Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
For the Birds
This morning my cockatiel Daisy died. I’ve been worried about her for weeks. She’d been falling off her perch and landing on the bottom of her cage. Her right wing hadn’t worked very well for the past couple of years. When I’d let her out to fly around, she’d soar upward and then wind up drifting quickly to the floor. Eventually I’d just pick her up and put her back in the cage after she’d walked around a bit. And most recently, I didn’t take her out very often. She was definitely a geriatric bird although I have no idea how old Daisy really was – she’d been found outside by a friend who was a cockatiel lover.
Our first cocktail, Lily Peaches, was also a found bird. I think well-meaning owners bring their tropical birds outside in summer for a taste of the wild life and wind up forgetting to lock their cage doors. So off they go. Someone who worked for my husband found Lily walking down the street. That person couldn’t afford a cage big enough for her, and as my husband remembered that I’d grown up loving a family cockatiel named “X,” he surprised me with her one day. She was a beautiful yellow bird with bright orange marks by her ears. Affectionate and loving, she spent most of her time out of her cage, with free run – er, flight of our upstairs. Our collie, Flash, a big sweet boy, was completely intimidated by plucky Lily.
She’d land on his back or stroll up to him as he lay on the floor. Flash’s gentle temperament would never allow for an attack on any other animal. Because he wasn’t aggressive, our guard was down when a neighbor dog came over for a doggie play date. The two ran upstairs and though we figured things out fast, it was too late for Lily who met her ignominious death in the jaws of a predator. Oh, the innocence of the unsuspecting. What a dreadful experience. Flash had completely disarmed Lily.
That was a day when I realized I was really an adult because I didn’t immediately hate the owners of the Husky who was just being its natural self.
Sometimes it’s the unexpected moments that make you look at where you are in this life. Then along came Daisy. A friend who had his own cockatiel had found her wandering outside. When he tried to introduce her to his own resident bird, that one had a powerful negative reaction to the invader. He knew we were partial to birds so all was good when he offered her to us. The problem with these rescued animals is that you have no idea how old they are and what their previous life experiences were.
I always figured that Daisy had a male owner. She clearly preferred Michael’s company to mine. When she heard him come home after work, she’d trumpet away until he came to greet her. While he was teaching, he planned his classes upstairs every night in his study which was adjacent to the room where Daisy lived. Invariably, she’d emerge from her cage and fly to Michael’s shoulder as he worked away. His shirt shoulders were often covered in bird droppings but they both liked the companionship.
Eventually Michael, a guy who never met a piece of wood he didn’t like, built her perches from branches that he mounted and kept on his desk. When she wasn’t sitting on him, she preened herself on those. Although it’s likely purely coincidental, periodically she poofed her feathers out while sitting on him and laid eggs. He’d find them on himself or right below his chair. Did she think he was her mate? Hard to say. Pet life is so interesting.
After Michael died, Daisy accepted me as her person. She even got to the point when she laid eggs around me. Living with birds stemmed back to my childhood. There was the cockatiel “X” and a bunch of parakeets, Charlie, Little Man and Candy, along with a lovebird named Pearl. Our daughter got her first budgie, Charlotte, when she was seven. She walked around with that bird clutched in her hand and often at bedtime, we’d see movement under her covers as she tried to sneak an illicit sleepover with her little companion. My mom had a gorgeous parakeet after my dad died. Some people find them uninteresting, but my family had the avian bug. My grandsons, ages five and eight, got their first bird last year.
So what about these pets? As I buried Daisy today in our yard which is filled with the remains of hamsters, guinea pigs, birds and dog ashes, I am amazed that I’ve continued to bring home animals who will ultimately break my heart. As I watched Daisy die right in front of me, I was glad to utter words of comfort to her as her life ebbed away. But at the same time, I felt exhausted and sad. This was not my first rodeo. Violet, the dog I adopted after Michael’s death, is now ten and I have no notion of how long she’ll be around. Lately I’ve been thinking that I’m reaching the end of my pet-owning life. After all the people deaths I’ve endured, I don’t know how many more of these animal ones I can manage. Our birds lived with us for a combined thirty years, along with the canines, fish and little mammals who were always around. Each life brought into the house is another emotional commitment. They limit the freedom of being able to pick up and travel. They need attention and mindfulness, always. I’ve spent my whole life with animals. I even snuck them into my dorm when I was in college. I’m wondering if that part of my life needs to stop, after Violet makes her exit. Will I be physically able to give an animal what it needs and deserves as I age? Should I be more selfish with my time as what’s ahead for me is certainly less than what’s behind me? Being responsible for living things is a choice. Am I ready to change? Because watching death over and over is for the birds. Stay tuned.