The Orioles

Outside, birds chirp, twitter and hop from one branch to another in a celebration of spring.  The garden is awash with colour: roses, carnations, daisies and lilies are in full bloom. In the distance, the church bells ring the Angelus and all the dogs in the neighbourhood start a barking frenzy.

It is so quiet inside. The contrast could not be greater. The gentle sway of the gauzy curtains in the warm spring breeze is the only movement in the room. The stark white walls reflect the rays of the late afternoon sun filtering through the windows. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafts in from the kitchen. It blends with the smell of lilac talcum powder and rubbing alcohol.

My great-grandmother is in bed, her emaciated frame barely noticeable under the light cotton coverlet. The fluffed up pillow seems to swallow her head, while tendrils of wispy white hair stick out. Her eyes are closed but she is awake. Slowly, her closed lips form a weak smile that illuminates her wrinkled face.

I pop in to check on her. “Oh, look! Orioles! See them in that tree?” she turns her head and asks me. “Can you hear them? How I love their song!” she whispers as she points at the wall opposite her. Her eyes still closed and her smile wider.

I follow her bony finger, not exactly sure what I am supposed to look at. All I can see is a blank wall.  What are orioles? Are they noisy insects like crickets or cicadas? Where are they? I can’t hear anything except the muffled sounds coming from the kitchen and the rustle of the curtains. 

And worst of all, I have no idea how to respond. I am torn between playing along with her and saying that yes, they are really wonderful, and saying that I actually don’t know what they are, hence I can’t find them. So I put on a brave face and stand there, in the middle of the room, feeling guilty that I don’t know what oriole means. I’m distressed because I am aware that something is expected from me and I don’t know what it is. This is overwhelming for an eight-year-old child.  

I decide I can’t stay in that room, give Yaya Juana a last look and leave quietly, not uttering a word. I go to the kitchen and Mum and Auntie give me a worried look when they see my crumpled face.

“You look a bit upset. What’s wrong?” Mum asks.

“Nothing…” At this stage, I’m still not sure if I want to talk about it. I don’t want them to tell me off, although I can’t think of a single reason why they would.  Maybe it’s just me feeling disappointed in myself.

“All right” I know she still thinks something’s the matter. “Would you like something to eat?”

“Yes, please” I gratefully sit down at the table and munch on some chocolate biscuits and drink my café au lait. I find comfort in its familiar smell and warmth, my mum’s presence and the feeling that life follows its usual course outside that room.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I mentioned this experience. My mum, my aunts and my grandmother were talking about the time Yaya Juana was in the last stages of brain cancer. I decided to tell them about the orioles and how wretched I felt because I didn’t know what to do then.

“Oh, yes” my grandmother said. “Orioles were Mother’s favourite birds. She could spend a whole afternoon sitting outside just listening to them.” I could see it with my mind’s eye. The garden chairs under the vines that covered the patio, the noises from my great-uncle’s attic workshop, the old-fashioned planters with geraniums. A feeling of yearning washed over me but quickly went away. Childhood memories that will stay with me for ever.

So I talked about that spring day. As I told them the story, all those sensations came back. Mum looked at me sympathetically.

“It happened a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now,” she tried to reassure me. “If it’s any comfort, Yaya Juana didn’t have a firm grasp on reality, so what you did or didn’t do wouldn’t have changed anything. Don’t feel sad about it, it couldn’t be helped.” my aunts nodded. “You were very young and it wasn’t your fault.” Her expression was one of sadness tinged with regret. 

I am older now and I’m able to understand that my great-grandmother was very ill and that I was too young to know what it was doing to her. When I look back at that day, the memories don’t bother me anymore. 

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