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May 10, 2001
The Conversation of Birds
And you are welcome, finch! Rise up and play
Those liquid notes that steal men's hearts away.
-- Farid ud-din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

By Yvonne Seng

illustration: the conversation of birds
Skipper Chong Warson

first letter frankie is slipping away. She has never fully recovered from her surgery for gastro-esophageal reflux disease. She's weakened by emphysema, and cancer now races through her body. The hospice nurses, when pressed, say they do not expect her to live more than a few more days. Like consumed lovers, we enter a world isolated from external time and context, and in which she has become the center of our small, unblinking universe. Through life, birds have taught Frankie the beauty of stillness and the virtue of becoming invisible, and as she faces death, she is passing these lessons on to us. We are like birders watching a rare species disappear.

Rich -- Frankie's son, my future husband -- and I are Boomers, a demographic coming to terms with burying our parents just when we are starting to understand them. And now as we meet as adults, recognize ourselves in the mirrored gene pool of rippled gestures, dreams, and human fallibility, we see our parents fading from us. Now, in the quiet of the Arizona desert with Rich's dad, Bob, we share Frankie's last song.

The staff have given us a guide to the physical signs of death, of how the human body begins to shut down. Bob, Rich, and I watch as the appearance of each sign marks the evanescence of Frankie. As one column increases, the other decreases. If you have ever watched the almost hypnotic spurts by which a morning glory unfolds its tendrils, you will understand our unwillingness to leave her for a single moment.

Frankie's face shrinks before us like a time-lapse photo. The nurses have removed her false teeth as they no longer fit and have begun to ulcerate her mouth. Without them, her strong face collapses and her speech is unclear. She swallows hard to get saliva, but with difficulty. We slide ice chips across her chapped lips.

Her fingertips and toes are already gray from lack of circulation. Her hands are noticeably cold. Her skin, transparent as a newborn chick's, is scabbed and bruised in patches from intravenous punctures and from recent falls and knocks that her body is too tired to heal. Her white hair clings fine to her broad forehead. Her vision is almost gone, and although her eyes shine brightly, she recognizes us only as shadows or abstract forms as we move around the room. We are watching, invisible, beside the trail.

This is not the vigorous woman with whom we hiked barely seven months ago. Yet it is. On this last journey together we've brought with us two of her favorite belongings. The first is her hiking hat, a straw boater with a huge sunflower, which sits on the spare bed across from us where we take turns napping. The other is Lang Elliott's joyful Songbird Portraits, a CD that has been her constant companion since being bed-ridden. The hat because of the face that will always live beneath it. And the CD because where there is Frankie, there is birdsong.

Frankie rests, not sleeping, floating on her limited breath, which seems to disappear for entire minutes before returning with a start. Yes, yes, I'm still here, her body says in amazement. One by one, her senses are leaving her -- sight, touch, taste, smell -- and, as if to compensate, her hearing, which we are told will be the last sense to go, remains keen and sharp.

When not sleeping, Frankie has conversations with her digital birds, and with deceased or absent friends and relatives, who are invisible to us but clear as day to her. We introduce ourselves to her each time we speak, so that she doesn't confuse us with the unseen friends in the room. But in talking with us, Frankie merges us into her favorite combinations of the living and the dead. For a few minutes she talks to me as if I am her favorite sister, and I shyly slide into the role.

Outside her large window, overlooking the red desert, a bird feeder overflows with doves and sparrows. The bird feeder is the real reason we have chosen this hospice. Quail run through the scrub. Inches from the window, a young rabbit digs a cool spot under a bush. Frankie cannot see any of this, but in her moments of wakefulness we describe the antics of the birds in detail. When we get to what we call a "tiny gray dove" -- we are novices -- she slowly raises a finger, and searches her memory.

"Inca dove," she corrects.

Stereophonic birdsong guides us through these nights and days as surely as the rhythm of the nurses who tenderly bathe and move her. Winter wren, Swainson's thrush, Lincoln's sparrow. They hover around us, suspended between life and death. Rose-breasted grosbeak. Red-winged blackbird. White-eyed vireo. They link us to the world outside, and to the next.

Bob, Rich, and I hold Frankie's hand and talk about the Rufous hummingbirds that fly to her kitchen window at home, about the Say's phoebe that sings at their summer camp, about the song of the western meadowlark of her childhood, which still brings tears to her eyes when she hears it on the CD.

Through the next two days Frankie continues to disappear. Only a wisp of this vital woman now remains. Her bones push sharp through the transparent gauze that is her skin. By late afternoon she reaches an essence where she glows and we know she is drawing closer to leaving.

How can you leave me, I ask silently. I have only just begun to know you, but love you like a sister.


Frankie has now reached that point where she is more there than here. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the change is undeniable. She is becoming spirit, and it is not just the morphine glow that gives a serene beauty to her face.


The thought occurs to me that she has been holding on to life by a thread of pain, waiting for Rich and me to find each other, and now she can let go. Our love is both a blessing and a curse. I don't want her to go. But I thank her for her gift, for the child she bore and raised, her only child, and let her go.

The western meadowlark trills on the CD as Rich, on the other side of the bed, strokes her hand.

"Remember, back on the farm," he is saying, "when you were a young girl and your sisters ..." He is relating a story that has become family legend. Frankie is from Missouri, the youngest of twelve children. Her dad, an Alsatian immigrant farmer, carved the stone for their local church in his spare time, and still found time to serve as circuit judge. Her mom, an efficient little Frenchwoman, ran the family like a top-wing CEO. The rambling farm of her childhood is now a suburban golf course.

Rich does not want this friend, his mother, to leave him, but knows he cannot keep her. His thoughts are on making her comfortable, and he goes without sleep to spend every minute with her. When she can no longer talk, he talks for her. He reminds her of all the wonderful moments they've shared, their adventures in Libya and Spain, and their most hair-raising adventure of driving the New Jersey Turnpike in a storm. He's giving these memories back to her as thank you gifts. Thank you, he's saying, that I was with you at that wonderful moment. Thank you for all you gave me. He gathers all the peace from the universe and brings it to her.

He knows her next adventure will be without him. He's telling her, quietly, that we will walk with her to the threshold of death. And wait with her until she is ready to leave.

Bob, a retired Air Force pilot, is pacing the room. He's angry and cannot hide it. He's losing control. He does not want this to happen. He does not want his partner of more than fifty years to die. She was not meant to die just yet. We had all expected her to recover.

The canyon wren begins to sing in the background, and Frankie cocks her head forward to listen. She smiles, a gorgeous smile lit by fond memory, and falls back into the pillows. She tries to whistle through her dry, disappearing lips, but her breath fails her.

Bob whistles quietly to her and is overcome with tears. He mashes his white golfing cap between old hands and looks away. His face crumples, but his back remains ramrod straight. Frankie falls back into her inner quietness, and Bob goes home to catch some sleep. He hasn't slept restfully in months. Rich curls up in an armchair beside the bed -- his eyes are closed, yet he's awake.

The trumpet call of migrating geese floods the room. Frankie starts as if woken from a beautiful dream. She looks around trying to find the geese, but she cannot see. There are no shadows to help her locate them, only their call from the CD player.

She's trying to sit up, stretching out her hands, those big strong hands that once milked cows, which now look so out of place on her frail shrunken body. She's reaching out into the sound and is confused. She's upset and begins to panic.

"It's only the geese migrating, Mom," Rich says to soothe her.

But she is afraid. She reaches again for the geese, trying to call after them. I remember my own childhood, of waving goodbye to brothers and sisters, and my own fear of being left behind.

"Frankie," I say, "do you want to go with the geese?"

She falls back into the pillow and nods.

"It's alright," I say, "They won't leave without you. Sleep some more and when you're ready to leave, they'll come back for you."

She sighs and peace washes her face.

Frankie has now reached that point where she is more there than here. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, the change is undeniable. She is becoming spirit, and it is not just the morphine glow that gives a serene beauty to her face.

She continues to struggle, however. With what we can only guess. Leaving us. Memories. The smell of fresh grass. Her determination to conquer the physical shell that keeps her with us.

When rushing to leave Washington, where Rich and I live, I'd grabbed a book of Persian poetry off my shelf called The Conference of the Birds by the twelfth-century mystical poet Farid ud-din Attar. In it the birds of earth are invited on a dangerous journey to find the Golden Bird, the Simurgh, the Creator. One by one, various birds offer their excuses for not undertaking the quest, each giving a reason why they must stay behind. Unlike those birds, Frankie wants to fly free, yet she is still tied to earth.

The night is a difficult one. Frankie's body continues to shut down rapidly. Her organs are failing, one by one, and only her heart persists. At this point, she cannot swallow fluids, not even her own saliva. Her breathing stops and she holds it as if catching on to a drifting thought, then struggles and fights back into life. She moans in pain as she tries again to leave but can't.

Bob. She's fighting to take care of him, even in death.

The night nurse comes to wash her down, to turn her as blood is now settling in dark pools on one side of her body. Her heart is too tired to push it far. The nurse asks us to stay. Frankie may pass at any moment.

Frankie is naked. Her articulated hip bones almost poke through her skin. This frail body gave birth to the full-grown man beside me. It hardly seems possible.

I am faint, the room is spinning, and I am fighting the urge to retch. Such skeletal bodies I've only seen in photographs of concentration camps, and the images swim in front of me. My face trickles with chill sweat and I have to sit.

Rich looks at me, concerned. "It's okay," I say. "Stay where you are. I just need some air." Bob slumps over the bed. His heart is breaking and what he must do next may break the rest of him. This is the most difficult thing he must do in life.

"Frankie, Frankie," he says and takes her hand.

She doesn't move.

"It's okay to leave without me," he finally says.

There's no sign she has heard and he rests his head on her lap and begins to cry. But Frankie fights through the night and sleeps into early morning. She is now peaceful and calm.

Bob is walking the halls. Rich and I sit on either side of the bed, one of her hands in each of ours. I sing Brahms's lullaby to her, one of the few songs I know all the way through, and she squeezes my finger.

Sing another one, Rich urges. The only song that comes to mind in this sleep-starved state is a childhood favorite: "Mares Eat Oats." Because it seems irreverent to sing this mirthful ditty when someone is dying, I rely on the meadowlarks on the CD for encouragement.

"Marezee-doats-and dozey-doates," I sing.

Frankie begins to stir. Her eyes are now wide open, but unfocused. As in birding, there's only a voice to guide her, and she settles on where my face is.

"Andliddlelamzeedivy," I continue, finding joy in the ridiculous words. Rich is not comfortable with foreign languages, but he joins in.

Frankie begins to laugh. A smile as wide as the Mississippi breaks across her face, and for a moment she joins in with a few grunts.

Her face is angelic. Clear. Almost glowing.

She is filled with grace and peace.

For the next few hours she is back with us. Alert, unseeing and unmoving but for her smile and an occasional finger, which respond to conversation and stories. With the remainder of that last sense, she listens to us sing. And we sing so she can hear us.

Bob and I walk the hall, catching some light and cool air in the atrium. A hummingbird darts among the tropical flowers. We return to the room. Rich is sitting quietly, holding Frankie's hand. Bob sits and drifts off inside himself. He is exhausted.

Rich motions to me.

Look, look, his eyes are saying as he nods toward Frankie. There is both awe and joy in them.

Look. It's happening. She is standing at the threshold, about to step over it.

Frankie's breath is shallow and disappears like hidden water underground. Minutes later it resurfaces, then disappears again. Her face is calm and peaceful.

We hold our breath so as to hear hers. It's like listening for birdsong.

The sound of migrating geese fills the room.

They are taking Frankie with them. And this time she leaves us. Breathless.

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