My 18th birthday fell on a frigid day in late January. I wandered by a local tattoo parlor. I pondered getting a tattoo for a while now, always unsure of what to get. Shortly before my birthday, I landed on the idea of 5 birds flying together on my forearm in honor of my great grandma Motsie, who passed away a little over a month ago. Ever since I could remember, we used to watch birds together.
I pushed the door open and heard the bell chime. The man behind the counter looked up. “Welcome to Skin Worthy, how may I help you?” I looked around the shop, taking in the scenery and listening to the sound of heavy metal music. I told him what I wanted and filled out some paperwork. He nodded his head toward a chair across the room.
I sat down on the chair and laid my arm on the table. It was an uncomfortable position; my elbow propped up and my wrist was bent inward. Normally, I would have felt uneasy about getting inked permanently, but recently I’ve been acting reckless. I felt the need to do something to commemorate her. I wanted to have a piece of her that wasn’t just old jewelry or old birthday cards, but rather a visual memory inked into my skin. I could feel her with me, but I wanted to see it.
My heart pounded in my chest as I watched everything he did. He rubbed my forearm with rubbing alcohol, and then shaved off the hair that was there. He threw the razor in the trash and discarded his gloves for a new pair. He put the stencil on my skin gently and pressed it on in a precise manner. I walked over to the mirror and saw it, and I felt a pang in my heart. Tears welled in my eyes. I wonder what Motsie would have thought about it.
I sat back down in the chair as he poured ink into the ink cap. He carefully took out the needle and the tubes from the packaging. The needle came to life, buzzing as he dipped it into the ink. I took a deep breath. This was it. No going back.
I closed my eyes as he placed the needle to my skin. The needle drummed into my skin, painful at first, but not as painful as the past 5 months.
He started the first bird.
We sat at the kitchen table. Silence hung in the air around us. We stared at each other over our cards, as if we were examining each other for weakness. I laid my card down and muttered “Uno.”
Motsie was holding one card. For a second, she looked down at her card, looking defeated. Her eyes met mine again. She placed her card on the thick pile. It was a wild card. She folded her hands together and smiled at me in victory.
My shoulders shrank in defeat. “Good one, Mots.” I taught her that trick of always saving the wild card for the end. Now, although my great grandma was hands down the sweetest and kindest spirited person you would ever have crossed paths with, she didn’t refrain from laying down a draw four or skip on you. She chuckled, and grabbed the pad of paper. There were two hummingbirds on the corners, and ink was sprawled between the two. She marked a tally under her name, she had 5 wins and I had 4.
A bird flew by the window and we both turned our heads to look out. It fluttered around for a couple moments before sitting on the ledge of the bird feeder. It dipped its beak into the water, almost pecking at it. Before we knew it, the bird flew away. We looked back at each other. Motsie smiled at me, shrugging her shoulders up as her eyes squinted. Motsie loved birds.
We decided to head outside and watch them.
The sun was shining around us as we sat on the swing in her front yard. We were under the umbrella with glasses of ice cold lemonades in our hands, making the hot day in mid-July just a little bit more bearable.
“Look at that bird, Jen,” Motsie said, pointing up at one of the trees in front of us. “Do you see it? That’s a cardinal.”
“How could I miss it? It’s fire truck red!” I exclaimed. Motsie chuckled.
“Yes dear, it is. Isn’t it beautiful?”
The cardinal came up to the birdfeeder in front of us. I examined its sharp looking feathers, black face and miniscule orange beak. Its legs looked so frail, almost like a small twig on the ground. It spread its wings and flew away. “Yeah, that was a beautiful bird.” Motsie smiled.
“What’s that one?” I asked as another bird landed on the feeder. It had an off-white stomach, and a mix of browns, blacks, and greys in the feathers.
“That’s a sparrow,” Motsie replied. She reached for the book sitting between us. This book was pretty much like a bird dictionary: it contained everything you needed to know about every bird. It had so many facts and pictures. She flipped to the S section.
“Generally, sparrows are small, plump, brown-grey birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks.” She read from the book. She looked back up at the bird through her spectacles, and she smiled. The sparrow looked up at us for a second before flying away.
My mom parked the car as we pulled up to Motsie’s house. It was the dead of winter, and almost below freezing outside. My mom, sister, and I were all bundled up in our winter coats, gloves, hats, scarfs, and snow boots. The moment we got inside, we started shedding layers. We didn’t stop until we were practically in t-shirts and shorts.
“Oh honey, is it a little toasty for you?” Motsie looked over at us and chuckled. She was cozy in her pants, sweater, and knit cardigan. If I was wearing what she was, I’d probably die of a heatstroke. Her house was at a very sultry 77 degrees.
“Mots, when is it ever cold in here?” I pointed over to her lit fireplace. “It’s like you have captured the sun and held it hostage!” Motsie chuckled and pulled me in for a big warm hug.
She sang into my ear, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey, you never know, dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.” I smiled.
“Love ya,” she whispered in my ear.
“Love you too, Mots.”
I sat on her couch while my mom got her pills out of the closet and began to sort them for her. We did this every Sunday.
Usually Motsie and I would play Uno. Sometimes we played dominos. Sometimes we played catch. Sometimes we watched baseball and sang “Take Me Out to The Ball Game”. Sometimes she’d tell me stories.
Motsie began to tell me a story about when she was younger. I was half listening and half thinking about her. I examined the way she was telling the story. She folded her hands together and looked into the distance, as if she was looking at a TV screen that was replaying her memories for her. Her skin was wrinkly and aged, her hair was white and flat against her face, and every movement she made was slow and with meaning.
She didn’t always tell me happy stories. She told me about when her brother was captured by the Nazi’s in WWII, and when her husband died in 1986. It’s kind of odd for me to hear her talking about sad things, because whenever I’m around her it feels like she takes a syringe to the world and sucks out all of the crummy and awful things. She is always full of joy. I’ve never heard her talk negatively about anybody, I’ve never heard her curse, and I’ve never seen her be disrespectful to anybody.
I smiled at her as she wrapped up her story, and we turned our bodies so that we were looking out the window at the empty bird feeder. The birds were all gone for winter. I began reflecting on all of the times we’ve watched the birds together. I realized that those were the moments I’ve seen her the happiest. Her most peaceful times. They were times where we didn’t have to fill the silence with absurd chatter about the weather or how our days were going. I wish I knew what went through her head when we watched them. I wish I knew what the birds meant to her. I wish I asked.
We pulled into the hospital parking lot, a place I was becoming all too familiar with. As we walked through the sliding doors, the overwhelming scent of hand sanitizer whirled up my nose. It no longer bothered me. The clerks sitting at the front desk nodded and said hello, a routine that had become daily. The elevator sped up to the 6th floor, where Motsie was staying. Her door was cracked open, and we could hear faint chatter from my Aunt Chris, who was visiting.
“Hey guys,” Chris said. I looked over at Motsie, who was laying in the bed with various needles in her arms and tubes hooked in her nose. Her usually perky face drooped with exhaustion and she lay motionless, except for her eyes. She managed to smile that familiar smile I had memorized from the angle of her lips to the number of wrinkles by her eyes (which were a lot considering she was 96).
“Hi Mots,” I said grabbing her feeble hand gently.
“Hi Jen,” she said back, squeezing mine. She was so weak, yet still so warm.
My mom came up and sat on the other side of her bed. “How are you doing, grandma?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” Motsie replied.
Motsie’s health was declining rapidly. It started in August, when she started forgetting things. In September, she was at my cousin’s house when she lost control of her body and fell. It’s November now, and she has been in hospice care since October. It hit me that she would never come back home to her warm home, that we would never sit on her swing sipping lemonades together, that we would never flip through her bird dictionary again. It hit me that it was real. My heart felt heavy in my chest.
A cool breeze filled the room, the hair on my arms rising. The musky smell of wet leaves after a rain filled my nostrils. The atmosphere was peaceful until my mom burst into my room and woke me up.
“Motsie is in the ER, she had a heart attack, we have to go now!” My tired eyes were suddenly woken without hesitation. I jumped out of my bed and threw on my shoes. Mom sped to the hospital with her eyebrows scrunched. I could tell she was trying her hardest to keep it together, but we all knew what was happening. This was it. She was dying.
We ran through the hospital until we found her room, and Motsie was groaning in what I assume was agonizing pain. My grandma Sharon sat holding her hand and weeping. She tried to get Motsie to sing to help take her mind off of the pain. “You are my sunshine… my only sunshine.” Motsie croaked the words through wheezes.
They transferred her to a normal room in the hospital and alerted the priest. When he finally arrived, all of my family gathered around her bed in a circle, holding hands and bowing our heads as the priest read her her Last Rites.
“Our Father who art in heaven. . .”
“That’s all for today, have a great half day kids! And wait for the bell to ring before you leave!” Mrs. Horton called out. My hand rested on my chin, propping my face up. My eyelids felt weaker and weaker as they closed over my eyes. We had been at the hospital almost all night with Motsie. Today is Wednesday, and she hasn’t been conscious since Friday night. The doctors had her on morphine and other drugs, but she was still moaning in pain and breathing through a ventilator. Motsie somehow pulled through after her heart attack and the reading of her Last Rites. I, along with the doctors, was surprised that she had made it this far. She was holding on to her last bit of strength. I thought about how we all sat around her bed, holding her, and the wavering voice of my grandma mumbling, “It’s okay. You can let go. We love you.”
I looked down at my phone as the bell rang. My sister, Amanda, was calling. “What’s up?” I answered.
She sounded panicked. “Mom said we need to get to the hospital ASAP. Hurry up and come pick me up. It’s urgent!”
I froze for a second. My eyes widened and my hand suddenly lost feeling. “See you in 10,” I said before hanging up. I ran through the hallways and out into the parking lot of my high school. It was bitterly cold, but the sun was shining bright in the sky. As soon as I unlocked my car, I sped out of the parking lot.
Amanda was waiting outside, her eyes red and puffy. After she jumped in the car, I sped off to the hospital.
When we found a parking spot, we ran across the lot to the doors. Outside, crows had all gathered, the first time I had seen any birds since Motsie was hospitalized. I stopped for a second, watching the crows circling around in the air. I knew right then and there that it had happened.
We had no patience for the elevator, so we ran up the stairs. When we got to her room, our breathing was heavy with exhaustion and the pent-up anxiety leading to this day. We stood in the doorway.
My mom was standing in front of the bed, and my grandma and great aunt were on either sides of the bed with their heads down. My mom rested her hand on her mouth, her eyebrows pushed together, and tears flowing out of her eyes. She looked up at us. “She’s gone,” she mouthed at us. We walked in slowly. I turned my head to the left, and saw her there on the bed. Her mouth slightly open, her eyes closed, and the blankets pulled up to her chest and tucked in around her waist. I touched her forehead. She was still warm.
I gasped, my hand still resting on her forehead. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe and tears streamed down my face, falling onto her motionless shoulder. My eyes lost focus, I felt nauseous, and I couldn’t move my body except to wrap my arms around my mother. Amanda joined our hug, and we stood like this for awhile, sobbing into each others hair. When we finally decided to sit down, I looked out the window and saw the crows roaming through the now gloomy sky.
It felt as if all of the happiness had been sucked out of the world, almost as if she took it with her when she passed. The room was cold, the air outside was cold, and my body felt cold. It felt as if my heart had cracked open, and all of the warmth spilled out of it. And now it was all gone. I thought the hard part was watching her die, but now I wasn’t sure. This felt worse.
Before we left, I touched her again. She was cold. The warmest woman I have ever known was suddenly freezing.
It was rough after her death. I skipped school and drove around all day, never anywhere in particular. One day it was raining outside, and I got into my car. In the passenger seat, I saw the untouched newspaper that I picked up a few days ago. I flipped through it, balling up the sections I didn’t care about until I got to the obituaries. I scrolled through the list of those that have passed on until I found Motsies. “IRENE VIG Irene H. Vig, 96, of Cedar Rapids, passed away Wednesday, December 17th, 2014 at Hallmar in Cedar Rapids. . .” I thought about her funeral, how she didn’t look like herself in the casket full of beautiful flowers and how they played “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” on the organ. I wept alone in my car. Lightning flashed outside as the rumbling thunder shook my car. Soon I was crying just as hard as it was raining. Right then, I felt Motsie’s presence.
He finished the fifth bird. “All done,” he said.
I looked down at my forearm and saw five black birds. A single tear dropped down my face, but not because my arm hurt. He explained the aftercare instructions to me, such as which soap to clean with and which lotion to moisturize with. He said something about it taking a month or so to heal. But I wasn’t listening. I thought about how there aren’t aftercare instructions for when people die. There’s not a step-by-step tutorial on how to move on. It’s not like the bird dictionary where you can flip to a page and find everything you want to know about how to deal with death and move on. There’s no time limit on how long it takes to heal.
There are firsts in death just as there are firsts in life. You speak your first word, you have your first birthday, your first kiss. But this was different. First Christmas playing Uno without her. First Mother’s Day without her. First winter not spent overheated in her house. The years seem to pass by quick, but in reality the days are agonizingly slow with the memory of Motsie lingering over me.
I examined the fresh tattoo. The skin around it was red and raw from being jabbed with a needle for the past half hour. The hard part was finally over. Now it needed to heal.
I walked out the door and stood in the cold. I listened. There were no birds around, as they had all migrated south for winter. I wouldn’t hear their songs for a while. I wouldn’t see them fluttering past the window. I wouldn’t see them sipping from the bird feeder. It’ll be some time before I see them again, but time is all I need to eventually heal. Even though the birds aren’t physically here, they will always be with me on my arm. They will always provide comfort for the moments when I need her compassion, for when I need to feel her warmth, for when I need her love, for when I need her strength, and for when I need to feel her presence.