The Mockingbird

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life.

We adopted Lafitte in January. Those PAWS! That tail. She’s a sweet girl and total monster, escape-artist, stealing food off the counter. We named her after a pirate, so it’s our own damn fault.

Mudcat wasn’t sure at first, then they were besties, now they vacillate between she cool and what’s this other dog here for? The very first day Lafitte resource guarded me—warded off Mudcat, to protect, me, from this other dog, my dog, my real dog, while Lafitte was the stranger. The interloper. On notice.

Lafitte_yard_sweater

She has heartworms, and we knew it.

The animal shelter counseled us. Transmitted by mosquito, heartworms are thread-like parasites up to a foot long, clogging her heart and arteries. Doing nothing will kill her, and the treatment might kill her. It’s essentially poison. We poison our dog to kill the worms in a series of three shots—one shot, a month later, two, and immediately the next day, three.

During and after treatment, we have to keep her calm, her heartrate stable. Weeks of no walks, no playing, no freaking out about thunder or squirrels or strangers in the yard. The worms die quickly but need to dissolve gradually. A pounding heart can cause worm bits to break off and clog her veins and kill her.

We got her anyway. She doggy-grinned into our home and hearts. We almost named her Praline for her rich brown fur and oh she is sweet but such a stinker. Lafitte fits her better. She also sports a sleek black saddle and a swirl of white at the front of her chest, like the injection site for the cream of an éclair, over her wormy heart.

I thought we’d get the treatment over right away, before establishing routine, forming a true pack. I stroked her and said stupid crap like,

We’ll kill the worms out your heart then you’ll be our Forever Dog.

…not wanting to attach too quickly in case, you know. She doesn’t make it. But our first appointment wasn’t till the end of April. Four months of being a family but not too much of a family but sort of a family, but aw hell she’s cute.

It’s been a rainy spring, one of my favorite things, sitting in the yard and listening to the birds and chimes.

We breathe the peace, lush before the heat, before the hordes of mosquitoes though there’s plenty already, before Zika floods Texas and we thank Baby Jesus we made it so hard here to kill broken fetuses, knowing we can fall back on our Child Protective Services. Kids are resilient. We know.

We give them different foster families five times a year. We tie them up in basements. We medicate them senseless so they don’t feel emotion when they’re abused and neglected. When their foster siblings rape them, we take careful notes in the victim’s record,

Doesn’t get along well with other children.

“Do you know what kind of bird that is?” No, hon, I don’t. “It’s a mockingbird. You can tell because it doesn’t have its own song. It just repeats other songs it’s heard.”

Ah yeah. I knew that. Maybe I knew that. It’s beautiful and chaotic.

I slap a mosquito, smear the blood back in, pick up the brittle tiny body still twitching and feed it to our beta fish Muertos.

Our Fish Muertos

I don’t remember when Carolyn got sick. She didn’t talk about it, and I don’t blame her. The library’s where you lose yourself in work—all the dark shit can take a break. She disappeared for months then came back several weeks in a glossy wig that looked better than the real thing. Folks would come up to the reference desk and compliment her hair.

And then she disappeared, again.

Because Carolyn is the reference supervisor, we weren’t allowed to donate to her sick leave—an HR arrangement where we relinquish earned sick hours so seriously ill colleagues who have spent all their own can have a few more days on the payroll. You can’t donate to your manager. Something about abuse of authority, feeling peer pressure, conflict of interest, blah.

Perception is reality. Perception of fear of perception is insanity, ‘cause what’s the issue, really? Inter-division suspicion? Faceless citizens seeing corruption? give us a break, we’re all broke up, give us something to do. Give us something to give.

All our words come out stupid, all our silences too, and it’s all so embarrassing.
To be sick. To be dying.

Then we learned she was retiring. Good for her! oh jeez, she’s never coming back. She was getting good at getting on in Library Land. She would say whatever the hell she wanted, to protect our team, to advocate for us, keep us sane and on point in an organization increasingly wanting to be everything to everybody.

She’d say no. She’d cut to the bone, but so gently, so quick, you’d barely know she was being brilliant, that this was vital and what a leader looks like.

Thursday at the ref librarians meeting, we watched the annual in-house ethics training video. They’re getting better at it. It’s still cheesy and ham-fisted but with impressive production quality. We laugh and try to take it seriously.

  • Getting a second job because you don’t make enough to live in this city and not telling your boss = not ethical.
  • Selling your kid’s thin mints and samosas = not ethical.
  • Donating sick leave to a coworker in need = totally cool.
  • Donating to your manager dying of cancer = not ethical.

Betsey looks up from her phone. “Bryce died.”

…What? Bryce in IT? Jennifer is struck, “What?”

“Bryce died.”

Insides clench, turn tight and torrid oh god goddammit what the fuck. He was too young, too healthy, just got married, christ musta been on his bike, some asshole driver in this traffic-stupid city fuckin killed him. Didn’t know him that well, but still.

“…Bryce?”

We’ve been in parades together.

Meg_and_Bryce_in_parade

“No, Prince. Prince is dead.”

Relief floods then wait no what? A moment ago I felt punched. Now I feel thrown across the room. Jennifer laughs, “You thought she said Bryce?”

Yeah. I heard it twice.

But no. It was just one of the greatest musicians alive.

prince

My Prince stories are secondhand. Never saw him live or just walking around. For all my time at First Ave, I was present only one rumored Purple Alert.

I didn’t see him. Too busy dancing.
Maybe he saw me.

I played basketball with a girl who grew up to make him fancy dinners. Erik went to a party at Paisley Park but left due to nonstop advances from a bouncer. Colin was looking for a sign trying to decide which college to go to when a Prince video came on TV. A few months later I met him at the University of Minnesota.

Living in Minneapolis, Prince becomes part of your DNA, part of your understanding of race and gender and fame and unity, raw talent and eccentricity. Not everybody liked him, but legions did, among them people you’d never expect, who you’d pegged as square, uptight. Knowing your cornfed, popped-collar neighbor worshipped Prince is how you knew he was all right.

More than making it cool to be in the middle of the country, Prince made it okay. To not be in New York or LA. To not be a man or a woman. To give love and loyalty without expectation and get it back anyway, always.

I couldn’t sing every song, but they’re in there, deep.

I’m never there for the Twin Cities’ traumas. The RNC in St. Paul, the bridge that fell down. Over the next days, hours, I was so proud and homesick for my city.

Minneapolis_crowd_mourns_Prince

 

purple_bridge

 

Rock_Martinez_Prince_memorial

But over the next minutes, it was hard to slow my heart. After confirming we’re ethical, we talk about Carolyn’s retirement, what kind of art books we might buy her, as homage, as a parting gift.

She likes Kehinde Wiley. She’s a painter herself.

Keep_Austin_Reading_by_Carolyn_Rogers
Lafitte had her first shot that morning. I come home to a deflated dog, loopy on meds and probably in pain, lethargic end-of-days and the knots bloom again. Just the way she’s lying, how she hides her head, it’s Robin all over again, sprawled on the carpet where we put him to sleep and everything’s too much, I can’t stand it.

She perks up the next couple of days and I’m heartened but hate it, she can’t get excited, can’t be her hyper self, she could die. The poisoned corpses of those bastards in her heart, they’re gonna break apart and clot her good girl blood.

She’s a hound dog. When she barks, she bawls, she bays, she whines.

She tells you exactly what she’s thinking, and everything is the worst.


Carolyn died that night.
My colleagues and I learn about it over the weekend so we don’t have to go to work Monday morning and cry in front of everyone.

Cancer’s not supposed to be a death sentence.
Or that’s what they tell us.
Or what I told myself.
Science is gonna save us.

Cancer is chemo and radiation and shitshowdowns with insurance companies, indomitable spirits in frail hairless bodies, middle fingers and throwing up, feeling weird about pity and worse about resilience ’cause no one needs to know how much you can take this, and wearing humor like armor. And then it’s getting better.

Erik got cancer and he tore it up.


Even Vice agreed.

But I wasn’t ready. I didn’t consider death remote possibility and so what, it’s not about me but it’s still so heavy, a repertoire of dark hymns. And so I didn’t prepare myself, whatever comfort / strength / empty faith / stone face that would bring.

Justin shares chocolate chip cookie bar things. The next day I bring apple pie. Then Betsey brings cookies, oatmeal chocolate chip.

All week we eat our grief, fat and sweet.

2:30 Wednesday morning comes a storm. I usually sleep through them, even when the thunder shakes the whole house. But this time I get up so I can comfort Lafitte and batten down the hatches. The wind is wild, the rain torrential, sheeting off the overhang, drowning potted plants. We left the bird identification book on the table outside, it’s waterlogged ruined, oh well.

I’m about to go to bed when I see a smear of blaze is it possible? yes.

The tree is on fire.

tree_on_fire

In the next door neighbor’s backyard, it’s on fire, and the rain is unreal but it’s still on fire constantly relit from a sparking powerline.

I call 911, cool and efficient. A perk of working in an urban public library, you learn to take control in an emergency. You lock down panic and wishy-washy wonderment maybe it’ll go out, maybe someone else is calling shut up indecision and save your family.

Lafitte is too alert for my liking. When the firetruck arrives she somehow gets outside but decides pouring rain is no fun and returns. The firefighters stand around, waiting for the breaker to blow, it’s what it’s supposed to do. But it doesn’t. So they put up yellow caution tape and leave.

The tree is still sparking. The rain, still rushing. Another hour, I can’t possibly sleep and the fire is getting worse. I slog outside to the neighbor’s yard and watch a glowing ball of fire, hissing, growing, a blazing basketball into the size of a car, engulfing the tree and then pop!

The breaker goes. The sparking stops. The rain puts the tree out. I stand there with my phone in my hand but didn’t get video, because damn. That happened right in front of me.

fire_line_don't_cross

I finally go to bed, beat but can’t sleep, thinking thunder thoughts of fear and grief, other people’s stories, again and again. I drag dead tired through Thursday and go to bed early and wake again at 3 AM from the sound of shouts and chainsaws. Arthur and I stir WTF is this really happening? They’re clearing the tree now? It’s gotta be a dream. A joke.

The dogs pace. We wander to the patio.

The mockingbird screams every song it knows.

I gather in Lafitte to calm, pressing my palm to her cream in the middle don’t die. Please don’t die. Please stay with us and be our friend forever.

Friends Forever

A few days later comes a message from Colin, who over the years since I’ve known him lost his father then his sister then his brother. He says his last sibling has suddenly died.

Then Erik makes a joke about the new growth doctors found on his lung.

Enough.
I’m full up.

I want to stop time and speed it up, backspace out of the whole month, and even these words hide more than they’re healing I’m a shitty friend I don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s hubris and futile to tie it all together, heartworms purple rain abused kids and cancer, the mockingbird the burning tree eat the grief what you sow.

scared

This is every song I know.