Earlier this fall we were walking home from a friend's house after sunset. I was third in line behind my girls, and we were enjoying the night, the slight chill, the dark. We rounded the corner to our street and Eliza playfully swatted at an evergreen branch that was hanging low. Seconds later I was stumbling over something pillowy that bounced between my feet as I tried to slow myself down. It took me a moment to puzzle it out: had the branch fallen? were these needles swirling around my feet? wait, is this a cloud of feathers? before I discovered the soft body of a bird. My heart went to my stomach and hers went to the bird. Mama, we have to help it, I think it's still living. Me wanting to move on, uncomfortable on a physical level with the feeling I'd just had of my body colliding with what must be a wounded or very ill bird.
I stood there, paralyzed and nauseous, as she scooped it up, cooing to it, and found it a comfortable spot where it would be safe from passing feet, underneath a tree. She did not want to leave it there. Even if it were going to die, she wanted to be with it. I could only imagine trying to bring it home, scaring it further, trying to negotiate the cats, making our night difficult. What I told myself was that it should die peacefully, not surrounded by people-smells, but by earth and night. What I was feeling was some sort of shame.
I lay there that night, thinking of my girl's big heart and of my mine, small in that moment. I felt sad that I hadn't been able to make space for her to tend to that bird, but I didn't feel any answers or clarity about how I could have met her partway. I had dug in, sorry for the bird but more than reluctant to bring it into our lives, even for an evening. It isn't ours to save is what I think I said. We talked about death and nature and she sobbed herself to sleep.
In the morning there was a note when I woke up: I've gone to check the bird. It had died in the night, as I thought it would, but it had not been disturbed from the spot she'd made for it. We hoped that it died peacefully, with the smell of pine.
Yesterday I was chopping vegetables for dinner when I saw a chickadee on the ground outside the window, in our driveway. It was one of "our" chickadees that eats at our feeder a couple hundred times a day. It or its ancestors has been "our bird" for the past few years, as chickadees are often the hardy stalwarts who hang in there when the temperatures drop. I love this chickadee. I saw it flopping a bit and wondered if a neighbor cat had gotten it for a moment? Then it fell over on its side. I barked at Eliza, "I need your help" and I ran out the back door. It didn't fight me when I scooped it up, and I cupped it in my hands. My heart was pounding and I focused as much warmth into my hands as I could while I checked it over, watching its little mouth open in a pant, and its bright black eyes blink blink blink. I remembered when a starling had been hit by a bike in front of the house, and was stunned, we learned to put it in a paper bag to offer protection while it gathered strength to fly. Eliza got to making a bag, this one with a rock to hold it in place in the wind, and leaves to offer some warmth. Ani ran to get some bird seed in case it was hungry.
It was all I could do to keep from putting my warm mouth on the tiny bird, for a kiss.
It sat in the bag for only a minute and then flew. It's been back many times since to eat at the feeder and chirrup hello. I wonder if it knows who we are? That the warm hands live on the other side of the window?
I feel as though I should be wrapping this up with some lesson I've learned, but there isn't one. I feel as though I'm still exploring that stark place between "ours" and "not mine to deal with", and it is uncomfortable and dark. The bird surfaced in a poetry writing workshop I attended last month and I got stuck on a few moments: The bird, tumbling between my feet, is a feeling I wish I could erase from my sense-memory. The cloud of feathers, barely visible in the light, having their own movement, their slow settling to the sidewalk, the visual equivalent of my thoughts slowly landing and forming the picture of what had just happened. Reaching out my hands to cup the bird, and drawing back, twice, realizing I did not have the courage to hold something so wounded. Eliza's passion and courage, picking it up without hesitation, ready to offer everything she had to help.
November. It is still November and here I am, still writing!