the last pelican kaffeeklatsch
Today was sunny and breezy rather than overcast and rainy, so John and I took a walk down to the Bonnabel Boat Launch. It was an even more fantastic day for it than we'd realized--when we got past the kids' playground and down into the parking lot on our way over to the water, a pelican suddenly seemed to fly right at us. We ran the rest of the way and saw about eight of them just hanging out on the pier, a kaffeeklatsch of pelicans standing around with their beaks hanging down to their feet. Seagulls jostled around them like seagulls do, playing their eternal game of "I want your perch," but the pelicans just stood there, unflapping and unflappable.
We watched them for about ten minutes. Couldn't get enough of just looking at them. Brown pelicans are the goofiest-looking birds in the Gulf South when they're standing still. When they're flying, they're graceful and huge in a way that I never quite get used to. But when they perch, or when they spot a fish and take a dive, they look like clowns.
On our way back to the house, as we crossed the low, flat pedestrian bridge over Bonnabel Canal behind the pumping station, a pelican actually flew under the bridge, skimming the surface of the water for about twenty feet before pulling up and soaring away again. Two cormorants followed it, swimming a similar distance completely under the water before resurfacing in the pelican's wake.
"We should tell Mom about the pelicans," I said. "She'd be delighted."
John looked pained. "You know what she'll say, though, right?"
And I remembered.
Ten, fifteen years ago, Mom would tell me about the pelicans. She'd tell me how they were coming back to Lake Pontchartrain in huge numbers. She'd tell me how she'd count them as she crossed the Causeway Bridge on her way to see her mother and sister in Covington. Her mother was needing increasingly more care, such that first she needed to move into my aunt's house to have family close at hand, then to an assisted living home, then finally to a memory care center. Mom would drive over two, three times a week to spend time with her, take turns with her siblings taking her out for lunch or keeping her company or giving her day-to-day care. So Mom got a lot of opportunities to count pelicans on her way to and from the northshore. It was a good day if she got to see one diving for fish. The sudden cannonball splash made her laugh. She'd tell me that pelicans are proof positive that God has a sense of humor. She was the one who decided "kaffeeklatsch" was the appropriate collective noun.
But now her mother has passed away, and she herself is beginning to follow in her mental footsteps: losing her memory, as she always feared she would. With sufficient encouragement, she'll do crosswords in a book rated "fun" and "easy" to try to keep erosion at bay. She needs help remembering how common sayings go, what concur means, or how to spell kneel. And with the memory loss comes personality loss, the sharp wit and the sarcasm I remember gone (which, admittedly, is sometimes a relief; her sarcasm could have a nasty bite) from conversations now uniformly shallow, repetitive, delivered with a childlike smile. She still goes to work, she still drives, she still handles day-to-day obligations, but she doesn't discuss, converse, argue, or analyze.
When we came home on the train Saturday and I told her about all the pelicans we saw perched atop dock posts in Manchac, she just smiled absently and said, "Remember the rhyme Grandpapa used to say about the pelican?" Which she then repeated, because once it came to mind she must say it, inexorably, no use trying to stop her: the limerick I always misattributed to Ogden Nash but that Wikipedia tells me is by Dixon Lanier Merritt. Trigger, response. No conversational branches. Just push the button marked "pelican" and out comes the rhyme. Then comes the next part of the ritual. "And did I ever tell you the rhyme I made up about our basketball team? 'What a favored team are the Pelicans / We hope they'll score more than their opponents can...'" Yes, Mom. Yes, you have.
And the weird thing is, she's been like that a long time. At least as long as I've lived in Boulder and called home every week. Trigger, response. Push button, get familiar anecdote. Is that because the mental changes that have seemed so sudden have been growing on her for a longer time than I realized? Or is it because the mental changes have simply crystallized around habits she's always had, eroded away everything around them to leave them stark and bare?
I don't think I'll ever know the answer.
I've come to realize over the past couple years that we will probably never have a meaningful conversation again. The late night discussions we used to share at the kitchen table, when she'd just brought me home from the airport and neither of us wanted to go to bed yet, and we talked about religion and politics and philosophy and our worries and our fears and our hopes--those will never come again. The person I used to have them with is, for all intents and purposes, gone.
I just didn't realize until today that the person who counted pelicans and laughed at God's jokes is gone too.