Watching the Pelican Die
On TV, I watch the pelican with its mouth wide open,
its wings and body coated with oil. Is it screaming? I do not hear
the sound and since this is a photograph, I don’t know if it was caught
in that mouth-stretched howl when it died or if it’s howling
in recognition that it cannot survive the thick coat
of oil that bears it down.
The ladies who take care of you when I’m gone tell me you
are having trouble. “His hands,” they say, “his hands.” When I
come home, I see that your hands have turned black
at the tips and I see that the ends of your fingers
have been eaten away. I watch the dead bird in the Gulf
floating on top of the water, its legs stiff and straight in the air,
its body drained of all motion, all light.
The next day I take you to the doctor; he tells us he will have
to operate to remove the gangrenous flesh.
The announcer on CNN says BP didn’t want the photographer
to take pictures of the dying birds covered as they are
with the black slick of oil. “They were hoping,” he says,
“that the birds would sink and the evidence
would be swallowed by the ocean.”
In the late afternoon, I hear my daughter cry out. I rush to see
what has happened, and you are stretched out on the bed,
your body so thin you look like a boy. You do not move.
I call 911 and the ambulance takes you to the hospital.
BP is trying to put a cap on the spewing oil rig; the CEO
keeps saying, it’s no problem. Clumps of oil wash ashore
and float on the surface of the water. The beach is littered
with dead fish and birds.
At the hospital, they want to know whether we want
extraordinary measures. “No,” I say. “He has a living will.”
We hover around while they admit you. You have forgotten
how to speak. Mostly you lie in bed, staring into a space
above our heads.
In my mind I see that screaming bird, its mouth wide open,
a picture of torment and despair.
I reach out to hold your hand, stroke your forehead. “Dennis,”
I call out, “Dennis.” You do not hear me. The doctor comes in
to see you. “Well,” he says, “he should have been dead five years
ago. What did you expect? You shouldn’t have taken such
good care of him.”
“We did everything we could,” the BP president says, looking
directly at the camera. “It’s not such a calamity,” says
the governor of Louisiana. “We don’t need to stop
deep water drilling. Our economy will collapse if we do.”
We stand around your hospital bed. My brother comes in
and says he’ll try a stronger antibiotic. “It’s bad,” he says,
but he waits until we are in the hall to tell me.
The social worker says, “You should put him in a nursing
home.” My brother says, “You kept him home all this time.
If he gets a little stronger, I’ll let him go home and he’ll be
around the things he knows.”
The doctor comes in and says, “He’s not going to make it.”
The social worker admonishes us with her bag
of common sense. She does not love you. We take you home.
I sit next to you and hold your hand.
The MSNBC reporter stands on the beach in a hurricane
and picks up a huge glob of oil with a stick. “Look,” she says,
“look,” and drips the oil on the white sand. She is shaking
with fury at such destruction. Dead birds float behind her.
“I’m in so much pain,” you say, though you have not complained
before. Althea feeds you a jar of baby applesauce. You open
your mouth and accept the food. When I see the pelican
on TV with its mouth wide open in horror, I remember you
as you lay dying. On the Gulf, the earth and the sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.
Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed, and you, who fought
against this illness with such courage, even you
cannot survive, the blackened tips of your fingers, the oil
heavy on the birds feathers, the birds dead and floating on
the surface that gradually sink and disappear.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan is a recipient of the 2014 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature from AWP, the 2011 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers, and the 2008 American Book Award for her book, All That Lies Between Us(Guernica Editions). She is the founder /executive director of the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, and editor of the Paterson Literary Review. She is also director of the Binghamton Center for Writers and the creative writing program, and professor of English at Binghamton University-SUNY. She has published 18 books. The most recent are: Ancestors’ Song (Bordighera Press, 2013); The Silence in an Empty House (NYQ Books, 2013); Writing Poetry to Save Your Life: How to Find the Courage to Tell Your Stories (MiroLand, Guernica, 2013); The Place I Call Home (NYQ Books, 2012); and What We Pass On: Collected Poems 1980-2009(Guernica Editions, 2010).With her daughter Jennifer, she is co-editor of four anthologies. Visit her website at www.mariagillan.com.