Thursday, February 24, 2011

Paul's Chickens

She was 94 and it was past time. For years she'd been holding on in spite of her weariness and boredom, her tiny frame refusing to set this life aside and move on to the next.

Two days a week on average I'd spent a few hours in her apartment, fixing her Swedish meatballs and boiled potatoes, corned beef and cabbage, cherry jello with cream and sugar. Many times we'd just watch television, it's extended volume piercing my brain but barely reaching hers. Some days I'd goad her into telling me the same stories; those of her childhood, meeting my grandfather, raising my father.

"Ya" she'd say after a half hour of silence, as if in answer to some question or in recognition of an unspoken statement. Then she'd suck in her breath, a quick little draw of air that Norwegians use to punctuate without adding vowels.

Now she lay helpless, her bed one of two in a respite room, cotton draperies separating the dying from the dying.

She'd never once touched me before this, never hugged, never kissed my cheek. But this day she set her hand on mine and looked into my soul, likely wondering if I had any messages that she might carry on her journey.

"I'm dying you know" she said smiling, delivering her announcement in that tactless way that only the most stoic of Scandinavians can muster.

"I know gramma" I said. "Tell me about Uncle Pete again."

"Nah" she said, releasing my hand and smoothing her sheets.

"Remember the time...", I started, conjuring the tale of a drive to her birthplace, my ex wife and I the drivers and she and an ancient cousin in tow.

I'd mentioned a radio show I was producing at the time, a guest of which was a Norse musician who played folk tunes for a local dancing troupe. One of the songs he'd played live for me struck me funny, and so I said it's name to her as we cruised down the rural highway. "Paul's Chickens" it was called, the story of a man chasing his unruly hens around the farmyard.

The two old women lit up as if I'd given them ice cream cones. They started singing in unison, stumbling over their now rusty Norse and giggling like schoolgirls. "Klukk, klukk, klukk, Sa høna på haugom." they sang. The chickens were cackling, a fox was nearby.

We laughed and laughed a few miles away, while these two poked and prodded each other to sing every song stored in memory banks too long untapped. I swear had I stopped the car, they'd have leaped to the grass to celebrate life in dance and song, like some Shel Silverstien cartoon.

As I retold the story she laughed. "Cluk Cluk Cluk" she sang in the tiniest of voices as I finished, and she muttered a few more phrases in unintelligible Norse before drifting off to sleep. I read her a few Robert Frost poems that she might dream of woods on a snowy evening, the jangle of sleigh bells offered to drown out the sound of her labored breathing and the incessant knocking of the reaper.

It would be my last night with her; the last time she'd tell me I was too fat, too rumpled, that I smoked too much. But my last vision of her was her smile, the proof of my so tiny contribution to her life; my payment for love never spoken but always understood. And what else matters.


  1. My stepdaughter said she could explain the meaning of life in two words: you matter.

    You matter.