Ruth Schemmel | Essays

My interest in birds begins with a flicker. With two flickers: medium-sized birds of the woodpecker family, though I don’t know this at the time. I’m alone with my dogs in the living room when they erupt from the fireplace. They fill the room with wilderness: with wingbeats and flapping, voiceless commotion. They bang against windows, knock into furniture. One flies straight to the skylight and batters itself against the glass. 

Escape, he is thinking. Open sky. 

My dogs bark and bark, but as I shriek, shielding my head, they fall into interested silence and watch me. I pull myself together. 

The birds find their way to the kitchen, and I creep in behind them. I open the windows, the sliding glass door. 

The male, sitting in a flowerpot in front of a casement window, stares outside. Up close, he is otherworldly, his gray back covered with dashes, his olive chest speckled beneath a bib of deep black. His front and back clash like vintage costumes of witches, as if, torn between polka dots or stripes, he opted for both. His golden-brown face is touched with blue, a crimson streak beneath his beak. The female—lovely too, but muted—sits unmoving on the floor by the sliding glass door, her long beak resting on the baseboard, one leg stretched out before her. 

I’ve never seen such beautiful birds. Not up close, in real life. I can’t tell if they’re hurt. But though they’ve thrashed and banged against wood and glass and seem to be in shock, they’re both still breathing, both alive. 

“Go,” I say, but the birds don’t go.


I’m finishing my nineteenth year teaching high school when I get the diagnosis: breast cancer. Serious, but treatable. But serious.   

Before my diagnosis I imagined how it would feel to receive news like this. I’d be satisfied, I thought, with what I’d accomplished in life. I had a career, and if sometimes I felt restless, bored by routine or buried in grading, I enjoyed the time I spent with teenagers and knew the work, even at its worst, to be a worthy struggle. And I had a family. I’d married a fellow teacher, a rangy mid-Westerner, funny and contrarian, a source of stability and irrationally strong opinions who, if he wasn’t reading, doing schoolwork, or researching our next vacation, was out cleaning our leaf-clogged gutters or carrying tools around the yard. We’d raised two daughters from exuberant, imaginative children into serious-minded, thoughtful early adults. If I hadn’t done everything I might have in life, if there were goals I hadn’t fully pursued, that was to be expected in lives cut short. I would know that I’d spent myself well—or well enough. I’d feel peace.  

But this isn’t at all what I feel. 

The first stunned, airless days after diagnosis, I save most of my emotion for the drive to work. Alone in my Subaru, sealed behind glass and steel as I glide through winding, still-dark suburban streets, I scream myself voiceless. I scream in waves, full-on horror movie screaming. Horror is what I feel—deep and bottomless. I’ve filled my life with obligation, worked more than I wanted to, put life-long passions on hold. I’ve lived for what my neighbors might think, my husband, my in-laws. I’ve lived the way I thought the world expected.  

I’ve tried to be good. I’ve tried not to be selfish. I’ve tried to follow the rules.  

Now look what I’ve almost lost: my one life, the only one I get.


Not another day: that’s the promise I end up making to myself, the light that leads me through the last days of the school year and into the first days of treatment. I’ll use up all my sick days for treatment—I’ve saved up almost a year—and then I will resign. I’ll find something else, start new. Once the decision is made it feels exciting. “I’m taking a break next year,” I tell my students. I tell them why. “Ask me anything.” 

I answer every question honestly, except for this one: “Why do you look so happy?” 

My friends encourage me in my new plan. My husband, not so much. “So you don’t mind if we lose the house?” he says, looking up from a folder of schoolwork, blue felt-tipped pen hovering over the page.  

“I’ll find other work. I’ll freelance.” 

I picture myself holding a lance. I picture myself free. 

“With two kids in college?” 

“I’ll find work.”


I find a birding app. Mornings I take my coffee to the deck. I brush pine needles and pollen off the heavy ceramic table I bought secondhand from a math teacher at school, zip up my sweatshirt against the overcast morning’s damp chill, and, at least until the sun burns through and the day grows hot, watch birds. I jot observations in the new journal I bought for this purpose. 

This leads to further purchases. A hummingbird feeder. A fifty-dollar bag of chickadee-chew wild birdseed. Waxy blocks of suet. I walk around the birdseed store pricing items, pressing the birdseed clerk—an unhurried man with a full snowy beard—for recommendations. 

“No,” says my husband when I ask, “Should I buy these things?”  

The suet, it seems, is particularly triggering. Now you’re like every Midwest housewife, he tells me.  

Earlier, I might have scoffed along with him. Ha ha ha, we now live in a neighborhood with a birdseed store, one of us has said at least once. Probably both of us. Probably more than once. 

There are practical concerns. The job I’ve stepped away from, the income I’m giving up. 

I buy the things anyway. And he, anyway, builds a new wooden frame for the feeding station and paints it to match the house. He does it instantly, the day we talk about it. I’m sitting outside with my notebook as he walks by in a baseball cap, a beam of wood balanced on his shoulder. “Here?” he says. He hammers in an extra nail to hang the suet cage. Northern flickers, the birdseed clerk has assured me, like suet. 

In my journal I note the snicks and clicks of Anna’s hummingbirds, the rasp of red-breasted nuthatches, the whirrs and whistles of chickadees, the chimp chimp calls of song sparrows, the wails of spotted towhees. I get to know my regulars by sight, some of whom appear at the birdfeeder and tiny saucer birdbath, others of which hop through grass and shrubbery or flit among the pines.  

Mostly, though, I watch for flickers. 

I pick them out from a distance first by their size, chunkier than robins, smaller than crows, and then by the personality of their flight: the way they flap twice then coast, flap twice then coast, putt-putting across the sky. There’s joy in the stop and start, the sudden flourishes of movement. Sometimes I catch the jolt of white on their rumps as they take off startled from my feeder. I see a flash of red inside the spread of wings. I catch their silhouettes from the tops of distant Doug firs, where they look out over the landscape—beyond suburbs, beyond highways—and let out their piercing call.


I once almost cry in front of the hot oncologist. I say “hot” because he is young, sympathetic, and male. I should say apparently sympathetic. That’s all that matters on the hotness scale: appearance. It’s a low bar. Even if it were a high bar, the hot oncologist would likely make the grade. 

“How are you?” he says, eyes hopeful as he ducks into my treatment room, taking in the newspaper crossword on my tray table, the book in my hand. Sometimes he’s read the book. He’s read a lot of books; add that to the list of hot qualities. I watch his face shuffle through expressions. If I’m happy, he’s happy. If I’m suffering, he is, too. If I have questions he pulls out scratch paper and diagrams the answer. I ask more questions, prolong the visit, imagining he’s impressed with my sharpness, imagining he’s thinking I also should be an oncologist, what a great addition I would be to the team.  

Attractiveness, here, really means the ability to appear interested and invested, to make me feel like the heroine of a nineteenth century novel by a female writer, not anything as beside the point as height, musculature, or other physical features. 

To be clear, an overt display of sexual or romantic interest from a physician would be as much of a turn-off for me as it would be for a nineteenth century heroine. That’s not what this is about. 

It matters that the hot oncologist appears sympathetic so that I can keep the dream of my own centrality, my unimpeachability, my status as protagonist in the story of my life, alive.  

It matters that the hot oncologist appears to care that I remain alive.


As I’m explaining my diagnosis to a friend on the phone, I hear the moment in the conversation when she gives me up for dead. Suddenly her voice goes limp, her responses vague, perfunctory, as if she’s started to scroll through social media. It reminds me of a moment, years before, when her eyes kept drifting past me in the campus dining hall, scouring for better company. In this case, maybe more lifelike company. Company with firmer footing on this side of the veil, in firmer possession of its mortal coil, etc. 

I understand the calculation: I’ve done similar math. No way does she survive that, I’ve caught myself thinking in the first moments of hearing a friend’s prognosis. But then grief, love, pain, and faith in the centrality of this one life flooded in. The world doesn’t go on if this friend doesn’t survive, I’ve reminded myself. 

I’m the main character, I want to remind my friend now, gently, but not without reproach. The main character survives. And, OK, sometimes she doesn’t—think Anna Karenina—but if she doesn’t, it’s a shock and a tragedy, and no one and nothing is the same afterward.  

But while I studied literature in college and have devoted a good part of my life to reading human-constructed stories about the lives of individual humans, this friend studied statistics.


My husband and I fly to Vegas for our anniversary during my chemotherapy summer. We don’t care about casinos but we like lavish hotels, and we have memories of days when Vegas was our road trip destination, a reward for driving and driving and desert camping, its cool blue pools under blazing sun a balm after months of Northwest damp. In the past we’ve pulled up to valet parking with our Subaru coated in dust, edges of the windshield beyond the reach of wipers crusted with smashed insects. We’ve climbed over each other in our rush to the shower.  

This time I move carefully out of our airport rental, my carry-on a mini pharmacy of drugs to counteract other drugs, my head a perpetual fog. 

“Are you a slave to lust?” asks a billboard by our hotel. “Are you enslaved by sin?”  

Oh, I think, if only.  

We try to keep it upbeat. It’s our twentieth, after all. I catch a gleam of recognition in the eyes of one of the young hotel clerks, as, hours after I checked in as a bald woman in a chemo cap, I walk past her dressed for dinner in a wig. I wait for a smile or nod; instead, she drops her gaze. 

Vegas, it occurs to me, wouldn’t be the worst place in the world to die young.  

Everyone can see it on you: death, your efforts to hide from it. Also, no one in Vegas has compassion to spare, and that helps. It’s good to be simply seen.  

Wig, chemo cap, bald head—no matter. The casino bartender still asks to see my ID.


On our way to the pool we pass by the resort beach club, with its dress code and cover charge, bass thumping as women in bikinis and fixed smiles gyrate on sway poles twenty feet in the air. I can’t help thinking of the George Saunders short story with the dangling young women you can buy for your yard. We head past to the main hotel pool, where I recognize in the mix more people like us: schoolteachers, working folk, parents with parent bodies, people, I imagine, who can’t afford island get-aways but find, with a little imagination and a strong enough drink, this comes close enough.  

I’ve always been self-conscious about my body, but now I’m grateful for a body that can at least be recognized as female, whole. Will this be my last swimsuit appearance with breasts? That’s a thing I will have to decide. Lumpectomy or mastectomy? Single mastectomy or double? Reconstruct? Go flat? Skip the skin-work altogether and opt for a torso tattoo on the scars? Something vegetative, perhaps. Or viney. Would I grow tired of flowers? 

I spend hours in the hotel room scrolling through photos of women’s torsos on medical websites. I page through surgical reconstruction shots like models of cars in a catalogue. Some of the reconstructed breasts are beautiful, almost natural. But almost is unnerving. 

I read forums. I Google everything: do implants cause cancer? Triple negative recurrence rate? How many years does chemo take off your life? Survival rates of single and double mastectomy, of lumpectomy versus mastectomy? Reconstruction complications, regrets?  

The pool is a relief.  It’s a relief to take my body out, for what it is and what it isn’t, before so many eyes so practiced in evaluating bodies.  

Then to close my eyes and simply feel the sun.


Ornithologists know the Northern flicker as Colaptes auratus: Colaptes, to peck; auratus, golden, for the undersides of their wings glimpsed in flight. There are two kinds of flicker, depending on the wing color: yellow-shafted, red-shafted. The ones I see are red; their wings open to a blush.  

 Flickers, I learn, eat wasps, termites, aphids, seeds, spiders, acorns, crickets. They have an alarmingly long, barbed tongue. That’s what they do when they drum: use their tongue to suck insects. Either that or mark territory with the sound.  

Some people, I’m disconcerted to note, regard flickers as pests. They can peck their way through siding, pull insulation out for nests. They love the sound of stucco, so much like weathered, water-damaged wood. They burrow sometimes into the sides of houses. One once knocked against a metal tractor. His drumming could be heard for days, for miles. 

Some say the Northern flicker brings lightning. The woman who tells me this, over drinks on a workday when neither of us is working, was hit by a truck while out jogging. It was days before she awakened. 

“You’re a crash of lightning come to Earth!” a fellow patient shouted at her in the hospital. He meant she was a sinner: she had to look it up. 

During the months of her recovery she saw flickers everywhere. Eventually, she had one tattooed on her leg.  

I won’t say it’s because she posted a picture of her flicker tattoo on social media that I suggested we get together, but I won’t say it wasn’t because of it, either. 

She had to learn to walk again. It took a remapping of brain waves to remember how to dream. She hadn’t realized she’d stopped dreaming until the dreams returned: sometimes a bird flying in blue sky, possibly the last thing she’d seen before slipping into coma; sometimes a dark mystery in which she learned she’d been murdered, and the murderer was out there, waiting to kill again.  

If these dreams were the body’s effort to look back at what had happened to it, then the flickers were a living dream, leading her forward, one step further, then another. 

I wonder where forward is, for me.


The time I almost cried in front of the hot oncologist was early in the process, the first time we talked treatment plan. That was when I learned I had to do chemo: a heavy course of it, the worst and best kind. It was the only the way, he said, to save my life, but my internet searches told me it would also shorten it, beyond what it might have been, by some amount measurable in years.  

I say almost cried: the plucky heroine in me surfaced almost at once, rose up to defy the ready sympathy in the hot oncologist’s eyes. 

No one is perfect. The hot oncologist sometimes fails to display enough concern as new ailments emerge. It’s sometimes difficult to get ahold of him now, as I move from active treatment to twice-yearly exams. Brushes with his team are sometimes tense, almost surly, as, increasingly, it is not the hot oncologist but the nurse manager who responds to my carefully worded MyChart messages. I find myself having to escalate the language, using words like “stabbing,” “relentless,” and “possibly a brain tumor” to generate any response at all.


It’s early in my treatment year when the flickers break into my living room. That’s why I’m alone in the house. That’s why I’m home. 

I need to restrict them to the kitchen, then lure them through the sliding glass door. I hang a sheet over the archway to the living room to keep them from flying back. Outside, I drag the ladder and lean it against the house. Dismissing mental images of my husband coming home to find my body sprawled and broken on the deck, I slide a roll of tape around one wrist, tuck newspaper under an arm, and climb. Chemotherapy hasn’t affected my balance too badly—or I think it hasn’t—but I take my time easing off the ladder onto the soft asphalt shingles, scattered with pine needles. I cover the skylights, and then I climb down.  

By the time I’m back the male has banged his way out through a casement window. The window only opens a few inches wide. I don’t know how he did it, and I wonder if he’s hurt. The female, alone in the darkened kitchen, flies out to the light through the open door. 

I still worry about the one that banged out through the window. I search the yard briefly for bodies. But in the days and weeks that follow, as I hear the calls of flickers—pure and molten, liquid fire—I also search the sky.


I’m driving to a new job in a different city when I pass children milling about in a yard outside a small in-home daycare. It must be drop-off time—kids coming and parents going—and while the children don’t look joyful exactly, they at least seem occupied and undistressed, absorbed in the business of their lives.  

The modesty of the small house worries me. I hope it’s a good daycare. 

Not so long ago I was looking for daycare for my own daughters, then toddlers. I remember lingering in the hallway after dropping off my one-year-old, watching through one-way glass as she stood alone, apart from the others, looking lost and disheveled in her bright-colored playclothes. The two or three seconds it took for the teacher to see her and pull her into the group felt endless. 

It’s gone so fast. It goes so fast. The bright yellow embroidered shirt, the tousled hair. 

Eye blink. Heartbeat. Flicker.