By Sue Pace
I had promised to keep an eye on my aunt while my uncle went to the grocery store and the pharmacy, and then stopped at the café for lunch with his chums. It was a once-a-week getaway for a man dedicated to caring for the woman he’d loved for fifty years. It was an easy way for me to thank him for the room over the garage, where I lived while attending graduate school. My parents disowned me after I came out as a lesbian.
“I love you,” my aunt said, when I joined her on the patio where she sat in her wheelchair.
Her declarations of love always made me smile.
“The doctor said I’m going to die real soon.” Her voice had become a raspy whisper.
“We’re all going to die, Auntie.” I kissed her shrunken, pale cheek.
“But I want to come back as something with wings.”
She had never mentioned reincarnation, much less returning with wings. I am not gifted with a mystical imagination, nor am I religious, so I pulled up a chair to give me a minute to form a response that wasn’t insulting.
“An angel?” I asked, sinking into the chair.
“Most butterflies only live a week,” my aunt said. “Except monarchs. They live for months and months, but I don’t want to rely on the wind currents. I want to use my wings to dip and soar. I want claws to grip and grasp. I want a beak to stab and suck.”
“You want to eat half-alive bloody things?”
“Ah, you want to be a bat.”
“No, I want to be a bird with beautiful plumage and live in a green forest and….” She sighed, and her head tipped onto the pillow propped against her neck. A half second later, she was asleep.
She died a week later.
Behind the garage, flies with iridescent wings hovered over my uncle’s compost pile. When the weather was hot and dry, their buzzing became audible through my open bedroom window.
A great horned owl lived near the top of the ancient Douglas fir. The trunk of the tree split the wooden fence and expanded onto the neighbor’s property. The owl hooted at dawn and dusk. I had seen it once, swooping into the alley, sharp talons reaching for a squirrel.
Other winged creatures lived in the fir tree—stellar jays and ladybugs and all manner of LLBs. That is how my aunt listed them in her Birds of the Pacific Northwest album. She loved her little brown birds.
From my upstairs window, I watched as dragonflies dipped and soared and sometimes hovered over the birdbath at the edge of the patio. All kinds of feathered flyers flitted about the bird feeder, trading songs with the bees.
Three weeks after my aunt passed away, we held her memorial in the backyard. Lots of memories were shared, along with New York cheesecake, three kinds of pie, and enough champagne to fill an above-ground swimming pool. After everyone had left, my uncle dug a hole at the edge of the patio and poured in my aunt’s ashes.
“A lot of wings still come here,” he said. “She’d like that. I’ll put her wheelchair away tomorrow.”
I wrapped my arms around his thin shoulders, and that’s when he finally cried. We stood there together long enough to admire all the varied beating wings gathered to give my aunt a sendoff of their own. Then, we went inside to do dishes and talk about better days.
When I went to bed that night, I heard the soft hush-hush of wings over the patio. I tip-toed to the window and spied a wonderful emerald and crimson rufous hummingbird sitting on the arm of my aunt’s wheelchair. The bird cocked its head and one black, beady eye stared up at me. Instead of singing, the hummingbird clicked and chattered goodbye before flying away into the star-speckled night.