June 25, 2018

WEATHERING:

Out the Window: The view in winter. (Donald Hall, 1/23/12, The New Yorker)

I watch birds come to my feeder, hanging from clapboard in my line of sight. All winter, juncos and chickadees take nourishment here. When snow is as thick as today, the feeder bends under the weight of a dozen birds at once. They swerve from their tree perches, peck, and fly back to bare branches. Prettily they light, snap beaks into seed, and burst away: nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, American goldfinches, sparrows . . .

The feeder used to dangle from a maple branch farther away. Always when winter moved into March, bears would wake and tear the feeder down, crushing it in clumsy hunger. In spring there is still bear scat between house and barn, but the bears, shy of white clapboard and green shutters, let my feeder be.

Most days, squirrels pilfer from the birds. I'm happy to feed the squirrels--tree rats with the agility of point guards--but in fair weather they frighten my finches. [...]

My mother turned ninety in the Connecticut house where she had lived for almost sixty years, and spent her last decade looking out the window. (My father died at fifty-two.) For my mother's birthday, my wife, Jane Kenyon, and I arrived at her house early, and at noon my children and grandchildren surprised Gramma Lucy with a visit. We hugged and laughed together, taking pictures, until I watched my mother's gaiety collapse into exhaustion. I shooed the young ones away, and my mother leaned back in her familiar Barcalounger, closing her eyes until strength returned. A few months later she had one of her attacks of congestive heart failure only a week after her most recent. An ambulance took her to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Jane and I drove down from New Hampshire to care for her when she came home. She told us, "I tried not to dial 911." She knew she could no longer live alone, her pleasure and her pride. We moved her to a nursing home not far from us in New Hampshire.

She died a month short of ninety-one. Her brain was still good. A week before she died, she read "My √Āntonia" for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain. Even so, her last months were mostly bleak. Her knees kept her to bed and chair, and the food was terrible. We visited every day until she died. A year later, Jane, at forty-seven, was dying of leukemia, and showed me poems she had been working on before she took sick. One was "In the Nursing Home," about my mother at the end. Jane used the image of a horse running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller until they ceased.

Twenty years later, my circles narrow. Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer's. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years, I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody, and now when I shop or see a doctor someone has to drive me. If I fly to do a poetry reading, my dear companion Linda, who lives an hour away, must wheelchair me through airport and security. I read my poems sitting down. If I want to look at paintings, Linda wheelchairs me through museums. New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It's better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.



Posted by at June 25, 2018 1:30 AM

  

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