How does the tending of one dying old man—his protracted dying—stack up against the urgencies of the world?
Our bodies return our bones to the earth in many ways. For some, strokes and hemorrhages ricochet like internal lightning inside the brain, or through the heart and arteries. Such was my father’s fate, and for him, those strokes led to dementia and a long decline. It fell to me and my husband Jeff to care for that sweet man during the last five years of his life. As many people do, we struggled to reconcile the minutiae of the bedside with our full-time work, with three sons to raise, and with the urgent call to speak and act on behalf of our climate and the besieged wildlife of Florida.
Susan Cerulean’s memoir trains a naturalist’s eye and a daughter’s heart on the lingering death of a beloved parent from dementia. At the same time, the book explores an activist’s lifelong search to be of service to the embattled natural world. I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird weaves together intimate facets of adult caregiving and the consolation of nature, detailing Cerulean’s experiences of tending to both.
The writer Bill Kittredge once said, “I dream of the single-hearted heaven that is the coherent self.” In the face of dementia, a coherent life for any of us seemed out of the question. Jeff and I knew that if we took my Dad into our home, the chaos dismantling his brain and body would overwhelm us. So we arranged a room for him in an assisted living facility only a mile away, and there we saw to his care.
One afternoon, during the second September of my father’s stay in the nursing home, I stood near his bed and pressed my forehead against the window. Through the glass, I could hear the muffled calls of cardinals and red-eyed vireos. I did not open the windows, for the late summer air steamed like a thick, hot pudding.
When we first moved Dad into that room, the emerald light filtering through the windows had reminded me of swimming underwater in a warm river. It wasn’t really so bad, like you might fear kudzu-mediated sunlight could be. But as time passed I noticed that many of the tall pines around the nursing home were dying under the weight of the vines swarming their living canopies. I saw that those smothering lianas were like the tangles and plaques in my father’s brain, how both kudzu and Alzheimer’s replace a vibrant living place—a brain once full of inborn competence and memories of long-gone houses and long-grown children—dissolved those things in super slow motion, replacing them with loss. Dad’s drugs, the Namenda and the Aricept, were like winter frost in the forest. For a time, they would keep the plaques in his brain at bay. But link by link, the invasive vines weighted that scaffold of mature trees with blankets of biomass. I could still make out the biggest magnolia, setting its red fall fruit, but I didn’t know if it would survive until freezing December nights slashed the tough kudzu back to its knees.
Caring for my father was the right thing to do. And maybe I thought with enough resources and kindness, I could raise him up from Alzheimer’s as I had raised my son from a baby to a man. But this was a dementia of my own, to think that I could change the course of that disease.
And I had yet to answer the question: How does the tending of one dying old man—his protracted dying—stack up against the urgencies of the world? Perhaps it was something about trying to fix or mend what is close at hand, those who we are most closely related to and deeply love. Maybe, I thought, through this impossible task, I would learn the language of tending the world.
Caring for my father was the right thing to do. And maybe I thought with enough resources and kindness, I could raise him up from Alzheimer’s as I had raised my son from a baby to a man.
During the time we cared for my father, I began to volunteer as a steward of wild shorebirds along the north Florida coast. Two or three times a month between March and August, I’d slide my kayak down the concrete ramp at Ten Foot Hole in Apalachicola and paddle to my territory, a tear drop of sand just south of the bridge where I was to locate and keep track of any nesting birds. Most likely candidates were least terns, black skimmers, certain small plovers, or American oystercatchers.
One lucky day, I found a single oystercatcher brooding her eggs on the sand. Over her long orange dagger of a bill, through scarlet-rimmed eyes, she had been tracking my approach long before I saw her. She saw my paddle slicing the quiet waters of the boat ramp, watched my path unfolding, even before I myself had ascertained the mood of the wind. Never should I think that my eyes are brighter and more alert than hers, she who has sifted into this landscape every day of her life, and every day of the lives of her kind, for millions of years. From that ancient perspective she watched me from her nest scrape on the sand, three eggs burning into her belly through her brood patch, ready to spring off the nest and expose her eggs to the sun in order to draw my eye from the shingle of beach that was home. Her job was to watch for danger, and our human selves are a grave danger to everything wild and vulnerable on the planet.
I didn’t know Earth was afflicted by our species until I was well into my 20s. All I wanted to do was submerge myself in the delight of it, and I did: the Atlantic Ocean, cold and dark and irresistible. Piles of autumn leaves: scarlet, orange, cadmium yellow. Canoe expeditions through the pitcher plant bogs of the Okefenokee Swamp, and the chill of the Suwannee River’s springs. I took those wild places, and the reliable turn of the seasons, for granted. Excesses of winter simply meant a pair of snow days, summer, a brief wave of heat. There was no reason to imagine the seasons would ever lose their structure. The natural world was mine to dwell upon, and I did. But now I understand that all of the ways Earth and her wild birds are being diminished are symptoms of our culture’s commitment to infinite growth.
In the 1950s and 60s, when I was a child, we knew little about chronic diseases of the mind, body and spirit; what we did know we kept to ourselves. Cancer was the big C, depression had no name at all, and the word alcoholism was seldom used. So when Alzheimer’s came creeping into my father’s brain, our family had had a lifetime’s training in not naming—and not really knowing—what was going on; not just illness, but also the shame that comes with it, and the helpless, hidden sorrow. We couldn’t have named, at that time, its emotional potency.
Alzheimer’s, Pick’s, Lewy Body, Parkinson’s: these are not the natural result of aging, but are specific, identifiable diseases of the brain. Most dementing illnesses do their damage gradually. As they progress, the affected person loses intellect, abstract thinking, judgment, and memory, and eventually descends into complete disorder and oblivion. The word dementia comes from the Latin demens, meaning madness, or the irreversible deterioration of the intellectual properties of the brain. De (undoing) plus mens (the mind). That’s dementia.
Earth is the brain and the body into which we were born. In some nearly parallel way, we face not only a crisis in numbers of people diagnosed with dementia; as a culture, we are stricken with this disease and its attending violence. For why else would we knowingly destroy the planet that sustains our very lives? Our Western economic and political systems, all the ways we personally consume, and give over our power to corporations and oligarchs—those are the illnesses that are killing our planet. When you have the physical disease, you experience it alone. But this dementia is cultural. What is our part, what can each one of us do, to alter the trajectory we ride? How can we bring healing to this world?
What is our part, what can each one of us do, to alter the trajectory we ride? How can we bring healing to this world?
By the late 1990s, I had worked for several conservation groups, and then the Florida’s wildlife agency for nearly 20 years, and by any measure, wildlife and natural landscapes were still losing ground. Scientists had known that the climate was changing for some years. But it wasn’t reported much in the news, and to me, it was a new and unthinkably enormous concept. I began to really digest what none of us wanted to be true: that beginning in the 18th century, as humans began to burn coal and gas and oil to fuel economic growth, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere accumulated, at an ever accelerating pace. That the product of our industrial respiration, millions of years’ worth of carbon stored beneath the earth as fossil fuel, had been spiking in the atmosphere and now was spoiling our nest.
On a June visit to the bird nesting island, I made my way around the tiny landscape with my spotting scope over my shoulder and my binoculars around my neck, moving slowly, keeping count of all the birds I saw. On earlier visits, I’d seen pairs of oystercatchers slipping around like shadows, so I looked for them in particular. Just as soon as my eyes keyed in on the shape of a large ebony bird sitting on the sand, it startled away. How fearsome I was to that parent, with my spider-like tripod and upright slow-moving stance. Imagine if the only way we could protect our newly born was to draw the predator away with our own bodies and our own voices, implying there’s no nest, no chicks, no eggs, keep your eye on me, let me draw you far away from what I am trying to bring into the world.
I fixed in my mind where I first spotted the bird and stepped carefully over the sand to a nest between a broken bit of plastic bucket and a certain white morning glory blossom.
And there they were: three eggs marbled brown and black, as fragile and unlikely as snowflakes on the sand. An extra high tide could so easily wash them away. A crow or a large gull could devour them. Or if all went well, this line of oystercatchers might continue another generation.
Away I went, on around the island. Eventually, I found three nests spaced the length of a football field from one another, creating a nearly equilateral triangle of nest points, as far apart as the dry land could serve.
From an egg in the last of the nests, I saw the tip of the bill of an oystercatcher chick, meeting the salt air for the very first time. At first, I thought the hole meant that the egg must be damaged. Had ants punctured it, or was the eggshell thinned and then fractured by the weight of the parents’ bodies? But no: there at the center of the hole, a tiny bill, a new rare life.
I was awash in gratitude and awe. Though I wasn’t welcome to watch, I knew the full hatch of that chick, its first tumble onto the sand, would be as miraculous and sacred as the birth of any other species on Earth, life crossing between the worlds.
In the end, my father’s death was a similar crossing. A potent virus commandeered his lungs. Those last few days, although his body labored, my dad didn’t appear to be in pain. The nurse gave me possession of the liquid morphine to administer as I felt it was needed. We sang to him, stroked his face and his hands. As he took one last breath, his lids flew open, and one final glance of his gray eyes swept our faces. I saw his body ensouled, and then I saw his corpse, spirit gone. Now he no longer was. Like an eggshell, his physical frame was left behind for us to oil, and wrap in cloth, and bury in the ground. His soul, like the dark chick, had fled.
I knew the full hatch of that chick, its first tumble onto the sand, would be as miraculous and sacred as the birth of any other species on Earth, life crossing between the worlds.
“How would you like me to inscribe your book?” I asked the woman across the long folding table. “Is it a gift for someone else, or for you, personally?” I had just delivered a talk about advocacy, and now it was time to sell and sign books.
“Just tell me what to do to save Florida,” she said. “Just write that down for me. Tell me the single most important thing that every one of us should do right now, given all that confronts us.” I pulled down deep inside myself for an answer. I had been plotting and working and writing my way toward that question my whole adult life. And yet, Florida, and my state’s wildlife, Earth herself—all the things I dearly love and wish I could protect—seemed no closer to being “saved” than they were before I began. Perhaps saving is the wrong verb.
What I said to the woman: Don’t turn away. Face what threatens the unborn of all species with all of your strength and all of your heart.
We must watch and work on behalf of the beautiful things, watch them with exquisite attention, praying that their spirits will inform our actions on their behalf, and our own. Bill McKibben, perhaps the most effective and tireless advocate in the U.S. on the issue of climate change, says this: “How do you cope with celebrating a dying world when you think you should be trying to save it? You—we—are required to bear witness to it. This is one of our jobs. It’s as close to religious duty as one could imagine.”
How is the dementia we are inflicting on our world similar to a dementing illness in a single human brain? It is this: in both cases, the afflicted suffer from the paradigm of perpetual growth, the smothering and overexploitation of diversely beautiful and unprotected, common resources. In human dementia, the losses are painfully observable. One by one, the beautiful life forces are dissolved. Dancing, laughing, smiling, problem-solving, remembering and imagining, and eventually breathing are all stolen from the individual.
For Earth, the dementing disease—our system of economic and political dominance—has terminated the Cenozoic era, the time of this planet’s maximum flowering and biodiversity, and replaced it with the largest extinction event in 65 million years. One million species have been already lost and replaced with a spiraling increase in human biomass. Industrial civilization has induced an apparently unstoppable climate crisis of epic proportions. In his last years, I did for my father everything that I could, with the full and gathering knowledge of the eventual outcome. I knew he would die and he did. Is our Earth also terminally ill? Does the human-induced pace of species extinction and climate crisis ensure that we will also lose our Mother?
I believe that we can redeem our species. As Amitav Ghosh has written, the derangement of our times is rooted in how we live. That’s the difference between my father’s illness and the illness of Earth: the latter is animated by cumulative human actions, guided by legal and economic systems that treat the natural world as property to be exploited, not as an ecological partner. It follows that we can mitigate, to some extent, the damage to climate and biodiversity.
But our work must be swift. The systems of power that have done the damage will not lead, nor should they be allowed. We’re on our own, but we are billions.