7:00 a.m.: I wake up and shut off my white noise machine, listening for the cardinals. They have a unique song, a melodic whirr-eeep whirr-eeep whirr-eeep that rings through my yard, especially in the morning. I lie very still, imagining that Ana is making them sing, letting me know that she’s close by.
My husband and my 15-year-old daughter, Emily, are still sleeping. On weekdays, I make sure they’re moving around by 7:30 a.m. so we can get Emily to school on time. On weekends, it’s usually just me until 10:00 a.m. or later. The long weekend mornings are the loneliest I’ve ever felt in my life.
Ana used to wake up early sometimes. I catch myself in the midst of a what if, the first of hundreds I’ll have today.
If she had lived, she would’ve been an early riser too. I wouldn’t be so lonely. She was the most like me.
7:15: a.m.: I get up to feed the cats and take the dog out, but make a brief stop in my office to look out the window at the bird feeders scattered strategically around the lawn. I smile when I see a blue jay at the tray feeder. It hangs right beside the dogwood tree that we planted two years ago, on Mother’s Day. We planted a magnolia tree that same year — one tree for each girl.
My office used to be Ana’s bedroom. There’s still so much of her in here. As I walk through the door, I take a deep breath. I used to do this to try to catch her scent, but any trace of that has long since faded away.
A memory hits me.
She wore Nag Champa oil instead of perfume. I’d found it a bit cloying. The smell would linger everywhere she went — on her clothes, in the car, even on the dog’s fur.
7:20 a.m.: I scan Ana’s room thinking about the things we’d left alone for so long, but are now gone — three vinyl records lined up on a narrow shelf (Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and Pink Floyd), square tapestries that she’d collected from vintage shops, a signed Black Sabbath poster, sent to her after she’d gotten bad news about her prognosis. A small couch occupies the place where her bed was. I used to feel a mixture of anguish and relief that the bed was gone, but now I just feel empty.
I try to picture her reaction to her bedroom as it is now, filled with my work things.
If she came back today, suddenly, as if she’d just been on a trip to some far away place, she would tell me to remove my things immediately. She would demand a new bed and I would happily buy her one — that very day, that very second. I allow myself to dwell in this moment of intense longing even though it makes the tears come.
7:25 a.m.: I stand beside her shelves and bring the half-empty bottle of Nag Champa oil to my nose, inhaling deeply. A dozen images of Ana’s face flash through my mind. I close my eyes and pretend it’s her I’m smelling and not this bottle of evaporating oil. “Good morning, Ana,” I say.
7:30 a.m. — 8:00 a.m.: Chores occupy me for a time, keeping me fully distracted, fully in the moment. I used to miss Ana with every chore, noticing her absence in the simple fact that there was less to do. The sink never overflows with dishes anymore. There are less towels to wash, less clothes to fold, one less lunch to make each school day…
I see the lunch bag that Ana used during the final year of her life. She wanted the smallest one. She’d rolled her eyes at me when I worried it was too small to pack a decent lunch. At 15-years-old, eye rolling was her standard response to 80% of what I said.
I turn away from the memory and towards the day.
9:30 a.m. — 1:00 p.m.: The morning and afternoon carry me along with them as they have every day since Ana died. I drive Emily to a friend’s house, have breakfast when I get home, sit in my office and…possibly…I work. But, more likely, I stare out the window and wait for the birds. It’s quiet for long stretches of time and I try not to dwell on my sadness. I burn a candle and say Ana’s name.
1:30 p.m.: A flicker of movement catches my eye. There are two white-breasted nuthatches hanging upside down from the suet feeder. A group of house sparrows swoop in, grab some seed, and dart away. A dazzle of bright red appears from within the branches of our nectarine tree — a male cardinal.
“Hi Ana,” I whisper as I stare at him. I know this makes me sound crazy — all the bird feeders and me sitting here, talking to the cardinal. But no one can see me. I’m alone in my office. Alone in the space that used to be Ana’s.
My old office was a tiny room sandwiched in between the girls’ bedrooms. There was only one window, but it looked over the yard. There were no bird feeders then, no magnolia and dogwood trees. Instead the lawn was littered with toys and a massive, ugly inflatable pool that elicited hours of shrieking in the summer months. My husband would sit outside and watch the girls as they played. I would (try to) work, while they fluttered around the yard like little birds.
2:30 p.m.: There’s a knot in my throat. It’s with me, always. It starts in my chest, right near my heart, and travels up and up, growing bigger and more painful until I either sigh or cry — usually both.
2:35 p.m.: I grab the dog and go outside to sit among the bird feeders, letting the tears come. There is no one around to see me. I feel bad for crying. I picture Ana sitting in the empty chair beside me, rolling her eyes as I point out the different birds. This helps dry my eyes.
We used to sit outside when the dog was a puppy, just four pounds of fluff. He would run between us as we tossed the world’s tiniest tennis ball to each other. I lift him up now, an offering, and imagine Ana’s spirit enveloping us both with love.
3:05 p.m.: I feel better. The knot retreats down to my heart once again. I look up and gasp as a pileated woodpecker, its crest an impossible shade of red, lands on a towering ash tree. The tree is dead, but the woodpecker doesn’t mind. He shimmies up the side like an expert rock climber and bores into the bark, looking for bugs.
3:30–9:00 p.m.: I carry my grief with me like a traveling companion. I live and grieve and live again. It’s as though my psyche is recovering from a devastating injury and I must treat it with supreme gentleness or it will shatter.
I pull a faded t-shirt from the basket of clean clothes I’m folding. It’s mottled grey with the words “Led Zeppelin” printed across the front. This was one of Ana’s favorites. Emily wears it now, but doesn’t share her sister’s reverence for it. I fold it carefully, deliberately and allow myself the luxury of imagining I will put the shirt away in Ana’s closet, not Emily’s.
10:45 p.m.: I draw a heart in red or blue or green on Ana’s (my) chalkboard wall, turn off the light in her quiet bedroom and whisper, “Goodnight, sweetie.”