Caregivers, Grief and Metaphors: Reflecting on Sara Adler's poem “Birds of Prayer” by John Jacobson

John Jacobson’s essay “ Now and Then ” appears in Field Notes in the Fall 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine

John Jacobson’s essay “Now and Then” appears in Field Notes in the Fall 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine


orange and red

the artist speaks in tones

of brown ochre and umber.

These are the first lines of Sara Adler’s poem “Birds of Prayer” (Poetry, Intima, Fall, 2016).

Later in the poem, she continues,

A psalm

for wisdom of doctors…

I remember the colors of my wife Claudia’s room in the ICU at Albany Medical Center. It was shades of white. Pearl. Ivory. Eggshell. Porcelain.

After many days and nights at her bedside, a nurse told me to take a break. Outside on New Scotland Avenue it was stifling hot. Car and bus exhaust took my breath away. Sirens and the rush of traffic overwhelmed my senses numbed by days inside the hospital. I turned the corner and was brought to tears by a few house sparrows in a crabapple between the brick wall of the hospital and sidewalk.

Birds of Prayer” is striking to me for the writer’s use of metaphor. I believe that both caregivers and the ill need metaphors. We especially need metaphors from nature. They reconnect us to a wider web of life where we can find some sense of belonging. They also give us distance. They help make sense of the senseless.

In my essay “Now and Then,” I explore caregiver grief and how it has changed me. Metaphors from nature help me through. As “Birds of Prayer” illustrates vividly, once you have sat beside a bed where someone you love may be dying, you are not the same. You watch. You listen. You pray.

The ill teach us. They teach us about vulnerability and strength. They teach us about uncertainty. They teach us about what is larger than us. Sara Adler compares her hand to a small goldfinch in the broad eagle wing of the ill artist. I have felt small too as I watch Claudia confront devastating illness.

I end my essay praying that I can accept both now and then, that I can work through my caregiver grief. “When I rise again, an owl flutters out from branches and flies on silent wings over white ice on the pond.”

The image at the end of Adler’s poem is my favorite. The prayers of both artist and narrator take wing into the mist.

Twisting, curling through the sky

they fold and unfold

their way home

a murmuration

of starlings.

John Jacobson lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His writing has appeared in Nature Writing, About Place Journal, Aji Magazine and The Curlew. His essay “Fly” was nominated for the “Best of the Net, 2018” anthology. For the past eleven years he has been a caregiver for his wife Claudia. He is working on a memoir about that experience. His essay “Now and Then” appears in Field Notes in the Fall 2018 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine