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The Changing Shape of Light

His dad treasures feathers, and found one the day David was born. "It's auspicious," he said. I agreed it was beautiful. It shimmered: bright blue and black in the morning sun under the scrub oak outside the hospital window.

"Florida jay," I said, and when I looked out of the window, one flew from the tree.

David indisputably loved birds. He recognized them before he could walk: tropical birds in the aviary, chartreuse parrots in the mangoes and palms outside his bedroom window, and neon peacocks strutting in Caribbean gardens. He chortled and waved to their calls and colors, with one chubby leg looped over his stroller rail. After he walked, he became their protector. The cat slipped into the house at dawn one morning with a bluebird held firmly in her mouth, its heart beating terror under its pinkish breast. He cornered the hunter, yelled banshee-like, and grabbed and choked until she let go.

Later, after they found cancer pushing into his brain, he would whistle bob-white, bob-white from his hospital bed. "It's a bird, Mom! Listen."

"A bird?" I would look around.

"Tricked you!" He shut his eyes so that I could barely see him laughing.

He must have missed watching his friends soar and hearing their chatter in the trees. We made a mobile for his marrow transplant room out of gaudy, cutout cardboard birds that moved in vent air around the sealed window. Maybe he thought about flying away then, when he saw real birds in the sky beyond. He might have compared the weightless flight of the starlings to his mobile birds that spun on tethers.

He collected feathers for the dream catcher that hung over his bed, to trap his nightmares: needles, chemo, radiation, drowning in the anesthetist's mask. I cataloged his wounds in my heart. Incision and stitches on the back of his head healed in the shape of a zipper. "I dreamed something unzipped my back and I flew out," he told me one morning. He's four, I thought. How can he know the appearance of the back of his head?

It took nine years for Dave to fill the dream catcher's web, and for radiation to burn his body away, although once defeated, the cancer never returned. One day there was a small mole, round and perfectly dark, on his left shoulder blade. I noticed it in a small way. Was that there before? I began to watch it closely. It grew a bit over time, and another one appeared on the right so there were two identical brown dots perched just at the place where the shoulder blade juts out a little on gaunt bodies; the place where wings would attach, if humans had them.

David's heart and lungs began to fail shortly after these wing-buds appeared, and his health unraveled. A scalpel left a white scar on his back from under one arm to his shoulder blade, and another surgeon's knife deposited its mirror twin on the opposite side within months.

Dave spied an exquisite red-tailed hawk quill one day, soft white spots on brown. He stuffed it into the dream catcher's web. I don't remember him collecting any more; I suppose now it was the last feather he needed.

During the final months of his life, Dave was too sick and confused to leave the house much. I know that time crushed him until I came home from work and relieved the day nurse—my mother, stern, with rules. Every balmy afternoon that spring, he waited on a particular grassy spot for me to come home. He must have watched the sky for migrating birds from his green perch. When I walked up the drive, he held his arms out until I swept him from the ground and carried him home, feather-light.

He lifted one arm, wing-like, at the moment he died, leaving his father and me with a sorrow so heavy I thought we would follow him were our hearts not anchored by the granite grief.


Summer rolled into fall, then winter. I took long hikes in deserted places where I could cry: tears erode grief like rain erodes rock—eventually. I found myself on a lonely stretch of beach on a blustery day six months after David died. One small white feather appeared in my path, followed by others in a line. The line led to small, bare footprints that continued across the frozen sand into the water. I was distracted, and stopped crying. Worried about the child, I began to search for where the footprints reappeared from the sea. I walked the beach for a half-mile in either direction, but found no more impressions, although it was low tide and the beach was otherwise a clean slate.

I followed my steps back to where I had begun looking, shaded my eyes with both hands and squinted across the cobalt harbor. A tern, blinding-white in the afternoon sun, flew high above me. It darted towards land, and then wheeled to join two others. I watched until the sky swallowed them.

I finally turned to leave, picking up one of the white feathers to tuck into my coat pocket, where I sheltered it carefully in the palm of my hand. The wind had dropped, and the sky overhead had become indigo in the late winter afternoon: the sun behind me. I glanced back one time—misty light hovered where the footprints and terns had been—and kept going. My steps came easier then, as I journeyed home in the transformed light.

Copyright 2007 by Anne Visser Ney


Anne Visser Ney
David and Anne Ney, Tybee Island, GA, 1998

Anne writes:
Lifeís greatest grief is loss of a child. This story reflects my spiritual response to my son David's death; it is factually true. He was twelve when he died, nine years after brain cancer diagnosis. Weeks later, I was recalled to Coast Guard active duty at Charleston, SC. I often walked the beaches at Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms trying to understand his life and death. During one of these walks, the events of this story occurred. It has taken years to adjust to his death, but that day remains a marker in hope for me.

Anne Visser Ney holds a BS and MS in Biology from Georgia Southern University, and studies Creative Writing at Eckerd College. Her work has appeared in Secrets of the South, The Sun, Statesboro Herald, the Eckerd College Review, and Survivor's Review; and has won awards from the Southeastern Writerís Association for fiction and nonfiction. She has served in the US Coast Guard since 1979. She resides in St. Petersburg, FL, with her husband, Peter, two Carolina dogs, and Davidís black cat, Boo. She hopes to write a memoir about loving David.

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