netted birds

Sometimes when I am alone in my room, I see eyes staring at me in the dark.

This is what my son says, at three in the morning when I go to him. He has been whimpering. And before that, sighing loudly and turning over in his bed. He has been awake for some time.

The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night is playing in his room. He has taken to falling asleep to music. After reading together, after saying goodnight, we put on his CD player and let it play through once. If he wakes up in the night, we have told him, he can put it on again. At this hour, it seems so loud. I am desperate for silence. I let him come into bed with us.

Awake now, I lie in the stillness. Only the distant hum of cars on the highway. The mournful sound of a truck horn. I am aware of my arms aching as if I have been rowing boats all night in my dreams.

For me, the new year begins as the old one ends: feeling depleted. It is difficult, it seems, to carry out the simplest of tasks without great effort. I move through the days, through the lists and the schedules. I fall asleep sometimes, sitting upright on my couch. I blame it on the darkness, on winter. On the chill in the bones of my fingers.

In the evenings, I make soups and stews and freeze them. I peel potatoes and carrots. I slice onions. With the broad, flat blade of a knife, I crush garlic cloves to release them from their papery skins. Celery stalks. Leeks. I pinch parsley leaves from their stems. I run my fingers down sprigs of fresh thyme, collecting all the tiny leaves in a glass bowl. Swirl a few tender rosemary sprigs in hot oil. Throw in dried red chiles. For a time, the rhythms of the kitchen suspend sadness though it remains close. Like the stones my son gathers in a square of fine netting and ties with a bit of string. They are caught up, but visible: You could count them if you wanted to.

I read that sadness is anger turned inward and that anger is misdirected sadness and that grief, once felt, remains with you forever, carving long creases into your skin. In the shower, I notice a scar on my arm for an injury I do not remember sustaining. The skin is slightly raised, discolored, but there is no tenderness.

Living with grief, I was told after my mother died, is like learning to live with an open wound. It’s always there and you must accommodate it, treat it gingerly. Over time, you learn how to avoid further distress.

After we embrace in front of the restaurant, I walk the two blocks back to my car in the cold dark night, avoiding the icy patches that remain on the sidewalk and in the street. As I turn the corner, I see my friend, who is standing near her car, smoking a cigarette. I wave, but she does not see me. She is watching the smoke drift, mixed with her own warm breath.

I remember this as I drive into work this morning and while stopped at a light, I watch a young man cross in front of me and pause, in the middle of the street, to light his cigarette. He is hardly dressed for winter, in canvas shoes, cotton pants and a hooded sweatshirt. The careless indifference of youth. There is no warning, no admonition that penetrates.

In youth, I think it is not so much that you believe you might somehow cheat death, but more that you have not had sufficient opportunity to see the boundaries of your life. I think again of the roller coaster, approaching the summit of the final drop. It is not until you are perched at the peak that you can see where you will land. As you ascend, all you see is limitless sky.

My friend hands me a square of paper on which she has written: How helpless we are like netted birds, when we are caught by desire. It is attributed to Belva Plain. The image remains with me, these frightened birds, rendered flightless, their beaks pushing against the fabric that entraps them, flapping their useless wings.

The cruelest desire is the nameless one - the longing for something inarticulable. Born of absence - a wound internalized and buried deep beyond the reach of memory or of language.

It wakes you in your bed and you can hear it in the hum of the hulking flat trucks as they speed past.

Finally, my son sleeps. He is on his side, facing me, his chin upturned, his mouth open.

I would be content, I think, to sit here and watch him sleep for quite some time, but look now, the darkness is receding, giving way to the approaching light.