Judith began talking about getting a bird,
I wanted no part of it. We had had several cats, each of which was asked to leave, for one reason or another. The last one, named Ms, I had become rather attached to, but when we moved into the condo we knew we couldn't keep her. Condo rules said pets could not run loose, and Ms had become an outdoor cat. When she was little, we had kept her indoors for her own safety, since she had been declawed. But she began getting out whenever there was an opportunity, and of course did the usual outdoor cat things like bringing mice (and once a small, live snake) in to us. She broke through screens to get out when we weren't quick enough for her. So when we moved to the condo we gave her to a friend who owned her own house, and Ms did her usual outdoor cat things with Sally. I was sad for a while—she seemed to like both Judith and me. But she liked being outdoors more. I was sympathetic to her need to run. Her name fit her well; she was intelligent and determined. But I didn't like the idea of her bringing who-knew-what into the house (besides fleas and other vermin, which I guess were accepted as part of the package). When Judith said she had to go, I had mixed feelings. It felt a little cold to me, to simply discard a member of the family. And a few months later, when we encountered Ms at Sally's house one evening, I had the feeling I had lost something.
But life without pets is simpler, to say the least. An ideal pet is one that comes with twenty acres, and lives out there somewhere, but hangs around and follows you to the mailbox and back, wagging its tail whenever you speak to it, and eats table scraps on the back porch. And doesn't smell in hot weather.
But what bother could a canary be? As long as I didn't have to clean out its cage or worry about whether it had the right kind of seeds to eat, I didn't object to her getting a bird.
Well, a cockatiel is larger than a canary, although not as big as you think of a parrot. Some of them talk, but they don't sing much. When they're a bother, you can throw a sheet over their cage, and they become quiet. I've heard that a bird eats its own weight in food every day. A couple ounces of bird seed a day won't break us. OK, but as long as you understand, it's your bird.
I went along to talk with the breeders, a couple living twenty miles out of town whose house smelled and sounded pretty awful. Judith had her usual trouble deciding, but eventually we came home with a tiny yellow bird in a cardboard box. It was winter, and we were afraid the bird would get cold, so we preheated the car and wrapped the box in a blanket for transport.
What do you feed a baby bird? Worms? No, it seems the best thing is baby cereal, mixed up in a little warm water, thin enough for an eye dropper. The bird kept trying to swallow the eye dropper and all—it was always ravenous, and Judith sat down with it every hour or so and the two of them spattered baby food all over, while evidently getting a little of it into the bird. It just didn't seem to understand how to go about it. Nor did she. After a while, she decided that it was not eating enough through the eye dropper, so she bent a spoon into a funnel shape and shoveled the gruel into the bird's lunging mouth. It had a peculiar cry when it was eating, synchronized with its grabbing for the spoon. I remember when my son was a few weeks old, and my wife couldn't produce enough milk, and he was never satisfied. I had the same feeling about this bird. Frustrated, anxious, furious, terribly guilty, all at the same time. New parenthood is a special kind of hell that only a sadistic god could devise.
Eventually, of course, they got the routine going, and the biggest problem was the Chinese water torture regularity of it. Naturally, we couldn't leave the bird alone for any length of time. A friend, who also had a cockatiel, agreed to keep the bird when we went away for a weekend, and on other occasions some other friend stopped in through the weekend to make sure it had food. But that was after it was able to feed itself. The weaning came when Judith's back went out on her, and she couldn't sit up long enough to tend the bird. I said I'd fill in until Judith got back on her feet, thinking that I might be witnessing the proverbial hole in the dike.It seemed to me that the bird ought to be able to pick up the food by itself, but for some reason it needed that shiny spoon to lunge at. I finally got impatient and dumped half of the cereal on the plate, and held the full spoon down really close to it. The greedy bird never recognized that it was eating as much from the plate as it was from the spoon. I made the mixture thicker and thicker so she (we decided the bird was a female, although it's pretty hard to tell until they lay an egg) could chomp on something substantial, and soon she didn't need the spoon anymore. She still made those awful sounds when she was hungry, but the fever was broken. By the time Judith's back let her join the rest of the family, feeding the bird was much less an ordeal.
And by that time, Chick (we couldn't help it, she looked exactly like a chicken when she toddled about on a flat surface) was beginning to have a personality. Or rather, she was getting a personality that wasn't all screaming and grabbing for food. She began to try to imitate us, and I suddenly realized one day that that strange two-syllable noise she had picked up was an imitation of my own cough. But Judith taught her to say something that could be "hey, bird!" and bought a tape recording at the bird store of various kinds of bird calls, as well as some woman repeating inane little phrases that the bird was supposed to learn through repetition. Turned out Chick hated the tape, and let us know in no uncertain terms. She did like music sometimes, though, and if we went out (and even when we were home but in need of some separation from her) we turned on the radio in the bedroom where she was kept.
She soon began to fly a little, and we worried that she might get outside. So we took her to a pet shop, where they deftly clipped her wing feathers with a pair of scissors. If you hadn't just seen her with her full complement of flight feathers, it was hard to tell.
But she found out very quickly that flying was only a memory. She could break her fall if she happened to leap from a table thinking she was going to go up to someone's shoulder. And when she was determined, she could get about three feet off the floor for a few seconds. The Wright brothers might have admired her tenacity, but Chick was discouraged. She began to get nervous about heights, and would cling tightly to your shirt if you tried to put her onto her cage.
She had a "tree" next to her cage, and some rope tied to the branches, so she could climb around if she became bored. And they say cockatiels do get bored easily. They are very intelligent birds, and need company. Judith considered getting another bird so Chick would have a companion, but soon gave up the idea when she thought about the double burden of feeding and cage-cleaning for two birds. I didn't offer any help.
After a while, Chick grew on us.
Her flight feathers grew back slowly (it was months and months before we finally discovered the last one lying in the bottom of her cage). She gradually learned to fly better even while most of her wing feathers were still square stubs. The change in her behavior was noticeable. She was more outgoing and seemed more glad to see us when we appeared or when she heard us in the house. She sang a lot more. We decided we wouldn't have her clipped again. Yes, there was a greater risk she might get out, and if she did that she would be gone. But she was a different bird.
It took her a while to get used to using her wings for little hops. She did a lot of climbing, using her beak and claws to hold onto your pants leg as she made her way to the floor. Why she liked the floor so much, we never figured out. We thought she would have preferred to be up high, where she could see better and run less risk of being trampled. But one of her favorite places was the kitchen floor, where she checked out every crumb, every scrap, whether edible or not.
I started a little collection of her discarded feathers, which I stuck in the edges of my mirror. I wasn't sure why I did that. She was becoming important to me, somehow. Seeing the newer full feathers next to chopped-off ones gave me some satisfaction. Several long ones from her tail were soiled from dragging on the floor as she walked. My favorite, though, was a splendid yellow one from her crest, a symbol of her proud profile.
She was, when you looked at her closely, incredibly beautiful. In flight, even in the confined space of the condo, she was graceful. You had to pay attention to see that, though, for she didn't fly slowly. It made some people nervous to have her fluttering around them. And, I'll admit, she didn't always land gracefully. She didn't have enough wing area to glide, and so she didn't have time to get her wings and legs ready, the way ducks do when they settle so easily into the water.
On a flat surface such as a table top, she lost all her grace. She was like a clown, hobbling about in an imitation of Charlie Chaplin.
After she got her full complement of flight feathers back, it seemed flying was a way of expressing herself. She'd get excited, especially in the morning, when we were noisily washing dishes and preparing breakfast, and suddenly take off from my shoulder and fly furiously around the house, in and out of rooms, her fluttering wings sounding like tiny helicopter blades—and then just as suddenly swoop in to my shoulder again, panting so hard and fast I feared for her little heart.
There were times when it seemed she couldn't get close enough to us. She often sat on my shoulder, still as a statue, her round beak barely in contact with my cheek, and I could feel her warm breath on my neck. And sometimes when I was leaning back relaxing in a chair, she'd find a perch on my shirtfront, just under my nose, where my own breath wafted over her. I could not doubt she loved me.
Her shriek of joy when she heard the door to the garage open was as warm a welcome as I've ever experienced. And in the morning when we removed the cover from her cage, she'd scramble about excitedly, waiting for the cage door to open. Usually, she made her way immediately to the doorway to fly up to our shoulder. But sometimes she stayed on her perch, waiting until a familiar finger was extended to her where she was, and then she'd quietly step onto the finger, her feet warm on my skin, and allow me to withdraw her from the cage and lift her to her place on my shoulder.
Immensely curious and intelligent, she used to play games with me. Each morning, for example, I'd bring out my seven-day pill box and set it beside my breakfast so I wouldn't forget to take my medication. Chick loved anything yellow, or plastic. This was both. And she couldn't be kept from picking at objects that had little projections, such as the raised lettering identifying the days of the week. The bird found she could open the separate compartments, and she also found that it got my attention. I was afraid she would get the box open and eat some of the pills inside, which I was sure would mean the end of her. So I watched her carefully when both she and the pill box were on the table. Invariably, she would pick at one of the lids until she got it open—then immediately begin on the next one. Her fun seemed to be in simply getting them open, caring nothing about what was inside. I, of course, would immediately snap the lid shut, and she would again begin to tug at it. If I was too quick to undo her work, she'd peck at my fingers to let me know I wasn't following the rules. If I ignored her, however (which I could do if I knew the box was empty), she lost interest quickly and went on to other mischief.
I think she wanted to play the same kind of game with people's earrings. If she spotted an earring, she immediately began tugging at it. The wearer would of course try to dissuade her, sometimes by covering the earring with a hand. Giving the offending fingers a peck, Chick then went immediately to the other shoulder to find the mate. Only when the wearer took both earrings off did she decide the game was over and go on to other activity.
For some reason, she took a liking to feet and shoes. Standing on the floor an inch away, she would hunch up her shoulders and lower her head, and sing and talk to someone's shoe. Especially if you moved your foot a little now and then. She seemed in awe of shoes, yet at times she would come right up to one, her beak just touching the leather, and stand there, as if communing with it. It was as though she saw a foot as some kind of god. If the shoe were unoccupied, she'd worry the laces and pick at the stitching, but only occasionally would she talk to a shoe that didn't contain a foot. If you crossed your leg, she'd perch on top of your foot, and just sit there.
Usually, she preferred shoulders. She always greeted visitors by flying to their shoulders. She'd peck gently at their cheek or neck, and if one were wearing a necklace, she had great fun tugging at it. Best of all, though, she loved earrings.
Although she was certainly more secure perched on a shoulder covered with some kind of cloth (Judith had a special "bird shirt," a kind of smock to protect her good clothes), she didn't hesitate to fly to the nearest bare shoulder, either. Sharp claws, even as light as she was, were no treat on bare skin. And a bare arm didn't provide much toe-hold for climbing, though she seldom seemed to mind.
She loved the edges of papers and books. She'd pester anyone who was trying to read, and make her way around the pages, punching out little triangles as she went.
Chick seldom took any interest in our food. Now and then she would steal a bit from someone's plate, but not ordinarily. She did get curious about the foam on my cappuccino, though, and would sometimes thrust her beak into the white stuff, tasting the milk, and come out with fluff all over her beak. Any hint of coffee in the foam, however, turned her off immediately. Of the bird food Judith bought for her, she liked spray millet the most. For a while, we suspected she was eating nothing but millet, but eventually she settled down to a more varied diet. We fed her sprigs of parsley and carrot tops, which she liked, at least while they were fresh.
Her eating style was curious. She nearly always picked up a bit of food and took it to the edge of whatever surface she was on before she began to eat. So most of the food naturally went to the floor instead of where she could get to it. I wondered if her ancestors had some kind of symbiotic partnership with ground animals, who would eat what the birds dropped, in return for protection, or something. Or else, it might have been an instinctive way of keeping the nest clean. A pile of seed hulls would probably attract snakes or rodents, which might then eat baby cockatiels, as well. To say nothing of the mess as discarded seeds became wet and fermented or germinated. She couldn't eat without scattering bits of food. If it was crisp, like a seed or a cracker, each crunch produced a spray of fragments. (After all, without lips, how could she be dainty?) And if something stuck to her beak, a quick shake of her head sent it flying.
She sat on my shoulder a lot, as I've said. If I were busy in the kitchen, at the sink or something, she watched my activity with great interest, sometimes making her way down my sleeve to participate in whatever I was doing with my hands. (If I was too busy, so that her perch jerked about a lot, she would peck at my arm to let me know she wasn't happy.) She loved the sound of running water, and almost invariably she would begin to sing—a special call she seldom used anywhere else. (I translated it into "Pizza for real!" because of the enthusiasm she put into it.) She'd hunch up her shoulders, lower her head, and go on for minutes, singing and clucking. I learned to whistle all over again (an activity I hadn't done in years), and often she would join me, trying her best to carry the same tune. We'd fill the room with our off-key but joyous duet. My vigorous arm movements over the kitchen sink would sometimes annoy her as she clung to a wildly swinging perch, and she'd peck at me in between desperate clutchings at my sleeve (or bare arm!).
On my shoulder, she often just sat there staring at me, unmoving for the longest time. She'd usually respond if I spoke to her, but I kept wondering (and asking her) what she was thinking, standing there eyeball to eyeball, her round, bright eye unfathomable.
There was a pride about her, as if she knew who she was. She was very clear about her boundaries; she wouldn't tolerate being touched. At first this put us off; Judith and I both love to touch and be touched, and we wanted to stroke her feathers, feel her wings (and sometimes wipe her dirty little claws). Only rarely did we do that. Once, we decided that her claws needed clipping, and Judith bought some special clippers. We managed to throw a light towel over her, turn her upside down, and do the job. Judith held her squirming feet and I managed to clip the sharp points off the claws, where they were threatening to curl around so that she could not have gripped a perch with them. If you wait too long, you have to clip too much, and they will bleed. We kept styptic powder ready, just in case, but it wasn't needed. Of course, she struggled and screamed at us the whole time.Another danger Judith was told about was blood feathers. Sometimes blood vessels leading to a feather will rupture, filling the stem with blood. If the feather falls out, or you try to remove it, the bird could bleed to death. We watched for them, but saw none.
Even though we were never allowed to touch her body or her wings or feet, if we were careful, we could sometimes stroke her head gently. She loved this, but it had to be done perfectly, or she would jerk away and snap at us. When she wanted this kind of stroking, she would approach your bent fingers and lower her head, just touching your hand, and wait for you to begin. (It didn't always mean she was going to allow you to do it for long, however.) If you ignored her, you stood a good chance of being nipped.
Her vision was remarkable. She seemed to be able to see straight ahead, but if she were examining something intently, she turned her head and looked straight out of one eye. I suspected that the resolving power of the center of her vision was greater, even though she didn't have three-dimensional perception like that.
When she pecked or bit, she was usually just getting your attention. Angry or hungry, she could hurt, although she never drew blood except if she were picking at a scab you might have on your skin. When she was playful, she'd nip my ear quickly and turn away. If I played with her, she'd sometimes peck me ever so gently to acknowledge my gesture. Her sense of humor delighted me. I swear she even made fun of us on occasion. If Judith and I got into an animated discussion in her presence, we'd soon hear her muttering as though to herself, imitating the sounds we made, chattering away, not knowing or caring whether any of it made any sense.
When we left her alone, sometimes she would brood afterward, wanting little to do with us. The next morning, she'd be her cheerful self again, anxious to be with us and talk to us, flying from one shoulder to the other.
We discovered she liked little cave-like places. On top of the microwave, there was a narrow space a couple inches high under the cabinets. She explored the opening to this cave, but never got the nerve to go inside very far. And when she wanted to be alone, she'd huddle in the far corner of her cage, next to an end of her cover that was always attached there. She had a basket on top of her cage, which she often hid inside, popping her head up over the edge when she heard a sound. The basket wasn't large enough for all of her to fit inside, so when she was nestled down in it, her tail always stuck up over the edge.
Usually she wanted to be out of her cage. If we weren't around, she'd stay on top of it, though, or climb on her "tree" or the pieces of rope Judith strung up for her. If we were expecting visitors, or wanted her in her cage for some other reason, we'd just hold out a finger—she seemed incapable (usually) of refusing to climb onto a curved finger—and transfer her to a perch inside the cage. Aware that she had been tricked, she would furiously ring her little cowbell that hung from a plastic chain.
The bell was her way of communicating with us when the cover was over her cage. She rarely sang or called when covered, but if she heard us talking, she'd bang on her bell, or climb to the top of the cage and shake the chain vigorously.
I'm referring to Chick as a female. We thought she was, at first, from the markings on her baby feathers, but later, different people said they thought she was male. Whether male or female, she was quite small for a cockatiel. I decided that her gender wasn't important to the relationship I had with her, not being a bird myself, so I've stuck with my own label. She never did lay eggs, however. The vet told us the only way to be sure was through a blood test, which costs $50, so we tabled the question indefinitely.
Judith placed a heavy bowl on top of her cage, really a mortar, in which she crushed seed "berries" she got from the pet shop. Chick often seemed to try to nestle down inside that bowl, which was obviously too small for her. I thought she might be trying to nest in it. But she did love to splash in a larger bowl of water, so I'm not sure. She may have thought she could get herself wet.
Judith took her into the shower with her when she was quite young, letting the spray bounce off her hand toward the bird. She loved it, and would spread her wings and fluff her feathers in order to get thoroughly wet. She'd do the same thing when you sprayed her with one of those plastic spray bottles. And with the hair dryer turned on her (very low), she'd do the same gyrations, drying her feathers.
Sometimes in those quiet moments Chick and I had together, I'd wonder what was going on in her head. She seemed somber, sometimes, just staring at me. And occasionally she'd have extended spells during which she would call softly, almost plaintively, over and over. At those times she didn't respond to us very much. I thought she might be hungry, but she didn't seem interested in food, either. If it was late in the day, I'd assume she was tired, and put her in her cage and cover her up (she always fought furiously at the cover whenever it was spread over the cage—she had a strong sense of her own territory).
Another thing that occurred to me at those times was the possibility that she might be maturing and needed to mate. Or perhaps she was physically uncomfortable somehow (do birds get stomach aches?).
There was something about her that I identified with, somehow. At times I felt a powerful sadness, that in some way linked me with her.
(from my journal, Feb 17, 1993)
To a small bird
We provide well for you. A spacious cage (larger than most, anyway. It is wider than your full wingspread, should you choose to open your arms wide to the air), its door usually open for you to explore your environment, the toys and the branches placed just so for you to climb on, free of the thin gold bars. Food and water always at hand, and special glued-together clumps of nutritious seeds, and cuttle-bone to give you calcium. And a sprig of your favorite millet.
We often play music for you, soft, new-age music, with bird sounds in the background that you can listen to to remind you what you are.
Several times a day (most days, anyway), we come and get you, allow you to perch on our shoulders (our clothing protected, of course, from your natural by-products) while we eat or talk or work. We love it when you talk to us, sometimes imitating our own sounds, sometimes trying to whistle our tunes. We let you move about on your funny little legs, up and down our arms, even onto the floor where you search for bits of food and play games with our feet. We're very careful of you when you're out, aware of your tiny, fragile body within inches of certain death should we forget.
You get along pretty well. Small for a cockatiel, yet healthy and quick. Beautiful feathers that you continually groom. Some, of course, are clipped. (We fear for your safety should you try to fly out the door to freedom sometime.)
We cover your cage at night, shrouding you with semidarkness so that you can rest. They say you need twelve hours of sleep.
Yet you seem . . . needy. When you hear us talking in the next room, you call for us. You want company. You want to see people, be among living creatures. Once or twice in your lifetime we've let you experience another creature like yourself, in the same room with another cockatiel for a weekend while we were out of town. Carefully separated by cage bars, of course. One of you might attack the other -- alien brother, offended by intrusion, unrecognized kin. You watch each other through bars, suspicious.
Amazing how many human traits you have - more imitation, or shared through an evolution of natural living? Sometimes sullen and snappish, sometimes playful, sometimes seeming to be affectionate, perching close to our face, sharing body warmth. Sometimes wanting to be stroked - just the head, carefully with a fingertip. Never touch your body, though, you tell us emphatically and angrily. And stroke just so, or you object with a shriek. Sometimes frightened by a sudden movement outside the window, that sends your wisp of a crest straight up, you neck stretched out full, as you hide behind any convenient cover (a few times you've panicked, terrorized by some sound or shape, and tried to fly to safety, even when safely closed in your cage).
I don't know how to love you. I try to watch and listen, moving tentatively toward you. I wonder why you don't know that I want only to please you, and I'm distressed when you bite my caressing finger.
I think we have a lot in common. I feel your loneliness, your ache to belong, your sensing of something that you need but cannot name. Freedom seems available - it isn't that.
Flying doesn't seem to be it, either. Yes, mostly your wings are clipped, your flight feathers amputated (for your own good). But they grow back, blooming flowers of life. It takes you weeks to realize your growing power, your connection with the Universe, the thing that makes you you. First, it's by accident, instinctively breaking your fall from someone's shoulder, fluttering to the floor without the jarring thump you felt soon after your wings were clipped. Then one day, in a burst of enthusiasm, you fly to a shoulder, just because you want to, just because your desire to connect overcame your knowledge that you can't.
We humans continually search for our "true selves," strive to be true to our nature, whatever that is. Something sacred calls us to try to know how we fit into it all, what we're "supposed" to be, what we have a right to be. Still we use each other for our own, lesser, needs. "The divine in each of us" we proclaim, while we complain about being slighted or ignored or worse by other "divine" creatures. We abolished slavery of humans, recognizing officially the equality of each person.
Pretty slave bird, here to make us feel good, to let us experience "nature" somehow, to feel we belong, to enjoy the beauty of other creatures in our own way, even if it means you can't be you, can't use your wings to fly far, far away, to know why you are here.
And I'd wonder, is there more here than what I see, a little bird with a brain the size of a pea, who chirps and eats and struts around sometimes, and sometimes flies around the room or climbs down your pants leg. Are we doing right by this beautiful little creature? We certainly care a lot for her, and treat her gently, and feed her regularly. She is pretty lucky, isn't she?
If she were to get outside, she'd surely perish, if not soon, then when winter set in. It's not likely that she would migrate, considering that her ancestors came from Australia. She might adopt a family, but since she never lets anyone touch her, that isn't too likely, either.
So when she flew away, I was horrified.
(from my journal July 23, 1993)
Sitting atop a stereo tuner in my office is a model airplane, almost finished. I dug it out, partly constructed, from a box of relics of former lives I've led, and have been working on it a few minutes at a time for several weeks. Its wingspan is about six inches, and it's painted yellow and black with silver wings. A little while ago I couldn't help lifting it to eye level and turning it this way and that, transforming it into my fantasy of many years, flying over the countryside, feeling the wind, feeling the freedom of flight.
An hour ago I walked out onto the deck in back of the house, a cup of cappuccino in each hand—and our cockatiel perched on my shoulder. It was a thoughtless moment, relaxing from work on a beautiful, mild summer afternoon, and as she lifted off my shoulder I caught my breath in disbelief. Chirping, she circled up and up, keeping me in sight, flying as she had never flown before.
I whistled for her, over and over, trying to give her a homing beacon, for I knew well how different the world looks from the air. I knew she would soon be hopelessly lost, even if it would occur to her to want to return. But soon she was gone, over the trees, and my whistling only reminded me of my utter stupidity. I walked down the street in the direction she had flown, hoping that perhaps she would have tired quickly and come back down to earth, down to the known world, down to where she might recognize me and perch again (as she had hundreds of times) on my shoulder and do her little dance and cry, lifting her shoulders and ducking her head, clucking and singing. She had special calls for Judith and me, and a little shriek of joy when she recognized either of us arriving from outside or stirring in the morning.
She hated to be caged, although when she was tired or disgruntled over being left alone, she would withdraw into the far corner of her cage and dare anyone to come near. Any hand that then approached was pecked furiously.
And she loved people. Visitors always were welcomed by a flutter of white wings, little pink claws lightly clutching one's shoulder, a large, inquisitive eye gazing steadily at you, a little peck at an earlobe or necklace—or, joy of all joys, an earring. When she sensed that we were about to return her to her cage (not all visitors took to fluttering birds), she would fly around the room, keeping just out of reach, until finally she would relent and again seek out her favorite landing spot, someone's shoulder. From that viewpoint she looked you straight in the eye, and shared whatever she felt at the moment. Never did she act like a captive when she was out of her cage. We had decided long ago not to clip her wings again. Acknowledging the risk that if she ever got outside we might never see her again, we felt that she was a different creature with all her faculties, proud and strong.
But now she was gone. I went inside and cried, then went out again, walking the streets of the neighborhood on the faint chance I'd see her somewhere, flitting between trees, or perched on somebody's roof, singing her song.
My imagination went from "maybe she'll simply fly down somewhere and perch on another shoulder, asking for a handout" to "she'll surely die within days—she doesn't know how to forage for food, and she'll fall prey to a hawk, an easy, very visible target." I knew she'd never let anyone catch her. She would never tolerate anyone touching her, except a single finger gently stroking her head—and then only if she were in the mood, and if we touched her exactly right. (Judith was much more skilled at it than I, and I was often bitten, not hard, but clearly reminded that I had overreached her boundaries.)
No, she was gone. Prepared for the world or not, she was free. Whatever her fate, she had at least known that wonderful moment of spreading her wings and lifting easily into the wind, watching her old world shrink into the distance, feeling the limitless sky.
My little airplane sits silently, its propeller still, its wheels locked in place with glue. To the eye, it seems poised for flight. Never, though, would it soar into the air, calling to the wind, circling and climbing, until it was out of sight.
(from my journal, later that same day, July 23, 1993)
The image keeps coming back to me, of the bird flying away, circling the yard, then higher and farther until she disappeared over the trees, calling all the while. My feelings at the time were "I can't believe this is happening. I don't want this to be happening."
It seemed that she was calling "good-bye" over and over, not with malice, perhaps with regret. I thought that she didn't know what she was doing, that I had to somehow protect her from what would result in her certain death.
Talk about letting your kids go (I think I missed out on that with my children, since it was I who had left). As she flew, I kept whistling after her, but I really wanted to scream at her come back!
And I remembered the many times I'd wondered if keeping a bird in a house, mostly in a cage, was consistent with my ethical values. I'd rationalized it as her only way to live, since she could not possibly survive long on her own. She had been bred from generations of caged birds, and even her ancestors had come from Australia, a place where they never learned how to live in the cold. We had decided not to have her wings clipped again (after one time last year), and I had rejoiced seeing an occasional clipped feather discarded on the floor as she gradually replaced all those mutilated (guilt-ridden) feathers with new, full, beautiful flight feathers. And seeing her spread her wings out full, as she often did in a preening gesture, gave me warm feelings of gratitude for such a beautiful creature in our home.
Of course, Judith reminded me, even birds with clipped wings sometimes fly away, and their fate is much more questionable than hers. And we related stories to each other of birds who were killed even in homes of loving care (from flying into ceiling fans, or falling into scalding pots in the kitchen).
We carried her cage out onto the deck, so that just in case she returned to the area, she would have a familiar object to come to. And we'd look out the window now and then, hoping to see the perky little crest sticking up out of the basket she used to love to hide in. There was an enormous hole in the living room where the cage had stood, in the center of our family (and even business) activity.
I soundly chastised myself for my act of thoughtlessness in carrying her outside. At times I wanted to beat myself. I thought of people I had heard about who committed suicide after doing something that caused someone great harm (and the pilot in Catch 22 who deliberately crashed his plane after beheading a man in an attempted joke).
Now, five or six hours later, the absolute despair is less. I managed to eat dinner, and we ran some errands in the car. I've read the paper, and I'm conscious of a dread in the corners of my mind, an unwillingness to think more about it.
July 24, 1993 9:00 am
I've been here before—my breakfast a lump of lead in my stomach, a tight rubber band constricting my throat, a tendency to stare into space. I set up my old tape deck, and am playing Powaqqatsi. (The first piece, full of gaiety and tinkling, its irony in the film is lost on me now. The main theme, driving, solemn, fits my mood better.
I'm trying (not very hard) to not think of the bird. At breakfast it was tough, for she was a big part of the beginning of my day. I set aside her two shredded wheat biscuits, which she always ate from my hand, and put them in the dish on top of her cage, still on the back deck waiting "just in case" for her return. Then I used the hand vacuum to clean up seeds and feathers from the place in the living room where her cage had stood, and washed the droppings from the wall. The couch has been moved to take up some of the gaping hole in the room.
Last night Judith and I took turns crying and holding each other. She brought up the idea of getting another bird immediately, to fill the void. I said I wasn't ready to talk about it yet, but I was having thoughts about whether it is right to cage a wild creature. There's part of me that recognizes the bird's right to freedom, that acknowledges the horror of confining another creature for my own pleasure. Judith heard me, but said nothing more about it. She went right to sleep, but I lay awake for a long time.
July 25, 1993 5:15 am
Awakened when Judith came back to bed from a trip to bathroom...
She told me it was raining, a gentle rain. Thought of bird.
Found myself in an imaginary conversation with someone. "She was company for me at mealtimes, when Judith was busy working."
I got up to go to the bathroom, realized that it was true—and significant. My loneliest times have been at mealtimes, and Judith has been preoccupied lately, often eating on the run, perhaps at her desk, but even when she joined me at the table she has often cut short our time together to return to her work.
I have never enjoyed eating alone. In a restaurant, I feel much more alone than at other times. As a boy, I remember, my family always ate meals together (although Dad was away a lot, the rest of us did). The bird was my companion at meals, and I enjoyed including her in the rituals I developed. Yesterday, my first morning since she left, I was so aware of the rituals—sharing my cereal, collecting two biscuits of spoon-size shredded wheat from my bowl before putting milk on it, and standing over the sink so she could eat them from my hand before I ate myself.
Yesterday afternoon as Judith and I emerged from the grocery store it was raining a little. The wind was blowing, and I hurried to get into the car before getting soaked, and I thought of the bird, huddled under some inadequate shelter, cold, with her feathers fluffed , her head pulled down into her body, her beak all but invisible, shifting her weight against the gusts of wind, trying to "just get through it." I was close to tears as we drove home, and gratified to notice that the rain was local, the streets being dry in our neighborhood. Later, Judith said that she, too, had thought of her when it was raining.
Last evening we had guests for dinner, who offered their sympathy for our loss, and I shared my experience of watching the bird fly away. I'm aware that it's a topic I will reiterate for some time, at least to people I can trust with my feelings. I thought of making it part of tomorrow's service, an acknowledgment of the loss and a prayer (!) for the bird's safety and well-being.
I think a lot of this sorrow is about being abandoned. The thought of a ceremony for the bird instantly brought up old memories and the grief of those times, which I had thought was long since put to rest. I've wondered, in the past two days, if the bird's leaving of her own volition, rather than for example being killed, is a significant aspect of my feelings. Perhaps it ties into the melancholy I've been experiencing lately, that seems to be focused on Judith being unavailable so much of the time. I'm also aware that the intensity of my feelings has been much greater than anything I felt around the time of Mom's dying. Perhaps this experience has allowed pent-up grief to reach the surface.
I remember an incident when I was about three, when my mother's parents were visiting us, and we were sitting in the living room. Granddad was smoking a cigar, and apparently I was intrigued with it, so he allowed me to take a couple of puffs. I became ill, and I remember my mother asking me how I felt and I moaned, "I'm lonesome." It was a little joke between Mom and me for years afterward, but I wonder if it might also have been a symptom, perhaps related to the crying spells of those early years, when I'd cry in my bed for apparently no reason.
July 28, 1993
I awoke this morning with the stanzas of a poem running through my head. About the bird, each verse describing some little detail of what she did with us, and the last line repeating, like Sandberg's poem about Lincoln, And she lifted softly from my shoulder and flew away.
For a few minutes I went with it, formulating the words, feeling the loss all over again.
And it's clearer to me that all this is about being left.
I wish I could remember where it began! Why did I lie in my bed at four years old and cry? Why have I spent my life protecting myself from being abandoned? Helpless, little, panicked about being alone.
I used to think the worst thing I could experience was jealousy. As a teen-ager, watching from a distance Ethel Hurd feeding Ron McNelty a hamburger, and feeling wild, wanting to scream, then sick, my insides turned to lead. A few years later, watching Pat walk past me in the darkened theater, this girl I barely knew but for whom I had fallen, and feeling that same sick, panicked feeling.
At fifty I thought I had grown out of it. I thought I had finally grown up and was no longer vulnerable to that crazy jealousy. Then Sharon told me she loved someone else, and my facade crumbled like a sand castle in the surf, and there I was again, ten times worse than ever before, my worst fears realized!
In therapy after that experience, I figured out that it was not "jealousy" but fear of abandonment. And it all made sense, except that I could not remember its source. Somewhere in my tender years, some time perhaps not long before those bedtime crying spells, the fear had been aroused, shattering my security for a lifetime, leaving a scar on my personality that never fully healed.
How could a bird affect me so much, cute as she was, funny little Charlie Chaplin walk, mysterious gaze into my face, breathtaking beauty, carefully guarded boundaries, disarming vulnerability. I thought she loved me—and she left. Intimate friend, who kept me company during lonely meals, who played with me and sang to me and walked all over me and danced on my shoulder. She just lifted softly from my shoulder and flew into the sky, calling to me all the while, I can't help myself, but I must fly!
And I must live again that panic, that helpless, little-boy terror, that wild agony of abandonment.
I'm a grown man. I have infinite power. The love of my life lies beside me every night, and cares about my fears and my tears and my victories and defeats, One who is vulnerable to me, who would herself be shattered if I left or died, One who brings joy to my days, and understanding, and hope.
I do not fear death. I have nothing to fear, as someone said, but fear, itself. I am a proven success, I can write, I can feel, I can reason. I should be able to figure this out. Once I've done that, I will feel it no more.
July 31, 1993 4:15 am
I just awoke from a dream—a fragment of an old, old dream, one I had repeatedly as a child (when?), and one that was uncomfortable enough that I fought it off just now. I did not want that dream. But I cannot recall what it was about, only that it was familiar and that it was dreaded.
When I awoke, I was not upset, but I knew I had come close to something powerful and feared. Enough so that I want to remember that I had almost dreamed it again, but had pulled back.
Perhaps it contains some clue to my recent sorrow, my apprehensions. Perhaps all this recent emotion has stirred up that dream, and maybe some other clues with it. Maybe I will dream it again. The thought scares me, yet the possibility of discovery intrigues me.
Writing this might at least mark the experience in my unconscious, leave a flag for me to find it again.
That's all. I am not really wide awake, my mind seems calm. I think I can sleep again.
Remembering those awful days, I have an image of Chick suddenly discovering what she was made for. As much as it hurts, part of me rejoices for her. I imagine that her moodiness, her whimpering, was a mourning for her lost freedom, which she felt in her soul, not having seen the sky ever before, not having felt the infinite wind under her wings, not ever having looked across the treetops to the horizon. When she gazed unblinking into my eyes, I imagine her trying to tell me that she longed to be free. However bonded to Judith and me, however much she enjoyed being with people, her soul told her she was chained, enslaved to the pleasures of alien beings. She had seldom seen any other members of her kind, and then it was through two sets of bars. If it was the powerful urgings to mate that troubled her, to be what she was and to pass on the slender strand of life given to her, to feed her own offspring and watch them one day fly into the wind, she could not speak the words to me.
And so I struggle inside myself. If I am to be true to the best that is within me, how can I consider enslaving another creature? What justification is powerful enough to overcome the horror of chaining a living creature down to a life in which its very being is stifled, just because I enjoy hearing it sing or watching it flutter (pathetically) inside a man-made prison? How can I pursue the limits of my soul, when I deny another creature the same privilege? How can I try to stretch my perception of my connection with other life, with the universe itself, when I confine another being?
And the question inevitably begs another: under what standard can I presume that I am privileged to decide what creatures are better than others, which should survive and which should perish? How can I kill, or cause to be killed, another creature so that I may nourish my body on his flesh?
Of course, you say, it seems cruel. But that is how life exists, and has always existed. There are the eaters and the eaten, and for the most part every creature suffers both in its span of time here. No creature is immortal, and no creature can live except as it destroys some other life.
What is the principle of selection who is to live and who is to die? Who is to be eaten, and by whom?
I know I'm not the first one to ask these questions. And I'm not the first to push them, time after time, to the far corners of my mind so that I can go on doing what everybody else is doing and not clutter my consciousness with thoughts I cannot comprehend.
If all life is an evolutionary struggle towards complexity, toward some cosmic image of perfection, and those elements of life survive that carry the image onward, then natural selection is less a strategy than a challenge—when will we ever learn?
Perhaps the pinnacle will be reached when the survivors figure out how to survive, how to grow, without killing. Perhaps as we expand our awareness, we will discover how to provide ourselves with the nutrients we need to continue, without taking the lives of other creatures.
We probably know how to do it already. Our souls merely have to catch up with our technology.
Donald Skiff August 1, 1993
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