Running in Central Park again. That morning six miles. The day before, five. Running from my husband’s EKGs, running from those words – unknown risks. Running to quell a dread that rose in me like a moon tide. But it was useless. As soon as my feet stopped, the dread flooded back.
And then a streak of blue whizzed past me. At first I kept moving, my eyes trained on the crushed gravel track, my feet pushing forward, step, after step, after step.
But then, something made me stop, turn around and circle back.
There in the green foliage I spotted a tiny blue parakeet with piebald markings. It pecked at a cluster of purple berries dangling from a nearby bush. No inkling that its appearance there in the urban woodlands of Manhattan Island was an odd sight. Its plumage a surprising brushstroke of cornflower against the city’s grid of granite high-rises and the dingy brown feathers of the noisy flock of sparrows gathered nearby.
I stared, brimming with questions. Perhaps the bird sensed my fascination because it gazed back at me through tiny, thoughtful, black eyes. Here Birdie. It cocked its snowy head the same way my pet parakeet at home responds to my calls. But then it shot off and joined a flock of boisterous sparrows on higher branches.
Parakeets aren’t known to survive on their own in New York City, especially through its cold winters. I supposed that the bird’s arrival in the park was recent and accidental, a likely consequence of bird curiosity and human error. An open cage, a window raised high, the lure of an azure September sky.
After the bird fluttered off, I watched as it pushed deeper and deeper into the foliage, which was on the cusp of fall. Grasses bowed heavy with sprays of golden seeds, olive-hued husks swollen with ripe chestnuts swung from trees, a carpet of russet acorns lay underfoot. The bird hopped from heavy branch to branch, and then disappeared.
I assumed our meeting was over. But before I jogged three more steps, the bird flitted back again and began nibbling on a blade of grass near my feet. Surprised and slightly excited by this vote of confidence, I cautiously moved toward the creature. First, I bent my knees, then slowly and carefully moved my hand toward the tiny being, feeling a small hope rise inside me with each inch closer that I drew.
How I wanted to rescue this blue creature, restore it to domesticated comfort and provide warm shelter from the coming frost, and a dish of fresh seeds and clean water. Far more than a pack of dirty brown Park sparrows could offer. When my hand reached the spot where it pecked, I held my breath, hoping it might take some tiny leap of faith and hop onto my hand. But the parakeet dashed off to its drab flock and then vanished into the high trees. I stood on the track, scanning for a flash of blue, waiting for its return. No, that fantastic creature was gone.
But what the bird started in me stayed. My feet began moving again and with this came more wondering. What kind of dramatic turn had its life taken, suddenly unmoored from a safe harbor and catapulted into a foreign world. And then the words of my husband’s doctor flooded back, nipping at my heels – a procedure with complicated risks such as stroke, heart attack. In rare cases, death.
I sped faster.
But despite the worry that drove me that day, I couldn’t stop thinking of that blue bird. Had we crossed paths for a reason? Certainly, my mind was hungry for some kind of sign from afar. A way to connect dots that were impossible to grasp. Plus, I couldn’t shake the image of its cornflower feathers, or drop questions about how it found itself in the park that day. I was quite sure it hadn’t chosen its freedom, having most likely mistaken an open window for a new room to explore that offered more light and space. How could it have known what a leap toward a clear blue sky would mean for it? Did it panic when it discovered it was suddenly apart from all it once knew and depended on? I felt sorry for the bird, believing its situation even more terrifying than what I now feared for myself. That of a wife in black standing over freshly turned earth. A silent home, a cool unwrinkled side of a bed. Something that those who are happily paired don’t expect to contemplate in middle age, still believing we are young enough to avoid such catastrophe. One’s world wiped out by a wide-open window, or the screech of tires, a gun blazing terrorist. Or the slip of a doctor’s ablating probe sending a life-ending clot to the brain.
Starlings and Titmice called from trees.
Would he survive? Get better? Ever be the same?
Step, step, step. I pictured the blue bird’s thrill as it soared out the window, its excitement to be flying as high and as far as it pleased, not knowing that each flap of its wings took it further away from all that mattered to it. How was this so different from the hope I sometimes dared to feel about my husband’s chances? How I could soar at the thought of his new life free of drugs, and doctors and limits.
But the bird’s thrill was only half of this story. Sometime while sailing over the tops of buildings, fatigue must have forced it to land on a grimy windowsill, the foul belch of exhaust below. There it caught its breath and then flew further and further away until it found a pack of wild sparrows that it followed to the Park’s woodlands, worlds away from everything it had once known. I saw all this that day in the park, when I had looked into the bird’s eyes and it recognized in me something that had once mattered to it. Perhaps its memory of another life – the sound of keys jangling in the front door, the call of its name, the drone of a cable news talking head, the familiar in-out, in-out sound of human breathing during an afternoon nap.
The rest of the day I looked for the bird whenever I saw a sparrow anywhere. I couldn’t forget its tiny white face and onyx eyes, and the way it had gazed at me.
But the bird was gone.
How did it befriend this pack of wild brown birds? How did it keep up? Know what was right to eat? How to sip water from a puddle? How to survive? As I prepared myself for my husband’s possible outcomes, I wondered, What if? What if, I found myself all alone? How would I survive? How would I feel befriending a pack of sparrows or lumbering pigeons or noisy robins, when I had been so contented swimming side-by-side with my husband, the two of us like a pair of swans mated for life?
As much as I tried to block it out, my worry hammered away right below my surface during the weeks leading up to the date of his procedure and then as I packed my bag, taxied to the airport and lifted off into an unknown. When we were landing in Boston, I saw from the airplane window that fall was already slipping away. The sky had turned stony, the trees were almost bare. Skins of ice covered rain puddles. When they wheeled my husband on his gurney into surgery, I held his hand until someone in green scrubs parted us. I let go. He mouthed, I love you and raised his finger before the door shut behind him. I found a seat in the waiting area where I stared at cement walls the color of putty and an asphalt parking lot while the specialist entered my husband’s body with probes. Starting at his legs those probes traveled on a complicated journey up yards of veins to the chambers of his beating, misfiring heart, so electrodes could poke and burn its tissue for hours to fix it. I sat by the window, watching the cars pull in and pull out, turning to the doorway each time I heard footsteps, hoping to see a face appear to tell me my husband was all right. Repaired – not paralyzed, or critical, or gone.
I should not think of these things – I who at this moment am back to running in Central Park, my husband home from Boston and safe, recovered. But you see I cannot stop myself. The spot where I first set eyes on the bird still leaves so many questions unanswered and reminds me each time I jog past it, of what I could have lost, what still can be lost. When I reach the place on the path, I always think of the blue bird and then immediately the journey those probes took, and how I waited those six hours while they wended their way up to the spot where love begins and how they burned a piece of that away. And the look my husband had when he awoke – as if someone had taken some part of him while he slept. And how it felt, finally, to feel his warm hand squeeze mine back.
I know I should drop these thoughts. Fly as far away as possible from them. But I can’t. It’s what I do – recall an event that caused great pain and recalibrate myself around the spot. Adjust and readjust. Just as birds have learned to take flight from snarling dogs and loud noises and tiny children clamoring after them with curious, jabbing fingers. I do not know if a slug or mosquito does this. I’m pretty sure that cats and dogs and horses do. Our brains are burning in new awarenesses for our lives, laying down tracks of memory, of pain and pleasure, from the moment we peck through egg shells or make our way through the dark canal to the blinding light.
Andrea Marcusa is a fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany, River Styx, Ontario Review, New South, Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times and other publications. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she was a finalist in the Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize for essay (New Letters) and Ruminate’s fiction competition. You can follow her photos and musing about Central Park’s (NYC) flora, fauna and people of at: @My_Cen_ParkNYC . She lives in New York City with her husband where she raised two sons and several small birds. Learn more about Andrea Marcusa’s work at andreamarcusa.com.