A few weeks ago I saw a hummingbird on my back porch for the first time. It hovered in front of me, just a few feet from my face, as if it desperately wanted to be noticed. I get it, I said aloud. And then I gasped, because it really was so beautiful, shiny and green and fluttering like the world’s most hyperactive fairy. In a neighborhood filled with crows and ants and cars on joyrides careening into fences, the hummingbird stopped me with joy. I tried to show my children, but by the time we came back outside the tiny bird was gone.
For Lent, I tried to keep an eye out for the ways that God would surprise me. Mostly it was delight—through my children, the scenery, love in some bright and tangible form—but sometimes it was despair. I paid attention to small flowers growing and dead animals splattered across the road and my own frustration with my lack of ability to help everyone.
The end of Lent, the beginning of Eastertide, was a swirl of events. My grandma died, which was expected but still shocking. I always loved her but she lived far from me for many years, and when she moved into my city a few years ago dementia and strokes had stolen her ability to speak. But she could still communicate love, and I miss this grandma I got to know so well. The one who hugged and kissed and squeezed me and my children, who never stopped fussing over us, so simple and sweet and stubborn. She was so beloved, and now she is gone. We said goodbye, showering her with love, the only thing we could do. and it was enough.
Getting ready to go to her memorial, I got a text that one of my favorite writers and thinkers, someone I considered a friend, Rachel Held Evans, had died. She had been heavy on my mind the past few weeks, in a medically induced coma. She passed away after going in to get some antibiotics and having extreme allergic reactions resulting in seizures. It was a fluke, an accident. A tragedy.
I could not stop crying in my bathroom as I tried to put on some makeup to go celebrate the long and relatively good life my grandma had. I went to the service and sat with my children, who got to know their great-grandma, while my friend’s small children would never get to see her again. How do we celebrate one person and grieve another? I don’t know, but this is how the story of my life goes. There is never just celebration or lament, they are always tied together around my wrist.
Today is the fourth anniversary of when I almost died for the second time. Of when a home-health nurse happened to check on me and my tiny, three-day-old baby and sent me to the emergency room. I remember going to the emergency room, on Mother’s Day, hoping it was a fluke. Slowly more doctors came into the room, more tests were performed. Slowly, I was admitted and hooked up to drugs that made me feel like the blood in my veins was on fire, but which were actually keeping me alive. My husband and I waited for what felt like forever, for me to be transferred out of the emergency room. They wanted to put me in the ICU, but I was adamantly against this idea, almost hysterical. I wanted to be in the maternity ward. I wanted my baby to be near me if at all possible. I wanted to be around other people who had just given birth, I wanted to feel just the tiny bit normal, like someone who had reason to celebrate. Finally, they caved, but they had to hook me up to all sorts of machines and get multiple people to transport me across the street to the maternity center. Trying to make small talk, I asked one of the people pushing my gurney around various elevators that this must happen all the time, right—a hilarious, morbid parade of transferring people from the ER to the other parts of the hospital, spread out over several city blocks. No, he told me, looking shocked. this doesn’t happen very often. We usually don’t transport people who are as sick as you, people who could have a stroke any minute and who are a liability.
I think about what that man said, sometimes. the way I was shocked into silence. How i listened to the noises the machines made, slowly realizing that the veil was getting thin again. I think about how I stayed in that hospital room for a week, not able to take care of my baby, or my four year old, how it broke my body and it broke my brain.
It was a freak thing, the way my body wanted to turn on itself, wanted to stop my heart. I remember all of these things now, today, but other memories are stronger. Like that little baby who is growing up, who just turned four and is obsessed with Star Wars and Pokemon, who still barges into my room every morning for snuggle time, who dances constantly and only wants to eat mac and cheese. Of my almost nine-year old daughter, head always in a book, full of big feelings, learning how to celebrate and mourn with everyone around her like we all must do. My two children, my two threads, twisting around my arms, connecting me to the earth, connecting me to joy and pain and yes—even death.
Tragedies make me afraid. The reality of the world sometimes makes me want to curl up inside my head and never come out again. I don’t know how to be a survivor in a world full of death. The fact that some people get miracles and others don’t makes me want to throw up my hands and give up my faith because I just can’t comprehend it, the fact that there is no real way to beat the odds or rig the game. The older I get the more I become like my friend Rachel, who lost the certainty of her youth but gained a relationship with a God who loves us all fiercely. I am limping along on that path, several steps behind her.
Rachel leaves a legacy in part because even though she might have been afraid, or despairing, she still showed up. She wrote and she encouraged and she fought and she apologized and she uplifted others. A friend of mine said the other day, “what would it have been like if Rachel hadn’t shared her story?” and this question will remain with me the rest of my days. I will keep telling mine, for as long as I am here on this earth. and like Rachel, I want to encourage other people to tell theirs as well.
For the past few weeks, my son has been adamant that the hummingbird was going to show up to his star wars birthday party. I thought this was pretty adorable, but like a good realist I tried to gently disabuse him of this idea. I had only seen it that once, after all. We had gone to the store and bought a hummingbird feeder and mixed up the bright red sugar juice and hung it from a tree. But like everything else in our life, I somehow got it all wrong: an endless multitude of ants instead found the feeders, throwing themselves to their sugary deaths and slowly choking it with their tiny black bodies. A bright red ant graveyard, instead of a beautiful lure for the signs of hope I was trying for.
But on the day my son turned four, the day after my friend died, we looked out the window and there it was: our hummingbird friend, flitting about the tree, hovering and waiting as if to say hello. Before I could stop him my son ran outside and they had a staring contest: the bird sitting on a branch with its tiny wings silent and still, my son stomping his foot in joy and excitement. For several minutes they looked at each other, a tiny bird and a tiny boy. Then my son ran in and smiled at me so big I thought i couldn’t bear it. I was right, he said. the bird wanted to come to my party. You were right I said, and we both went inside. Together, we got on with the business of celebrating. we got on with keeping up the commitment to hope and celebration and joy, in the midst of this wildly unfair world.
This post is dedicated to Rachel Held Evans, who championed my writing (and many others on her blog). It is also a nod to another favorite writer of mine who also died too soon—Brian Doyle, who wrote an incredibly famous and beautiful essay on hummingbirds. This isn’t enough, this little ramble of mine. But these two writers shared their stories and shaped me, and I want to join their revolution of love in whatever tiny way I can.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: D.L. Mayfield
D. L. Mayfield lives and writes on the outskirts of Portland, OR with her husband and two small children. She writes about refugees, theology, and downward mobility, among other topics. Her book of essays, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith was published by HarperOne in 2016. Her second book will be released in early 2020.