False Dawn

by Jeff Oaks

At 4 am the birds start up. There’s only one at first, chirping chirping chirping over and over again. By 4:30 others have begun to join in, and the songs get more complicated, overlapping, duelling. Well, we call it singing, but that’s what foreigner invaders always call the language of the natives. There’s a brief outburst of incredibly tangled and fiery trilling and caroling, what sound like challenges and answers, then at 4:45 the single bird is back, chirping chirping chirping. A google search of morning birds makes me think it’s like a mockingbird out there. A bird my mother loved. At one of the answer sites, there’s this comment too:

“Birds sing at that time because of what is called “false dawn” where the light from the sun just barely touches the atmosphere and there is a slight haze to the morning sky that is almost unnoticable to the naked eye…”

I went to bed at about 7:30 pm last night and then woke up around 3 am to some incredibly thoughtless loud-talking twenty-somethings walking down the street. I’ve been listening to the world ever since. Yesterday I got surprised by a bit of grief, I think. I’d come in early for a meeting, and then at the end of that needed to call a man at my mother’s bank in Dallas to give him some information so he could transfer money from her old account into my present one. Everything was fine, of course. I happily rattled off my information. I did notice that he used the words “proceeds” of her estate; I wrote it down on a post-it note I had. It sent a weird shiver up my spine. As if I’d sold her somehow. That wasn’t what he meant at all, of course.

I hung up the phone and went into the second meeting, but already I could tell something was off. I was tired suddenly. Bone-tired. Lie down on the office floor right there and then and go to sleep tired. There wasn’t enough coffee in the world tired. But I went into the meeting, took my place in the back, didn’t ask any questions, fiddled with my phone, barely listened. After the meeting, a few friends came up and said how sorry to hear about my mother. A couple of very nice condolence cards were in my mailbox.

Everybody who’s gone through this said that there will be surprises. Because last week had been so easy in many ways, I thought maybe the rest would be easier than those friends’ times had been. My mother had completely worked out her finances in the past year. She’d given away most everything she didn’t need over the last five years. The sale of the condo she lived in was going through already. It had been warm and green down there in Dallas. It was almost as if I were on a vacation. Or that she was. That particular feeling–that the dead person was only on vacation–is common I’ve read. It’s the way that the mind has already dealt with the loss of that person, I suppose. Which might also account for our versions of Heaven sounding so much like an eternal Club Med.

But that word “proceeds” poked a whole in that illusion, that false dawn. The day before I was so glad to be back to work again, back in my own office, my old schedule, my pens and computer and shelves of books. Life was going on just fine, thanks. For those who asked, I praised my mother’s perspicacity, her determination to set everything order for us so we wouldn’t have the awful work some children have after their parents died. Was I trying too hard? Maybe I was smiling a little too much. Smiling and joking are my first defenses. Sleeping is my second level of reaction, and it is a very powerful one to get around. Tea and coffee seem to make me only sleepier. I was telling my friend Jenny that when I made a quick trip to the supermarket the other day, I ended up buying milk, cheese, butter, cottage cheese. Why all that dairy, I asked out loud, before I caught it and said, “Oh. Mother’s milk.”

It’s a quarter to six now. I have to get up around seven, get the day started. Two weeks of classes to go, I say. Only three classes each. It feels like I’m trudging through the snow to do anything, even while spring has come, the students suddenly in shorts, their white limbs gleaming, tree branches growing shaggy with leaf-buds, the birds beginning to mark out territories we will never notice, all around our houses. Should I get up and eat a bowl of cottage cheese? Should I just roll over and try to grab some last sleep?

Do what you want, she would have said. Take the money and live.