Magpie Heart

by | Apr 15, 2022 | CNF Spring 22, Creative Nonfiction

I lay unsleeping on my husband’s left side, touching the half of him that, because of his stroke, he does not always shave or put a shoe on. Through the bedroom window a white sliver of moon trembles, caught in the branches against an ocean-dark sky. The Darth Vader wheeze of his CPAP machine rolls in and rolls out, along with a sour urine smell from his disposable underwear in this too-small bed, this too-small room, this too-small life. I run my fingers along the sheets to make sure they’re dry, and looking for distraction I grab the phone that’s always next to me.  I hold its warmth on my chest for a moment like a second heart, then google vascular dementia for the hundredth time.

My healthy, strong husband almost bled to death, survived strokes, then a coma, and then lived. He lived, and the other side of my bed is not empty. It is not empty, but I am not sure what it is.  He walks and dresses and talks but some spark is missing, some way of processing life and reacting to it is no longer there. “What are you up to this time?” he used to ask with indulgent pride. Tickling and teasing, we would chatter like magpies.  He no longer thinks to ask, so I say, “What’s up?” Trying to start a conversation like shock paddles on a stopped heart.  “I don’t know,” is always the answer. I used to stay warm at night snuggling up to his burly generator body glowing with heat and energy. He would jump and laugh when I touched him with my iceberg toes.  Now my feet brush his cool parchment legs and there is no laughter. Our bodies touch but there are light years between us.

He roams into our son’s room and steals a coin collection.  I finally find him standing in the middle of an aisle in a neighborhood store, drinking a beer bought with mercury dimes, shoppers edging warily past him. He has soiled himself and it runs down his leg, while he grins like a king. I scold, prickly-voiced, “What are you doing?” and the grin slides off his face, leaving blankness. “I don’t know.”  It is hard to hold two opposing feelings at the same time.  Love and disgust. Pride and shame.

He roams from room to room of our home looking for something he cannot recall. “Where are you going?” “I don’t know.” I buy locks for the inside of the doors and then alarms for the windows after he crawls through them coatless and penniless into the dark winter streets.  I am his keeper. I am Nurse Ratched, keys jangling from my sweater.  I miss another intellect that pushes back.  Now I push against nothing, and fall over. He has been stolen.  My throat closes up and my heart craves what no longer exists. I lay in our bed longing for home.

***

     At the age of five, I am an alley urchin with soles as thick as shoe leather from running on stones in my bare feet. While my older sister is at school, I spend lifetimes wandering in my kingdom of stones and trashcans beyond our back gate. Like the youngest child in fairy tales, I return home with pockets bulging.  Lost keys and discarded machine parts, treasures that whisper of larger mysteries. This key might open a kingdom, that machine part might power the world. Totems of endless possibility.  I smuggle them onto the floor of my bedroom closet until they are found by my mother and thrown away again.  I come home with pockets full because it is as natural as breathing, now having to turn out my pockets before being allowed in the house.  A daily ritual while my mother scolds and tries to convince me to see the world with different eyes.

One day my dad comes home and sees my drooping eyes, mouth, heart.  He disappears, mumbling about art and perception, and returns triumphant, waving a bit of black velvet fabric which he places ceremoniously atop a small table.  Slowly and thoughtfully he arranges the contents of my pockets. Turning them and shifting positions until he is satisfied.  There!  A beautiful collection in a place of honor. My insides feel as if they’re grinning from side to side. My heart-wings beat across the sky. It is beautiful, curated by me, cast-off bits of the human world.

***

     Magpies are intelligent birds, able to mimic human speech and recognize themselves in mirrors. They typically mate for life and are known for their community funerals at death. They work together in pairs building their nests, which are complex constructions.  The male contributes most to the exterior domed structure of sticks and twigs while the female builds most of the interior bowl of mud and soft grass. They usually wake in the morning, but on a full moon they sometimes sing right through the night. Folktales surround these birds and their compulsion to steal shiny things.

When I was little I was fascinated by a bright illustration in a children’s book. A magpie with a pearl earring dangling from her beak stood over her nest of woven twigs entangled with odd bits of keys and jewelry. The picture released tumblers that fell into place in my brain with a click, click, click. Each bit of brilliance a story of loss.  A woman searching for her ring, a child crying over a lost bracelet, unanswered questions. The treasures seemed all the more precious because they were stolen and hidden from the human world, existing and not existing at the same time.  I did not think unkindly of the thieving magpie.  Perhaps these things forgotten by human owners were nurtured like children in her nest, providing security and joy on dark nights. Perhaps I too am a magpie finding things, and people, and ideas to hold close in a private universe.

***

       Loneliness. There are layers woven together and it is complicated.  I loved the man he was but he wasn’t always good, and I love the man he is but he is no longer wise. The love is always there but it has changed and I am neither sure what it was nor what it is now. The layered twigs of a magpie nest. Before the strokes he took care of the financial side of our lives and I took care of the nurturing.  He ran the mechanics of the home and I ran the heart.  When he left me, when he was stolen, I was not prepared.  Pipes bursting in winter, tax penalties, forgotten forms. I make mistakes, I fix mistakes, I make more mistakes. At night I google how to appeal property tax increases, and the names of locks that can be locked from both sides, and the small stick-on alarms that ring when windows open at night.

I hold my phone close at night and find what will get us through the next day, but though I search and search I cannot find what our future looks like. I have nested protected at his side for decades and now it is my turn to protect him. I resent the change in roles. I worry I will fail.  I lie in the bed next to him, praying I make right decisions. Trying to figure out how to navigate our family through strong currents. I have lost my husband, my friend, my partner. I navigate in circles with only one oar.

***

       When I was a child I gathered shiny bits of metal. Now I gather problems, and solutions, and memories, and dreams.  I gather information on hypovolemic shock and transfusions. I gather information on thalamic strokes and comas. I gather information on dementia, and wandering, and perseverative behavior.  I tuck away bits of knowledge to provide stability to my life. I gather memories that cling like barnacles and reweave myself together with their glue. Sitting by the fire at a friend’s house, the whoosh! of cold air when the door opens, and I look up and see him for the first time.  He is in business school, works for an engineering company, makes his own beer, knows everything about military history.  We talk Dali, and quarks, and Monty Python. A perfect summer day sitting on the grass of a farm field with the sun warming us to contentment. Satisfied. No need to talk at all. Lingering in the darkish stacks of used bookstores, shafts of dust-filled light arcing over us as we kiss. Our wedding day. The birth of our son. I take these moments into my heart and tuck them like treasures amongst the twigs. Perhaps the part of him that is stolen still exists somewhere? Perhaps the relationship we once had exists in some sacred place? The losses woven in some otherworldly nest.

Now he is obsessed, magpie-like, with collecting bits of paper.  A summer Saturday at the farmer’s market with an endless sea of tents and tables and literature. His pockets burst with flyers and cards, a trail of written words falling in his wake. Intense eyes, pressed lips, and stubborn hands harvest one of every paper on the tables. I touch his arm, “you have enough.” Glassy eyed, he does not hear me so I tag along behind, trying to stop the ocean. He finds an empty white plastic bag and there is no end to the possibilities.

He is relentless, targeting papers everywhere we walk. Magazines from office lobbies, gift cards from store counters, artist cards, doctor cards, advertisements, papers in restaurant doorways, and tatters forgotten on the ground.  I tag along sheepishly smiling and bobbing my head and apologizing to receptionists who say they do not mind, and clerks with hard eyes who have seen it all before. Do these bits of flotsam help him feel connected?  Coded messages just for him about the beauty of the day and his place in it. He breathes them in like life because so much has been stripped away: job, car, independence, insight, identity, stripped away without permission by strokes and brain damage. He possesses these printed papers to be part of the conversation.

Each day he leaves the house with his pockets almost empty. He carries only the AirTag I placed in his plaid flannel jacket so I will not lose him. He returns home riding a wave of paper with which he builds chaotic nests on our bedroom shelves. He finds comfort in them, and grieves when they are periodically swept away by me into the blue recycling can. Highly negotiated events with prized items chosen and given places of prominence in return for letting go of the rest.  An endless tide, this building up and stripping away. He shuffles out of the house this morning with only the AirTag in his pocket, endlessly optimistic. Ready to re-create himself again.

***

      Tidal pull and push on objects, memories, relationships. Drowning, parched, drowning.  To live in this existence of ebb and flow I must live with change. I cling and camouflage and survive. I weave together a magpie home, treasure out of trash, liminal space, creating a bridge.  I have a shiny secret that I keep hidden there. There is not only loss.  There is something new in him too and it is beautiful. When he finally is home from the endless rounds of hospitals and rehabilitation, I take him for walks. So much gone, I have to teach him to look both ways before crossing.  Drill him like a small child with my hand out against his chest. “Stop and look this way and now that.”  So much of our life about what is missing.  But there is also something new.

Before the strokes his face and heart were obstructed by heavy protectors, male guardrails against a world of hurt. Now his face is soft and open.  Children smile at him. When we walk he stops suddenly to listen to beautiful music when all I hear is the sound of trucks and dogs. I tuck away this bright new memory. He is happy just to be alive, connected to a larger mystery.  I lie next to him in bed, the full moon through the window shining like a giant pearl. His eyes are open, face full of soft reflected light. I ground myself with a deep breath in and a deep breath out.  “What’s up? I ask, and reach across the gulf between us to touch his hand.

About The Author

Leslie Contos

Leslie Contos is a Narrative Therapist living in Idaho, where she collaborates with clients as they reweave their stories to promote healing. While she has previously published counseling articles, she has just begun the journey of personal writing. This is her first literary publication.