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  • Big White Bird
  • Ann Pancake (bio)

Every time I visited you, you told me about the big white bird. In the evenings it lit down on the overly mown slope outside your window, and the elderly couple in the brick rancher on the hill tottered out of their carport and fed it. Corn, you thought. It acted a little tame. The couple seemed to know it, but it never spent the night. You asked me to look on my computer for "albatross." Maybe I could get you a book about the albatross for Christmas.

This was when they had you in the locked dementia ward in a rehab center/ nursing home outside Cumberland, Maryland. This was the spring after everything happened. The regional jail for three months. Home for an impossible month. A week in the psychiatric facility, then two in the dementia ward. Then, when you aspirated and nearly died, the hospital for six days, and now back to the dementia ward. Not everyone was old there. The yellow-haired woman named Sally in droopy sweatpants who shoulder-rubbed the halls and grabbed me in a hug if I let down my guard. The man with an afro like a wind-blown anvil who leapt into the restricted elevator with me and escaped to the second floor. But there were also plenty of ancient hollering bed-bound. Then there was my father, you.

I listened to your stories of the big white bird. "Its head comes up to the old man's belt. Now what do you suppose it is?" I'd flown all night cross-country that Saturday we thought you'd die, landed at dawn to learn you were still alive, sped in my rental car the two hours to the ICU. You'd just come off the respirator and lay flat in a barren metallic room, your eyes open to the ceiling. Out of shock or out of relief or out of what-do-you-say-in-a-situation-like-this, I blurted what I would have if I'd caught you on the porch at home. "I saw a redtail hawk on the way over here." Your eyes widened. "Now that's a good sign," you rasped.

I slept at our house in West Virginia, drove the forty minutes to you each morning, and stayed with you the whole day. It had been years since I'd spent over a week in spring back home, and I'd forgotten. The green roar of resurrecting plants, their profligacy and their insistence, the charge to repair, camouflage, disintegrate, bury, the wreckage in the landscape. God-made things were nowhere more beautiful than here. Manmade things were nowhere more pitiful. [End Page 126]

I listened about the big white bird like I had listened, for the fifteen years before that spring, to your stories about wolves running across the front yard, about the earthquakes you felt pass under your bed at night, about people with a secret cat disease that made them want to be petted, about the cancer that came up on Harold Wise's neck when he blackballed the mentally disabled African-American man you wanted to bring to Lions Club, about your cousin in Alaska who was gradually metamorphosing into a bird. I listened to those stories like I had listened to your stories before that period, when you were younger than I was now, nearly as sane, and worked in mental health on the other side of the locks. About the naked Down Syndrome boys in cages you stumbled onto at the Colin Anderson Center. About the little child who drowned in the bathtub at the Potomac Center. About that really bitter winter at Weston State Hospital with so many broken windows that "the one boy, while I talked to him, filled up a whole Tastee Freez cup with mucus. But they kept em all wrapped in blankets, and they never lost a one."

I listened about the big white bird while my mother, as tight as you were porous, as rigid as you were loose, scolded, "Now Joe. You know there're no big white birds around here." And there was no big...


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pp. 126-128
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