The last hummingbird of summer is only known in recollection.
When the days make the subtle turn from mild to cool, when the sunset hours still contain the memory of when they were fully light: that’s when you keep watch, noting the time between visits — these are the female travellers from far north, the fancy boys and the summer crowd are long gone — and keeping the sugar-water in the feeders fresh for any stragglers. But in the first two weeks of October, I have learned to say ‘are you the last? travel safely and well’ to each one, because one of them will be the last.
My mother died two years ago, soon after the hummingbirds’ return. In truth, she had been dying for fifteen years, but equally not dying with a stubborn ferocity that belied her prognosis and confounded her doctors. (During the better years they’d say ‘you know you’re not supposed to be here’ and she’d say ‘well, tough’ and they’d all laugh.)
Illness is a thief, a confidence trickster that won’t take everything at once, but enough for you to feel the absence and try to adapt, then comes back for more and more. It robbed my mother of a job she truly loved after years of shitty work, of her love of reading and cryptic crosswords, then her sense of humour, her mobility, her dignity, her words, her memory.
I believe I remember the moment she died, because it pierced me, five hours behind, five hours ahead of the phone call that told me what my body already knew. I remember the vigil a year before that, the hours where breath halts for so long and yet comes back, the point where there is nothing in the room except a love that transcends all sadness. I remember saying goodbye to her for the last time, knowing it would be the last time, feeling the walls of the corridor outside her room press in upon me. (I filled her glass with water and she said ‘thank you’ in a way I hadn’t heard for years and it was as if my heart imploded.) I remember the day of her stroke, the last day she would spend in the house she loved so much, the house she’d made her own, my childhood home, my home-home. It was my birthday and I was calling to thank her for the card because she always wrote the cards, and my dad answered and told me what had happened.
This is what I can’t remember: I can’t remember the last time I talked to her and she was herself, my Mam, not a lessened and pillaged version of herself. I could always say ‘I love you’ and I did, but the late days of knowing she was there are assembled from projection and hope.
Illness is a hostage-taker that scars and diminishes those around it. It belittles the daily work of caring, it turns love into an echoing cry. It demands you accept its burden, to contort yourself to share its load, to carry it to the funeral and then carry it some more. It seeks to break you.
Time does not heal. Time makes the scars grow fainter, makes you more accustomed to their presence. But time renews: it draws memories from the earth and from within that illness could never touch and incorporates them in a thicker layer beneath the scars, a rediscovery of love, the why and what that enfolds a who.
Time renews love that breaks and was broken.
The first hummingbird of spring arrived today. I was waiting with nectar to greet him.