Susan Kay Miller is originally from New Haven , CT and after passing through Paris and Boston, has made Brooklyn home
for over 25 years. Her poetry has been published in Icarus and Neshama. This is her first published short story and
she's very excited. She saw a battered suitcase on her way to work the day after it was accepted. Still at her day job
of hospital social worker, she continues to write fiction and is somewhere in the middle of a novel. She has studied with
Sheila Kohler and Joseph Caldwell and thanks friends and family for encouraging her over the years.
Walking on Bird Feet
The plane soared above the clouds, while Liane shifted in her seat, exhausted. She pictured the land below desiccated and
parched, longing for rain. She was on her way to New York to where her mother lay tethered to life supports, to life.
Without any direct flights from Albuquerque to New York, she and her husband Paul barely slept, leaving home in Luna
Plata at four thirty to make the six o’clock plane for their connecting flight in Houston. Her head rested on Paul’s shoulder.
He was there to make sure she’d get to her mother; to the hospital’s ethics committee to discuss her mother’s “end of
life” wishes. As next of kin she held her mother’s life in her hands. Twenty-nine year old Liane felt too young for this role
and felt at fifty-four her mother was too young to die.
It appeared her mother, Cecilia, had been making progress after the stroke which occurred almost two months ago. She
had been able to get out of bed with help and was beginning physical therapy and was talking. Then the pneumonia hit
and finally sepsis. Her black hair streaked with gray turned white.
Long-distance, the doctors told Liane she was next of kin. She’d come to hate this term. The words were clear, but the
succinct clink sounded so technical, lacking the intimacy they implied. Since her parents were divorced, and she was the
oldest child, she was more next of kin than her grandmother, or uncle. Her younger sister Ada could have done it, but the
doctors called Liane.
To breathe or not to breathe. To breathe her mother had a prosthetic tentacle, a blue tube from a hole in her throat to a
ventilator. She’d become an amphibious creature of land and limbo who needed machines to keep her alive. This image
haunted Liane and popped up unexpectedly, whether she was at the car wash or baking cookies with her first graders.
Half-dozing, Liane thought about the doctors who had been calling to get her consent so often, they must know her cell
phone number by heart. She heard relief in their voices, when they realized she spoke English. Her mother was Cuban-
Chinese which everyone everywhere seemed to find so cool. The combination of the lotus blossom meets bougainvillea
charmed people. A tanned diva with mango juice dripping between her breasts, dancing a wild mambo, she was not.
Besides, her mother had liked to create her own dances and sway to her own rhythms.
Liane realized that her mother could never have done this for her. So much of her mother’s life had been spent bouncing
in and out of psych wards. Liane once remembered seeing a piece of paper from a doctor’s office referring to her mother’s
condition; rule out schizophrenia; rule out bipolar disorder with manic features; rule out bipolar disorder mixed type. Rule
in woman who stayed up all night singing or drinking, screeching like a bird, doing jig-saw puzzles; bringing you ten new
dresses, five pairs of shoes and three dolls.
Liane remembered those other gifts. She remembered the vacuum cleaner with the five foot long nozzle adorned with ties
her mother scavenged from the trash. The discarded Christmas trees and branches blown down in a storm. One day’s
bounty yielded black patent leather shoes, still wrapped in lavender tissue paper in a turquoise box.
Her thoughts returned to the phrase “next of kin.” First in line to toll the death knell or deny its clang. Liane need only
scribble a letter expressing Mom’s wishes. Her wishes. Thoughts of her mother’s wishes weighed on her. Writing the
letter was strong medicine.
Liane was getting carried away. Although she and her sister Ada were legally next of kin (the nok, as she and Paul joked
about her title), they had not been next to her mother very much after their father remarried and they’d moved to
Florida. Her step mother Ruth, had been as much of a mother as had her “blood is thicker than water” mom.
The flight attendant’s announcement broke her reverie. “We have begun our descent into New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts. The temperature on the ground is a sunny seventy-two degrees.”
A warm spring day in New York. May was supposed to be merry. Liane always thought of New York, Brooklyn to be exact,
as home. Florida and New Mexico were addresses. That was a secret she’d kept to herself. Some funny feeling in her
heart always reminded her of this, and it was happening again as the plane taxied to its berth.
“Everything’s going be all right honey, I promise.” Paul hugged her.
What exactly would be all right? Surely, not her mother’s condition. He probably meant she’d get through these next few
days without falling apart. She sighed and said nothing, as she fished through her purse pocket for a piece of gum to
quell pangs of nausea.
Liane was avoiding the fact that she might be pregnant. She was already about fourteen days late, and she was never
late. She imagined a clump of cells, fat juicy pearls growing inside her that would become a baby. Instinctively her hand
moved to her belly. She would buy a home test kit at the drug store and tell Paul when she knew for sure. There was
enough to deal with.
Until her mother got sick, she’d been craving a baby and looked forward to starting a family, but now she wanted to avoid
responsibility. Dealing with her mother, even long-distance, drained her. Though she knew it would be over soon, she
needed a break.
It would be a case of bad timing. They wanted to move and travel, have a little time to goof off. They’d discussed
postponing a baby for another six months or so. But a baby would be a joyful event and were she pregnant now she
could share it with her mother as strange as that seemed.
From the airport they hopped in a cab and soon arrived at the Radisson Roebling in Brooklyn Heights. The hospital was in
Brooklyn about twenty minutes away. Their hotel room was generic Pottery Barn meets The Bombay Company: a four
poster cherry wood bed, with a matching dresser and desk. Drapes blocked the streaming light.
Liane climbed onto the bed and wished she could sleep the day away. Paul was up and seated at the desk, lap top out,
checking his email. He’d been hired to write an article about archaeological vacations in New Mexico that was due day after
tomorrow. Liane told him he didn’t have to come to the hospital. It would be enough to know that he was waiting for her.
She heard beeps coming from her cell phone. Two new voicemails. She wasn’t ready to listen. She took off her clothes
and changed into a white-t-shirt and stretched across the bed. A square white light fixture stared down at her. She was
Liane curled up under the covers and tried to nap for a couple of hours. Dozing on the plane hadn’t done it for her.
Paul tapped her on the shoulder. “Time to wake up, my little Noknok! My very own next of kin.” She longed to be to be
cradled in his arms and just breathe. She fell back on the bed and pulled him on top of her.
“As for you my dear,” she said, “I’m your next of skin.” She lay clinging to him, but her desire curdled into sorrow, and
the weight on her heart flowed salty down her cheeks. Paul held her, his nearness soothing her.
“How about some lunch? Want to call room service?” he asked.
“Sure. Let’s spend a hundred dollars on Caesar salad and cheeseburgers,” she blurted, getting up and opening the
“Well, we could go out…” He offered, while turning off his computer.
“It’s fine. I’ll have… hmm? Ginger ale, white toast and chicken soup.” She stood behind him massaging his shoulders.
“Do you feel okay?” He asked, turning toward her.
“Nerves and no sleep. You know my stomach.”
She felt closer than ever to Paul. He’d been so understanding during her mother’s illness — the ordeal of traveling back
and forth, the phone calls at all hours asking consent for various treatments and tests that had to be explained in lengthy
detail. Paul had even passed up an article that would have included several days in Mexico to be with her. Yet she wasn’t
ready to tell him her period was late, because he might feel burdened and she wanted the news to make him happy.
Although Liane knew Paul would love her to be pregnant, she wasn’t sure if she were ready. The absolute, no escaping
responsibility of it, the wailing reality of it terrified her. Would her brain and body morph into her mother, when she
became a mother? Questions dropped like wet ink, black and viscous on the crinkled surface of her wishes and fears.
“Mommy come back. Mommy come back.” She pictured herself crawling on a shabby rose colored carpet, covered with
stains and crumbs. She was wearing a caramel and red dress that tied around the waist. She could see her thin arms and
the puffy capped sleeves. She was playing with a doll and a stuffed animal, a puppy, and she was distracted by the voices
of her father and grandmother, talking in whispers that heated to shouts. She must have been about four or five. About
a year after Ada was born. Her mother had gone to the hospital but not to have a baby or have her tonsils out. “No it’s
not your fault LiLi,” they reassured her. “Mommy’s nerves needed a rest.” Liane’s grandmothers took turns watching her
and Ada. Dad picked them up after work at 5:30 on the dot, and they drove home. They said her mother was relaxing in
the hospital for very nervous people that didn’t allow children to visit. She thought that was mean and sad, but realized
when she was older it had been for the best.
Liane had arranged to meet with the ethics committee at three thirty that afternoon. She leaned against the pillows
propped against the headboard and thought about the meeting. The social worker had reminded her to bring the
notarized letter and she agreed, though it wasn’t done. She had tried at least five times only to toss her efforts in the
wastebasket. Ada had offered to help and so did Paul, but Liane persevered alone. She guessed at her mother’s wishes,
not knowing for certain what they’d be. Her mother had seemed to inhabit an altered universe, her brain percolating with
visions and voices she could quiet with medication, but usually didn’t. Had she ever chosen how to live “her life”?
Liane didn’t want to fill a page with boiler plate clichés. Or how once, over tea, Mom mentioned she wouldn’t have wanted
“to live like that’’. Even the sincere letter she ached to write felt like a betrayal. Liane felt a wave of nausea and ran into
the bathroom. Dry heaves. She gagged and broke into a sweat. She doused her face with cold water and felt better.
“Sure you’re all right ,” Paul asked from outside the door. “Fine.” She emerged and stood near him. “Every time I start
that letter…” Room service arrived and she surprised herself by scarfing down the soup and toast. With an unexpected
surge of energy she jumped in the shower and changed her clothes. She decided to run out to the drug store and buy a
test kit before going to the hospital, even if she took the test later. She convinced Paul to work on his article while she
went out for some air.
Walking through the aisles of the Duane Reade Pharmacy, Liane felt her shoulders rise. She imagined voices whispering,
“You didn’t tell Paul. Why so secretive?” Her sense of the ridiculous rushed in to save her, and she laughed at herself. She
was a twenty-nine year old married woman, she was supposed to buy pregnancy tests! What was the big deal?
Liane chose a brand a friend had used and sauntered toward the counter. Her sweaty palms and tightening throat
betrayed her anguish. She was trembling, as she put the bag in her purse and headed back to the hotel. They’d have to
leave for the hospital soon. She’d write the letter afterwards.
“I was beginning to worry,” Paul said when she entered. “I think we’d better get going.”
“You’re right.” They only had about twenty minutes before the meeting started. She didn’t want to be late either. They
took the elevator to the lobby and asked the desk clerk to call them a cab.
Most of the people on the ethics committee wore white coats — a passel of albino penguins. Did albino penguins exist?
Shouldn’t they prove she is her mother’s daughter? What if she had been switched at birth? How come they didn’t ask
for a DNA sample? She realized she was distracting herself and “came back” when Paul took her hand. She counted the
people in the room to ground herself. There was a rabbi, a woman minister, two doctors, a nurse and the social worker.
One of the doctors explained how life supports were keeping her mother alive and that unfortunately there was no
medical treatment available to restore her health. He spoke softly and with few words. He looked at his pen and at Paul as
much as he looked at her. When he asked if she had any questions, Liane suddenly felt shy about the questions she did
have. She remembered how much her mother used to love to walk for hours on her scavenger hunts and realized that
she would never be able to do that again. Oddly this realization helped clarify things for her. The social worker, a blonde
Russian woman in her forties named Dina, spoke to her in a soothing tone and acknowledged her painful predicament. No
one was callous or indifferent, yet they did need the letter before they could do anything. It was more about “undoing”,
Liane thought. She squeezed Paul’s hand and felt her heart and mind go blurry.
“I’ll bring it tomorrow,” she told them in little more than a whisper. The social worker handed Liane her card.
Liane and Paul stopped in the gift shop to buy flowers for her mother and candy for themselves. White roses with a
crimson border were one of her mother’s favorite kinds. She’d carried them at Liane’s wedding.
Walking to her mother’s room, Liane recalled a forgotten memory, vivid as a dream. Liane could still see her mother’s face
pale in the dark hallway of their Brooklyn apartment. One finger on her lips, insisting on silence, her mother would point
down toward her own feet to remind her to walk on tip-toes. It was a strain for Liane, who was about seven, but she
concentrated hard on the task. Her mother had explained this was the only way they could avoid rousing the ghosts and
other spirits sharing the house.
Liane walked gingerly to the armchair where her mother stood, holding on for balance. The refrigerator gurgled in that late
night way and the sunburst clock on the living room wall ticked. Her mother began to argue in a strange language.
Though frightened at first, Liane had to keep herself from laughing out loud. Her mother’s shadow was twitching across
the wall. Liane’s aching feet flattened on the carpet. She pushed her face into a serious look and observed her mother’s
tantrum. She cleared her throat as her mother continued, changing her voice to a twitter. Liane went up on tip-toes again
right on time, a beat before her mother glanced down at her feet. She remembered the warm smile and her mother’s
adoring glance. She recalled how they tip-toed into the kitchen, the linoleum floor creaking. Her mother turning back to
smile; Liane smiled too. Her mother told her that the ghosts had gone back to sleep and appeared to be dreaming. That’s
why it was important to walk on bird feet to make sure you didn’t wake the ghosts and make them angry and grumpy,
because you never know what they do.
Liane had never seen a ghost, but she was afraid of them. Her mother told a story about a husband and wife ghost who
had followed her mother from Cuba, or possibly from China. Her mother swore they even slipped into bed between her
and her husband, making the sheets like ice. Walking on tip-toes hadn’t been enough.
Liane’s father, James Joseph “Joe” Hogan, laughed at the idea of ghosts, especially a husband and wife duo of them! “You’
re mother can’t help it,” he’d say.
Now Liane found herself walking on bird feet. Tip-toeing toward her mother who lay unconscious in her hospital bed. She
wished they could discuss the letter and that her mother could let her know what she wanted. “Please give us a sign, a
nod of your head, a map with a key to a secret box. Something! But there was nothing.”
Back at the hotel, Liane went straight to the desk. She tore off a sheet of paper from the pad provided by the hotel. The
room was too bright. She popped up and closed the drapes, then rummaged through her purse for her favorite pen.
Before sitting down again, Liane went to her suitcase where she’d put the stationery she’d brought for the letter. She
then settled into the chair, holding the sheet of ivory bond pinched at the edges by her fingers before she placed it on the
desk. She wrote:
“To Whom It May Concern:
This much I know. My mother Cecilia Fu Dorado Hogan is a free spirit. Although we never discussed what she’d want to
do should she become dependent on artificial supports to keep her alive, I am sure she would not accept this option.
She was someone who had to come and go as she pleased and follow her own thoughts and impressions of what was
meaningful to her, even if it appeared frivolous or irresponsible to others. She especially loved to spend her days walking
through the city.
Since she is no longer able to live life her way, I believe she would…”
Liane stopped. What had to follow tugged at her heart. She went to her purse and took out a photograph framed in a
silver rectangle. The picture was taken on her wedding day almost two years ago in the bride’s room of the Aquamarine
Club in Clearwater. It showed Liane with her mother and Ada who was her Maid of Honor. Her mother stood between
them, smiling, holding each daughter‘s hand. She wore a pale pink linen dress with a scooped neck and short sleeves. A
strand of pearls fell below her collar bone. Her hair was still salt and pepper and she’d been keeping up with her meds and
stopped drinking. Liane stared at her mother’s image. She longed to re-enter that moment and absorb the joy shining
from her mother’s face. Liane set the picture on the desk.
“Want me to read what I’ve written so far?” She asked Paul, who was stretched out on the bed reading.
She handed him the letter. “I know what has to come next, but finishing it… it feels like I’m finishing her.” She sat down,
enthralled by the photo. That whole week her mother spent in Florida before the wedding became a golden bridge
between the memories from her childhood and the stroke that stole her back into the netherworld. It wasn’t fair.
“I can fill in those last few words, if you want.” Paul asked. His voice startled her.
“What do you think? Would she like it?”
“Yeah, she would. It’s fine. It’s personal, the way you wanted it to be.”
Liane reached out her hand and took the letter back. Pen in hand, she took a deep breath, brushed away her tears and
wrote. Her throat tightened, and she looped her long hair around her fingers. She reviewed the last lines:
“My mother is no longer able to live in the way she wanted to live, and I believe she would prefer to be removed from life
supports, as there is no hope of her recovering.”
Sepsis was storming her blood and she didn’t stand a chance. All the medical reports sounded so graphic, almost
obscene, and Liane couldn’t bear to listen to the doctors expound on the details of what was ultimately claiming her
Staring at the letter, Liane thought, “this mere sheet of paper should have crushed the desk.” She felt delivered from this
weight of words, this stone that fell from her heart. A raw feeling filled her. The letter rested where it was placed, no
different than had it been a shopping list. She reread it to make sure it was complete and had some degree of dignity and
affection. Paul reassured her it was fine and even better for not sounding as if it had been drawn up by a lawyer. Her
mother lived in the younger part of herself and the words came from there; she was glad she could express something
truthful without a lengthy excuse about her mother being mentally ill. Her mother would appreciate that.
The letter was written in longhand and she decided that was fine. It was now ready for the notary’s stamp. Liane wanted
to escape into sleep, but she knew she wouldn’t. When her phone rang and Ada’s name appeared on the screen, she
“I’m flying out of Tampa tomorrow morning at eight. I should get to the hotel around noon.” Liane couldn’t wait.
“Why don’t we walk over to the Promenade and go out for dinner,” Paul suggested.
“Why don’t you go for a walk and I’ll take a swim,” Liane suggested. “I could meet you in about an hour.” When he left
she surprised herself by changing into her bathing suit, rather than taking the test. But the thought of getting in the
water slowed her down and she went to her purse where the test was secreted.
The Promenade had been one of her mother’s favorite haunts. She and Ada would often find her there writing in her
journal, gazing at the skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge, jotting her impressions. Once when they were walking across the
bridge, a tourist with a Polaroid had granted her mother’s request to take their picture. Though the sky in the picture had
turned a strange blue green with time and they all had red eyes, Liane cherished the photo. Another picture on the
Promenade included her father as well. It proved that they’d once existed as a family, clicked into the ephemera of life.
Liane and Paul sat on a bench in the softening twilight. He put his arm around her and she rested her head on his
shoulder. The lights of Manhattan were a vertical galaxy. Liane felt her chest tighten, as her gaze fell on Paul’s hand
entwined in hers.
“We should walk across the bridge sometime. It used to be one of Mom’s favorite things. When we get home I’ll dig out a
Polaroid of her, Ada and me on the bridge. I think it was about this time of year, too,” she said.
They were quiet, taking in the iconic landscape of the City and the bridge, the thoughts of her mother fading away from
“I’d love to walk across the bridge some time and take some new pictures,” Paul said.
They instinctively moved closer to one another as dusk silhouetted the skyline. This was the moment to tell him, but she
began to tremble and remember those walks with her mother and the letter she’d be taking to the hospital and the words
caught. Then the lilacs’ perfume awakened the excitement and joy she’d wanted when she told him.
“Paul.” She swallowed back tears.
“Li what’s the matter?” He moved closer to her.
She smiled while tears spilled. “We’re pregnant,” she said exhaling, as they folded into one another.
“Oh, babe, wow! That was your secret.” With a tender, almost shy gesture, he placed his cupped hand on her belly and
she felt the warmth from his hand radiate. Liane lost herself in Paul’s embrace and while they kissed she felt his tears
warm on her neck. The two of them moved into the world of the three, a shift in the shape of them.
“I took the test before I came to meet you,” she responded, while a wave of happiness surged and she surrendered to it.
“I can’t wait,” he gushed gathering her in his embrace. “We’re going to have a baby.”
“In about eight months,” she laughed. It seemed so far away and still unreal.
Though usually avoiding public affection, Liane nestled close to Paul and let his tears fall in to her hair. She looked up at
the bridge with its lights spangling hushed indigo of evening and thought of her mother’s life ebbing and of the life
growing still tiny inside her.
The next morning Ada arrived looking gorgeous. She came through the door in a white leather jacket, Louis Vuitton
summer purse and luggage in white with bright colors which Liane loathed, but Ada loved. She wore bone white skin-tight
jeans, gold Mephistos and a black t-shirt. Her mane of chestnut hair was swirled through a clip and then hung draped to
the side. Liane melted and hugged her longer than usual. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed her.
“They pulled me into security again,” Ada told them, drinking from a bottle of Japanese tea, sprawled next to her sister on
the bed while Paul sat on a chair near the desk.
“Must be your irresistible beauty,” Paul blurted. “That runs in the family of course,” he nodded toward Liane.
“When they asked why I was going to New York, I said I was going to try and stop my sister from killing our mother,” Ada
mused, placing the tea bottle on the bedside table.
“That’s really funny, A,” Liane retorted.
“I’m kidding. I’m trying to lighten things up in my twisted way.”
“If you want light, here, read this.” She handed Ada the letter.
While Ada read, her face softened, grew pensive.
“She’d want you to say this. She’d like it, Li,” Ada gazed at the letter before handing it back to Liane.
Ada continued, “When I read about sharks always having to move, I thought of her. Her endless walking. She’d get so
tan from being outside all the time. No getting her to day treatment. I saw her in Union Square Park when I came up one
summer. She was feeding birds and jabbering away at them and laughing as if she were telling the funniest stories. At
some point I thought they were twittering back to her. She didn’t see me and I didn’t feel like telling whoever I was with
that she was my mom.”
“I know that feeling!” Liane groaned.
Paul and Liane smiled at each other and then Liane spoke. She couldn’t keep from telling Ada the good news. “We’re
going to have a baby, Auntie Ada!”
“That’s so wonderful!” Ada gushed, choking back tears and embraced Liane and Paul.
“It’s going to be a winter baby,” Liane said, holding Paul’s hand.
“You have to tell Mom,” Ada said.
“I will. I just wished she’d be here when…”
“She’s here now,” Ada sighed.
Liane placed the letter in her purse and stood with her hand on the clasp, as if she could stop time by playing freeze tag
With Ada’s approval of the letter, Liane had no excuse to delay getting it notarized and bringing it to the hospital. Time
seemed to be speeding up. They met Dina in her office and stood while Dina read the letter. “It’s fine. I’ll let the doctor
know we have it.”
This was the turning point. The irreversible set in motion. That dreaded and longed for moment had arrived with its clash
of reason and emotion. The letting go would begin. It was world askew.
Liane held Paul’s hand as they walked to the elevators. She noticed how quiet and somber Ada had become after the
letter was given to the social worker. Ada trailed behind them staring at the ground. Paul and Liane stopped to wait for
Through the maze of corridors where doctors scurried by, orderlies pushed people to surgery, to CT scans, MRIs,
intercoms announced codes, the three trudged in slow motion. It all blurred into cacophonous static until they reached
her mother’s room. There, a cavernous silence filled Liane. She tiptoed on bird feet hoping her mother would magically
recognize their secret walk.
They stood at her mother’s bedside and drew deep breaths. They linked arms as they stood there before her. Her white
haired mother was still as a doll. Her round face with closed eyes lay against the pillow, her body a slim bulge under a
white blanket. Blue plastic tubes flowed about her neck while the monitors and vent thrummed to a hollow tune.
Liane felt frozen and tense. It was like stepping into a void, a lonely, unfamiliar place. Although her mother was right in
next to her, where was she really? Liane knew she could have done this long distance, she could try and wish herself
elsewhere, yet she would not have wanted to be any place else. Her mother needed them there and they needed and
wanted to be at her side.
The letter was handed in. Part of her wanted to take it back, say they’d changed their minds, but she knew she wouldn’t.
Liane was stung by deep longing. She was buffeted against the present; the moments scraped and cut into her. Tears
rolled down her cheeks while she leaned across the bedrail and stroked her mother’s hair. Ada sat in a chair and bowed
her head and whimpered.
Liane reached for her mother’s hand which did not squeeze hers back. Could she feel Liane’s hand? Her mother’s eyes
were closed. Was she dreaming in Technicolor or floating in white light? They sat there together, her mother perched on
the cusp of life and not life. Liane placed her mother’s hand on her belly, and covered it with her own.
“There’s a new heart beating,” she told her. She squeezed her mother’s hand and thought she saw her smile. Soon they’
d be coming in to take her mother off the ventilator, draw the curtain around her bed. Closing her eyes, Liane imagined
her mother in her pink mother-of the-bride dress, hem fluttering in the breeze, while she rose to heaven on bird feet.
Susan Kay Miller