According to Sister Bernadette, Birdie’s been dying for a decade. Some residents of Mother Theresa’s claim she was found curled up under the banana tree outside the front gate – others that her husband couldn’t handle her illness and left her here to die. In the heart of Jamaica’s poorest city block, hers is not a rare story. To a white, middle-class college student on a service trip from suburbia, it’s completely unbelievable.
No one knows what Birdie has, how long she’s had it, or how long she will. She arrived at the home completely blind. She’s since lost use of most of the right side of her body. She can no longer digest solid food. Most days she has little control of her bladder.
According to Sister Bernadette, head nurse at Mother Theresa’s, Birdie has a bad attitude. She bites the nurses when they carry her into the bath. She throws her pureed bananas on the floor. She moans in tongues as the others say their daily prayers. It’s a curious amount of vim and vigor for a woman with virtually nothing left.
When I meet Birdie, she’s sitting in her chair at the top of the stairs that lead to the women’s ward. It’s the only spot the sunlight never hits.
Sister Bernadette takes us on a tour of the ward, pointing out where we find rubber gloves and mops to clean up the urine-stained bedroom floor. The room is 100 degrees (at least) and reeks of piss (and more), but I wear my positive face and try to focus on the directions through Sister’s thick Indian accent.
“Okey you hear? Now you meet de weemen and you go.” Sister Bernadette barks. She’s roughly 4 foot 11, seemingly ageless, and apparently void of sweat glands unless there’s an air conditioning unit inside that habit.
“Dat dere is Eva, Ruth, and Bettie,” she says, pointing to the three women gathered around a chessboard. “Den dere is Josephine, Miss Angela – and you have to call her dat because she veel not answer udderwise – and den Mary.” She’s named most of the women in eyesight, except for Birdie.
I whisper to be polite. “Who is sitting over there in the corner sister?”
“Wat you said? Speak app! Over there?! Oh her?! Dat is Birdie. Don’t talk to her – she’s de nasty one and she blind. Don’t bother her.”
This is not a woman you ask a follow up.
“Ok. Tek dis broom. In one hour we eat.” And with that, she’s gone.
For the next half hour, I mop countless pools of urine off a floor that would put hair on Mr. Clean’s head. No one is watching, and I know no one will check my work with a white linen glove but I mop like a picture of this floor will be paper clipped to my eventual résumé.
When we finally finish the work, we volunteers disperse to chat with the women before mealtime. I wander for a few minutes trying to decide between checkers and knitting… sun and shade… the urine room and the moldy solarium.
For a home for the dying, Mother Theresa’s is shockingly noisy. Women scream in the bathroom as nurses try to bathe them. Men’s voices carry from their section of the house downstairs. Music blares from the cooks in the kitchen one floor above us.
As I stop for a moment to take it all in, my ear is drawn to a low, implacable sound sitting under the mix. It takes me a second or so but then I realize it’s humming – it’s a woman’s voice humming.
I let my ears lead me toward the hum, and they walk me straight to that sunless corner – the nasty one’s corner. The humming is coming from Birdie, and though I can’t immediately place it, I think it’s a piece of a song.
As I settle into the sound I realize she’s been humming it since we got there and, figuring it’s not for our entertainment, wonder if she’s been humming it since she got there.
I am sweaty and tired and have come dangerously close to vomiting three times in the past 30 minutes. I’m up for a battle of bad attitudes.
I approach Birdie slowly, wondering how soon a blind person can sense someone – and how long it’s been since this blind person has had the opportunity. She’s hunched over to an almost 45-degree angle. Her faux silk pink nightgown is covered in stains and holes. She wears a tattered pair of pink, slip-on loafers that conspicuously match her dress. She’s like some page out of a Tim Burton-styled JC Penny catalogue.
At three paces away, she stops singing. I freeze, instinctively step back, and then reconsider that moldy solarium and this service trip to Jamaica at large.
“Hello, my name is Jessie. How are you today?” I say, as if I am Kansas City kindergarten teacher. Birdie shifts her head to the left but does not lift it. She looks in my general direction but not at me. Her lips purse, and her left hand clenches. I am certain she’s going to lunge out of her chair and directly onto me. Instead she settles back into her position and promptly returns to her hum.
I am the oldest of four eccentric and often difficult girls. My grandmother suffered from dementia for six years. I’ve taught emotionally disturbed children in South Boston. And – more important than all that – I have prepared for the past six months over countless group reflections and the writing of wise Jesuit scholars to come to this hot, dirty place and make my mark. Birdie’s got nothing on my white, middle-class determination.
I move closer to her and crouch down beside her chair, directly in line with her torso. She’s still humming – louder now – likely in honor of my presence. She stares, if that’s even possible, at a spot on the ground just beyond her knees.
If humming is the activity of the moment, I decide, well then goddammit I am going to hum – beats mopping urine, even if this woman might still kill me.
I start to hum. At this point I’ve got her tune down pat.
Birdie stops immediately. Again, she turns to look at me, this time craning her neck so her eyes are directly in line with mine. They are a color I wasn’t aware existed – a glassy blackgreyblue that jumps against her ebony skin. She cannot see me, but she sizes me up all the same. I look directly into those eyes, and I don’t stop humming.
Birdie shifts in her seat a tiny bit. She takes her left arm and places it on the arm of the chair, right where mine is resting. We don’t quite touch, but I can feel the luke-warmth of her skin beside mine. She then joins me in her song, right at the spot I’m humming – this time with the crinkle-paper skin of her arm touching mine.
My dad hums. Show tunes from the ‘40s mostly – usually when he drives, sometimes while he washes the dishes, and when he put us to bed always hummed us a stanza or so of “Daddy’s Little Girl,” slowly rubbing our backs as we fell asleep.
I don’t know if the humming brings back the memory of that motion or my own desire to reach out and touch Birdie, but I start to slowly run my fingers up and down her forearm as we hum together. Again, she stops – turns to look at me and shifts in her seat a little. I don’t skip a beat. I just keep singing her song and rubbing her arm and looking her right in the eyes. Again, Birdie joins me where I’m humming, but as she starts into the song I notice that she shifts in her seat again, this time straightening her back ever-so-slightly and lifting her head an inch or more so that her focus is straight ahead.
I cannot remember at what point I realize what I’d been humming all along. When it clicks in my brain, I stop humming and immediately say the words that accompany those notes. “How much I love yoooou. Please don’t take my sunshine awaaaay.”
My very first thought: how does she know this song? I pull myself out of this beautiful moment and attack it with first-world logic. How did the slums of Kingston, Jamaica get our joyful American children’s song? And how did this blind, mute person get it? They say culture shock isn’t all about seeing the difference between two cultures – it’s sometimes harder to reason with the similarities.
“You are my sunshine!” I say to her. She was looking straight at me again – this time, I swear, with a shocked look in her eyes. “That’s what you’re singing! You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” I sang that first line half expecting her to join in for a slam bang finish of a duet – one we’d surely perform in the meal hall later that afternoon to roaring applause as a kick off to my Gold Star honor ceremony for saving the nastiest one and general A+ urine mopping skills.
She says nothing but again sits up a bit straighter and now looks almost directly ahead. Breakthrough! I thought. Lucky for Birdie, I know this one like the back of my hand. It’s one of my grandfather’s favorites. I grew up listening to him sing it up and down the docks of the river by our beach house, always wondering if he was singing to me or the crabs we tried to catch.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
I sing in a low, hushed tone wondering if hearing the words will somehow upset Birdie back into her comatose state. She doesn’t join me as she’d done each time before.
“Do you know these words Birdie?” I ask. “Can you sing them with me?” She looks at me again, smiles the smallest smile that even qualifies as an actual smile, and takes my hand in hers. She places my hand back on top of her arm and runs it up and down her skin, and then she starts humming again — this time from the top.
It feels like what it must feel like when a baby first breaks its wandering gaze and pumping fists and looks you square in the eyes. They’ve been there all along but after that moment they just seem more… alive. Birdie, in that moment, seemed alive again.
I sing that song fifty times. I sing until the lump in my throat became a scratch in my throat. I sing beyond the point where my knees can hold me crouched down and shift to sit Indian-style on the floor next to Birdie, still slowly rubbing her arm along with the beat. Over and over and over again. Birdie hums along with me – never missing a note.
Now she sits completely straight and tucks her feet beneath the chair like a proper old lady. She raises her chin just a tiny bit, and looks straight ahead toward some unknown point in her mind. Maybe it’s the heat, or my aching back, or my chronically stubborn hope, but I see a smile on her face – a confident smile.
The bell for dinner startled me out of the haze, but Birdie didn’t seem to notice. She went on humming as I trailed off, distracted by the commotion of nurses and volunteers moving the women into the dining hall. Birdie calmly finished her verse.
I am afraid to let go of her arm – afraid that if I shift any part of the moment she’ll crumble back into that in-the-shade-state, back to her task of withering away. That she won’t remember these five to seven minutes. That our time together won’t inspire her to practice sitting up straight as a baby step toward standing up straight and, with some effort and practice, adding dance moves to her tune for the holiday talent show. That’s what I want. That is my system of reality. Rehabilitation! Progress! Drug cocktails!
But this is not that. Birdie’s reality reins here – her reality of life running its un-drug-enhanced course, regardless of how many 21 year olds arrive with an injection of smooth skin and song.
“Thank you for singing with me.” I say to her, rubbing her arm one more time before I stand up – pins and needles in my feet slash head. “I hope you won’t forget the whole song.”
It’s a throwaway line – the one that flies out of my mouth instead of what I really want to say, “Here Birdie, hop on my back! We’ll bust outta’ this joint and take Kingston by storm! All they need is a little sunshine in their lives, wouldn’t ya’ say!”
I stand above her now, towering over her small, frail frame. She is a woman. She has been a woman for 84 years. She has seen things with her once-working eyes that I will never have to see. She learned things, courtesy of her vim and vigor, that I will never have to learn. And yet here she is, dying a slow death that can only be interrupted by a childhood song.
I take both her hands in mine and kiss them slowly, then I smooth her nightgown over her skeleton shoulder and flounce it out at her spindly knees.
“Goodbye Birdie,” I say before I kiss her on the forehead, like a mother kisses a child, and slowly walk away.
In a few paces, I turn back, realizing she hasn’t started humming again. She returns to a 90-degree angle in the chair. Her head hangs low, starting at that spot on the floor. Her nightgown dangles from her chest. She is gone again, and my scheduled segment of volunteer time at the home is over.
I wanted to return the life lesson for a full refund. “Hi, thought I needed this stark realization that you can’t really make a difference, but it turns out it looks like shit on me. No – thanks – I’ll skip the store credit.”
A few people had seen my session with Birdie, and their whispers make it back to Sister Bernadette.
“So you were not afraid of dee nasty one, no? You are a brave, white girl.”
I laugh at the thought of all the things she could have said instead. That was my Gold Star ceremony. I figured it was more pomp and circumstance than she gave most people.
“What’s Birdie’s real name Sister?” I asked.
“Oh nobody knows. She came to dis house humming dat song all the night. Not a real song – just a melody – like a foolish Birdie.”
I stiffen a little. That’s my nasty one she’s talking about.
“It’s ‘You Are My Sunshine,’” I say with a bristle, “And someone should sing it with her every single day. It makes her feel like she’s still living.”
Sister Bernadette probably looked at me like I am crazy, but I don’t notice. I make my way to the first floor office for a pen and paper.
Someone needs to teach all the nurses Birdie’s lyrics.