Whoever imagined that LOVE YOUR MOTHER would make a good environmental bumper sticker obviously didn't have a mom like mine. Well into the nineties, tailing Subarus or Volvos outfitted with this admonition and its accompanying snapshot of Earth, I felt obscurely hectored by it, as if the message were "Nature Wonders Why She Hasn't Heard from You in Nearly a Month" or "Our Planet Strongly Disapproves of Your Lifestyle" or "The Earth Hates to Nag, But ..." Like the natural world, my mother had not been in the best of health by the time I was born. She was thirty-eight, she'd had three successive miscarriages, and she'd been suffering from ulcerative colitis for a decade. She kept me out of nursery school because she didn't want to let go of me for even a few hours a week. She sobbed frighteningly when my brothers went off to college. Once they were gone, I faced nine years of being the last handy object of her maternal longings and frustrations and criticisms, and so I allied myself with my father, who was embarrassed by her emotion. I began by rolling my eyes at everything she said. Over the next twenty-five years, as she went on to have acute phlebitis, a pulmonary embolism, two knee replacements, a broken femur, three miscellaneous orthopedic surgeries, Raynaud's disease, arthritis, biannual colonoscopies, monthly blood-clot tests, extreme steroidal facial swelling, congestive heart failure, and glaucoma, I often felt terribly sorry for her, and I tried to say the right things and be a dutiful son, but it wasn't until she got a bad cancer diagnosis, in 1996, that I began to do what those bumper stickers admonished me to do.

She died in Seattle on a Friday morning. The Californian, who had been due to arrive that evening and spend some days getting acquainted with her, ended up alone with me for a week at my brother's vacation house on Hat Island. I broke down in tears every few hours, which I took as a sign that I was working through my grief and would soon be over it. I sat on the lawn with binoculars and watched a spotted towhee scratch vigorously in the underbrush, like somebody who really enjoyed yard work. I was pleased to see chestnut-backed chickadees hopping around in conifers, since, according to the guidebook, conifers were their favored habitat. I kept a list of the species I'd seen.

By midweek, though, I'd found a more compelling pastime: I began to badger the Californian about having children and the fact that she wasn't actually divorced yet. In the style of my mother, who had been a gifted abrader of the sensitivities of people she was unhappy with, I gathered and collated all the faults and weaknesses that the Californian had ever privately confessed to me, and I showed her how these interrelated faults and weaknesses were preventing her from deciding, right now, whether we would probably get married and whether she wanted to have children. By the end of the week, fully seven days after my mother's death, I was sure I was over the worst of my grief, and so I was mystified and angered by the Californian's unwillingness to move to New York and immediately try to get pregnant. Even more mystified and angered a month later, when she took wing to Santa Cruz and refused to fly back.

On my first visit to the cabin where she lived, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I'd stood and watched mallards swimming in the San Lorenzo River. I was struck by how frequently a male and a female paired up, one waiting on the other while it nosed in the weeds. I had no intention of living without steak or bacon, but after that trip, as a token of vegetarianism, I decided to stop eating duck. I asked my friends what they knew about ducks. All agreed that they were beautiful animals; several also commented that they did not make good pets.
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


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