Blackbird Has Spoken: Part 1
Ivy Ledbetter snuggled into Nana's large, soft bosoms, her white stocking feet tapped together as Nana began the sacred song of a new morning. It was their song.
“Morning has broken,” she trilled, “like the first morning.”
“Blackbird has spoken,” Ivy joined in, “like the first bird.” Curiosity came over her face.
“Nana, why does the blackbird speak? All the other birds sing."
"He's a special blackbird, honey. God chose him to be the first bird. He speaks through his song, telling the world it's a fresh morning, full of new mercies from the Lord."
“What are mercies?”
“Ivy? How are you feeling this morning? That was a lovely song you were singing.”
The unfamiliar voice snatched Ivy back to reality. She looked up into the face of a pretty woman with warm eyes of kindness Scanning her surroundings, Ivy found herself huddled on the floor in the corner of a hospital room, swimming in one-size-fits-all, green and pink striped hospital-issue pajamas.
‘Hospital. I'm in the psych ward.' It all came back; she'd tried to end her life and failed. She didn't remember her stay in ICU and barely remembered being admitted to this ward the night before. She put her forehead down on her knees as a wave of despair washed over her. She clutched her sides protectively and squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself to return to Nana’s lap.
The woman stooped down. “Ivy, this is a safe place where we’re going to help you. You were just singing that song about a new morning breaking. It’s time to start a new day.”
Ivy could smell the woman's perfume, Roses De Cloe. She'd bought Nana a bottle for her last birthday. She felt betrayed that this stranger would wear Nana's perfume. Nana was dead, the perfume was now a sacred remembrance of her. She began to weep. How could she live in a world without Nana? “‘Weeping may last for a night,’ baby girl, ‘but joy cometh in the morning,’” Nana always quoted. But joy would never come again. Morning mercies died with her grandmother.
"Ivy, I know you're scared and hurting," the woman said, "but I promise it's going to get better. Won't you come to sit on the bed?"
“No, I can’t do this. I don’t want to be here anymore. It’s too hard. ”
“Not with so many people around you who are going to help you. And everyday people like you who are going through a hard season of life are here in this together with you."
“Everyday people? Everyday people don’t get sent to psych wards.”
"All people experience difficulties of various kinds. Just realize that here, you are not alone.”
“You are not alone,” echoed from the past. Another promise Nana pronounced when she was scared. Her sobs trailed off into quiet tears. Her searing anxiety began to cool a bit. The tension in her body slightly eased.
"I’m sorry, I don’t remember you,” Ivy said.
"We’ve not yet met. Clara Cyborn at your service." Her smile reminded Ivy of a Christmas tree lighting up.
"I'm your contact nurse,” Clara said. “That's a cold clinical term for friend, supporter, and advocate. I'll be checking in with you during the day to see how you're doing. Anytime you need to talk, let me know and I’ll make it happen.”
"Pleased to meet you, Clara," Ivy said shyly. "I'm kind of hungry." Truth be told she was ravenous. She’d eaten almost nothing since her stomach was pumped a few days before.
“A very good sign, I’d say. Breakfast will be served after the goals group.”
“Group? Is that where we sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya, hallelujah we’re on a psych ward?”
“Ah, a sense of humor too. No, I’m afraid not,” Clara said, amused. “But it will be short and I’ll be there with you. Can I give you a lift?”
Ivy grabbed hold of Clara’s extended hand and came to her feet.
“Your robe is at the end of the bed there,” Clara told her.
Ivy held it up. It matched the hideous pajamas. “Wow, a real fashion industry you have going here. I really don’t want to leave the room dressed like this.”
“Well, it may help to know everyone wears them at least their first day. You won’t be shocking anyone. You are welcome to call someone from home and have them bring you what you need. We also have a clothes closet ministry for just such occasions. Some patients leave clothes behind and we wash and save them for those in need.”
Another terrible sense of dread seized Ivy. There was no one at home to bring her anything. The appetite she’d had just moments ago disappeared.
"New people are allowed to rest in their rooms the first day if they want to. It’s up to you. But I'd encourage you to at least come for goals group. And we need to get your vitals before the day starts. It's a standard part of guest care."
“Yes. Everyone here is a guest.”
“I guess that beats nut jobs and fruit loops.”
"Ivy, we don’t use those terms here. There are no nuts or fruit loops on this unit except in the breakfast cereal. We only have people who need a safe place to rest, the opportunity to talk, to be listened to, and to work our program. The name of this hospital is Mercy. If you get anything less, be sure and let me know. Are you ready?"
Suddenly, Ivy did not want to be alone with her feelings. She was scared but willing to push forward.
"The group is getting started right now. We can do it right afterward."
Ivy followed Clara to the lounge area where the group was assembling. She had a sudden urge to flee but knew the unit doors were locked. She took a seat next to Clara. The patients sat in a circle, slumped and stagnant like a cluster of slugs. As she scanned the group she noticed every pair of sneakers was missing shoelaces. Anything that could be used to off themselves was taken away, including electrical cords from hair dryers, electric shavers, straight razors, and cell phone chargers. She happened to spot a communal wall phone nearby with a long spiral cord dangling from it.
‘What an irony,’ she mused.
Clara cleared her throat, smiled, and opened the meeting. “Good morning everyone. Welcome to the morning goals group. We have some new guests here this morning so I'll go over what this group is all about. But first, the staff members will introduce themselves I’m Clara, a registered nurse."
“As if we care,” growled a balding older man.
The other staff members were easy to spot with ID cards hanging around their necks, clipboards in hand and looking alive.
"I'm Jason," said one. "I'm a social worker." He looked at his clipboard. "I'll be working with Jeb, Ian, and Mortimer."
Mortimer, the older man with an attitude a few moments ago, rolled his eyes and snarled, “The name’s Morti.”
“I beg your pardon, Morti, thank you for clarifying that,” Jason replied.
‘Oh my, Jason’s going to have his hands full today,’ Ivy thought.
"I'm Candace," said an elegant, thirty-something woman. "I'm also a social worker. Robin, Jasmine, Cloe, and Terri, I'll be your contact person today.”
"Hi everyone,” said the man to Candace’s right. “I'm Solomon, one of the RN's." He looked down at his clipboard and sucked his teeth. "Okay, Guy, Andrew, and Randy, You’re with me today.”
"Thanks, Solomon,” said Clara. “Ivy, Serena, and Jolana, we'll be working together today.” She went on to explain the purpose of the group and a few rules. "Okay,” she said, “why don't we get started then.”
“Jeb, you met your goals yesterday of making a list of questions for the doctor and exercised for ten minutes. Have you thought about goals for today?"
“Um, I need to discuss the things on the list with the doctor,” Jeb replied, wringing his hands. “I don’t like doctors, but I know I need to do this.”
“Thanks, Jeb,” Clara said. “Cloe, how about you?”
Cloe couldn't have been a day over seventeen. Her long blonde hair was streaked with pink and piled messily on top of her head. "I want to do some art in my free time. It helps me when I get anxious. I’m feeling squirrely today."
“Jolana?” Clara said. “This is your first day. Can you think of a goal?”
Jolana had a granite face with a sharply etched jaw, deep crevices carved into her forehead, and a mouth so straight and thin you couldn’t tell she had lips. She sat rigidly, a monolith of trauma and pain. Her vacant eyes were riveted to the floor. Her arms were wrapped in bandages. Ivy was sick at heart for her and wondered what her story was.
Jolana’s lips parted slightly as if she were going to say something but nothing came out. Her mouth retreated to its line.
Clara tried once more. “Jolana, can you make just one goal? A small one?”
“I don’t know,” she said woodenly.
“Okay, we’ll talk later. Ivy, what about you?”
Ivy’s heart nearly burst through her chest. "I don't know either," she eked out. "Maybe just take the next breath when I don't really want to."
“That’s an important goal, but breathing is something we do automatically. Can you think of something to add? Remember, the first day is a baby step.”
“I don’t know,” Ivy said, tears spilling down her face. “You’re pressuring me.”
“Oh for crying out loud,” said Morti. “She’s not asking you to paint the Sistine chapel.”
“Let’s not interrupt or cross-talk during someone else’s turn. Kindness and respect are expected at all times,” Clara said. She turned her attention back to Ivy. “How about brushing your teeth or a shower?”
“Yes," Ivy mewed through her tears.
Clara finished going around the room and closed. "FYI to the new people, at eight p.m. we hold a wrap-up group here to hear how your goals went."
Ivy bolted from the lounge to her room the minute the meeting was dismissed. She curled up in a ball on the bed, squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself back into Nana’s arms. Clara intruded immediately.
“Ivy, let’s go get you clothes.”
Ivy followed her to a storage room on the unit. Much to her chagrin, all she could find was an ill-fitting pair of jeans and Anime T-shirt. Moments after dressing she sat numbly in front of her breakfast of bacon and french toast. She took one bite and a few sips of decaf but her stomach threatened to evacuate. She decided to go back to her room to shower. She hadn’t bathed in a long time and felt it.
The water pressure from the ancient shower head felt like a million needles stabbing her skin; nonetheless, the hot water was glorious. Then in an instant, the water went frigid. She screamed from the shock. With her head still full of shampoo, she jumped out and grabbed the postage stamp sized, towel off the rack. It chaffed her skin like sandpaper. Within seconds, Clara was knocking on her door.
“Ivy, it’s Clara. Are you okay?”
“The shower went ice cold and my hair is full of shampoo,” she said, nearing hysteria.
“Oh, yes, we’re having plumbing issues today. It’s supposed to get fixed sometime this afternoon."
“You could have made an announcement,” Ivy shouted, feeling a meltdown coming on. She dressed quickly into the ugly clothing from the clothes closet, then let Clara in.
“Look at me, Clara,” she snapped.
“You’re right, Ivy, I forgot to make that announcement. I apologize.” Clara felt terrible. What to do? There was not a large towel in the entire hospital. She went to a cupboard and retrieved four of the small towels - two to wrap Ivy's head, and two she'd need when she got her hair rinsed.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you, Clara,” said Ivy, while Clara wrapped her hair. “It’s just so awful to be here. I’m scared and I’m so tired, and I can’t call my Nana.”
“It’s okay. Let’s wait a few minutes and see if the water warms up long enough to rinse your hair off, and then we’ll talk if you like.”
Clara always looked on the bright side. Ivy found it as irritating as the bath towels. The water did warm up and she managed to get her hair rinsed without incident.
She was too weary and stressed to talk so she chose to rest in her room instead. She flopped onto her bed and fell asleep instantly.
Ivy breathed into Nana’s mouth, then switched to compressions on her chest.
“Come on Nana, breathe,” she sobbed.
The blackbird song garbled through the air as if it were drowning in the sea.
“Clear,” said a voice through a circle of EMT’s. The high pitched tone from the heart monitor crushed her.
“Clear.” She heard again. The tone blared so long and loud it nearly burst her eardrums.
The pounding of her own heartbeat began to thunder in her ears. The throbbing grew louder, slower, louder and slower. The death knell of profound silence. Nana’s body disintegrated. The world went black. Time stood still. Then an explosion fractured the universe and sucked all the air out of the room.
Ivy screamed and bolted upright in her bed, drenched in sweat. The acrid smell of gunpowder filled her sinuses, the hot taste of metal filled her mouth. Her heart galloped. She leaned her head over the floor and wretched violently, then fell onto her stomach on the bed, shaking. It was the same dream she’d had nearly every day since Nana died. All but the gunshot. That was new and fragmented any vestige of her sanity.
Clara and Candace were suddenly at her side but she was unable to put two words together. Feral energy roared through her brain. She rose from her bed and began pacing. Wrapping her arms around her head she cried out, "Stop! Leave me alone." Her sweat turned frigid and she shivered. "I can't stand this!" She plowed through the door into the open air of the lounge to resume her manic march. The unit was quiet with all the patients in their various groups. Clara asked if she could help.
“Water,” she said.
“Candace, would you mind?”
“Of course. I’ll be right back.”
“Come, sit a minute,” said Clara.
Ivy obeyed but shifted restlessly every few seconds. Candace arrived with the water and she downed it in three huge gulps.
“Sit back here and try to relax,” coached Clara. “Close your eyes and take in a long, deep breath. That’s it. Now let it out long and slow.” I
t took Ivy a little time to get a rhythm. They worked on the slow deep breathing for ten minutes. She found a measure of calm but still shivered.
Maybe we can go get some hot tea and talk,” said Clara.
A cup of Chamomile sounded like heaven to Ivy. They sat quietly for a few moments, then Ivy cleared her throat.
"My Nana just died. I keep dreaming about it. I’m giving her CPR, then the medics. The flatline tone goes on forever. Then it goes silent. She disappears, but this time there was a gunshot. I don’t understand the gunshot. It doesn’t fit.”
“Dreams are puzzling sometimes. It may or may not have any significance. I’m so sorry you lost your grandmother. I remember how much my grandmother meant to me. When she passed I lost my best friend. Tell me about Nana.”
“She raised me. I don’t remember my parents, but they died in a car accident when I was six. It was always Nana. She always sang the blackbird song to me whenever I was scared.”
“The blackbird song?”
“It’s actually called Morning Has Broken. It’s an old hymn. The second line was about the first bird, a blackbird who speaks to the world to tell them morning and new mercies have dawned.
“The song you were singing this morning," Clara said.
“Yes. I wanted her to be immortal, but she had a heart attack and died in my arms before the paramedics even got there. I tried to resuscitate her, then they tried, but she couldn't be revived." Drops of sorrow streamed down Ivy’s face. “I need her to comfort me.”
“It sounds like you two were very close."
"She’s been my whole world since I was six years old. I'm twenty-nine years old, and since she died last month I feel six again longing to snuggle up on her lap.”
“That’s a big loss for you. We have a grief support group here. I think you’ll find it helpful.”
“The last thing I want to do is talk about Nana’s death in front of a bunch of strangers. It’s still so raw and it’s private. If I cry the dam will burst and I won’t be able to stop.”
“You can just listen. What others have to share may help you in some way.”
Ivy looked at her with annoyance. “I doubt it. How long will I be here anyway? ”
“It depends on your progress and what you put into it the program here. Just focus on today. I have to get back but I’ll come for you when the doctor is ready to see you.”
As Clara retreated into the bowels of the unit, Ivy sighed. The day had barely started, but a century had passed. How had her life come to such bleakness?
“Where are you, God?” she prayed. “How much more are you going to allow me to go through? Why did you let me live?’ She pictured herself making another attempt, a successful one. When and how she did not know, but she would bide her time until the opportunity arose. She whispered a promise to Nana. “I’ll be there soon, Nana, then we’ll be together always.”
- Blackbird Has Spoken: Part 2
Clara Cyborn, psychiatric nurse at Mercy hospital, is outraged by reports of Dr. Stricklen's mistreatment of the patients. Ivy has a very moving connection with Cloe, a frequent flier to the ward.
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© 2016 Lori Colbo