I go each evening to visit my 90-year-old mother. Because of COVID, I’m the only visitor she’s allowed. We do puzzles. Over and over, the same ones. We watch Star Trek, the original series, as we do the puzzles. We are in agreement that Captain Kirk is a schmuck. My mom admires the special effects, in all seriousness.
Sometimes we watch news. Every now and then, she notices some snippet from the never-ending shit-show, and makes a comment about “Orangehead,” as she calls him. On the news, we hear the word "essential". Mom furrows her brow. It is perplexing: It seems that meat-packing jobs are essential, but the workers are not. Caregivers in nursing homes are essential, but PPE for them is less so.
In the daytime, in my backyard, I spend an inordinate amount of time just watching bees. Maybe I should be productive, but fuck that. Bee-watching has become an obsession. Unlike me, bees are industrious. Essential workers, without a doubt. This year, Bombus mixtus predominates—the Fuzzy Horned Bumblebee. They have bright orange butts. There’s probably a reason that the orange butt is essential, but I don’t know what it is.
Animals ground me. I’m missing Cooper, my Belgian Sheepdog, who we had to put down last week. Cooper had a way of looking at me that made me feel essential. “Your purpose is to scratch my nose.” If I could distill the essence of that look and put it into a jar, just a tiny sip would be sufficient grace to get me through a hard day.
My wife is a choir director. Watching her conduct is like watching a river; currents gather and dissipate, braid together, diverge, then merge again. The current swells into an irresistible force that resolves in gentleness.
We are fortunate that she still has a job. But the part of her job that seemed like a river is gone—singing in groups is not allowed for the foreseeable future. Instead, she attends zoom meetings. Still, she finds another purpose: to sustain the spirit of the kids, to foster the community that holds a choir together. She puts together slide shows, she frames plaques to honor each student, and delivers them to each house.
I arrive at my mother’s during the golden hour, when the setting sun bathes the cedar trees. She’s watching birds from the balcony. A few days ago, we saw an enormous owl emerge from the cedars. It was a gift, a moment of grace that will assume the status of myth.
On the news, she hears that the economy is entering a depression. She grew up during the Great Depression; she ate squirrels and butter sandwiches. She worries about her grandkids having to go through hard times. During the evening puzzle, she abruptly asks, “Should I be doing something more important?” She’s asked this question before. I don’t know the answer, so my reply differs each time she asks. I’ve said “I feel that way too,” and “It’s important to do puzzles with your son,” and “You raised five kids and we turned out alright.”
This time, I say “I don’t know, but wasn’t that owl something?”