Wren by Jennie Kiffmeyer-Graham
A familiar backyard bird, the House Wren was named long ago for its tendency to nest around human homes or in birdhouses. Very active and inquisitive, bouncing about with its short tail held up in the air, pausing to sing a rich bubbling song, it adds a lively spark to gardens and city parks despite its lack of bright colors. Various forms of this wren are found from central Canada to southern South America.
—Guide to North American Birds, audubon.org
Rodney Nay is the director of the funeral home, the county coroner, and—because this is Madison—he is also an old friend of my mother’s.
Rodney is the one who is called after my mother’s body is found by a friend doing a welfare check. He is the one who kneels beside her on her bedroom floor and calls the time of death. Later, at the funeral home, he meets with my brothers and me, our spouses, and the priest from her church to tell us how she died.
It seems that, across nations, cultures and religions, birds have been associated with death for centuries. . . . Birds are, of course, free to go where we cannot. They soar and fly, reaching more closely to the heavens than any other creature and perhaps this is why they are so inextricably linked with the fate of the soul.
—Catherine Curzon, Folklore Thursday
Rodney Nay describes to my brothers and me what our mother’s final moments were like based on the amount of fluid in her lungs and the way she was lying on her back.
“Congestive heart failure,” he says. “I am guessing she sat down to catch her breath and then just kind of leaned back. That’s how I found her. She didn’t fall. She would have been in a different position if that had been the case. Nothing panicky, or violent like choking. Just. . .” and here he leans his healthy, formally-dressed, middle-aged body back into his chair and closes his eyes.
Then he opens them.
It is Sunday. Rodney thinks my mother died on a Thursday, All Soul’s Day. But at the house I find the W of her medicine pill box still full.
I imagine the sun setting and rising, setting and rising, setting and rising, setting and rising, setting--while she reclines on the floor. Independent. Not wanting to be a bother.
Her phone message light blinks in the dark. I think of the messages I’ve left. The other voices, too, asking for her.
All of us expecting her to pick up.
Other names for House Wren: Bobby, Kitty or Sally. In Ireland and Scotland, it is a “wran” and in Cornwall a “wranny. ” In the United States, “jenny wren” is the most common informal name and can refer to male or female.
For years I’ve had a special fondness for the wren. We share a name; one spring we shared a garage. When a jenny wren couple built a nest on a shelf near the car, we watched, my own young brood and I, as the mother bird cared for her clutch of eggs.
When the hatchlings emerged, I discovered I was not the only one celebrating. Muddy cat paw prints on the hood of my car told the story of what happened next: a clump of feathers, an abandoned nest, broken shells on the ground.
I grieved the lack of good choices: an open garage door allows the mother bird safe passage in and out for food; it lets a neighbor’s cat in, too.
The EMT found the phone in my mother’s hand. Another piece of the story. Who had she intended to call as her breath gave out?
What were the choices that led to this moment?
The night my mother is found, I kneel in the same spot in her bedroom and scrub drops of tomato vegetable soup out of the white plush carpet. It is evidence of her last meal, the one that bubbled up as she tried to snatch her breath back.
I scrub out the stain.
The least I can do.
Soon after King George I suddenly died of a massive stroke, his mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg, Duchess of Kendal, noticed a bird had flown into their bed chamber. Convinced that it was the spirit of her lover, she caught the bird and tamed it. According to eye witness accounts, it traveled with her between Germany and England. Whenever she wished to talk with King George, she would confide in the bird.
—Catherine Curzon, Folklore Thursday
The front door must have been left open as my mother’s body was rolled out.
Must have been how the bird got in. A jenny wren.
No bigger than my own daughter’s hand, the wren frantically knocks against the wooden blinds. Swooping from window to window overlooking the Ohio River. It is dark outside, this first night without my mother.
“Poor thing! Can you catch her? Can you get her outside?” Panic in my voice. In my chest.
Someone opens the front door again. My brother Fritz tries unsuccessfully to wave her out with his arm. A coat is fetched from the front closet. My mother’s coat. Fritz opens it wide and brushes it near the bird. He is careful not to hurt her but all of us are quietly growing frantic. All of us are on the verge of shrieking. We are in the presence of an eerie strangeness, and we are very, very tired. Quicker than it takes to say the words, I know that this little wren is my mother and she is not my mother. But I know, too, the wren is struggling to get out. Caught up in this house my mother loved, in this place by the river she loved overlooking the hills of Kentucky.
Another go with the coat and suddenly out darts the bird. She flies in a straight line into the dark. I quickly lose sight of her. The door is closed.
A large wreath of dried grapevine and silk flowers hangs on the front door. When I notice a sudden movement weeks later, I see the wreath is deep enough to provide shelter for the jenny wren who nests there.
A week before my mother’s house is sold, the wreath is gone from the door. I stand in the front yard alone. It is dusk. The house, like my heart, lies empty. I don’t know the new location of the wren’s nesting place.
I grieve the lack of good choices.
I want to wait, wait until she comes back.
Before I drive away from the house one last time, I hold up my phone and record the sound of wind by the door. Of my footsteps in the dry grass.
And of birdsong: mockingbird, red-winged blackbird, and wren.