Seeking Refuge

Sleeping birds are vulnerable. This is why the lucky ones flock by the tens of thousands to roost for the night on the low, gnarled branches of the mangrove trees that flourish in the back bay waters of Estero Island, Florida, where I just spent a week with Jon and our kids.

In these quiet, tidal waters, masses of entangled leaves, boughs, and trunks spring out of the sea itself—there’s no ground at all above water. On the landless Bird Island, some fifteen thousand birds gather at dusk to nod off in peace. No ground, no predators. These birds are fearless for the night. How I envy those birds on Bird Island. The romance of it makes me shudder: What would my life look like if I erased all predators?

Oh Lord, I’d have my work cut out for me. Obviously, at this very moment, I’d eradicate my proclivity to sun rash (an unfortunate ailment I’ve passed along, much to her horror, to my elder daughter). Without sun rash, I could enjoy a week at the beach without red blisters, ice soaks, antihistamines, cortisone, calamine, and Desitin ointment.

What is sun rash, anyway, my daughter wants to know as her hands and feet swell and itch painfully with small blisters and under-the-skin bleeding. Is it some sort of allergy? Indeed, it is, known medically as the exotic-sounding “polymorphous light eruption.” When I was little, my mom used to call it “heat rash,” a term decidedly less flattering than either sun rash or polymorphous light eruption. Heat rash sounds oddly private, and vaguely unclean. We girls will take our sun rash, no matter how gruesome, to any form of “heat rash,” thank you. But if we had the chance to be as free of menaces as the birds on Bird Island, then we’d banish sun rash, and all other rashes for that matter.

There are other things I’d ditch faster, though, come to think of it. Based on today’s mail offerings, I’d erase the mean people from the law firm that handled my divorce almost four years ago—the ones who now send unpleasant letters regarding the obscene amount of money I still owe them and the inadequacy of my regular monthly payments. Maybe all bills could be eliminated.

But first I would erase my son’s melancholy for all things dead and gone: his first house, friends who’ve moved away, his homemade cardboard mailbox that I threw to the floor and broke (it still hurts to recall the snapping sound) in a sleep-deprived fit of frustration when he was three years old, and his several deceased pets, including Popsicle the parakeet who dropped dead while my son was traveling, adding shock and guilt to his inevitable heartbreak. I would get rid of it all, and more, until he was a free eleven-year-old boy, alight on a mangrove branch with his blond head tucked under a sturdy wing.

Though I imagine the melancholy could wait until I’d done away with assaults. The boys who jumped out at my friend and me in a haunted house twenty summers ago, grabbing us and tearing the buttons from our shirts, bruising our wrists, scaring us senseless before the next person who’d bought a ticket for fear stumbled down the darkened hallway. The crazed men who’ve assaulted so many women I know. The stepfather nicknamed Mafia by his friends, not enemies, who picked up my sister by her long straight hair. All assaults would be erased on my Bird Island.

And how about psychic assaults, those haunting bad memories and humiliations? I’d can them. The time my friend and writing colleague called from Knoxville to say our editor at Simon and Schuster had received our manuscript and was demanding a total rewrite. “She hated it,” drawled my friend. “Just hated it.”

It’s exhausting, this process of elimination. It’s not the same as feeling somewhere in your ancient psyche that the light is waning, and taking wing to a certain spot far out in the water where you know you will rest easy for the night, safe, fearless.

So I throw the mail in the mail basket and carry my daughter’s blanket up to her lofted bed. I tuck it in around the edges, smooth it out. I lie down with her while she reads Caps for Sale. A spray of freckles has emerged on the tan skin across the bridge of her nose (unlike her sister, she does not get sun rash). I run through all of the kids in my mind, their faces, their quirks. Who needs what, who’s doing okay, who’s struggling. Eventually, they all sleep.

Sleeping children are vulnerable. There is no Bird Island in sight, and only flawed parents to keep them safe. Let us rise to it, even if barely. That’s ultimately all I ask. That’s my real Bird Island.