In keeping with the theatrical motif established by the Prologue, “Birding” is divided into acts rather than chapters. Act I begins with the introduction of the primary first-person narrator, Pedro, and his wife Nadia. Pedro drives charter busses for a motor coach company in the Central Coast region of California. His job keeps him very busy and out of the house with trips that often start at obscene hours (he has just woken up at 2:30am to drive for a birding expedition). By contrast, Nadia is a brittle diabetic with bipolar disorder, and is increasingly homebound due to failing eyesight. This contrast and the conflicts both inner and outer that arise from it are among the major themes of the novel.
“The last time we sought crisis intervention, a wacky Catholic woman at the counseling center gave us each a laminated card with Ephesians 4:26 printed on it: “Be angry, and sin not; let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” We were supposed to promise each other we would remember this verse and never forget to apply its wisdom when we were having trouble. Well, since then I would guess we have sinned more nights than we’ve sinned not.
Last night was typical: I got home an hour later than expected from a South County wine tour –damn tourists just had to add that one last stop at Phantom Rivers on the way back to town. Nadia was too upset to eat the dinner she had cooked for us, and that made her blood sugar level drop so low that she had to take a glucose pill, which gives her uncontrollable shivers no matter what the temperature. While dealing with that, covered in blankets and hovering over a space heater, she told me in very loud and not the least bit uncertain terms that her endocrinologist was an asshole for calling her out on not recording her glucometer readings, and the ophthalmologist suggested she might need a second laser procedure on her right eye to clean up the scar tissue from the first one and prevent further vision loss, and the last set of oil pastels I picked up were cheap, crumbly garbage that she couldn’t possibly use to do anything decent. (All of this, by the way, was my fault.)
It is best if I do not speak at all during these onslaughts, I have found, so I usually try to listen as dispassionately as possible and keep all judgments to myself. This time I told her the doctor was right.
So the night ended as they often do: me sweeping up the contents of dinner, plus a couple shattered ceramic bowls and coffee mugs, from the kitchen floor, and Nadia yelling something about how I never listen to her.
She finally passed out from screaming into her pillow around 10 o’clock. This left a precious half-hour of solitude to type the day’s handwritten changes to my manuscript into the word processor. This particular story exists only in the farthest reaches of my mind, and to lose even a day of contact, it seems, is to risk never getting back there, so I guard my daily writing time at all costs, no matter how brief or how basic the task I can accomplish. Nights like this, that means pure transcription. By 10:30, with the window for sleep dwindling until it was just a long nap, I gave up and logged off, ruing the day five years prior when I saw the shy chalkboard artist from the natural food store smile at me from across the room of a Pennsylvania diner.
But all that is behind us. I watch Nadia sleep in the soft crimson light emanating from the nightstand. Her face looks as peaceful and unscathed as a baby’s. This is still the image of Nadia I carry, a vision of innocence and beatitude that emanated from the saint-like way she tried to carry the cross of her disease when I was getting to know her. Only later did I learn about the dual poles of her personality, the real Nadia who oscillates from moment to moment between this sublime acceptance of her fate and hysterical rage and fear.
I have also learned how well-founded those fears are. Diabetes rarely acts alone when it tortures. The co-conspirators include every system where proper blood circulation and hormonal regularity are crucial, from brain function to eyesight to the cardiac system to thermal regulation –literally everything from head to toe. Aside from the long-term high risk of stroke, heart attack, and amputation due to gangrene –all of which are caused by chronically high sugar levels– there is the day-to-day danger of stealthy low sugar reactions that zap her mental capacity to respond, or worse, creep up on her while she sleeps. Living with a brittle diabetic has taught me to sleep night after night with one eye open, praying I won’t close it inadvertently and wake up to find Nadia lying on the floor in a puddle of sweat, unable to speak or move any closer to the medicine cabinet, slipping toward hypoglycemic coma (that was one of our honeymoon nights). I do this knowing that in exchange for my vigilance, I will be subject to bursts of unresolvable wrath on a regular basis.
And yet, she is still alive, and we are still together, because hidden inside all that human rubble is the most beautiful, resilient spirit I have ever known, a true artist in the supreme sense. It is Nadia who has taught me everything I know about what it is to love another person for exactly who she is, not for who I wanted her to be.
The dread thought of not being around when that spirit lifts itself from its corporal prison and takes flight, be it for an hour, a day or a lifetime, she has told me, is what motivates her to keep going. Maybe that is the case for both of us.”