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The Bird’s Nest

Two thousand and eight Chinese Tai Chi Masters move in unison on the TV screen that hangs on the waiting room wall.  Close-ups reveal fierce dark eyes, but when the camera pulls back the performers’ bodies form massive, pulsing circles in the middle of the “Bird’s Nest,” the Olympic stadium in Beijing.  Unhappy to be back in a hospital waiting room, I lose myself in the watching.  “It’s incredible that two thousand human beings can create such perfect circles!” a commentator says.  The Tai Chi masters, dressed in white uniforms, jump and twist, then land on the ground and freeze as one.  Their movements are controlled, somehow weightless.  Fabric billows around their taut bodies.  I wonder how they know exactly where they are, and where they fit, individually, into this colossal experience going on around them.

To the left of the TV, large red letters spell out EMERGENCY across two wide doors next to a registration desk.  My husband, Jean-Paul, and I rushed to the hospital after a nurse called to tell us his mother had fallen out of her wheelchair.  It must be the hundredth time this has happened in the last year and a half, since she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.  Judith refuses to consider moving into an assisted living facility or paying for in-home care, even though the biopsy caused swelling in the brain and she is paralyzed on the left side.  She relies on us to handle all of her needs even though we live in another town and both work. 

She wheels herself around her small Cambridge house, a telephone clipped to the collar of her shirt.  Each time she falls, she dials 9-1-1 and the local fire company sends an ambulance.  If her door is locked when the EMTs arrive, they are forced to climb through a window.  Usually after they’ve put Judith back in her chair she refuses to go to the hospital, so they are forced to leave her alone in the house.  Sometimes we never even find out it happened.  Tonight they apparently over-rode her angry protests, because they transported her here.

A voice crackles over the PA system.  “Mr. Stevens, Mr. Stevens.”  I glance around the half-filled room and see a man I assume is Mr. Stevens.  He stands up and walks toward the doors.  I have been waiting at least an hour for my own name to be called, or for Jean-Paul to come back out to the waiting room and tell me what is going on.  The doors open; Mr. Stevens walks through.  The doors close again.

Tired and frustrated, I turn back to the television.  I think about the Olympic motto: “Faster, higher, stronger.”  When I was young this dream seemed possible, even for me, a small-town gymnast in upstate New York.

Now I watch the Tai Chi Masters’ punches and kicks, hear the force of their unifying “kiais,” or yells.  Tai Chi was one of the arts I practiced in my thirties when I studied martial arts.  I remember part of the form we learned.  At the beginning we held our hands in just the right way, then lifted our arms slowly with our elbows slightly bent.  We arched our wrists, then reversed them so our palms led the hands back down as we breathed.  In a slow, sweeping motion, with a turn at the waist, we switched direction and formed circles with our arms, one arm up, the other down.  “Imagine you are cradling a large beach ball,” our instructor used to say.  The goal was connection, a sense of peace, the perfect circle.

The performers in the Bird’s Nest now encircle a group of schoolchildren.  The children hug backpacks to their chests and smile as they watch the flow of activity around them.  The commentator explains the symbolism involved.  The circles represent the current generation as it protects the generation that follows. 

I wonder if Judith ever protected Jean-Paul.  She was emotionally fragile even before the brain tumor.  A tall, blond beauty growing up in Missouri, she married her first love at twenty.  They moved to Massachusetts with their son when he was six, but divorced just a few years later.  Judith stayed in Massachusetts but became anorexic and depressed, had bouts of rage and hysteria.  When Jean-Paul was eleven, she packed her bags and threatened to move out.  He had to block the doorway until she calmed down and agreed not to leave him alone.  She was an unusually talented painter and sculptor, and settled into a career teaching high school art.  For the next thirty years, she rarely dated, even though she remained slim and striking.  She told me once that Jean-Paul’s father, who died at forty-seven, would always be the love of her life. 

The P.A. system intrudes again.  “Maria Sanchez?  Maria Sanchez?”

I try to ignore the interruption and turn my attention back to the Tai Chi Masters.  My throat has tightened over the thoughts of Judith, and I want to keep my feelings under control.  She did not ask for this horrific illness.  She would give anything for the last eighteen months to be a bad dream.  Still, I feel my shoulders and neck start to stiffen, and I shift uncomfortably in the hard wooden chair.  I have no desire to be here tonight.  I don’t even want to be myself in my life.  I would rather be in China, in that stadium on TV.  I would rather be a Tai Chi Master.  At the very least I would rather be home, watching the opening ceremonies in the comfort of my living room.

I notice a man in the waiting room.  He is cradling a little girl in his arms.  She has dark eyes and little black pony tails wrapped inside gray, shiny coils.  They look like Mickey Mouse ears.  The girl doesn’t appear to be injured or ill, but she is crying.  The man holds her and comforts her with gentle words.  She notices the television mounted on the wall while tears stream down her face.  The instant she sees the Tai Chi masters all dressed in white, moving in unison in perfect circles, the little girl stops crying.  She just stares at them in wonder, and starts to watch.

Judith told me once that she hated everything about her teaching career except, of course, her students.  She was known to champion the underdogs, the kids who didn’t fit in.  At night she taught adult education classes.  She set her own dreams aside for the future, when she would have a hefty retirement fund and a comfortable pension.  When she finally retired with that pension in hand, her mortgage paid off and her son long grown, she started pursuing the things she wanted.  She opened a business applying permanent cosmetics.  She purchased closets full of shoes and new clothes.  She bought a Porsche Boxter.  Then she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The Tai Chi Masters are leaving the stadium.  A new group of performers pours into the arena and melts together to form a huge dove.  A swarm of bodies, thousands of bodies, runs back and forth until the wings of the dove appear to be flapping up and down.  The huge human bird is flying!  I shake my head in disbelief.  I cannot imagine how they are doing this.   I think about the people of China, such a huge nation, putting on a show for the world.   It strikes an emotional chord in me.  They are trying to establish a new China, a new era for their country.  Everything they demonstrate is beautiful, flowing, flying, as if nothing is more important than hope.

We learned recently that my mother-in-law’s tumor is growing again; the doctors can’t help anymore.  The average patient with her type of tumor does not live longer after diagnosis than she has now lived.  Chemotherapy and radiation no longer work.  Judith is furious, terrified.  She blames everyone, including her son.  She has accused her friend Fran, a frail woman of eighty who has visited every Saturday since Judith got sick, of wanting to steal all her money.  She has insisted I want her to die. 

When all of this started I felt grief and compassion; by now I am worn down and tired.  Every day now is painful and difficult, and we have had little time for ourselves.  I am ashamed of my thoughts on this side of those doors, while my mother-in-law lies in a hospital bed.

A man just walked through the doors.  He is talking to a woman who sits in a row of chairs right behind me.  “We’ve decided to keep you here,” he tells her.  “We were planning to send you home, but we spoke to your insurance company and we’re going to keep you for the night.”

I force my focus back to the television.  How do the performers do it?  Yet another group has entered the arena.  They are dressed in glowing green costumes and have formed another massive circle.  So many circles.  They are hoisting themselves onto each other’s shoulders, setting up for something big.  The camera pulls back and then, yes, I see it!  It is the Bird’s Nest itself, the Olympic stadium!  The stadium has been reconstructed, within itself, by thousands of human bodies.  Now it is somehow flashing white and green.  Ninety-one thousand people in the stands are enraptured.  Each has been given something to hold up.  They are holding lanterns, thousands of red lanterns with lights inside that flicker like cherry stars.  The commentators are beside themselves, and so am I.   The sight is so stunning that I can hardly breathe.  One commentator says, “You might as well put away the trophy for Opening Ceremonies.  This is it, no one will ever match it.”  Everything on the screen is surreal, deeply and intensely beautiful.  Everyone in the Bird’s Nest is joyful and safe, oblivious to the world outside.

The PA buzzes to life again. “Kathy, please call the front desk.  Kathy, front desk please.” I swat at the noise mentally as if it were a fly.

The performances at the Opening Ceremonies are coming to an end.  The dancers turn and swirl, run off the floor.  Announcers speak in French, then English, then Chinese.  The parade of athletes begins.  Men and women led by flag-bearers march into the stadium.  Some teams are dressed in suits, others in colorful folk costumes traditional to their cultures.  I can’t tell what order they are marching in; it is not alphabetical, at least not in English.  The announcers’ voices ring out over the loudspeakers and echo through the Bird’s Nest.  They say the name of each country as its excited athletes arrive.  They flood in, the “youth of the world,” answering the call from four years ago to assemble in Beijing. 

I am no longer part of the “youth of the world.”  I am forty-five, twenty-eight years past ponytails and balance beams. 
A commercial interrupts the parade of athletes.  I look at the clock and think about the time.  It is after 9:00 p.m.  Because of the time difference between Boston and Beijing, the Opening Ceremonies actually took place twelve hours ago.  The program was taped for the U.S. audience, and in truth all of this is long over. 

I have been sitting in this waiting room for two hours now, and my head is pounding with pain.  My shoulders are rigid.  I have to ask someone what’s going on.  I stand up and feel that my knees are sore from sitting cross-legged on the waiting room chair.  I take a deep breath, nervous to face what I might find out, and walk past the nurse seated at the reception desk.  I press the metal button so many others have pressed before me tonight, and watch the word EMERGENCY split in two and the doors slide open.  A large nurse’s station is located behind the doors, then a long, wide corridor lit by blinding fluorescent lights.  I walk past a line of rooms with half-open doors. A man is standing in the hallway, talking into his cell phone. His shoulders are hunched, his head bent forward.  He looks exhausted.  “I’m in the hospital,” he says into the phone. “It’s my mother.  She fell again.” 

Is our story not so unusual then?  Are others living through the same type of hell?  For months we have felt so alone.

I look for my husband. I see him standing outside one of the rooms.  He is speaking to a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat.  They are looking at papers on a clipboard.  I approach and notice the strained expression on Jean-Paul’s face.  He looks up without smiling, nods quickly at me and holds up a finger, indicating that I should wait a minute until he can explain what’s going on. 
Does this mean she’s being declared legally incompetent to handle her own affairs?” Jean-Paul asks.  Then he adds, “Will she think I have done this to her?”

I step backwards to give Jean-Paul and the doctor some space so they can talk. The motion is strangely unsteady.  No Tai Chi Masters move with me; no audience watches, enraptured.  I am not in a stadium or bird’s nest, high up and safe from the fray.  I am in a hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the circle is collapsing.

– Faye Rapoport DesPres’ essays have appeared in Ascent, Hamilton Stone Review, InterfaithFamily.com, Writer Advice and International Gymnast Magazine.   Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Writer’s Chronicle, Animal Life, Trail and Timberline and other publications.  Faye holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College.