Apr/May 2017 Nonfiction

Days of Sky

by Judith Serin

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

This was written after I'd been diagnosed with glaucoma. The doctor was having trouble finding a treatment that worked, and one of the drugs he tried gave me unpleasant, long-term side-effects. To ground and comfort myself, I spent time every day sitting on my couch and looking out my picture windows at my view of San Francisco.


Paper snowflakes are taped in my window. Houses terrace the hills beyond. Some have snowflakes, too. In this city without snow, we each have our winters. I think I'm starting to die. We're all dying, always. How to live in between?

Very pink that cactus flower on the bookshelf. Pay attention: There can be that pink in the world.

For months I've felt as though I'm behind glass, cut off from my life. I'm waiting. Waiting for the sun to warm me, for something in me to shift, to let in the light.



The light is gray today, muted. When I walk to the window, I can see one irregular patch of blue, a lake the fog drifts over, changing shape. And when a flock of birds flies past the window, they echo that, a faster rearrangement, small and black and quickly gone. Now a line of light over the bay and mountains. And look, the lake of blue is opening.

My creamy cat stirs in his sleep, calm, warm. The day washes over him in a pattern of light. I want to be like him, at ease in my body, the day.



I didn't sit at the window today. I returned from a long day out to learn my young friend Nikki had a stroke. It happened Saturday. She didn't go to the hospital till Sunday. Her brother called the numbers in her cell phone today. I call back, talk to her mother in the hospital room, but Nikki is too tired to speak. I sit in my husband's big black chair, call my friend Anna in the Sierras, my friend Jerry, and cry and cry.



The sky is bright today above the eucalyptus trees and the tip of the huge stone cross on the west side of Mount Davidson. On the east side, the open slope where I walk to see wildflowers in spring. It will come soon. The acacias up the street are laden with yellow allergens.

I have walked up the wildflower hill by myself and with friends. With Anna when she didn't know yet she was pregnant with Emma. Now Nikki can't walk, but I have to believe she will. I saw her in the hospital yesterday. Her right side is partially paralyzed. She is in bed, one arm limp, her speech slurred with half her mouth unmoving. But there are good signs: her thinking is clear, she has some movement on the right, and she still seems like herself, even cheerful as usual.

A cane from the rosebush waves in the bottom of my window like the wordless prayers rising out of me to no one, to the sky, for Nikki, for me, for us all.



Rainy day. The palm tree that grew to block the view to the east waves its long fronds through streaks on the panes. To the north the hill-like mound of my species rose, Rosa longicuspis, from China. It was a mistake—it grows to be huge with 15-foot canes—and I love it. My neighbor Darrell built me an arbor to support it. Now the new canes on top, which shoot up and are clipped back constantly, wobble their small leaves and load of oval orange hips in the wind. The predicted high gusts are just beginning. I hear the intermittent rumble in my chimney and go turn up the heat in case the power fails. Nikki walked yesterday in her gait therapy, she told me on the phone.



The storm has passed, milder than expected. My black cat wants to be petted, then goes to the window, his ears alert, watching the palm fronds rolling in the wind. Clouds open to blue high in the eastern sky. When I was a child, the moving clouds made me think of journeys, a spaciousness to life.

When I phone her, Nikki is so tired, I feel bad for calling. My cat has turned from the window, settled into a cautious sleep.



Storm gone, sun, the sound of invisible birds sharpening their scissors on the sky. A cluster of roses blooming now, white among the orange hips. A mockingbird hops out of the bush to a wire, turns his head repeatedly almost all the way around, flies away.

I listened to the Giants' first spring training game today. Nikki was supposed to go with me to spring training at the end of March, the first time for both of us. When my husband Herbert and I visited her in the rehabilitation center, she was better than in the hospital, pushing herself in a wheelchair, less tired, her speech less slurred. She'll return to teaching in the fall, so maybe she'll be back to normal.

We forget, pretend we aren't fragile. We plan. A scattering of birds across the sky. The mockingbird's tail held so straight.



I didn't call Nikki yesterday, home too late. I wonder if calling just tires her. When we visited, she laughed with a lopsided smile and I noticed its cupid's bow curve for the first time.

Today four crows flew close to me on my walk, cawing. So much is speaking that I don't understand.



I cracked the window open today. Sounds of a chainsaw or motorcycle. Barking dog. A path of white in the blue sky, as though a jet trail has feathered into a river. I think of journeys I will not take. It's harder now to find ease in my life. When I was a child on another coast, I believed in journeys. Now I see phone lines, an airplane heading south. So much is lost, yet my female cat pushes my hand with her rough-furred head, somehow finds a spot to curl on my book. So much is here, and I let it float by.



A flat blue day, the shaggy palm fronds nodding, then bucking in a gust of wind. In the high corner of the window, an airplane passes. A bird—a far seagull soon gone. This cloudless sky seals me off, stops all journeys.

But the mockingbird is on top of the rosebush. Head turning, feathers ruffled by the wind. And now three notes. Look, he picks a thorny twig. He's building a nest.



The last few days the house was being painted, the windows covered with heavy plastic. I fretted about the mockingbirds. Would the bustle drive them away? This morning the one I think of as the male perched on top of the rosebush, his throat bulging and pumping, loosing his various notes into the sky. Trills and clicks and chirps in a continuous call. (Yes, it was the male. My birder friend Ellery says males are the ones who sing.) I worried he was searching for a mate, the female gone. Another bird appeared but dropped behind the bush before I could see if it were a mockingbird or a sparrow. Neither carried twigs, but maybe they built the nest in the days I couldn't see out. Maybe the female is already there.

When I called the hospital last night, Nikki's mom said Nikki had made amazing progress. Now the wind is tumbling the palm fronds. I'm trying to learn to like the palm even though it obscures my view of Mount Diablo and the bay. A river of clouds with gauzy wisps above crosses the sky. The house casts a round shadow that slowly ascends the rosebush, its top still in light.



A still sky. Jet trails more linear than any clouds could be. I hear a jet now, that muted roar. Then another airplane's whine, slowly fading. Now a chainsaw echoes their growl. I'm paying attention to sounds because the sky is so still today. My big creamy cat rubs against me. His eyes are blue and wide-set, almond shaped. Black freckles on his nose, a flaw in his cream and apricot fur. I'm getting old. I can't keep the illusion that life is safe. There is love. But it is complicated.



Sunset. A cloud of orange pales slowly to pink, then purple silhouettes the trees on the hill, each branch more noticeable than when it is backed by blue. The mockingbirds chatter and trill. They flitted in and out of the rosebush when I watched a ball game this afternoon. One chased away a raven, and I wanted to run out and help, having once seen a raven, followed by a flock of starlings, land on a roof and eat the baby bird he held in his beak.

My black cat at the window, looking for the birds whose chirps are fainter now. He murrs, leaps down, and comes to me.

Still some blue in the sky, as the cloud's pink mixes with more purple. When is the exact moment that day becomes night? I go away, return. The cloud is almost white. The streetlights on. But still a mockingbird calls.



I sit here later than usual to watch the dark. An airplane inching by, a light blinking on its tail. Last night I kept coming back to look as blue deepened to sapphire, then ink, finally black. It took hours. Now night is slowly saturating a gray sky. And all the lamps are city stars. My lamp, too, reflected in the window. The mockingbirds still calling in the last light. My black cat comes to sit beside me and turns toward their call. Some purple now, deepening like sleep as the lights pulse more brightly into the night.



Away for a while. My husband Herbert came on the spring training vacation Nikki was supposed to take with me even though he hates to travel. I'm grateful. A windy day. My female cat climbs in my lap, sniffs the pen. Nikki went home with her parents the day we left. She can walk a short distance with a cane now.

Home in my city. Shadows casting canyons on the rosebush. The mockingbird nest is in there; I saw it from below. Quiet now. And here comes a starling to the wire.



Gray day, blue at the edges. A small dark cloud hovers over a tree. Holes of blue open in the gray. The complications of life seem so solid. But the birds will crack out of their eggs. Maybe the raven will not eat the fledglings. Maybe my life will shift.

Yellow now on the top of the palm fronds. Some of the orchid plants on my mantel die. They never bloom. But the Christmas cactus in the window flowers exuberantly every year. All three cats asleep in the room. I want to see a bird, and two shoot by. Now two ravens flap across the distance. I need to look up more.



The sky clouding after a blue day. I hear the rustling and peeping of what might be the baby mockingbirds. When I walk under the rose arbor and look up at the bottom of the nest, I don't know if it's full or empty. The bush filled with buds now, fringed with their stipples. I think of the softness of spring on the East Coast, the light haze of buds beginning on the trees. Colors are harsher here. But not the sky today, all grays and white.

I wonder how Nikki is, admire the way she hasn't let herself be diminished. A bird call like squealing tires. My cat purrs and looks at me with round gray blue eyes, then rubs my finger with her wet nose. One note from a bird repeated, like the fir trees that stand triangular on the hill, each branch alone and emphatic.


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