On a stark day during my 12th spring, my mother showed me my first hummingbird. I’d seen them before, of course, but had always thought they were fairies. I tried not to show my disappointment at realising that they belonged to this earth, to this red dirt – that they were anchored to it, just like us.
Despite this, the miniature birds did manage to retain a touch of their magic. They darted around the little feeder that my mother and I had carefully filled up with sugar water, moving faster than our eyes could follow, their bright bodies like smudges of watercolour against the sky.
We had tied the feeder ceremoniously to the old tree the day before, flushed with hope – and this was our reward. That old tree had always been the centrepiece of our garden, which had nothing else to distinguish it apart from a strange, hook-like shape and it’s abundance of wild weeds. My mother was never much of a gardener. All of her enthusiasm was used up on animals.
“They’re the smallest birds in the world,” she confided to me as we watched our nimble guests attack and pull back from the feeder again and again. Her voice was hushed, so as not to frighten them away. “Their wings beat up to 70 times a second. A second! Can you believe it?”
I couldn’t. Eyes fixed on their blurry bodies, I tried to count the beats, but they were always too quick for me.
Not much was expected of me that spring, apart from school and chores, and so the majority of the time is lost to me now. Only a few things stand out, like hummingbirds, a rusting bike, sourdough bread, and long nights spent looking up at Saskatchewan’s big, unforgiving sky.
Oh, and the morning my mother forgot where she was.
I was sweeping the kitchen floor, cursing it, as it seemed to have the incredible ability to produce dust all by itself. I was vaguely aware of someone standing in the hallway, and when I looked up, I saw that it was mother. She had a strange look on her face, like there was nothing in front of her to focus on. It was like she was standing on the deck of a ship, staring at a horizon, far, far away, rather than in our poky kitchen. Those eyes pulled up goose-bumps on my skin when she turned them on me, because there was no kindness, recognition nor gentleness there. There was nothing at all.
She cocked her head to the side, like a bird surveying a worm. “I want to go home,” she said firmly. “I want to go home.”
Still holding the broom, I took a step backwards. At 12, I couldn’t begin to guess what was happening, and this woman who was mother-but-not-mother frightened me in a way I couldn’t yet give words to. “You are home,” I whispered.
My voice seemed to knock all of her pieces back into place. She shook her head once, twice, and then coughed in a funny way, peering this way and that. When she looked at me again, it was with my mother’s eyes. She wore the same smile she used when I was sick and she was trying to make me feel better.
“Of course I am. Silly me.”
After a few moments, in which I remember us both remaining uncomfortably still, she crossed the room to the kitchen window. She stood there, watching the hummingbirds dance around the feeder, until it was too dark out to see.
I learned later that my mother had known what was happening to her for some time. That there had been signs, sad little treasure hunt clues, left for my father and I. Things like mother forgetting about pies in the oven and getting lost in the car, even though she’d lived in Saskatchewan since the day she was born. On a couple of occasions, she’d called my father Charlie, my uncle’s name. Considered alone, these instances seemed to like nothing more than little blips in the history of things – wrinkles in the rug. Considered together, and from the vantage point of the future, they paint an altogether more unwelcome picture. Since that day in the kitchen, it became a fact that could never again be unknown: my mother was forgetting herself.
I overheard my parents speaking to each other in their bedroom one day soon after, voices barely restrained.
“What was I supposed to say? ‘Brush the porch, the dog needs feeding, I have Alzheimer’s?” my mother hissed, without humour.
Once I knew the word for the problem, it became a poison that ate away at me, creating a hollow in my stomach so gaping that I barely ate for weeks. It threatened to spill from my tongue every time I opened my mouth. My father haunted the house like a spectre, all pointed edges and loaded silences. Everything felt off-kilter, and I was almost annoyed at my mother for what she was doing to us. But still – I could understand how she hadn’t been able to tell us what was happening to her. The problem seemed too big for our little house. My mother simply hadn’t been able to find a place to put it.
That summer was unusually and blindingly hot. All of the grass in our hook-shaped garden shrivelled and died – it crackled under our feet like cut glass. I couldn’t be outside for longer than half an hour, and even then it was only to cycle to a friend’s house or to feed the hummingbirds. Though there were less of them, they seemed to be the only ones enjoying the heat; they buzzed and whizzed with renewed vigour, their bony bodies dancing with the heatwave.
Nothing much changed at home. Mother’s affliction was rarely discussed. I think both father and I knew that we should do something, anything, send her somewhere or bring someone to us, but she wouldn’t have it. She just wanted to stay at home, to be with us, to be normal, and we felt powerless to deny her that. So we tried to continue as we were, and every time mother got lost or forgot herself or screamed into the mirror, we just felt more and more broken.
One day, she insisted on dragging my grandfather’s old armchair into her bedroom. She positioned it by the window and sank down into it with a sigh, as if she’d been waiting to do so for a very long time. There she’d knit, listen to the radio, or stare at the hook-shaped garden with its old tree and its hummingbirds. One morning, one flew close to the window and paused to look in. My mother pressed her hand to the glass, tears wetting her cheek. She was quieter and more still than she’d been before, but that summer, the woman in the chair was still my mother.
As for me, I went for long bike rides and did chores and grew older as if everything was the same, but nothing was.
The summer eventually cooled, and my mother grew frightened of the things in her room. She no longer recognised my grandmother’s patchwork quilt, or the books on the shelves, or the smiling couple in her wedding photograph. My father removed everything with a sadness so profound that I refused to acknowledge it. Anger was better, safer and less painful. By the bittersweet beginning of fall, with its fiery leaves and smoky evenings, my parents’ room was nothing but an empty shell. It contained only an old armchair and a woman who didn’t recognise me. My father did his best, but she was slipping from us, like a cloud blown across a wide open sky.
One unremarkable morning in October, I tramped across the garden to the hummingbird feeder. The air was crisp and smelt faintly of decay, campfires and petrol. I carried the cold in my bones. When I reached the old tree, I could see that the feeder was still full of sugar water, as I’d already known it would be. The hummingbirds had been steadily disappearing for weeks, but there had always been at least one skipping gaily around the feeder, waiting for me. But today, there was only an absence.
“Migration,” I said out loud, visible breath curling from my mouth.
My mother had taught me the word back in the bright days of spring. “One day, they’ll fly south for the spring, for the warmth,” she’d said. “They’ll leave us, so we have to make the most of their beauty while they’re here.”
I unclipped the feeder from the tree branch and glanced up at my parents’ window. There was my mother’s face; wide, white and vacant as the moon. She was staring at something beyond me, and I realised that she, too, had made the journey from our little house, from our garden, and from our lives. She’d already left for a place where I could only hope it was warmer.