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WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS
By: Ella Joy Olsen
His hand was clenched in a loose fist but today he wasn’t fighting. It lay motionless against the mattress like an object in a still-life. I traced its shape against the sheet, not touching his fragile skin, but celebrating the heat it radiated and what it meant. Alive.
After several moments I circled his wrist with my fingers, feeling the flutter of his pulse against the base of my thumb, waiting for his response, aching for even the smallest indication he was aware of my presence. There was nothing.
How many times had I brought the tips of his fingers to my mouth, or pressed his knuckles to my lips? But the nurse told me this was to be expected. She explained it was impossible, at this point, for him to respond. Slipping my hand under his, I tucked his fingers so our palms touched. “I’m here.” As my words met his ear, the strands of his hair caressed my cheek like the fluttering wings of a butterfly. “Stay with me.”
In response to my plea, his chest rose and fell, filled with manufactured life. How long could he balance a breath’s edge away from death? But if I lost him? It was unimaginable. And if he was gone, when he was gone, who would I become?
Grass clung like a dearly beloved to the color of winter. On this day, enormous swaths of olive-drab blades stretched forever, still flattened from the pressing snow of an especially bitter season in the Wasatch Mountains. I squinted, hoping to see pinpricks of brave green on hills that faced the southern sun, but in the exaggerated distance of the cemetery, the dun lawn seemed to roll eternally, ending only at the horizon.
The bright springtime branches of the forsythia were the one exception. A twiggy bush glowing with explosions of gold it burst through the dreariness of March, heralding the end of winter. I focused on those cheerful branches because I didn’t want to look at the casket, the family assembled, or my mom. And I didn’t want to see if they were looking at me.
The forsythia in question was the size of a small car hovering like a lesser sun near one of the narrow roadways threading through the Salt Lake City Cemetery. These paths meandered around thousands of headstones and the occasional twenty foot obelisk marking the burial site of one important founder of the city or another, rising from the ground like a skyscraper in a small town.
The largest of these monuments were reserved for prophets from the Mormon Church, as this was the oldest cemetery in Salt Lake City, but here and there a local tycoon, one who’d made a mint in mining or some other gentile pursuit, purchased a stone memorial large enough to stand toe-to-toe with the powerful men of the priesthood.
My grandpa Joe would be buried in the shadow of one of these monoliths. His last name, Barlow, was common here in the older part of the cemetery. Today I noted close to a dozen headstones surrounding his, all bearing the same surname. However, these distant family members were no one I knew. Most had passed a century earlier, meaning this historic plat was sparsely adorned. A few graves sported bouquets of faded silk standing sentinel a season or two, but this section of the cemetery didn’t see a parade of regular visitors. For the most part, loved ones of the deceased were deceased themselves.
My grandparents’ side-by-side graves would be the exception.
I let my focus slip from the safety of the golden branches and followed the concrete walkway with my eyes, past the low sandstone wall built at the base of the hill, and continued up the stairs. It was one hundred yards. Maybe two. I’d visited this cemetery almost daily and hadn’t realized the proximity of my grandma Ginny’s grave (and now my grandpa’s) in relation to my son’s.
A light breeze lifted my hair, the edges frosted with the remnants of winter, and I shivered. Noah pulled me against his side, his large palm warm against my waist. It was all so similar—the brown lawn, the thin sunlight, my dress, his hand, the forsythia. I shook again, and this time my teeth chattered. Noah touched the back of my neck, running his hand the length of my hair. I leaned into his shoulder and closed my eyes...