Creative Nonfiction: Signs by Michael Todd Cohen

Photo by Ilianna Brett on Unsplash

I.

The memory Ma gave me of the grandfather I never knew: He grips my two-year-old hand in his and with the other makes a sign; a finger pointed stiffly at the sky. I warble out: Da boids! Da boids! And he says: Da boids! Da boids! Back and forth we say this — Da boids! Da boids! —— like we are those birds, calling to each other from neighboring trees.

II.

After Daddy died, Ma called a medium who once taught metaphysics at Salem State and the medium said: Your youngest son, he’s struggling.

And Ma said: Okay.

And the medium said: Your husband will appear to him as a tweetie bird.

And Ma said: Okay.

When she told me I said: <stifles laugh> Okay.

Okay, Ma. Okay, medium who once taught metaphysics. Okay.

We do this thing, humans, when we can’t explain loss. We look for where the life went. A mopey Siamese cat or a frisky squirrel or a luscious orchid or an ornery terrier or a tweetie bird. We look for them to look back at us with the longing we feel, to silently speak the secret of their former selves: for the orchid to open wider; for the cat to tug its tiny mouth into the perpetual frown we knew; the dog to chew the exact belt left behind. This is how some of us meet death: by giving it new signs of life.

These are not signs for which I look. Signs are what we make them (when we can’t see signs, we make them). We need relief from loss: How did we lose them? Where did they go? Give me a sign. We’re all without a compass when it comes to death.

The cockatiel fell from somewhere in the sky on a day in summer the same year the medium said look and mom said look and I refused to look. It gripped my scalp with its tiny talons as I stood in a semi-circle of speedo-clad friends. I might have shrieked. What is it? What is it? It’s a boid. It’s a tweetie boid.

Okay, Ma. Okay, medium who once taught Metaphysics. Okay.

III.

I am never not noticing, now. Since moving to a coastal Connecticut town, our house out beyond the toy-plane airport, props and diesel engines buzzing like dragonflies. The robins were the first to show up in spring. Nothing special, save for their numbers.

Next came the grackles, though—chuck, chuck, chuck—the tongue-cluck of a thousand disapproving mothers, while I struggled to remember the sound of my own: The coo of a Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral lullaby, the hum and mumble of a half-forgotten temple prayer, the helium-keen of the last goodbye to Daddy.

A half-dozen monarchs float across the wide expanse of our lawn on a day in summer many years after the tweetie bird fell from somewhere in the sky. I point: look! My husband looks, as I never looked. He sees and he says: Ma.

I think of the signs I didn’t see: a confusion, a slowing down, a stooping of her small frame.  Signs that might have showed us the end before we reached it. How did I lose you? Where did you go? We are all without a compass when it comes to death.

I watch the monarchs. They need no compass. They are exactly where they mean to be.

Okay, Ma. Okay.

Michael Todd Cohen’s work appears in Barren MagazineColumbia JournalX-R-A-Y Literary MagazineThe Maine ReviewJMWW Journal, and HAD, among others. His writing has been nominated for Best Micro Fiction and a Pushcart Prize. He lives with his husband and two dogs, by a rusty lighthouse, in Connecticut. You can find him on twitter @mtoddcohen or michaeltoddcohen.com.

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