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My Grandfathers and the Birds
By Ronlyn Domingue
Author of The Mercy of Thin Air: A Novel

The First Bird
During the last year of his life, my maternal grandfather was a specter of who I'd known him to be. PawPaw Tony was not a tall man, but time had whittled away at his bones. Once a healthy eater, all he wanted was eggs. He became thinner, gaunt, his prominent Sicilian nose avian. He was a quiet man most of the time, pierced now and then by a wry observation or joke, but those last months, he communicated with slight smiles, nods, and glances. It wasn't that he couldn't speak. His energy just seemed redirected.

I didn't know how close the end was when it came. PawPaw Tony was sent to the hospital with pneumonia. I was 23 then. I had no idea that this illness was so dangerous for the elderly. When I went to visit him, I wasn't prepared for the sound of the machine that tried to clear his lungs or the sight of what was slowly suffocating him. He was awake and aware that day. He knew who I was when I kissed him hello. My grandmother and I helped to raise him up in the bed. His limbs were roped liked crape myrtle branches.

"Well, as they say, your color looks good," I said. And it did. His olive skin had a touch of rose. I adjusted his pillow. "You have to get better, PawPaw. No one else can tell the story of the Flood of '27 and those poor chickens like you can."

He laughed. It was faint, but its tone carried a familiar hoarseness. It was the last time I heard it.

On a Sunday morning, my mother called to tell me he had died. The news was a shock, perhaps more so because he was the first person I knew well whom I'd lost. Mom gave me the preliminary details of funeral arrangements, and we hung up.

I walked into the living room and stared out of the window. There was a bird feeder hanging under the porch, as it had for months. A tiny bird landed among the sparrows on a free perch.

"Look," I told my partner, Todd. "It's a titmouse. We've never had one before."

For no reason whatsoever -- no memory connected to him, no experience we shared -- I thought of my PawPaw Tony. And I smiled.

The Second Bird
My paternal grandfather spent 55 years on the railroad. Like his father, he was an engineer, which meant he spent most of his days in the presence of loud engines and piercing whistles. The sound of his voice was something out of a dream -- booming, deep, resonant -- in part because he was practically deaf.

His given name was Robert, but everyone called him Dazo. His grandchildren called him PawPaw Doe. He was a big man all his life, and in his last months, he remained so. Although his size was imposing, I never feared him. There was always mischief in his eyes, a silly accent on his tongue, a laugh like a gong.

PawPaw Doe had a rare blood type, so rare that he regularly donated blood so that local hospitals would have it for those who needed surgery. That he was diagnosed with a blood disease in his last months makes his giving all the more ironic. He couldn't be saved by others, as he had done.

No one knew how long he had. One weekend when I went back to my hometown to visit my folks, I dropped in to see my grandparents without calling first. Their car was under the carport. When I went to the back door, I could hear the television. I knocked, I rang the bell, I shouted. After a few minutes, I went to my car, wrote a note, and left it on the doorstep.

I would learn later that he was in the house alone, while my grandmother was out doing errands with someone. He simply hadn't heard me.

It wasn't long afterward that PawPaw Doe was admitted to the hospital. I was at work when I called him one afternoon. We yelled a brief conversation at each other. He was completely lucid, but with his near-deafness, I don't know how much he understood of what I said.

When I received the call that he died, it was more of a shock than when I lost my other grandfather. I had seen PawPaw Tony before he died, but I had not seen PawPaw Doe in many weeks. We had only talked on the phone. I'd counted on a little more time, and now it was up.

At home, the bird feeder still hung in the same place under my porch. The sparrows, purple finches, and cardinals were everyday visitors. Rarely did that lone titmouse appear for a snack. Until the afternoon of PawPaw Doe's death, two and a half years after PawPaw Tony's . . .

I saw the titmouse light on a perch and begin to eat. Then, an instant later, on an opposite perch, there was a second titmouse. A newcomer.

My grandfathers, I thought. "Hello," I said aloud. Then they were gone.

Some people would say that my grandfathers came to me in this form. I'm familiar enough with the language of symbols to know that birds represent the soul. Whether their presences were there or I simply read into the experience, it doesn't matter to me.

Every time I see a titmouse now, I think of my grandfathers. I welcome the memories that keep me company in their absence, and I feel connected to them with joy.

Copyright © 2006 Ronlyn Domingue

Author Bio
Ronlyn Domingue
is the author of The Mercy of Thin Air (Atria Books; September 2005; $24.00US/$33.00CAN; 0-7432-7880-1). She lives in Louisiana and is at work on her second novel. For more information, please visit www.ronlyndomingue.com.