I. The List/The Group
Sometimes it’s hard to remember those first dark days of Covid, when we all convinced ourselves of so many things. When we first convinced my mother, who was 85, who was already leashed to an oxygen tank, who’d already been diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure, to for God’s Sake, just stay home. My father had died the year before, after 56 years of marriage. For the next year-and-change, my mother would rattle around the house the two of them had bought 48 years before like a nut in a very large shell.
But because it was those first dark days of Covid, everybody else was in the same lonely boat. One of her A.A. people created a group chat. Its purpose: gratitude. Every day, the chat’s members could chime in if so moved:
I am grateful for family.
I am grateful for banana bread.
I am grateful for the ability to breathe.
Five thousand miles away, I was also grateful. Because the Gratitude List chat became my mom’s tiny window. She thought about S, who’d lost work, rather than about herself, who’d lost a husband. About D, newly, precariously, sober. Surrounded by sharers, she began to share, herself. A few years previously, I’d thought people in their eighties were too old to change. I was wrong.
After her accident at the retirement community last October, I flew home from Madrid. She’d spend five days in Intensive Care before her death; for the next six weeks, I’d sleep in her guest room. That first night, I brought her cell phone home from the hospital and plugged it in. I was so shellshocked it didn’t occur to me to mute it. Illogically, I was thinking she might need to call me at that number.
Because of jet lag, I was already awake when the first text came in.
I am grateful for hot coffee.
I too was grateful for hot coffee.
I was grateful I’d made it in time.
I was grateful I had a brother and that he was with me.
That Gratitude List, received every morning, became my lifesaving tow rope.
There are worse traditions. Every morning, I raise my first cup of coffee in a toast to it.
II. The City
Yesterday, I was at a cafe with some friends, and it took at least 45 minutes for us to get our order and 25 more minutes to get our bill. Plus, the table of six Spanish ladies next to us was so damn loud you couldn’t hear yourself think. I felt exasperated. Would some American-style service really be too much to ask for? And how about some silence? Just for a second? I was tired of the city. I wanted some elbow room.
But then this morning, I walked out of our apartment into air that smelled sweet. Not of cinnamon, though it had a faint note of something like cinnamon to it. I’ve noticed this scent before, and at first I figured maybe it was because of all Madrid’s bakeries. But it’s not manmade. Maybe it’s the smell of the bent cedars of the Casa de Campo to the west of us; maybe it’s the air that blows from the mountains. Maybe it’s just the smell of Madrid.
And there we all were, walking through it: the college student with earbuds in her ears and practically no clothes on; the elderly woman, eighty if she was a day, tottering along in high heels; the man being walked by his Labrador puppy; the delivery man pushing six crates of Valencia oranges across the street on a dolly.
All of us, in community together, walking through the sweet-spicy smell of Madrid in the early morning.
III. The Birds
The swifts are back. Oh, how I missed them! The sky is their oyster; their shrill peep-peep says all’s right with the world, no matter how many things (wars, pandemics, politics) impinge.
This morning, after my coffee but before I went for a walk, as M and I sat on the sofa discussing the day’s administration, a little brown bird, no swift at all, hurled itself at our living room window. By the time I looked over, it was lying on the terrace.
—Stunned, M said hopefully.
Its wings were moving — and then they weren’t. The transition was so quick, so quiet. Blink and you’d miss it. The sky was still blue but the little brown bird, just the husk of a bird now, lay on the terrace.
Years ago, I buried Indigo Glimmer, P’s Siamese Fighting Fish, in the backyard, but usually M takes care of things like this. He would this time, he said, but he was sad and wanted to take his shower first.
A half-hour later he gingerly opened the door to the terrace, garbage bag clutched in one hand.
And the bird took flight. Only stunned, after all, and just like that, hope, Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers,” bouyed up my day.