The Healing TreeArts
Not even on his third day inside the belly of the great fish could Jonah have been in a darker or more miserable place than I was right now, once again back on my back in a hospital bed. They’d sent me from the Rehab unit back to the general hospital for another operation. Mark had deserted even my dreams, Maggie was dead, Robbie was on an Outward Bound adventure, and I was recuperating from this latest round of surgery. Maggie’s prescription for depression was to write yourself out of it, but when I tried, I only dug myself deeper down into the abyss. Even the little squiggle of a mermaid I tried to draw in Maggie’s memory looked more like a dead fish rotting on the beach than a finned angel cruising the ocean deeps.
“Happy poems don’t win prizes,” Maggie once told me. Now there was a thought. I read over my latest funeratorio and patted myself on the back (figuratively speaking, of course). Maybe they’d give this one a prize after all (posthumously, of course). Here was something worthy of Plath or Sexton or Teasdale or one of those other women poets who had taken their own lives, after having written so many poems alerting their readers that they really were going to do it, by and by. A poem short and bitter, befitting the fate of a woman come late to poetry and destined to die young, so I thought.
Resting in Peace
I once was afraid of the dark
Of legion black molecules snaking
Into my body through every orifice
Freezing me in a coagulate of despair
I once was afraid of solitude
Of talking to the air and hearing no
Echo in reply to reaffirm my body and
Reify my existence
I once was afraid of confinement
Of tiny rooms where you can reach
Out and touch every wall and
Rub your nose on the velvet
I once was afraid of sleeping
Of the nightmare world that is more
Real than the office and the kitchen and
That holds you petrified against your will
I once was afraid of infinity
Of the distant reaches where space and
Time interpenetrate like a fertilized egg
In the womb of God
I once was afraid in the dark
Alone in a small room
The sun must have been setting outside, though you couldn’t tell through the gray curtain of autumn rain. My legs, the part of my body where pain would have been a welcome sign of progress, remained in a novocained deep freeze; from my waist up, though, I felt like a lava lamp, with hot globules of pain coursing through my body. Maggie had also said that poets wrote their best poems when they were in pain. So rather than waste the metaphor, I picked up the pen and started to scribble again.
Let’s see.Death Valley. The Dead Sea. Dead Drunk, Dead Duck. Dead Serious, Dead Broke, and Dead Wrong. Dead Eye. Dead End. As the words came, I actually began to wish I could write myself into a coffin. That’s when Maggie took matters into her own hands. There could be no other explanation for the train of events that transpired over the next several hours.
It started with the singing in the hallway. Lestelle, the housekeeper I’d seen coming out of Maggie’s room in tears on that sad evening, had parked her bed-changing cart outside my room and was softly singing a gospel song. Not just any song, mind you – the one that had touched my soul since I’d first heard it as a little girl. But not with the words I’d grown up with – Lestelle had made up her own lyrics and was (I now know) singing them for me – to me, from Maggie:
Amazing Grace, now Maggie’s home
She’s looking down on me
She gives me comfort through the pain
And sets my spirit free
I closed my eyes and allowed myself to fall into the song, and as I did the pain actually did seem to recede. The last words reverberated in my head, like an echo fading into the depths of a slot canyon. Now Maggie’s home at last. I expected to hear a bring-the-house-down ovation, but there was just the silence of a hospital ward in the evening hours, and Lestelle working quietly at her cart.
And then… the most extravagant wolf whistle I’ve ever heard. Opening my eyes, I looked out into the corridor. Lestelle was obviously happy to see whoever was coming. “Well, look’a here – it’s Mistuh Rufus Maximus!” I’d heard rumors of Rufus, the talking parrot who was part of the hospital’s pet therapy program, but had never seen him myself.
A distinguished-looking older gentleman in one of those blue blazers that hospital volunteers wear came into view and stopped to talk with Lestelle. He had a parrot on his shoulder, pirate style, which I surmised to be Mistuh Rufus Maximus. The bird looked through the open door into my room and did another wolf whistle. The volunteer glanced at me, then looked at his bird. “What’s that you say, Rufus? You want to meet the pretty lady in that room?” The bird whistled again. The volunteer said goodbye to Lestelle and stuck his head in my door. “Good evening. I’m Peter Graves, and this is Rufus. We’re volunteers. Rufus is usually quite shy, but he’s asked if he could meet you.” Rufus was marching in place on Peter’s shoulder. I shrugged. Why not?
Peter walked in. Rufus whistled, then squawked, “Hi, Cutie!”
“Now Rufus,” Peter said, “don’t be too forward. You’ll scare her off.” Rufus marched and flapped his wings. Peter stepped over to the side of the bed. “Rufus is an African gray parrot. They’re the smartest birds in the world.” Rufus nodded his agreement, and Peter laughed. “They’re also not the least bit humble about it.” Rufus whistled once more. “Hi, Cutie!”
I smiled despite myself. Other than Mark, no one had called me Cutie since Robbie was a toddler. Not even the plastic surgeon who’d patched up my face, and you’d have thought that was part of his job description. Peter lifted Rufus from his shoulder onto his hand, then held the bird in front of his face and asked, “What’s that you say?” Rufus squawked a reply. “Well, old chap,” Peter said, “that’s awfully bold of you. But I’ll ask her.”
Peter looked down at me. “Rufus was wondering if he could perch on your hand for a bit.”
“On my hand? Well, I don’t know. I’ve never held a live bird before.” Rufus whistled and spread his wings. Peter laughed again. “Rufus says that previous experience is not required.” He held the bird out, and Rufus hopped onto my hand.
“Hello, pretty bird,” I said. Rufus cocked his head to the side. “What else does one say to an African gray parrot?” I asked Peter.
“Whatever’s on your mind. He is, after all, a member in good standing of the hospital’s pet therapy program. A therapist, you see, in his own right. Just be aware that whatever you do say is likely to be repeated.”
I brought Rufus up closer to my face. He leaned forward and gave my nose a gentle peck. “Rufus!” Peter scolded. “On the first date, a gentleman waits until the end of the evening for his kiss. Where are your manners?”
Rufus marched in place on my hand and gave me another wolf whistle. “Hi, Cutie!”
“Rufus,” humphed Peter, “you are hopeless!”
Rufus suddenly stood dead still and stared at me, the inquisitive gaze of a two-year-old at the zoo upon first seeing a giraffe. There was something so very human in that bird’s eyes. I swear he actually cleared his throat before speaking his next words. “Hell-ooooooo…” He hung onto the note like a soprano at the opera. Then… “Maaaaaggie.” There was no mistaking what he’d said. I blinked hard. Rufus whistled again.
Peter shook his head sadly. “Rufus loves everybody, but Maggie was his favorite. He still misses her.” Rufus nodded in agreement. “Hell-ooooooo Maaaaaggie.” Rufus gripped my hand for balance, leaned forward, and squawked out these words: “Be strong.” Clear as a bell. Then he gave my nose another gentle peck.
“Well, well, well. Where did that come from, Master Maximus?” Peter looked at me and said, “Rufus knows seventy-two words, but I’ve never heard him say that before. Be strong. He must have learned it specially for you.” Rufus nodded even more fervently than before. “Hell-oooooo Maaaaaggie.”
Hello Maggie? Or was it hello from Maggie? I’d never know for sure. Not in this lifetime, anyway. But there was no doubt in my mind that had Maggie been able to deliver one single message to me through this parrot, those would have been her words. Be strong, Carrie Anne. Be strong.
- The Healing Tree
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Questions for discussion
- About the Author