A week or two before my miscarriage Boo has a terrible episode in the night. She gets these periodically—every six weeks, though sometimes as frequently as every two—but this is the worst one yet. I hear screaming and tumble down the stairs, naked and cold on this wet February night, and yank on a long cardigan. Its robin egg’s blue will run rust red at the cuffs tonight.
I turn on the dining room light and try to understand what has happened. She is on her back at the bottom of the cage floor, thrashing. She has lost control of the left side of her body, talons to wing, and can’t turn over. Boo is small for her species, a Blue and Gold Macaw, and usually very quiet, but tonight I hear how her lungs can fill a room, a house, the whole block. This scream is like no other sound I have heard her make. It’s not the everyday fear of separation from me and Joe and Pip, her household flock. It is the sound of a blood vessel twitching in your brain and for a long moment you lose your senses and your mind.
The seizure has danced her into a far part of the cage, farthest from the door and my short arms. I approach and kneel, my breasts hanging low between the folds of cardigan. I strain for her but I can’t reach, or maybe I am just afraid to really try. On her back she is all claws and beak and it is so hard to thrust my hands into that grinder. After several trembling attempts I roll her over into a towel and finally out of the cage. Up close I see that red has speckled her pale shoulder. She is biting it bloody, she won’t stop.
Until now I have been treating this as just another episode, a difficult variation on what has become practically routine. I know what to do, I think, and so does Joe; we have cultivated a detachment that allows us to move through each crisis smoothly, with something like the grace of professionals.
But when I see the gnawing of that terrible beak on her poor thin flesh I lose control and start screaming too. The sound I hear is deep and throaty. Am I shouting something or only mimicking her wordless cries?
Joe comes down and stands silent, watching, wanting to help but not knowing what to do. I keep screaming, I am so horrified by what Boo is doing to herself and my own inability to stop it. I thrust the towel into her beak. Our crying slows, then stops. The worst is over, I think.
When Frida Kahlo was eighteen she suffered an accident that would redefine her life. She was riding a bus, a bus crushed by a trolley car, and impaled belly to groin on a handrail. “I lost my virginity,” she said.
These injuries played some role in her lost pregnancies: the miscarriages she experienced and the abortions she sought. Without the accident she would have been a doctor, maybe a medical illustrator, maybe never a painter. Without the accident she would have perhaps lived a much longer life with children to succeed her.
Instead, scholars suppose, she looked to animals as a substitute for children. She kept dogs and parrots and monkeys, even a little deer.
Once I have Boo bundled into a towel I assume that the worst injury is to the shoulder she has been biting. What I don’t realize and won’t learn until we get to the ER is that Boo’s left foot with its long, curved talons has raked through the opposing wing and lodged there. She probably bit her shoulder in an attempt to distract herself from this pain.
Joe and I wait in the car for the ER vet to speak with us. (These are early Covid times.) Rain has washed the windows and spattered the pants I hastily pulled on. I stare at my hands and remember Boo’s weight, the rough feeling of the towel swaddled around her. When my phone finally rings the doctor explains about the talon and the wing. She says she doesn’t know what they will be able to do and do I even want to see a specialist in the morning? It might be expensive. . .
A friend points out later that this might have been meant as a kindness, a kind of permission to let Boo go, but in the moment I am shocked by the doctor’s pessimism and presumption. Still, the idea of euthanasia lodges in my mind; I both reject it and see that it might be necessary, this might be the end.
But we wait, and in the morning the specialists sing a different tune. They think she can survive, though the wing might not.
It does not.
Kahlo used her accident and the surgeries that came after to become an icon of pain, a particularly feminized incarnation of suffering. And while her face has been monetized on everything from bathing suits to bedspreads, her body is still a touchstone for people—mostly women—whose own bodies agonize them. Those with chronic pain. Those with infertility.
Even before I miscarry, when I am merely terrified of the possibility, I hold in my mind the memory of Henry Ford Hospital, Kahlo’s most famous image of pregnancy loss. The first time I see it I am in my twenties and still in grad school. Wanting a baby has started to turn from a diffuse, life-long desire into the sharp point of need, but I am in no position—financially, emotionally—to meet that need. When I see the painting again nearly a decade later I have been rubbed raw by both desire and disappointment. I know the contours of infertility and am bending myself to the brutal work of IVF.
Both times I see Henry Ford Hospital, Kahlo lies before me on a bed whose rust red iron makes the blood on the sheets glow orange. She is the center of the painting but she is also the center of a circle, a corona of creatures and objects anchored in her palm with red thread. One of these creatures is her lost fetus but there is also an anatomical pelvis, an orchid, a snail.
My miscarriage was discovered at eight weeks, but I was told that the embryo had died long before. In the interim I thought I felt changes beginning: nausea, pangs and pressures, a heightened sense of smell. All projections, probably. I was given a choice about whether to take drugs and expel the embryo at home, wait for it to shed “naturally,” or have a D&C, the surgical scraping of my uterus.
I chose the D&C so that I could know for sure that the embryo had gone, so that I wouldn’t have to watch clots appear in the toilet bowl and perhaps court surgery anyway. I chose to miss the event, to pass through it anesthetized, so that I would know for sure it had happened.
In the end my body is not so much transformed by this experience as cast back in time to its impregnant state. Whatever I feel can no longer be attributed to a fetus. Very soon the whole thing will drift out of general sight—the sight of friends, family, even health care providers. When I get pregnant again I am asked if this is my first child and I say no, I lost one. We don’t count that, they say.
The first time I see Henry Ford Hospital I am absorbed by Kahlo’s breasts and hair, her tears, her blood. But the second time I focus on her companions, especially the snail. Because of the painting’s odd perspective it appears to be the size of a dog or maybe a small steed. I want to tug on the cord around its neck like a leash.
Boo comes home one-winged and wrapped in a small fleece poncho to protect the sutured wound. She is silent and withdrawn, glassy and somehow even smaller than she should be without the lost wing.
Complications ensue, there are more trips to the veterinary hospital and offers of euthanasia, but eventually she comes home for good. She has traded the poncho for a plastic collar, a hateful translucent thing she trips over again and again trying to perch, trying to climb, and finally gnaws into ragged lace over the long coming weeks. She is confined to the bottom of the cage, which I have cushioned with towels and encircled with food, water, wooden toys. I sit and watch.
She will eat but not drink so I pillage the grocery for its juiciest fruits. She hates tramping through her own shit, so I bring her out every ninety minutes to go. Then she doesn’t want to come and I watch even more closely, cajoling her into far areas of the cage so I can clean up the poop as quickly as I find it. I wash towels in giant loads every other day: blue, red, and brown.
Despite all this care or maybe because of my constant proximity to it, I am horrified by the amputation site. I recoil from it, I don’t recognize Boo as herself. The black sutures prickle up at me in accusation, the dry crackled skin is puckered like an old mouth. Each time I see it I relive what I perceive to be my failures: the night of the accident, my inability to react quickly enough and save her from this injury; and now my failure to communicate to her (but how would this be possible?) why she must endure collar and confinement. Her body mirrors back to me my sense of myself: bad caretaker, bad mother.
Like many of the birds at the rescue where I adopted her Boo has picked most of herself clean. I am drawn to these birds especially, the ones whose nakedness displays their trauma. Yet I also from the moment I see her love Boo’s cape of feathers, the blue mantle she wears around a naked breast. Her wings, injured or stunted before we met, have never had full range of motion. Her chest muscles are weak, she has never flown. But these same wings are also regal; they symbolize her rule over me, the way she surveys and judges and then finally condescends to accept me into her life.
I realize that I am in danger of loving Boo less with her body transformed. I had been invested in a certain version (vision) of her body. I had accepted one disability, her picking, without being prepared for others.
After the bus crash, Kahlo faced the world adorned and armored. She wore brace-like corsets, plastic and plaster, and covered them in paint. The paint was applied with one hand while she held a mirror in the other, because she painted the corsets while wearing them. This is how she completed many of the self-portraits we admire now: semi-supine, looking at the canvas with one eye and a mirror with the other.
The colors of the corsets and her skirts, the costume of Tehuana women Kahlo claimed as her own, served as a disguise. They hid her leg, withered with childhood polio, and her wounded spine. Yet in my favorite painting of Kahlo and her Amazon parrot, Self-portrait with Bonito, she’s all in black, stripped of necklaces and rings, a black headband merging into the blackness of her hair. She appears bereaved.
Instead of costume, insects catch our eye, the insects and the leaves they have eaten away. Bonito looks on from Kahlo’s shoulder with a slight smile, his fluffed plumage a brighter mirror of the foliage behind. He is the focus of the painting, he is the subject. Kahlo has become a perch, a platform, a foundation.
Six weeks after the accident and about a month after my miscarriage, Boo is out of the collar at last. She sits turned away from me and stares out the window. I gaze out too, thinking separate thoughts but united with her in lostness, in loss. She is able to perch now above the cage floor but ignores the toys I hang for easy destruction. She doesn’t laugh or grumble. Her eyes are half-closed and her mouth is partway open. She isn’t here.
I am not here. I am in the darkened ultrasound room where the nurse says, “I’m sorry, girl,” and shows me the empty sack where a fetus should be. I am in the operating room where my uterus is scraped and sucked clean, other nurses holding my hands and the doctor looking on with exquisite pity. I am in the basement of my house, where all the drugs I was taking to support the pregnancy have been banished. And I am in the periwinkle bedroom stenciled with white songbirds, which I have never allowed myself to call the nursery, a nursery nonetheless.
Where is Boo? Is she reliving the seizure? Is she sad? Does she miss the wing or simply wonder where it has gone? She has never flown with it, it’s just a thing to be groomed.
I know I am at risk of anthropomorphizing, but not to anthropomorphize is also a risk. The risk is missing something because it feels uncomfortably familiar, because it makes animals into kin. Boo’s grief, if that’s what it is, breaks my heart. But it also allows me to escape my own feelings about the miscarriage. During her accident and its aftermath I am so shocked, so wracked by guilt and fear that I think I might not even be grieving. What’s a few weeks’ fetus to this bird, this person, I know and love? Not even a fetus yet—the space where a fetus should be.
There is a such a contrast between a void and a body, Boo’s precious body. When I survey my mind and ask whether I am grieving the pregnancy (am I doing it now? now?) the sadness I feel is more like sadness for a part of myself, a small organ I acquired and then mislaid, a ghost, an idea I had, a dream.
I wonder if my feelings about the miscarriage are like Boo’s feelings about her wing, which was both real and unrealized, pure potential. Her wing was a whole way of being she never inhabited. A whole being.
A staggering amount has been written about Kahlo’s infertility, her abortions and miscarriages and what caused them; some people claim that her only desire was for a child and her abortions all regretted. Others see ambivalence in her writings. She says she doesn’t want to risk her own health. She says her husband won’t be any help.
But almost nobody writes about the animals she kept and, maybe, mothered. I want to know what toys she hung in her parrots’ cages—or did they fly free? I want to know if the monkeys ever bit her mid-embrace. In the paintings and photographs they are docile and still. They look like living statues, wide-eyed complements to the pre-Columbian art she holds in her hand.
I see Boo’s loss more clearly than my own, at first. Perhaps because I can imagine the other creature she might have been, winged and flying. Perhaps because I can literally see her from the outside and remember, and regret, the parts of her body that are gone. My experience of watching Boo is mirrored by other people’s experience watching me. They are sad for me before I am sad for myself. I am in shock in the ultrasound room and then I am trying to get through the D&C, but I am not inside the loss at first.
I start to grieve the pregnancy only two or three months in, after Boo has made a full recovery. She is every day more active, more sassy, rediscovering all her favorite things with renewed gusto. She laughs at the TV, always at the most inappropriate moments. She scarfs down apples and corn, tossing her food bowl when she’s done. She is to all outward appearances completely well. And we are closer than we ever have been. She lets me preen her deeply and often, stick my face into her neck and inhale the spicy perfume. For the first time she lets Joe hold her too. Have we not been truly blessed?
This is the moment my grief diverges from Boo’s. We are in a room together that becomes two rooms, two realities. And ironically it is the difference between the rooms that allows me to see my surroundings for the first time, fully. This room, which is the room of my body, is like returning to a place you thought you had left behind for good. It is a room of waiting, of anxious boredom, like an airport when your flight has been cancelled and you look around and think, Here? Really?
What this means, practically, is that I am “not taking pleasure in daily activities.” I am thinking about death, my own and others, constantly. I am crying at anything on TV even a little sad. I am so afraid of another miscarriage that I have stopped sleeping.
The room is one I have been in before. It is composed of many rooms, or many versions of the same room. In one I am flat on my back, feet up in stirrups while my miscarriage is revealed; in another I am wheeled out of the hospital as I learn about my blocked Fallopian tubes, the infertility that led to IVF. Yet another shows my awed laughter as I walk into my mother’s bedroom and see her dead. My mind is scattered among these traumas, perpetually wounding itself through remembrance.
This room, I realize, has become my home. I turn down the bed and smooth my clothes into a dresser. I settle in for a long stay.
Kahlo didn’t say that animals substituted for children in her life. “I lost three children. . .Paintings substituted for all of this,” is what she said. When I look at Kahlo’s work, Diego Rivera is the obvious substitute. In one painting she cradles him in infant form, in another his picture is held close to her belly. She called him her child.
We don’t have to choose, of course. It is possible for many of Kahlo’s images to signify a child, the desire for a child, lost children. But if we say that the animals mean only this, we may be missing something.
I am of two minds when I look at Self-portrait with Bonito. I feel, at first, pleasure in imagining a mother and her child because I think of my parrots as my children. I know that in my childless life thus far they have functioned as substitutes: screaming and hilarious by turns, animating my days and shaping what would otherwise be unremarkable hours. Their need is intoxicating; I can meet it only by forgetting myself.
This is how Sharyn Udall sees the parrots and other winged creatures in Kahlo’ s paintings; they allowed her, the art historian argues, to imagine flight from illness and loss. But when I study the birds and butterflies, also the monkeys and deer that appear in her paintings, I wonder if they might also represent confinement, captivity. She ties herself to them with the red ribbons of blood and life, but they are tied to her, too. She imprisons them in her closed world.
I read online that parrots in captivity do well without their wings especially if, like Boo they’ve never used them. At the Indianapolis Zoo once I saw macaws that flew from one end of the park to the other. If Boo had been with me, if I had been able to direct her eyes to that incredible sight, I think she would have felt fear rather than recognition. They are entirely different creatures from her.
Spring comes and then summer and I decide reluctantly to take a trip, my first time away from Boo since her accident. I sleep in a hotel in Ohio and watch her through a webcam, its volume cranked. She is silent but the click of something in the background pops in my ears all night. I know that this arrangement offers only the illusion of control, fodder for a story I tell myself: that if she falls and Joe doesn’t hear her, I will hear and I will call him. Another story I tell: that I’m just testing the webcam for when we’re both away.
But even after I have recognized these as poor explanations for staying up all night, I watch the hours tick by and the real compulsion emerge. I am standing watch, I am bearing witness. I am marking the disaster we have endured by perversely extending it. I want this all to be over but if it’s not over I want to be in the thick of it. A part of this is guilt, the guilt I feel for leaving Boo at home, but it is more an assertion of who I am now. I am stuck in that first moment of horror, seeing her body break itself on the bottom of the cage. I watch it on a loop. I am loath to let it go.
My birds are my captives, even though there is no way to safely release them. They are myself, captive.
Boo’s amputation disgusts me until the day it does not. Her shoulder is a new adornment, I see now. The jutting edge of the humerus, the swoop of pectoral muscle that looks like velvet cinched beneath a brooch.
And then one day feathers sprout from the healed wound, feathers striped and splashed with both the blue and the gold, a mixture I have never seen before. She preens this shrug, her mod little half-cape, as if it were a wing.
Clara Bosak-Schroeder (she/they) is a writer and academic at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published essays in Avidly, Bellingham Review, SolLit, and Zone 3. You can follow their work at theburningboy.com and @thaumatic on Twitter.