I wonder if there is an afterlife. Nancy believed in it, but she doesn’t seem to be cooperating. My friend Carrie tells me her dead partner Judy moved a chair on her porch shortly after she died. My hairdresser informs me that her dead mother returned as a ruby-throated hummingbird backyard to their backyard. But I can’t find Nancy anywhere, don’t hear her voice, see her in dreams, or perceive her moving the Russian nesting dolls around. Sometimes I question whether she is purposely avoiding me. Or perhaps her essence has really evaporated.
I think maybe the latter is true as I stare at my bland ceiling waiting for the night to end. Finally, night erodes into day, with the black sky ebbing to slate. I greet night’s erosion with relief, as it means that I can let go of any wishes to rest peacefully once again.
My drafty house is already signaling winter’s arrival by early November in Michigan. I shiver at the blast of air that whacks me as I shrug off my warm blankets and touch my bare feet to the cold hardwood floors. I step out through the glass door in my bedroom to a walkable rooftop, where the nearly leafless trees with their large squirrels’ nests look like stick figures against the sky. Finches and sparrows drink the water that collects at the roof’s edge by mid-day. The door is creaky with paint peeling off the edge of its frame, the glass far from weather-efficient, but it is a portal to the natural world, and I never replace it.
I’ve slept in yesterday’s clothes: wrinkled and loose blue jeans, a turtleneck, and a pair of woolen socks. Nor do I bother to take them off, instead just throwing on a warm hoodie along with my wizened hiking boots. I am bleary from the sleeping pill I took the prior evening. The pill pitched me into an artificial lightness when it first hit me at eleven last night, leading to a lazy lull, but its somnolent effects wore off by two. I am in a jittery haze.
Maia is back at school by now, but my daughter Regina is slumbering in the next room. Her amber hair is filigreed against her face. I stop for a minute and examine the soft planes of her face, with its high molded cheekbones, and marvel at her beauty. I check to see that the alarm is set and put a note on her bedside table telling her that I am going for a walk, though I don’t mention my whereabouts. I have my cell phone if she needs me. At fifteen, I never worry that she will be unprepared for school. Unlike the rest of our household, she keeps to her rituals with clockwork regularity, packing her own lunch each night before bed, a level of preparation that her parents had never exemplified. She’s been irregular about going to school lately, though, and I’d been irregular too, letting her stay at home when grief immobilizes her. Her grades might suffer, but who cares at this point. There’s no cure for grief, but sometimes one needs to cower under the comfort of one’s own blankets.
I walk down the staircase and wake up the house by turning on the bright lights of my kitchen. I grind dark-roast beans to make the coffee to carry with me in my travel mug. My dirt-black coffee will cut the haze but not the jitters. I could be lounging with my heavy fleece robe over me, reading the paper while drinking coffee, but today I am headed to see the sandhill cranes during their migration to Michigan.
There is no exact pattern to their arrival, but sandhill cranes migrate by the thousands to parts of Michigan during mid to late autumn. At fifty-two miles from my home, the Baker Audubon Sanctuary is a major stopping point for the cranes on their northward migration, where they congregate among the wetlands like a vast village of noisy personalities. I hope to catch them rising from the marshes at sunrise as they go out to forage in the local fields. Though I have observed the swoops of cranes many times before, I have never witnessed them at daybreak and never as a solo traveler.
Sandhill cranes are prehistoric, with fossil records indicating that they are the oldest species of bird on the planet. The cranes mate for life, and each pair generates their own singular call that identifies them as a twosome. They have long pointed grey beaks, barn-red crowns, and beady eyes with long spindly legs upholding their ample plumage. These quirky irregular features are in contrast to their enormous wings that look like pleated brown velvet as they lift into the air. Although I have never failed to be captivated by their strange beauty, I’m not sure why I sought salvation in the sight of them on this November morning.
I leave the house in a hustle, hoping that I arrive in time, just as the cranes begin their flight from the wetlands to nearby fields. Not that I would see the sun rise. The sky has been gray for days, and I doubt that I’ll see any peachy glow to signify that the sun was ever present. The best one can hope for is that the sooty sky becomes a lighter shade of ash.
* * *
When we walked out the door on a mid-October afternoon six years earlier to embark on our annual trip to the sandhill crane festival, the front yard was awash in golden yellow beech leaves and mild autumn sun. “Jump in, squirts,” Nancy said as she wrestled Maia and Regina, ages nine and eleven, into the car. “Did we forget anything?” I asked throwing warm blankets, lawn chairs, and binoculars into the trunk. “C’mon Professor, get in the car,” Nancy said as she patted the seat next to the driver’s side.
I nestled into her side closely and sighed. “I’m glad that we’re finally going to see the cranes,” relieved that the preparations were over, and that Nancy and I could talk for the hour-long drive. After over twenty years together, I still seemed to relax into softer contours when I leaned into her. “You know,” Nancy said, as she leaned over and grabbed my hand, “We need to do this more often, darlin. You’ve either got your nose in a book or are grading papers. It’s good to have you with us for a change.”
“I know,” I said, exhausted from grading and preparing for classes. “I’ll be better.” I’ve told myself that if I labor obsessively over my work I will excel, but that if I don’t it will spell disaster for my career. At fifty-five, I was still proving myself. During the week, when I wasn’t working, I schlepped the girls around, shopped, and made dinner. I caught up on work during the weekends, writing extensive comments that many students never read. I welcomed the hiatus the family outing promised, even if meant that I would be up until 4 a.m. grading the student papers.
Nancy popped in the “Sweet Baby James” cd with the young James Taylor in his trademark blue denim jacket on the cover, and soon we were grooving along to the familiar lyrics of “You’ve Got a Friend.” One part of me thought James Taylor was hokey, but I couldn’t help but enjoy the melody and the sentiment, especially with our daughters humming along. I reached my hand to touch the nape of my partner’s neck. I also put behind me the casual bickering about work, money, and housework that littered our partnership. As I sat in the car with my binoculars in my lap, I filled with pleasure anticipating the beauty and wonder of an autumn day amid trees and cranes and humans.
* * *
The only pleasure I feel now is when the sleeping pill causes a fleeting evaporation of awareness. But when I’m not in full retreat from the world I notice the natural environment, because I still have what Nancy lost: the ability to be in the world. When I walk out the door, I see that my birch and weeping cherry trees have shed their leaves in preparation for winter. The bark of the birch tree is like curled grey and white crinoline, and sometimes it peels away to display its soft pink underside. I wind my wooly woven gold scarf around my neck to keep warm.
I get into the car, relieved that driving is so automatic that I barely have to think as I turn on the ignition and let up on the gas pedal in the right direction. As I grip the steering wheel, the iron press of grief bears down on my skimpy frame. I am shriveling, unable to keep food down; the coffee in my thermal mug will be the bulk of my nutrition for the day. I am like an addict who is going cold turkey. In the photo taken of us on our wedding day, the one day that same-sex couples could get married in Michigan before the Supreme Court ruling, Nancy is elegant, with the purple and blue silk scarf tied around her neck that I bought for her when we were in Paris. She is taller than me, and I am leaning up into her side, even though it is her body that is faltering.
* * *
I let go of Nancy’s hand as we turned into the driveway of the sanctuary on that earlier pleasant October day. Entering into the festival arena, we saw balloons and signs with etchings of the cranes’ distinctive elongated necks and triangular pointed beaks pointing the way. Oak, maple, and birch trees along the sanctuary driveway hovered over the surface of our car, with coral, mauve, and amber yellow leaves so saturated with color that they seemed as if they had been painted onto the landscape. Hardy elderly volunteers wearing loose baggy pants with huge pockets and wide-brimmed hats directed our car to the parking area over a wide stretch of grassland.
The girls jumped out of our Dodge Mini-Van screaming the names of their friends Tevy and Sovann, the daughters of our dear friends Daria and Virginia. Every year, the four of us made the pilgrimage to the see the sandhill cranes. The couple were in their fifties, like us, and adopted their girls from Cambodia, while ours were from Russia. We said that the girls were like stair steps, each one a year apart in age. We were all wildly enthusiastic about parenting. We were well done with the sowing of any wild oats and planned family-friendly outings for our children and multi-generational New Year’s Eve parties. As lesbians we had waited long enough and could take nothing for granted when it came to having children and raising a family.
We thought that we could be not only ordinary but extraordinary parents. Although we never articulated it, there’s a part of us that wanted to show how it should be done to all the doubting straight people. I now laugh with my friends at our idealism, how easily we bought into the idea that there was even a singular way of doing it right, as if parents can control the course of history. None of us could contemplate what monsters would cross the path of our children’s childhood. Not for a minute did I imagine what might happen to our family were Nancy to be eviscerated. I was too complacent for that.
* * *
Nancy and I linked arms as we wandered to join our friends on our annual hike through the sanctuary woods. She could be shy and reserved in some social situations, but when she smiled at you, you felt as if you were her winning lottery ticket. With her wide face, ruddy cheeks, bowl haircut, and the gap in her front teeth, Nancy looked like a sunny kid with a few wrinkles. Hell, even the garbage man flirted with her because of her open-faced friendliness, not that her rangy blonde good looks didn’t help. She would ask our repair men “How are ya?” in that lilting Boston brogue with sincere interest. I got slightly jealous when the men lingered in the house for too long.
The girls and I basked in the corona of Nancy’s good cheer, especially because it was likely to dissipate like smoke during episodes of ill health. But this day, the children were playing in the colorful forest. The adults were talking about the girls’ latest illnesses, good and bad teachers, lessons and practices, a humdrum but no less soulful pleasure. The gods were smiling on us.
* * *
I have no sense of a higher power as I make my way to the bird sanctuary on this chill November morning. I’m driving with what my yoga teacher calls monkey brain, meaning that I’m so busy with unhelpful thoughts that I fail to observe my surroundings. When I finally look around instead of straight ahead, it seems as if I have traveled to a foreign country, as I scan shady-looking warehouses and bleak fading fields. I am on the wrong road. The highway split off in two different directions about ten miles earlier, and I ventured right when I should have gone left. I turn off the highway before returning again in the right direction.
I think I am on a roll when I get headed on route 69, the correct road to the sanctuary. But just as I think I am closing in on the crane area, I realize that I have passed the exit. I turn off the highway as soon as I can, thinking that I will easily find my way to the nearby nature area. But after what seem to be miles and miles of flat farmland that fail to trigger any memories, I realize that I have no idea where I am.
I pull by the side of the road and weep, overwhelmed by the ways in which my grief is making it impossible for me to find my way. I sit there for a few moments capsized momentarily by my violent emotions. Then I return again to the task of finding my destination. After fiddling with my phone’s navigational device, I discover that I am only about five miles away from the trail. I turn on the ignition and navigate my way to the Marsh nature trail, just down the road from the Baker Sanctuary.
As I pull into the empty driveway, I notice that there are wetlands in the distance most likely harboring several hundred cranes. Only a few brown leaves hang off of the nearby cottonwood trees, curled and dried up, ready to drop like people nearing death. I am glad that I am well-outfitted to encounter the grim natural beauty of November in Michigan—a fitting landscape for the barrenness I feel.
* * *
On that earlier visit to see the cranes, we hiked along a trail with exuberantly colored trees, a quaint woodland brook, and the humus of pine needles under our feet. The girls scampered ahead of us out of sight, until we found them leapfrogging on stones across the brook. Our faces squinched up in alarm at the sight, but Nancy said, “What’s the worst that can happen? They fall in,” and none of us could argue with her. We took photos of the girls crossing a log on the creek, their arms stretched out for balance, making funny faces. A few photos memorialize the adults, but not as many.
After the hike, we visited crafts booths, strolling past carved wooden birds, Michigan landscape paintings, artisanal jewelry, and cheesy embroidered potholders and towels. Then we wandered to the arena where falconers tethered a Red-Tailed Hawk and a Great Horned Owl to their gloved hands, displaying the animals’ sharp talons and wide wingspan for the excited children. As the sun began its descent into late afternoon, we sipped steaming apple cider and munched on cinnamon-scented home-made donuts. We ambled over to the hillside, which overlooked miles of wetlands. We set up our chairs and wrapped a blanket around each child as we sat in wait for the annual show.
On that hill, devoted bird watchers, many with binoculars, some with scopes, sat patiently waiting for the cranes, which arrived in late afternoon but would not fill the skies until dusk. One could count on the good cheer of people who love birds: outfitted in their warmest outdoor gear and watching intently as the numbers of cranes grew by the minute, swooping through the sky before their tremulous feet touched down on the watery earth.
Just as the skies began to crowd with dozens of cranes crossing the skies in front of us and dropping to the shallow waters in small groups, the children started badgering us to leave. We told them to wait for a just a while longer. Finally, there was a steady stream of cranes moving in formation, their sharply contoured bodies etched against the sky like a sleek airplane battalion. They flew precisely in the direction of their destination. There was no wavering or fumbling. When they reached their final mooring, they dropped their legs, floating down from the sky like helicopters.
As the cranes settled into the marsh from all directions, their variant bugles reached a crescendo. I wondered if the sound was like an orchestra or a rowdy gathering where everyone is talking at the same time. I wanted to sit there watching until the cranes had finished their descent into the marshes, but we gathered our things and packed up our daughters just as day has begun sliding into night.
By the time we get to Turkeyville, our next destination, the country night was upon us along with the chill. The large old-fashioned eatery was just down the road and served hot turkey with all of the fixings. We adored the cheesy enterprise, which included an electric railroad train, souvenir penny machines, a gift shop, and an ice cream parlor. The girls were mesmerized by the train, which snaked through a village of synthetic green grass and white plastic homes, and churches. Each girl plopped two quarters into the penny machine in order to receive an embossed lucky coin that would shortly disappear into bedside junk drawers.
We heaped our plates at the cafeteria line with hot turkey sandwiches slathered with gravy before gathering around the long roughhewn pine table with our friends. The girls disrupted our conversations, running back and forth from the water station, unable to sit still, excited. We laughed at their antics and reluctantly got up and headed to the ice cream parlor, to put the final touches on the evening, before we embark on the quiet drive home with everyone warm and satiated.
I wonder how much I have airbrushed this memory.
* * *
When I finally reach the head of the trail after my tortured drive, I begin tromping down the path. Before too long, I see numerous felled trees, including mammoth evergreens, blocking me in several directions. Many of them are overlapping, and the entire way ahead of me is strewn with obstacles. Whether the trees have been felled by nature or humans is unclear, but there are so many fractured logs strewn about that the trail is nonexistent. I carefully maneuver myself around the split wood, in fear of falling, since it is unlikely that any other human being will be trekking through this stricken landscape. I stop to sit on one such lichen-covered log, split down the seams, wondering if I will ever find my way through this chaos.
Climbing over the branches, I finally find a clearing, with a flat mound of hill ahead of me, a good spot for catching sight of the cranes. First, I hear them calling, as they issue their distinctive plaintive cries, like a Greek chorus. I tip my head to the sky as one lone crane with its plush scalloped wings flies overhead, then two, then groups of three and four, flying in different directions. I walk around haphazardly trying to follow their pattern; each time I catch sight of them, I feel a softening of my grief.
I have plans to go to work that day, so I soon decide to find my way back to my car. I can see the head of the path from the high clearing I was on, but there is no way that I can return the same way that I came in. There is no clear path, and I had seesawed my way to the clearing. I try to keep my anxiety at bay, as I step awkwardly around the trees until I see the bench that signifies proximity to the beginning of the trail. I am close to the end.
As I approach my car, I check in my pocket for my keys, where I had left them. I pull out the pockets of my coat in a panic, but the keys are gone. I look behind me, paralyzed by the thought that I must have lost my keys on the trail. There is no way that I will find the keys without endless wandering, of which I am incapable in my present state of mind. And even then, it is unlikely I would find them. Whatever resources I once possessed have been corroded by grief.
I walk a few steps closer to the car and spot the keys on the sandy ground just a short distance away, where they had fallen from my coat pocket at the beginning of my walk. For a brief moment I exhale, then look around to see if Nancy has had any hand in my good fortune.
I still can’t find her.
Julia Grant is a recovering academic, who is currently embarking on a second career as a creative writer. She is working on a memoir, The Last Orbit: A Memoir of a Lesbian Widow, from which this essay is excerpted. She currently resides in East Lansing, Michigan. She continues to observe the fall migration of the sandhill cranes to Michigan.