The Counting of Little Bird, by Deena Goldstein (excerpt, from OK, Little Bird)
After two months of observing the pandemic visitation restrictions, I learn I’m able to visit my father through the screen of his private group home patio. I think my heart will burst from utter joy that I’m finally allowed to see him.
Knowing he craves a taste of home, I go to task crafting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread (his favorite) portioned into four squares. I add applesauce and Lay’s potato chips (his other favorite), fantasizing my paper plate feast will be a home run. Along the way, I stop to pick up his favorite McDonald’s vanilla milkshake to accompany his lunch.
I round the corner to my father’s private patio, my heart pounding so hard in my chest I think it will knock me over. As instructed, I call nurse Lisa to signal my arrival. “Marc, your daughter is here. Do you want to sit up?” There is a moment of silence and then a rustling noise. “Deena,” she says, “He wants to come to the door.” I’m breathless with excitement.
Exhausted and drained of color from his transfer from bed, my father sits hunched in his chair, his arm dangling lifelessly from the plastic armrest. Suddenly, I begin to see him slump. His blood pressure plummets. I watch him begin to pass out. Lisa rouses him and gets him to drink his milkshake as he rights himself in his chair.
The pain of seeing my father in such a state goes beyond anything I’ve ever known.
Time is of the essence as I can see he is completely wiped out already. I say to him, “Hi Dad, thank you for getting out of bed for me. I know it hurts to move. Oh my god, it’s so good to see you. I miss you so much.” I know better than to ask him how he’s doing, as it’s obvious.
He nods, still panting from the exertion. His spindly elbows rest on the handles of his transport chair as he hangs his head and stares at the ground. Then he asks in a raspy, breathless voice, “How is everybody? I catch him up quickly, sensing the limit to his concentration and ability to hold himself up.
During our brief visit, he intermittently sips on his cold milkshake. He’ll never be able to eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I understand. I’m just over the moon to see him in person.
After a long gap of silence, he says, “OK, little bird.” I know this heralds the end of our brief meeting and his need to get back in bed. This is a phrase he’s never uttered in his life to me before, but one that has more impact than any I’ve known. I’m no longer the little monkey with moppy hair dangling in her eyes or even “baby girl,” which seems ill-fitted to this moment. Once “little bird” escapes my father’s lips, I know in the deepest sadness of my soul he’s letting go. Letting himself go. Letting me go. Telling me it’s time to fly. My father’s faint and feathery words set in motion the surreal undoing of my world as I know it. In time, they will become the very underpinnings of my strength. In all the loved-filled exchanges between us, never has he uttered such a meaningful and transformative phrase.
And with that, we exchange I love yous and Lisa wheels him back to bed. I feel like I can’t breathe yet again. I’m witnessing in real time the existential loss of my father, the most devastating loss of my life. “Little bird, little bird, little bird” is what I will hear in my head all the way home and for the rest of forever.
One Year and Four Weeks, But Who’s Counting…
It’s July 22, 2021. It’s been one year and four weeks since my father’s passing. In actuality, it’s the culmination of two years of counting. The counting began at the outset of his decline. It is not only in loss that we tick off days and hours but in the very anticipation of loss.
Steeped in the beginning of his end, as my father’s illness progressed, his life was marked by counting and monitoring. How many Ensures did he consume, how many doctor’s
appointments did he attend, and what was the outcome of his bloodwork? How many hours did he sleep, how many times did he call, and how many parts of our lives were diminished because of his inability to be present?
Everyone was counting. Counting became coping. Somehow, each day would provide a formulaic calculation for what was to come, or how much longer he had. Even hospice was counting. Breaths, pulses, and other vitals. We counted along with hospice looking for answers to questions that essentially answered themselves.
Down to my father’s very last moments of life, we were forced to count his respiration to determine if he was no longer with us, as his breathing was erratic and at moments it seemed he was gone but was not. Andrea and I sat beside my father and waited one last time, hoping we had something more to count. No breath came.
My father passed at 7:01pm on June 22, 2020. Immediately, as if not already bone tired from tallying moments prior to his death, I began counting how many minutes have passed since my father left me. In the span of one minute, the tear in my insides is so deep, it’s unthinkable. With all the counting and emotional logging of his life, there was nothing left to count. And now, the very man I counted on my entire life is gone. I counted on his evergreen presence, I counted on his warm shoulder, on his laughter, his hugs and his unconditional love for me. I counted on him being witness to my life. I can no longer count on the act of counting, the life raft that kept hope afloat. He is gone.
In these first moments without my father, I can hear his voice telling me once again, “Deena, you can’t tell someone that everything will be OK, because it’s not. It’s not going to be OK.” And I wasn’t, Mom wasn’t, Andrea wasn’t, Michael wasn’t. None of my father’s kids, spouses, grandkids were OK. We are heartbroken and lost.
Through the unnatural separation caused by the pandemic, through a year’s worth of holidays, firsts, administrative tasks related to his death, and just pure grieving, a year came and went.
It’s July 22, 2021. Not only is it a year and four weeks since my father died, but it’s my mother’s eighty-fifth birthday. In my home, the adult children gather around my mother at the dinner table to celebrate her milestone. As I sit at the table surrounded by my family, now gathered for the first time since my father’s passing, I’m keenly aware of both my father’s absence and his presence.
My father’s absence is keenly felt in the places in our home where he would regularly roost. Ifeel his absence from his designated seat at the table, his quips, stories and bearing witness to everything the family did and experienced. Whether I was showing him my new car, or he was sitting with me as I recovered from a surgery, my father was always a witness to my life. Life was somehow validated if you could share it with my father.
Michael shares moving and funny stories. We laugh and allow space for feeling each experience. It’s beautiful, sad and a testament to his legacy.
As I scan the table taking in the safe circle of our family, I know things will never be the same. Over and over, my father’s words ring in my ears, “Things are not going to be OK, Deena.”
I understand his words and feelings to be true. But I also understand the strength of the souls seated at the table. I realized we would be OK in a different way. A new way.
I’ve learned to live with the loss. I’m a new version of myself and have found an OK place. In classic Deena fashion, I’ll push the envelope and be fearless to the deep pain and loss I’m experiencing. I’ll laugh through it, cry through it, paint through it, and move through it.
Some days the flowers look the way they did before I lost my father, but then without warning, a Mack truck of emotion washes over me. Like a ghost in Harry Potter’s library, I allow the feelings to pass through me.
There will never be a new wallet or purse I won’t anxiously await my father’s reach into his pocket for a crisp dollar bill to “bless” it with.
There will never be a warm shoulder, on the corner most part of the purple couch to lay my head on and a rough hand to cup my chin and smile at me with all the love in the world.
I cannot drive a new car over to show you, or tell you how our businesses is doing when you ask, “You make any sales today?” There are no feet to sit by, no warm hands to hold, no pop-overs to bring you a sub. There is no “you” anymore.
Exhausted from counting and hypervigilance, after a year, I believe my counting has come to a much-needed rest. So, I did the only thing I knew how to do, one last time. I counted on the strength my father gave me to help me move forward.
To help me help my mom. To help me be there for my husband, daughter, brother and sister and to help me heal the most painfulexperience of my life.
“Everything is not OK, Dad, but it will get better. It’s getting better. It’s not OK. It’s just different.”
I never feel alone. My father is always with me. And on this hot, summer evening on
July 22, 2021, in my backyard, as I have many nights since his passing, I gaze up toward the sky, searching out the star that is my father and think, OK, Little Bird. You got this.
Award-winning artist and former stand-up comedian Deena Goldstein pens her debut memoir “OK, Little Bird”. Deena’s artwork has been featured in solo and collective exhibitions, receiving numerous honors for her original acrylics. Now “Little Bird” shares the unique, irreverent and touching relationship with her quirky, loveable cowboy father. Deena’s flair for humor and all things offbeat makes this book a memorable debut.