoherent. Later, when we go through their things, my mother finds a manila folder with all the stories and signatures saved.
It’s the same thing.
We are watching Cinderella on the big TV downstairs.
I want to see the scene with the magic dress four more times. For four more times, she pushes the button on the VCR and the dress becomes tatters, then sparkling blue, then tatters again and again until her back gets sore and she teaches me how to rewind myself.
I hold it down, release, press each button to move us forwards and backwards.
He’s getting worse every day. We’ve been saying this for years, but now we really seem to mean it. His breath is laboured. You can hear the struggle in it. And there’s also the pain. He’s always been the type of man to deny his hurt, to measure as a 4 what most would call a 10.
He never used the 10s, when he was conscious all the time. Now, as he fades in and out of awareness, he uses the 9s.
He pushes the handle and rainwater flows from the rusted pump. I learn at a young age that he can make anything happen. He reaches into dry dirt, pulls up fistfuls of carrots. He slices fish in the backyard and lays their shining bodies in perfect rows. This scares me, but it thrills me a little too. Summers come to smell like fresh-caught fish as much as watermelon, sweet and red and glistening.
I understand what the other kids think about their fathers. That they are unbreakable.
We try to tell him she’s dead, but he keeps forgetting. He asks if she’s out of the hospital yet and we have to say yes, but. He doesn’t look upset, only confused, the implication too big to follow. Too devastating to understand.
He has to be told again and again. Each time worse than the last, each time piercing deeper until he stops asking. We still aren’t convinced of our answer.
Wasn’t it just yesterday that she was sitting in his chair, watching the birds? How does one go from sitting and watching to breathing a machine’s air, to the kind of death that sweeps you away with the perfect sleight of hand?
Now both of their chairs are empty. I alternate between them to visualize one absence at a time.
The parents are on bereavement leave. The four of us fill this house; you cannot move without running into someone else’s heavy grief. I try to think of it like an elevator pitch, three siblings return to their parents’ home after their death, but I can’t think of what the hook would be. I don’t know what my place is here either. I have school but it’s online now, because of everything going on. I’ve gotten three essay extensions.
I guess we should all be worried that we’ll be sick next, but as long as he’s still here, there is one more grief to get through first.
I try to think of what life was like before, when houses didn’t feel like they were shrinking and it was safe to breathe fresh air, and it feels like a season of a TV show that I can’t quite remember. I don’t know how everything disappears so quickly. Inside this house time stretches out, pulls us back, holds us in suspension.
The birdfeeder twirls in the wind.
I drive my friends through the cemetery across from my house. In the dark I can’t find their headstones. One friend says that whenever she gets a sudden chill, it’s someone walking over her future grave.
Maybe time is happening all at once, I say, but we can only experience it linearly. Except for these moments where there’s a break in time and we can feel the present and the future at once. Or the past and the present.
Maybe that’s what déjà vu is. A sudden glimpse at the whole of the universe, instead of just one piece. The startling sense that you’ve been here before, that you are here again, and both of these truths are happening at the same time. The sudden collapse in which the past is the present is the future and you are stranded in them all.
The bedroom at the end of the hall is empty now. The paramedics came just past noon. I don’t know if the body was still warm.
The parents play a game of telephone. I picture the news like another virus, spreading connection by connection.
The boy down the street knows my name. This makes me giddy, terrified. He rides his ten-speed all the way up the driveway and into the backyard. He kicks the kickstand like a cowboy nudging his steed.
I’m only visiting for a couple weeks this summer, but it’s long enough for us to fall in love, of course. He tracks dirt inside—she makes me vacuum it after.
She tells me I’m too young to use words like love. I ask her when she knew she was in love, and she pauses, laughs a little, says it was when she was around my age. When he joined her class and didn’t know how to use the pencil sharpener, and she had to show him at least a dozen times.
See, I tell her, I’m not too young.
Ah, she says, but the times are different now, aren’t they?
We hold their funerals together. They picked out a plot together, so it feels fitting. I keep the pamphlet for monuments in my car for months after.
At the joint funeral, the man from the funeral home fumbles with the Bluetooth. It cuts out, the somber piano turning to silence as we drop roses—red for him, white for her—into the ground.
I think some things stay the same.
We’re with him when he dies, just as we’ve been with him for every last day of his life.
It’s hard to predict which breath will be his final one. They’re all slow, all painful in the slight rise and long fall. Then, in a way that somehow feels sudden, we realize it’s over.
He doesn’t move again.
Someone notes the time. I think it’ll always be cursed for me now.
On the couch, as the parents make phone calls, I sit with my uncle’s wife. She’s crying, but we both carry on conversation as if it’s not happening.
It’s hard, she says.
I think she means seeing a man die.
But sacred, she adds. You know? There’s something sacred about it.
I don’t want to think of any death as holy but I know what she means. We were there when he left the world, and something about that matters. I had all these ideas about how it would feel, like some trace of his spirit brushing by as it flew out the open window. I didn’t feel anything—no light breeze, no smell of cherry blossoms or something heavenly.
There wasn’t even a last gasp. Just silence, stretching on and on until someone in that room told us it was 11:13.
Our grief happens everywhere, in every time, moving us backwards and forwards without end.
I can’t help thinking we’ve done this before.
I don’t see either of their bodies before they’re burned.
I start to doubt that they were ever real. That I ever felt their hands or had their arms lift me. They start to disappear for me like that, becoming phantoms of long fingers and thin wrists and then abstracting into nothing.
I am not thinking of birds anymore, but how could I forget them?
The way we counted their soft brown heads. The seconds between catching sight of them and the sudden flash of wings.