Grief, like an apple tree, grows crooked not straight. ~Robert Macfarlane
One month ago, the love of my life and I said good-bye to our dog. Our best friend of fifteen years. He was having more bad days than good, and we decided that the right thing to do was also the hardest thing to do. Neither one of us has been the same since. Each day we suffer his loss in different ways together and separately. I was the one who always woke up early to feed him breakfast and take him out before he settled on a small bed beneath my desk. My love would take him out at night, and he made sure he was covered up with his favorite blankets for the night. I recently learned that our dog would jump into my chair after I went to bed. He didn’t like the way I folded my blanket, apparently, so he’d stare at my husband until he got up and created the blanket nest he wanted on cold nights. The Jedi mind trick of a little dog to his human. I didn’t know he did this every night until we were both crying together remembering this little love of our lives. Little rituals like this we now have lost.
As always, I have turned to reading for solace. I spent time researching for advice on what to do. How best to adjust to this time of grief and severe loss in a time of so much grief and loss. World-wide so many people have lost loved ones, and I know of people personally who have lost dear ones in their lives this year.
One of the bits of advice that I’ve read about grief is that you should spend some time changing your living space. That you should “potter about” a bit to give yourself some purposeful purposelessness. I read somewhere that giving yourself a bit of time to nest will help you through the stages of grief. But this, I thought, is advice before the pandemic has forced us to do nothing but nest. What does one do when you’ve been nesting for almost ten months? Sheltering-in-place. Hunkering down. Quarantining.
In normal times, when I experienced something hard, I ran. Left. Moved on. In normal times, I would have booked us to go someplace where we wouldn’t feel the giant loss of his presence in all the corners of our home that he claimed. In normal times, I would have booked us a place to stare at the ocean together in a climate very different than this dark corner of the Pacific Northwest. I would have made sure we went to someplace bright and cheery. Sure, this would have prolonged our grief, and we would have had to come home to deal with the silence of a life without him, but it is something I would have done before this awful pandemic. What to do with that drive to go someplace and escape when you know it’s not the right thing to do? You stay. You stay in one place. Home. You deal with the pain of listening for his collar shake and loud little snores at night. You deal with the silence and nest.
And this word and all its forms–nest–is what I’ve been thinking quite a bit about.
A friend shared with me a bird nest that she found and cut down to bring inside to her house. “I’m really making myself vulnerable telling you this,” she said as she showed us via Zoom the branches, the twigs, and the nest. I listened to her describe the things she could do with it and I felt nothing but awe and inspiration. This woman recently stayed with her mother as she died, and I saw her plans for the nest as inspiration that life can, indeed, move forward. That creativity can come back. When you know somebody who has lived through losing a parent, you can’t help but think of your own situation. You can’t help but think of beings you have outlived. She went on to share the ideas for felted ornamental birds and other tiny woolen bits she might create, and I shared that I would have judged her only if she had cut it down while a bird was still living in the nest. If there were eggs that she stole–this I would have judged–this beautiful piece of art from nature–I understand.
Later I thought a bit more about this nest, and I wondered if there was a word for stealing the nest of other animals. Are birds like squatters taking up residence in places that aren’t their own? I know that some species will drop off their eggs for other to raise, and I remember being in a biology class with a woman who was outraged about this. She ranted about how careless this was of the mother bird for not caring for its young. As if human beings don’t do the same thing, I remember thinking, wishing she would be quiet so I could listen to the teacher. My friend’s bird nest will become something else entirely in her home.
Her story also brought my eyes a little higher to gaze into the trees instead the tears falling on my shoes as we learn to go on walks without our dog. I’ve found myself looking for nests, and I’ve been looking for birds. Thankfully, I live in a place where there are many creatures to see. “Hope,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “is a thing with feathers.” Maybe.
Four days before I made the appointment to end the suffering of my best friend, I heard a ruckus of birds in the trees while I was on a run, and I looked up to see a very large spotted owl. We stared at one another for five minutes or more. It looked me in the eye the whole time, and I stood in place for a long time after it flew off. A majestic creature of the northwest that you can easily miss if you aren’t looking.
This week while walking I saw a bald eagle land on a branch of a tall tree. When it landed and tucked in its wings, the branch broke off. Claws held the branch in free fall. It let go. Swooped its wings once. Twice. Flew to a higher branch. Landed to perch. More hope with feathers.
Yesterday a flock of snow geese flew directly over my living room skylight. I heard them honking before I saw them. Quick white dashes and black beaks through my square skylight. Majestic creatures passing through the northwest. A migration through this home of mine.
This home of mine. Nesting here. During this time of quarantine, as we now say.
One of the stages of grief is called the upward turn–like the way I’ve been watching the sky, but I’m not there. Seeing grief in stages seems so linear. Too clean. Easy. So unlike this life we’re leading. The collective grief of this pandemic and horrors of late capitalism. I couldn’t find anything that seemed quite right to describe what I’m feeling until I listened to “East of Eden” narrated as a podcast from Emergence Magazine.
Thinking of grief like an apple tree, as I quote above, makes sense to me.
Something crooked. Not straight. Something that looks different in every season. I started hunting for apple trees in my neighborhood, and I found several examples that help me visualize our loss. One neighbor has a line of young apple trees that will one day make nice fence as they as they trim the wayward branches into a neat square. Another neighbor has old gnarled trees that grow every which way–a bit wild. Not so manicured. Nobody has raked the front yard. Cleaned up the front yard after the last wind story. Another house has left the apples to rot on their branches and a giant buck gorges itself in their yard every afternoon. More neighbors than not have apple trees.
Another memory of apples from an airplane window. Another life now. When I would fly from the east, I would try to locate the apple farms in eastern Washington with their nice clean rows before the pilot would mention the presence of Mt Rainier and Mt Baker to the north. Home soon, those lines of trees would say to me.
Another bit of advice to process grief is to write, and I’ll admit, the words have not come easy to me. I think writing helps if you are not already a writer. I can somehow write for my job, but I can’t seem to bring together the stories I’ve been trying to write. To edit the book I’ve written. To outline new ideas.
So I do other things.
I’m painting a lot, I’ve knitted a dozen small blankets for my friend’s cat rescue project, I’m slowly working on this large cross-stitch project where I’ve betrayed my inner Victorian lady by going off the pattern. Six or so inches of little thread letter Xs are somehow creating a rose border that I quite love. My hands it seem, need something to do, but my mind just weeps and feels sad. My body doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. All the things, my friends tell me, are normal. It just takes time, I’m told.
Today, on this holiday, we are to give thanks, which I try to do every day of my life. I’ve decided to try on creating the words again and take on the advice of a writer-friend. She and I are part of an anthology just published. Very exciting. She texted me a week ago, and said that her mom thought my story was the best of the anthology after hers, of course. Keep writing, girl-fren, she said. It was the text I didn’t know I needed.
So here it is. This little idea of a nest in the act of nesting. A noun and a verb. Little bits of things found along the way of life that make a nest into a home.