GETTING QUIET by Emily Marie Seibert

GETTING QUIET by Emily Marie Seibert

On an October Sunday in 2020, I was loading a bin of clothes that I still wanted but had outgrown during quarantine, into my car. I used the back passenger side door; the one on the driver’s side was still smashed shut since the garbage truck had plowed into it two years before. Paperwork with “Emily Seibert vs. the City of Yonkers” stuck to my cluttered coffee table. As I shut the car door, I heard a shrill pterodactyl-like cry overhead. I looked up into the yellowing leaves of a 50-foot-tall maple to see brilliant tropical streaks of feathery blue. The parrot was an anomaly in a deciduous tree.        

+

You called yourself “Mama Bird,” and eventually I did too.  

When we met outside the writing workshop in 2006 on a grey fall day, you seemed troubled. We smoked. You told me you hated your mother, and I said, “You don’t mean that.” It didn’t take long to learn that you did and that you were entitled to. Two transplants lost in the outskirts of New York City—the Pennsyltucky gal and the Okie from Muskogee—we found one another and grew close, and you taught me that some mothers do not deserve a daughter’s love.

You felt guilty about leaving your second-born middle-school-aged “baby bird” in Oklahoma with her father while you used your scholarship. I’d learn that you still felt guilty for giving away the first daughter you’d birthed at age 17 to a relative, and that your own mother never showed signs of remorse for what she’d done to you and yours.  

You called yourself a “dirty pirate hooker” in your manic moments, crawling with darkly lacquered nails and denim-clad knees across the bar-top to entertain the blue-collar men-children we played with at night. Your mother used to tart you up in revealing outfits for recitals, but you still missed the dance, and sometimes your spirit burst through your arthritic bones and you’d clog in the corner by the jukebox. When I was a kid, I’d cartwheel up the path that cut through the church cemetery leading to the crypt. By my mid-twenties, I’d become a true exhibitionist, and you witnessed me forget that I was no longer a gymnast, flip across the barroom floor, and break my leg.  

You trudged two miles with a shovel over ice-blocked New York snow to help me chisel out my car. My guy friends had declined, and that was no surprise since you taught me that boys will come and go. When Mason the artist admired me one night and ignored me the next, you lambasted him. Then he publicly admonished you, “You’re trying to be Emily’s mother because you left your own child in Oklahoma. Emily knows who she is, and she can speak for herself.” You left. I sat, mouth agape, and discovered that he had a wife and daughter, too late. You hated Liam, my day-drinking buddy and nighttime haunt. He part-timed as an English instructor and with me too, and to taunt you, he claimed to be Jesus. I didn’t listen when you said, “he’s toxic,” and I discovered later that he had a girlfriend. You detested Nathan, the playwright and recovering alcoholic who lived with me between bouts of staying with his mother. He speculated that the pain of child-bearing eventually triggers insanity in most women. I discovered, after he overdosed in my apartment, that he had a drug problem.  

We all came to know Lawrence Hospital well. One night you warned, “Don’t freak out” before stepping into my place to reveal your pouting lips, lop-sided from a second strike of Bell’s palsy. I can’t remember what had knocked you to your knees—if it was the drugs they’d given you—but you told me you’d been crawling around on the hospital floor. So when I think of that emergency room, I still think of you crawling and the aquarium by the check-in-desk. The anemone trembling in the current of the filter always looked fragile to me, like brain tissue. Who knew my onslaught of scans would someday show lesions, leading to the diagnosis that sickened me to speak—“Multiple Sclerosis”?  

You taught me that life’s traumas can trigger “fight or flight” diseases. In times of distress, the body tries to attack an enemy, but instead attacks itself. As two girls who struggled to see themselves, perhaps this affliction was fitting. We shared in Dis-Ease and wandered our respective labyrinths in search of diagnoses and anything, sometimes anyone, to numb the pain. We wandered, and next to you I wondered, What real trauma had I endured? I’d grown up comfortably, the only-child-center of a neurotic nuclear family, and compared to yours, my traumas seemed unimpressive. Perhaps even self-inflicted. One doctor suggested I’d drank myself into this autoimmune mess. 

I’d never understood the desire to be a “child of God” until I heard your family stories. The first time Bell’s Palsy attacked you at age 16, you ran away from home because your mother wanted disability checks more than she wanted you whole. She told you to strip for a living because “no one [would] be looking at your face.” Even my most-of-the-time-secular-self understood your need for surrogates, so it didn’t faze me when you joined a local church our second year of grad school, or when you took a month-long mission trip to Senegal. You agonized about pouring your love into children overseas while your own awaited you back home. But Senegalese kids needed you, and so did I, so you went, returned, and we still caroused and you still shouted, “Long live the dirty pirate hooker!” I loved your constellation of self-contradictions. Old Al, the “Donald Trump of Bronxville,” would buy us drinks and escort you to the casino. Who knew you’d be working in one in Oklahoma a year after graduation, and that Al would die of bone cancer, and that within a decade, your father, brother, and mother would pass?

I dabbled my fingertips into holy water after you left. I’d call, chain-smoke, and tell you about that brief dance with the gospel-singers in the Bronx, or my hug from the Hindu healer at the Javits Center. Who knew that place would eventually be packed with COVID cots and COVID shots? My favorite was the faith-healing ceremony in Ireland. The minister blessed me, and I fell back into the arms of a stranger. My mother couldn’t understand this excursion. “Feel any better?” she snipped as she stood in the church parking lot.

You understood why I was searching, and so did Dan. By graduation day, your face had regained symmetry, and I was still wearing my barroom gymnastics cast. I stayed out later than you, met the Irishman, and danced with him, loose-lipped and stiff-legged by the jukebox. The next night, I introduced you and thanked God you didn’t disapprove. Dan gave me cash to send you when things were bad in OK, sponsored your visiting flights back to New York, and helped me pick out your gifts, like the bird painting that read, “You were born to fly.” Dan flew us to Oklahoma and held his tongue and his bladder as you drove us around, rambling like mad, showing us the house where you, the ex, the “baby bird,” and the two dogs used to dwell. We all shuddered at the billboard advertising the Seven Deadly Sins Haunted House sponsored by hardcore Bible-bangers; you said one of the displays was designed to scare kids about abortion. We laughed at the “Kum & Go” gas station that stained Tulsa’s outskirts. Most men did, as you’d warned, but not Dan, whose skin is always warm to the touch, but who scarcely wanted me to touch him as time passed. His cool rejections, I’d say, drove me into the arms of others, and not in the churchly way. You’d tell me the others were toxic distractions—that I should “purge the poisons.” When the 2020 quarantine made a more honest woman of me, that summer’s backyard behavior was a spectacle—me dancing to Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me There” while Dan sat frozen in his lawn chair, like an animal trying to camouflage itself from a predator.  

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“If raccoons don’t kill her, the cold weather will,” an aviphile friend messaged me. “But she may come down if she sees her cage.”

The parrot’s owners stood in the street, clapping and shouting at the tree-top. I asked if they wanted me to call someone. Animal control reiterated putting her cage and food in plain sight. Climbing the tree, they said, might scare her into climbing higher or flying away.

My friend suggested erecting a ladder to demonstrate climbing up and down—that the bird might take a cue. I tried explaining to the owner. Dan roosted in the living room, immersed in political news as he gruffed, “If he falls, it’s not our responsibility.” I helped the man lift the 22-foot ladder off the roof of my landlord’s shed. He expanded it, leaned it against the trunk, and climbed some rungs. He shook the food bowl and hollered to her. It became clear that “Polly wanna cracker?” wasn’t cutting it. She continued to cry, head-bob, flap her wings, and side-step on the thin, warbling, arm-long branch.  

The neighbor-lady in the brickhouse across from us emerged to observe. Dan calls it the “house of horrors.” Her mother had died in there. For years thereafter, she’s had no electricity. Someone once called the fire department because she’d been burning lacquered furniture. Most days, she warms herself from the sun in her tiny, glass-encased mudroom. By night, she collects plastic bottles from our recycling bins. Dan and I once left a box of hand-warmers on her stoop around 3AM. As we walked away, she burst from her door and ordered us to take them back.

I advised the parrot’s owner to bring her cage. He left, returned, and rested the cube of gridded wire containing a red parrot—her mate—on the sidewalk. He remained quiet, confused or disinterested.

I smoked cigarettes, paced in and out of the house, made phone calls to anyone who’d listen, and disturbed Dan. Her piercing distress calls were constant and inescapable. I’d had a rough September, which I chalked up to Mercury in retrograde, a phenomenon that I’d learned from you, Mama Bird. Our cat was struck with vestibular disease and lost function on her left side. For a week, she couldn’t walk nor jump, so I laid a mattress on the floor and slept there with her back nestled into my breast. I watched instructional videos of a sinewy, tattooed yogi expressing her paraplegic cat’s bladder. Dan’s Jeep needed work one day, so he borrowed my car to get to the Bronx to paint a project located near a psych-ward. It was that afternoon that a patient took a hammer to all the windshields of parked cars on the block. Lucky for me, I wouldn’t have to take it personally.  

“Go to the bedroom,” Dan nudged, but the parrot’s cries followed me, and I couldn’t insulate myself from knowing that she was suffering. Chest-deep mounds of clothes awaited organizing and purging, but I couldn’t focus on productivity. I’m often plagued with indecision; I struggle to affirm where to put things or what to do. I pace my cage with the door ajar, wondering what my next move should be.

+++

The weekend before the parrot disruption, I lost a laptop. After futilely ransacking the house and praying to St. Anthony, I consulted a psychic. She held a card featuring ferocious pencil scratches to her webcam. “It’s destroyed,” she said. “But this isn’t about the item. This is really about your hoarding.” Tears streamed down my face as I considered the spare bedroom that no longer contained a bed, but piles of boxes, bags, and bins of clothes, holiday decorations, greeting cards, course syllabi, cassette tapes, and electrical cords. She presented another card picturing three women, who she said connected to my unhealthy habit. One, she assumed, was my mother, who compulsively collects antiques and rarely lets things go, including dead friendships. The psychic said the light-haired woman could’ve been someone from a distant branch of the family tree, and that I could be enacting ancestral memory of women who’d suffered harder times. The third was a dark-haired lady. “She’s got an attitude,” she said. 

I thought of you, Mama Bird. 

Your mother hoarded seventeen dogs and dilapidated properties she couldn’t afford, so you tried expunging the habit of clinging, and told me about Swedish death cleaning. The last card depicted a woman lying on the ground, surrounded by swords thrust into the earth. “She’s trapped,” she pointed out, “but look closely; she can escape if she really wants to.” She said I’d need someone to hold my hand through the purging process – that I’d be one to rout through garbage to retrieve discarded items. She told me the women would feel a tug while I purged – that we were connected with positive and negative cords, and she likened the bad ones to a sewage drain. 

The lost laptop was my impetus for messaging you the day before the parrot debacle, Mama Bird. An occasional clairvoyant, you’d helped me locate lost items before. I asked you about your October birthday. I was remiss to mail a card. Usually, you didn’t mind getting my birthday presents around Thanksgiving and my Christmas gifts in January. But something had felt far out of alignment since March, and you messaged me that you’d moved twice since we last spoke. March—the month we were told the virus was spreading over us like locusts—the month you and I had our first political argument and our first instance of hanging up on each other. When you said, “I think we’re done,” I thought you only meant that conversation. 

It killed me that over seven months of face coverings and “social distancing,” you didn’t even want to phone chat. Maybe the problem ran deeper than politics. Was I not present enough for you? Did you tire of my complaints? I thought we’d always commiserated in our restless search for “home.” I often fantasized about returning to Pennsylvania; perhaps it’s why I kept my Yonkers rental cluttered with memorabilia my parents had given me. Most paintings, I never hung; I never envisioned living in Yonkers this long. A decade later, I displayed a pen-and-ink my father had made of a tarantula perched on a toadstool in a troop of hundreds. I finally looked closer to see that one of the arachnid’s legs is caught, and that the piece is titled “No Escape.”  

I found the cold months of quarantine comforting. The world was uncharacteristically quiet. One night, as I stood outside smoking, I witnessed a coyote cut through the darkness. She was trotting down the middle of our street. She heard my gasp, halted, then turned around to disappear. That spring, the neighborhood birds cooed, called, and cackled with such boldness, I became a humble guest in their jungle. Over the years, I’d lie in bed staring at the popcorned ceiling that had crumbled away to make shapes like clouds and strange continents. I’d dream that clusters of houses behind us had turned to mountains, the highways and roads into rivers, and sometimes cried when I woke up to the noises that swarm this so-called suburb—muffler enhancers, jack hammers, emergency vehicle sirens, airplane engines. Things getting “back to normal” didn’t enthuse me. 

I’d complain about the diesel of my landlord’s tow truck infiltrating the kitchen each morning as he warmed the engine. I bitched about the black fridge that he finally bought to replace the old one. Function over form, this black albatross in the kitchen signified to me that I often get what I need, but rarely what I want. The screams and thuds from the neighbors’ grandchildren on the floor above rattled my raw nervous system. I knew I shouldn’t be so self-centered. So spoiled. I knew that many people don’t have food, let alone a food-packed fridge. I knew I was fortunate to be employed, to have living parents, and to live with a man who, despite our problems, stood by. But I couldn’t help feeling that the back-biters at work, the ball-breaking traffic, and the constant, caustic vibrations that echoed for miles beyond the “empire shitty” were killing me. In the summer of 2020, the fireworks felt like terrorist attacks. People set them off nearly every night, and it wrecked my head and heart to think of how these bomb-like bursts affected pets, wildlife, and people with PTSD. As much as I wanted out, debts were high and rent was cheap. 

A few months after graduation, you flirted with moving back to New York. You flew in for a spell, searching for a life compass. Maybe you could swing it by adjuncting or working for a literary agency. I wanted you to stay. Your daughter was angry, but maybe you could bring her too, we discussed. You recollected postpartum depression, how you’d resented this little leech clutching and draining your sore, swollen breasts that had been pumped to a pulp. You told me the new guy—the churchie divorcee—fantasized about starting another family. He didn’t understand your need to write, nor your desire to fly. You rationalized starting over with a clean life of domesticity. He sent flowers to New York, and you booked a flight back. After that dissolved, you told me how he’d knelt bedside and begged God for forgiveness immediately after sex. And he wasn’t the first boyfriend to do that.

Years later, when you revisited, I drove us to Connecticut because you wanted to tour a nunnery. You’d gone in the direction of “getting quiet” and encouraged me to do the same. We walked the forested grounds in the cold with no one else in sight. The dappled grey clouds blanketed the holy hamlet, and at the time, I was too conscious that I should appreciate it. I preferred to be at the bar with you, like the old days, but I kept quiet because I knew you were searching. It was only the cedar beams in the church that took you away from your meditation. I’d never known anyone else with that allergy, nor any diabetic who loved Mountain Dew like you do. You sipped it as I sped, trying to find an antique shop to browse before sunset. I slowed and debated peeking into the Persian rug shop, but I listened when you said, “You don’t need that.” Besides, you couldn’t stand the must.

Mama Bird, you could be mean. 

You praised your mother-in-law’s ability to keep a clean-and-close-to-Godliness house for her husband as you sat in Dan’s armchair amid our messy nest. You’d say “cats are evil” and mocked “cat people” knowing that I mothered strays with love. You once questioned why I submitted my writing to a top-tier journal: “You really think your stuff is good enough?” 

Meanwhile, I could be selfish. I didn’t want you to become a “Bride of Jesus” because I didn’t want to lose my friend. Had I become just another bad habit? When you read your journal aloud in my living room, I stayed quiet when you asked God in a stream of thoughts about your “distancing from Emily.”  

You made the most of your time in OK, adjuncted, worked the casino, hustled to buy your daughter things that her gainfully employed, newly married father wouldn’t, helped her with homework and gave her the attention she needed. Some of your pain was diagnosed as Psoriatic Arthritis. You occasionally sleepwalked and drove to IHOP at 3AM to binge and flirt with strangers. But you’d walk back into yourself and continued to do “the Lord’s work.” You administered a teen pregnancy prevention program, taught prisoners how to read, fed the hungry. You converted to Catholicism and befriended nuns. When your brother’s funeral forced you to be in the same room as your mother, you told me how she’d aged. You sometimes pitied her, and postmortem, you still struggled to forgive her. She had been, all along, a very sick woman. At last, when you landed your full-time job and began your doctorate, Dan and I applauded. “She’s soaring,” Dan said. 

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The parrot needed quietude and a sense of security in order to come down. My neighbors must’ve pegged me as mad. I shouted at one to turn off his car vacuum. I hollered at voyeurs to move on.  

The owner resorted to scare tactics. He tried throwing a tennis ball at her. He blasted a hose toward her, but the water rained back down a dozen feet shy. Cruel-to-be-kind methods, perhaps, but when he told me she’d chewed her way out of her cage, I wondered if she had good reason. 

Night fell. Things finally got quiet. Silence didn’t bring me comfort. I wondered if she’d been eaten, or if she’d dropped off from fatigue. And I wondered if you would ever contact me again, Mama Bird. I prayed, not for you to reply (I was too proud for that), but for the parrot’s safe return. “Jesus, please bring her back home.” But I wondered, Where is home for a tropical bird housed in a cage in Yonkers, New York?  

In recent years, I started to feel that you judged me for complaining. One night, you cried to me about menopause encroaching like a grim reaper. You lamented soon being stripped of the choice to bear more children. I said, “At least you got to have one. Two, actually.” I shared my fear that I might not have any. Multiple Sclerosis discourages it, and uninterrupted medication forbids. “It’s not a competition,” you said. I agreed that we both had rights to our own grievances. 

When the bodies were being packed into meat trucks, Dan was painting hospital units, and two of our neighbors died, I told you, “We’re in the belly of the beast.” You replied that you were “limiting [your] intake of negative COVID news.” I chalked it up to the pandemic triggering trauma—I assumed you were guarding yourself, searching again for safety and solace. I tried to understand. You kept your distance and rarely called. 

“Give her time,” Dan said at first, but I tired after months of silence and scathing succinctness, and I broke after I saw you announce on social media that your daughter, a beaming college grad, was visiting NYC. You wrote that she lit you a candle in St. Patrick’s. I wondered, Had you been sick…sicker than usual? I finally asked you to confirm via text whether you were too busy with your thesis, moving, life’s demands and your pursuit of peace, or if your silence meant that we were over. You didn’t reply, and I moped, busying myself with booze, cigarettes, phone calls, and non-human animals in distress. “Don’t crawl back to her,” Dan eventually advised. “She’s become part of the cancel culture. She severed the cord. Let her go.”

Whenever I listen to Todd Rudgrend’s “Can We Still Be Friends,” the lyric “we’ve been through hell together” reminds me of two couples – me and Dan, and you and me. Not everyone stayed close with me over the years as I navigated the hellscape of Multiple Sclerosis. You both steered me away from scavengers, including Tony the psychic who warned me of a dark-haired friend who envied me. Tony also said a negative spirit was attached to me, causing my disease, and that only he could exorcize it for a fee of $1,200. You and Dan stood by as I lost and regained sensation and mobility of my left leg. You told me about your sister-in-law who’d suffered MS for years—whose husband finally shot her and then shot himself in their trailer. You said she’d exclusively relied on natural remedies that your mother-in-law brought her, like moss from a deer antler. “At some point, you just have to take the drugs,” you said over the phone as I teetered on my parents’ porch one Christmas. “You don’t want to be nibbling moss off a deer antler.”  

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The first night of the parrot’s escape, a neighbor introduced himself as Angel and shined a flashlight into the treetop. The halo at the end of the beam only illuminated leaves, but I knew she was there. “Forget about her,” Dan urged. “She probably came down.” But I knew better. The next morning, after the sun rose, I awakened to her cries.  

The neighbor-lady stood outside her mudroom, jingling keys and making bird calls. I walked into the street to smoke. “Why didn’t they leave the cage?” I muttered. “I have a cage,” she said. “I’ve owned parrots before; I know what I’m doing.” I approached her house and looked behind the shrubs to see her pushcart in the middle of the sun-scorched grass. She’d placed a plate with a tomato inside it, and had lain a broomstick across. The parrot’s own food bowl sat empty on the ground. I went inside, grabbed some trail-mix, and returned to her lawn. I held up the bowl in one hand and broomstick in the other, hoping the parrot would fly down to the makeshift perch. “Come on, baby,” I urged. My landlord and his tow-truck buddy ogled from across the street. I got the owner’s cell number from my upstairs neighbor and texted him advice articles and updates: “Squirrels ate her food. Can you bring back the cage?” No reply.

Later, as I took out the garbage, my landlord met me with “good news.” The owners had driven by, and the parrot flew out of the tree and followed their truck around the block. “They got her back?” I asked. “She’s in some other tree now,” he said. “At least you won’t have to hear her anymore.” Her being out of sight and earshot did not assuage me, and I still heard echoes of her cries.

That night, the temperature dropped. It rained. “Even if he gets her back, the prick probably won’t bother to tell me,” I complained to Dan. And I texted you, Mama Bird: “I miss my friend.” Again, I was stupefied to be talking to myself.

The next morning, I went for a walk and spotted her, perched in a pine tree. I stopped and stared, helpless and groaning. My heart fluttered as I witnessed her take flight. My eyes skimmed across half-a-dozen rooftops as I watched her land in yet another tree on another block. I figured I’d text the owner an update when I got home, and decided to finish my walk.

When I circled back, I stood outside to chat with my landlord. A truck pulled up. The window rolled down to reveal the owner’s smiling face. He told us they got her back. From the third tree, she saw his wife in the backyard and flew down to her, ready to be fed and caged. He said he would bring her over someday and that I could give her a hug. I think he meant the parrot. I nearly burst into tears, but held back. He thanked me and drove away. Then the woman across the street pushed open her front door and shouted, “I found the bird. She was in a tree on the corner up the block.” She held her phone, so I assumed she must’ve texted the owner while I was on my walk. “Yes, he just told us they got her back,” I hollered. “Good news,” I punctuated the conversation with a thumbs up. She stared at me for a moment, then retreated. “Yeah, right,” my landlord scoffed. “She found the bird. She’s a fuckin’ bird brain.” I immediately felt guilty for not having told her, “Good work.”  

“Good news,” I told Dan when he came home.

“Yonkers sent you the check to fix your car?”  

“Negative.”  

“Mama Bird texted you back?”  

“No,” I huffed. “The parrot found her way home!” 

“Oh,” Dan said. “I’d forgotten about it.”  

“How could you?” I asked, then told him I felt bad for not giving the neighbor-lady validation.

“Poor thing’s got nothin’ else goin’ on,” he said. “Tell her ‘nice work’ when you see her.”

“It’s too late,” I concluded.

I stood in the kitchen grinding coffee; the sound of metal crunching beans couldn’t mute my churning thoughts. Had I become a drain? If I go to therapy, will you return to me, Mama? You led me by the hand to the college counseling office one day when you thought I’d gone too far. If I quit drinking, will you see me in a different, detoxified light? When it came to us, you chose flight over fight. Is that what Jesus would do? I stared at the hollow Topeca coffee bag, the last of several Dan and I’d brought back from Tulsa two years before. I considered putting it back next to the catnip tin—the one that brought me morbid thoughts: Once the last leaf of catnip is gone, the cat too will pass. Then I plucked the few stray beans from the bottom of the Topeca bag before I tossed it in the trash.  

That night, Dan watched me peck at my dinner. “Let her go,” he said. I sighed. “My father used to say something true,” he told me. I looked at the black and white photo of Dan Sr. resting on our mantle. “Remember,” he said. “We’re all just passin’ through.”  

On our last night in downtown Tulsa, you showed me and Dan “the center of the universe.” We took turns standing inside the concrete ring amid the larger circle of bricks to test the acoustic phenomenon. “Can you hear me?” I asked. You both smiled and nodded. I heard my voice echoing for what seemed like endless miles into space. “Can you hear my echo?” I asked. But you couldn’t. Whoever stands there is in their own echo chamber.  


Emily Marie Seibert is an Assistant Professor of Humanities at Mercy College. Her passions include media literacy, saving stray cats, and helping people tell their stories. Her essay in december magazine's volume 32.1 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Art by Bri Chapman

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