The narrator and her mothers try to come to terms with some terrible news
There was a mourning dove sitting on our roof. Well, sitting might not be the right word. Most of the time, we say one word because a better word doesn’t exist. For example, if there was a word that meant there is a bomb whistling toward your family and all you can do is wait for the explosion which will ruin your life, then the nurse with purple lipstick would have said it, instead of just “I’m sorry.”
And how do you receive an apology when you can never accept it, even if you pretend you can? Most of the time, people act like apologies are gifts the apologizer is giving to the person they’re apologizing to. But, looking at the shiny purple lips of the nurse, I wondered what to do with her apology. When you have a gift you don’t want, do you still have to write a thank-you note? I guessed you did. So, I just told the nurse, “It’s okay.” I think that was maybe the first lie in an avalanche of lies. Or maybe it wasn’t.
But there was a mourning dove sitting on our roof. And the reason that I wasn’t sure that sitting was the right word, is that it wasn’t moving at all. Usually when people sit, they fidget, or move their head around if they’re a bird. But the mourning dove wasn’t moving at all.
“Why won’t it move?” asked Aunt Jasmine, trying to pretend everything was normal despite the traces of tears on her cheeks that proved the opposite, looking up at the beautiful bird. It really was beautiful, with its gray-brown feathers with smudges of purple, and eyelids a brilliant blue green. But I didn’t want beauty. Or maybe I did.
“Maybe it’s dead,” I said, in a voice that didn’t sound or feel like me. The words didn’t sound or feel like me, either.
“No, don’t, I mean—” Aunt Jasmine’s eyes filled with the kind of fear a six-year-old gets. She had flinched when I said the word “dead.” “Dead” was the word that the doctors and the nurses had been afraid to say. It disgusted me that Aunt Jasmine was afraid of it too. I wondered if she thought that if we didn’t say that word, the bomb wouldn’t explode. But it would explode. I knew it would explode. She looked at Aunt Mama.
“It’s okay,” said Aunt Mama. But we all knew it wasn’t. We weren’t. Was that me? The not-okay girl. The not-okay family. Aunt Mama was afraid too, only she was trying not to show it, while Aunt Jasmine’s fear was too big to contain, so big that Aunt Jasmine had given up trying. She had cried in front of the purple lipstick nurse. But I hadn’t. I wasn’t ready to give up anything, even with the bomb coming closer and closer. I didn’t want to give up. Or maybe I did.
Aunt Mama covered her fear by changing the subject back to the mourning dove, who still hadn’t moved.
“You could try to sing to it,” she said, acting like the conversation had never changed. Part of me was grateful, but I knew we would still think about the bomb, even when the conversation was elsewhere.
I played a mourning dove’s song through my head twice, enough that I felt ready to replicate it. Even with the bomb, we could still have our bird obsession. Aunt Mama and I had always loved birds. Aunt Mama could recognize any bird in the sky, in a bush, or swimming in a lake. I could recognize every bird by their song or call and could respond to them. Aunt Mama called me “The Bird Whisperer,” but I really couldn’t understand them at all. I couldn’t understand anything, really. I couldn’t understand why the mourning dove wouldn’t move. I couldn’t understand why the purple lipstick nurse didn’t use a better word, or why a better word didn’t exist. I didn’t want to understand the words that the doctors and nurses had used, words like “terminal” and “end.” Any word but “dead.” I didn’t want to understand that word either. Mostly, I couldn’t understand myself.
So, I tried to sing the song of a mourning dove.
“Coo-oo, coo, coo, coo.” The minute the sounds left my mouth, I knew they were wrong. My pitch was too high. Instead of a mournful lament, it sounded like the feeble human imitation it was. I knew how it had to sound in my head, but I just couldn’t make it sound right. I tried again twice, but neither was right. One was too low, and one I jumbled up the sounds, even though I usually never jumbled up the sounds. The mourning dove didn’t move at all after any of them, didn’t even blink. Didn’t even sneer, like I would have done if I were a mourning dove.
I tried not to slump, but I think I failed. Aunt Jasmine started to chant “you can do it,” but was too exhausted to continue past “you can.” Aunt Mama put her arm around Aunt Jasmine and kissed her, but ruined the comforting effect by starting to cry, making Aunt Jasmine cry too. But not me. I didn’t cry. The bomb hadn’t even exploded yet, and already we were all mourning. But I wasn’t going to cry, because I had to be happy before the bomb exploded, even if it was impossible.
Aunt Jasmine and Aunt Mama had sat down on a rock, the big boulder under the oak tree in the backyard. There was room for three people to sit there, but I remained standing. I was too afraid that if I joined them, I would start to cry too. Afraid that somehow the tears would hasten the explosion. I imagined the bomb whistling toward my family. Aunt Mama and Aunt Jasmine were sitting on the rock, and I was standing in front of them. I imagined a dark shape falling toward us. The bomb. In my mind, all that existed was the three of us, the rock, and the bomb. There wasn’t the sky with dark rain clouds looming above us, or the rest of the backyard or the house. I didn’t include the stupid mourning dove either.
There was room for three people to sit there, but I remained standing. I was too afraid that if I joined them, I would start to cry too.
The bomb was fast. The bomb was falling. The bomb was coming. The explosion would happen. It would happen soon. And none of us were ready. We would never be ready. The stupid mourning dove didn’t know anything about anything. It didn’t know about mourning. It didn’t know about bombs, or nurses with purple lipstick, or better words for things not existing, or anything. If it knew anything, it should have moved by then. Stupid doves who didn’t move at all get killed by hawks and fed to little baby hawks. Hawks that swoop out of the sky like bombs. Bombs that swoop out of the sky and cause purple lipstick apologies. And the mourning dove still didn’t move.
Aunt Mama’s pale hand was holding Aunt Jasmine’s darker one. They were still sitting on the rock. They had both stopped crying, but I knew the tears could and were likely to return at any moment. Aunt Jasmine let go of Aunt Mama’s hand and scooched over to make room for me between them on the rock. Without thinking, before I could remember that maybe I didn’t want to, I sat down. Even knowing about the bomb, I felt safe in between my two aunts. Like how small children aren’t afraid of monsters when the night-light is on and they are in their warm bed hugging their stuffed bear, even though the monsters are still hiding in the shadows or in the closet or under the bed or whatever. I rested my head on Aunt Mama’s large belly. I wondered whose belly I would rest my head on after the explosion. Aunt Jasmine’s much smaller belly was always less comfortable. But the warmth of being in between Aunt Jasmine and Aunt Mama pushed it out of my mind.
“Tell me about mourning doves,” said Aunt Jasmine, trying to change the subject away from the bomb, even though we weren’t even talking about the bomb. Usually if you don’t want to talk about something, you end up thinking about it even more than you would have if you had actually mentioned it. But we would have thought about the bomb either way. And if the only subject my aunts could think of to change to was a stupid mourning dove, then the subject would obviously keep slipping back to the bomb the way it had been doing.
Aunt Jasmine was trying to get us to play this game where Aunt Mama and I would tell her facts about a certain type of bird we would be watching. I would tell the stories, what I was best at remembering. Aunt Mama would tell the numbers, which she was better at remembering than I was (she could remember the stories just as well but let me tell them). The idea of doing something so routine comforted me. I snuggled deeper into Aunt Mama and after some thinking, I remembered a fact.
“They eat a lot,” I told Aunt Jasmine. “And I think they store it in this place called . . .” I tried to remember, “. . . I think a ‘crop,’ but I might be mixing that up with another bird.” That wouldn’t have been the first time that happened. Sometimes bird facts would jumble themselves up in my brain. It mostly happened when I was little, but it had been happening more and more frequently. The bomb had changed everything, even how I remembered bird facts. But Aunt Mama nodded and told me that I was right, so I explained how mourning doves put food they find in their crop, then fly to a safer place to digest it.
Aunt Mama played with my hair. I was hoping she would say how much they eat every day. I couldn’t remember the exact number, but I knew she would be able to.
“Aunt Mama, tell us how much they eat every day. Right, they eat a lot?”
“Uh-huh,” said Aunt Mama. I could feel her voice vibrating through her belly, where my head still was. Aunt Mama and Aunt Jasmine had this strange way of saying “Uh-huh.” Some people, when they say it, mutter it, like it doesn’t really matter whether or not someone hears: “Mhm.” Some people say it fast, all one syllable, like they’re trying to run away from it: “Uhuh.” But my aunts had this way of saying it which made it sound like maybe the most beautiful sound on the planet. The “uh” flowed into the “huh,” in a way that made the word sound as important as it was, not trying to run away from the word, not trying to make it feel unimportant, but celebrating it.
Each type of bird has its own unique call, which is for mating, and song, which is territorial. If my family had a call or a song, it would probably have been “uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh . . .” Except I couldn’t do it. The year before, I had made a New Year’s resolution to learn how to say “uh-huh” like that, but I never had. And now the bomb was coming, and it would be too late.
“They eat 12 to 20 percent of their body weight,” Aunt Mama said.
I couldn’t understand how she could remember so many facts and numbers about birds so well. Of all the things to stick in your brain, who would think that “Mourning doves eat 12 to 20 percent of their body weight every day” would be something you would remember and be able to pull out of your closet of memories on command? A lot of the time, I felt like all of the memories I had forgotten were still somewhere in my mind, I just couldn’t find them. Unlike Aunt Mama, I had a pretty bad memory for things like numbers and stuff. I was really only good at remembering bird calls. But Aunt Mama had been a professor of ornithology at Cornell before she had retired two years before, so she had to remember those kinds of facts.
I was about to try to think up another mourning dove fact when Aunt Mama’s phone rang. I had picked out her ringtone. It was a male gray catbird’s song. Gray catbirds are mockingbirds, and a male’s song can be a really long and jumbled interpretation of other birds’ songs. Aunt Mama’s phone didn’t really ring very often. Most people knew to call Aunt Jasmine, because she had the better phone, and used it more. Aunt Mama still kept her flip phone because the doctor told her looking at a smartphone screen too much would be bad for her heart or something. But soon it wouldn’t matter if she looked at a smartphone screen at all, because the bomb would explode and then all of this time not looking at a smartphone screen wouldn’t matter because she would just be the word that nurses and doctors were too afraid to say—dead. They were all afraid of so many words. But I wasn’t afraid of words. Or maybe I was.
Aunt Mama gently lifted my head off her stomach and stood up, reaching into her back pocket for her phone. She looked at the caller ID. She looked back at me and Aunt Jasmine, who were both watching her. Aunt Mama looked back down at the caller ID, then again back up at Aunt Jasmine. She mouthed, “Mira”. They both looked at me.
“Answer it,” said Aunt Jasmine.
Aunt Mama did.
The Woman Who Gave Birth to Me’s name was Mira. When she was younger than she should have been, she did the kind of thing that gets you called the kind of names people write on the inside of bathroom stalls. She made the kind of mistake that leaves you with a baby that you don’t want. That baby was me. The Woman didn’t want me, but she did have a half sister, Aunt Mama, who had just gotten married to Aunt Jasmine, and wanted kids but couldn’t have them with each other because they were gay. So they adopted me. I called Aunt Mama “Aunt Mama” because she was the one related to me by blood, even though really Aunt Jasmine was just as much of a mother.
When I was younger, we had tried to meet up with The Woman once a year to eat ice cream together on the Fourth of July, a holiday that didn’t really mean anything to me. I think Aunt Mama had wanted me and The Woman to have some sort of relationship. But over the years, The Woman had started to cancel our ice cream date more and more often. Sometimes she gave a reason, like that she had a date or a friend’s party, or she was sick. Sometimes she didn’t give any reason at all. When my best friend started hosting a Fourth of July barbecue party, Aunt Mama gave up trying to keep it alive. The truth was, even with the annual meetups, I didn’t really know anything about The Woman other than her favorite flavor of ice cream. And now, I was mad at her for calling. I didn’t want to deal with anything to do with The Woman now, not with the bomb coming closer and closer with every breath any of us breathed.
The way Aunt Mama’s phone worked was that unless you had your ear right next to it, you couldn’t understand what the person you were talking to was saying. Still, since Aunt Jasmine and I were nearby, we could hear a high-pitched buzzing sound whenever whoever it was on the other end of the call spoke.
She might get lonely. Of course she would be lonely. All of us, which wouldn’t be complete because it would only be two of us, would be lonely.
The Woman and Aunt Mama had a short-lived and, from what I could tell, fairly unsuccessful attempt at small talk. After a few how-are-yous and all of that, The Woman asked a question, and Aunt Mama looked at me and answered, “Yes, she and my wife are here with me right now.” It felt weird for Aunt Mama to call Aunt Jasmine “my wife” instead of “Jasmine.” She only called her “my wife” if she was being really formal or was very uncomfortable.
Aunt Jasmine put her arm around my shoulder and squeezed me into her side. Like I said before, Aunt Mama had a lot more cushion than Aunt Jasmine, so it wasn’t like an Aunt Mama hug, but it still felt good.
More high-pitched buzzing came out of the phone.
“Just a moment,” said Aunt Mama, pulling the phone away from her face and looking up at us. Aunt Mama saying “just a moment” so formally was almost as strange as her referring to Aunt Jasmine as “my wife.”
“She wants to be put on speaker,” Aunt Mama said.
“Are you up for it?” Aunt Jasmine seemed torn between releasing me and holding me tighter.
“Uh-huh,” I said. It didn’t sound the way my aunts say it, and it was a lie. Some people just seemed to make me lie. Purple-Lipstick Nurse was one of them, I guess. Another one of them was The Woman, even only the thought of her.
I decided I wasn’t going to say “uh-huh” anymore. It just didn’t sound right. I thought about how after the explosion, Aunt Jasmine would be the only one left in the whole universe who could say “uh-huh” in that beautiful way. She might get lonely. Of course she would be lonely. All of us, which wouldn’t be complete because it would only be two of us, would be lonely. Especially me.
“I’m going to put you on speakerphone,” Aunt Mama said after she put the phone back to her mouth. She pressed a button, and then said, “You’re on speakerphone now, okay?”
“Uh-huh,” said The Woman. The way she said it wasn’t the way Aunt Jasmine and Aunt Mama said it, which was good in a way. If she had said it the way they did, it would have made me angry. She wasn’t allowed to sound like them. Sounding like my aunts, my real mothers, the ones who actually cared about me, was like saying she was a real mother too. Which she wasn’t.
There was a really long silence. No one knew what to say, or had anything they wanted to say, really.
“Hello,” The Woman finally said to me. I knew she was talking to me, because she called me by the name on my birth certificate. That name was like her, in that way. It’s only real connection to me was through that document. I didn’t care about either of them, and neither should really be in my life. But The Woman and the name were both calling, coming at me, and so was the bomb. I was really angry. Usually I wouldn’t be that angry, but usually bombs don’t fall out of the sky to ruin perfectly nice lives and people who don’t care don’t come and pretend they do.
“Hi,” I said. For the second time that day, my voice sounded like someone else’s. Even just saying “hi” to The Woman, I had managed to lie to her, making my voice sound different. But she didn’t deserve the truth. She shouldn’t have been talking to me. If she didn’t care about me before, why was she here now? I didn’t need a life that she was in. I didn’t need a life that that name was in. Mostly, I didn’t want to have a life that the bomb was in. But nobody cared about any of that. I felt tears trying to push themselves through my eyes and out into the world, but I wrestled to keep them back.
“So, I know we haven’t really been in touch very much—” I wanted to scream at her but didn’t, which for some reason felt like lying too. “But I was thinking that maybe—” she paused for so short it wasn’t really a pause at all, and then continued. “Maybe that we could spend some time together over—” Suddenly Aunt Jasmine interrupted her, squeezing me super, super tight.
“She’s going through a lot right now, and she’s under a ton of stress. I don’t think she needs more upsetting stuff in her life right now. You get it?”
I thanked the universe for Aunt Jasmine. She wasn’t even formal like Aunt Mama. She just spit it out.
“Oh,” said The Woman. “Of course. I didn’t mean—no, I understand that it might be upsetting, and I didn’t—” The Woman stopped talking and there was a really long, awkward silence. Suddenly and without warning, she hung up.
Aunt Mama put down the phone and looked up at us. First, she looked at Aunt Jasmine. Then she looked at me. Then she looked at the phone, and finally back up at us. There were so many feelings and thoughts in my head, I didn’t know what to feel or think first. All of the thoughts and feelings were mushing together into something big, and it was bubbling together, up my throat, fighting to push itself out into the world. I fought back, trying to keep it down. I didn’t know what would happen when it came out, and I didn’t want to find out. Or maybe I did.
Aunt Jasmine started laughing, and then Aunt Mama joined her. I didn’t. All of that laughing was making it harder for me to keep in the bubbling thing that wanted to come out. My aunts laughed and laughed, and I sat there trying to not let all of my feelings fall out of me. I wasn’t laughing. It wasn’t funny. Besides, right then I didn’t want funny. Or maybe I did.
They finally stopped laughing, making it easier for me to hold down whatever it was that wanted to come out. I took a breath that wasn’t deep at all to keep it down there. I looked up at the mourning dove, still sitting on the roof. Seeing that it still hadn’t moved made me angry.
“It still hasn’t moved?” Aunt Mama asked, following my gaze. “Maybe try singing to it again?”
I shook my head. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t want to try again. I was tired of failing at everything. I was tired of bad apologies from nurses with purple lipstick. I was tired of words not being good enough. I was tired of stupid mourning doves who didn’t move. I was tired of women who decided to come and talk to girls they wished weren’t their daughters at the worst time. I was tired of waiting for a bomb to come and ruin my life. And all of my exhaustion was too big to keep in, even though I was too stubborn to let it out.
Aunt Mama went in to make dinner, and I wondered who would make dinner once the bomb exploded. Aunt Jasmine was a notoriously bad cook. Maybe we would just order pizza every night. But I didn’t think that even eating pizza every night would make up for everything the explosion would take away from us. A million nights of pizza could never, ever, replace Aunt Mama. Aunt Jasmine put her arm around me, but this time didn’t squeeze so hard.
“Tell me more about mourning doves,” she told me.
I didn’t want to. I really didn’t want to. Why did I have to? Aunt Mama could tell Aunt Jasmine a million bird facts with no effort, any time she wanted. But not any time. She wouldn’t be able to after the explosion. I felt Aunt Jasmine’s arm around me. It was kind of loose, in a dejected sort of way. But it was still around me. And I remembered how afraid she had looked when I said the word “dead.” Remembered how she had spoken to The Woman. And then I knew that Aunt Jasmine needed me to tell her a fact about mourning doves. So, I tried to remember.
“The oldest known mourning dove lived to be pretty old,” I finally told her.
“How old?” she asked, squeezing me. I knew she was glad that I had played along.
“I can’t remember!” I said. My voice broke. For the first time that day, something I said felt true, and not like a lie. My broken voice was like me. I was broken too.
It started to rain, so we had to go inside. I would have stayed out there, in the rain, but I was too tired to say so to Aunt Jasmine, and I didn’t think she would have listened to me either way. I was glad it was raining, so I got to pretend that my tears weren’t rolling down my face, and not hate myself for them. The stupid mourning dove was still sitting there, on the roof, in the rain, not moving a muscle. It was drenched. It deserved to be. I don’t know why I blamed everything on it, but it felt good to have someone to be angry with who wasn’t me. Before I went inside, I looked up at it.
And I screamed at the mourning dove. But it wasn’t a scream. It was small. It was quiet. It was hollow. It was everything I was at that moment. And the funny thing was, it sounded exactly like the cry of a mourning dove.
Aunt Jasmine had already gone inside, so it was just me and the bird. Looking at it, all of my feelings bubbled up in me again, but this time I could recognize them better. Anger at The Woman. Anger at myself. Anger at the mourning dove. Anger at the bomb, and whatever sent it. Grief. Fear of the grief. Fear of forgetting everything important. Anger at myself for being the kind of person who might forget. All of that, and all of this other stuff that I still can’t explain, clumped together into this big, explosive thing inside of my chest. And I focused all of it at the mourning dove. It all came up and out of me like a storm, like a bomb, like an explosion, like a falcon swooping down to eat stupid mourning doves who didn’t move. And I screamed at the mourning dove. But it wasn’t a scream. It was small. It was quiet. It was hollow. It was everything I was at that moment. And the funny thing was, it sounded exactly like the cry of a mourning dove.
The mourning dove turned its head and looked at me. Usually it’s hard to read a bird’s face and see what emotions are in it, because bird faces are so different from human faces. But right then, I could see everything I needed to in the mourning dove’s eyes. I could never explain what I saw there to anyone. I think even if I could, they wouldn’t understand it. But I understood it. It was one of those things you don’t need words for. Words hardly ever do their job. Sometimes all you can do is feel. And I felt. Then, the mourning dove spread its wings, and flew away, leaving me alone, all by myself. I turned around and walked into the house.
* * *
After dinner, and once the rain had slowed a little, the three of us put on our raincoats and went back outside to see if the mourning dove was still there. I hadn’t told my aunts that it wasn’t. But when we went outside, it was still gone.
“I guess it went someplace dry,” said Aunt Jasmine. “Birds do that, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Aunt Mama said it in that beautiful way, but I wasn’t jealous anymore. “That’s one of the benefits of nests. They provide some shelter against weather.”
We were all quiet for a while. My head was resting on Aunt Mama’s belly, like before, only now we were both wearing raincoats, so it was a little less comfortable. I wished I could freeze time forever in this moment. I wished the rest of my life would be this comforting, and not stressful or confusing or uncomfortable or upsetting, like so much of life is. I tried to memorize everything about the situation, so I would still have the memory even after the explosion.
“Are you . . . scared?” I asked Aunt Mama. I didn’t have to explain what I meant. I didn’t know if she thought about her sickness as a bomb the way I did, or maybe something else. Maybe she just thought of it as a sickness. Maybe she could pronounce the long, complicated name that the doctors had called it. She didn’t say “scared of what?” or lie that she wasn’t scared. She just said, “Yes.”
She didn’t say her beautiful “uh-huh.” I didn’t think it fit there, and I guess she agreed. I had known she was scared. I had seen it when I had said the word “dead,” the same way I had seen it on Aunt Jasmine’s face. I just needed to be reassured that I wasn’t the only one.
“I’m sorry about all of this,” she said after a while. Earlier I might have blamed her a little, but if I did before, I didn’t then. Her apology wasn’t a purple lipstick apology. It wasn’t what it was because something better didn’t exist. It was what it was because it needed to be. I knew what to do with it too. I knew how to respond. And I didn’t lie.
“It’s not your fault,” I said. And I wasn’t just talking to her. I was talking to myself. I was talking to the purple lipstick nurse. I was talking to the mourning dove. I was talking to Aunt Jasmine too, who probably blamed herself a little bit the way I had. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes sad things just happened.
“Are you scared?” Aunt Mama asked me.
“I am,” I said. I burrowed deeper into her belly.
“I am too,” Aunt Jasmine interrupted, suddenly. “But you know what?”
“What?” I asked.
“We’re gonna figure it out,” said Aunt Jasmine. I could feel her lean over and put her arm around Aunt Mama. And there we were. My beautiful family. It was only drizzling a little now, and the horizon was starting to get orange with the very beginnings of sunset. But the sunset didn’t remind me of the bomb by the way it was looming. It only made me think about sunsets. I wondered if we would see a rainbow, but the only time I had ever seen a rainbow was in a hose, which I didn’t think counted. And it didn’t matter if the sunset wasn’t beautiful at all, or if there wasn’t any rainbow. I think we were beautiful enough.
“Uh-huh,” I said, and it sounded exactly right.