Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ode to the Birds Who, Until Yesterday, Were Thriving Atop My Exterior Light

(Disclaimer:  this post has nothing to do with anarchocapitalism, libertarianism, or why it's useless to vote this November for president even if you're not an anarchist.  Sometimes, I just has to writes.)

The nest was empty.

I had heard a crow caw, and thought, oh my God, the babies.

An enterprising robin had, about 10 days ago, built a lovely nest of twigs, mud, used band-aids and string on top of the light that goes on automatically at night, on the outside wall of my apartment.  Maybe she was lured there in part by the chattering of my own cockatiels, exactly on the other side of the wall from the light.  Or maybe it was just the warmth.  Every early morning when I got home from work I stood on my tip toes and looked as far as I could into the nest without disturbing her.  I watched her sit, completely still, night after night, as she set on her eggs.  Then one night, maybe 4 or 5 days ago, I could see little beaks way open, reaching up over the edge of the nest, hoping no doubt for a midnight snack.  Mama stood in the nest, still as usual, not even blinking, like a guard at Buckingham Palace.  Each day there was more activity, and night before last the hatchlings were strong enough to peak over the edge of the nest, curious.  I took pictures.  They didn't seem to mind.

Then,  there was the crow.

To be fair, I don't know if the crow was the culprit.  But I was sitting at my computer, a few feet from the spot where the nest sits, with the window open when I heard that caw, which gave me a chill.  And as I ran outside, the crow seemed to be diving from the nest to the ground and then away into the air.  I don't know if he carried any of the robins in his claws, or even if that is what crows do.  I prayed as I approached the nest, Oh, God, please.  Those babies.  Those precious babies.  It was empty, of course.  I wept.  

The first time I think I ever encountered the death of a scentient being I loved was when my grandmother's border collie died.  I think I was about eight, ten at the most.  My mom had brought me, and maybe my sisters too, for one of our frequent visits to Giggie's house (the name Giggie for grandmother is a long story.  If someone really wants to hear it, I'll tell them).  As we exited the car, there was a strange sight over the hill that led to the swamp south of my grandparents' grandmother runing to calling out in a desperate way for the dog, who I knew from forever, and the dog was dragging her jaw on the ground and looked like she was eating gravel.  "Tammy!" Giggie was shouting.  "Oh, Tammy!"  I had no idea what was going on.

When my grandmother reached the dog, she fell down and held her and sobbed. "Gid!" yelled my grandmother, using one of her several nicknames for my grandfather.  "Please, get out here!  Tammy is sick!"  As my mom sat me, or us, back in the car and told me to wait, and then walked quickly over to Giggie (still holding Tammy).  Giggie's voice became softer as she talked to my mom and then my grandfather, who had run to see what was the matter.

It gets fuzzy after that.  I don't remember if Tammy was dead right then or if my grandfather got the old shotgun out of the bedroom closet and shot her so she would stop suffering.  Later Giggie would recover well enough to bring us in and focus her attention on us.  Which I think was one of her favorite pasttimes.  Maybe it took her mind off it.

But I was a little dazed.  Our own dog was put to sleep a few years before, but I had no idea;  I drove with him and mom to the Humane Society and she said that the dog had to go away because the neighbor kid, who loved to torture him, had gotten bit by him twice.  "He's going to go to another family."  She outright lied, but I guess I'm glad she did.  Her heart was broken, it was so unfair; but she sort of cushioned it for us.  It wasn't until I was an adult that I figured out the truth.  (My mom was like that.  For years I thought that Red Riding Hood and her grandmother were locked in a closet by the big bad wolf, not eaten).  

When we arrived and saw Tammy in that state, and Giggie in that state, something became horribly real to me.  I had got in the habit of watching the "Sir Graves Ghastly" movies that ran every Saturday afternoon, science fiction with machines conquering the earth and chasing humans, mummies that rose from their tombs.  I liked the feeling of being a little scared, then remembering it was all actors and make-up and I was safe and sound with mom and my cousin and sister (dad maintained he was scared of movies like that, and the baby was too little to pay attention), huddling together on our couch and shrieking and giggling at the scary parts.  My cousin played a sort of early MST3K role.  "If everybody's dead, who's playing the organ?" he asked once during an apocalyptic film, totally cracking us up.  They say finding humor in macabre art is a defense we have against the fear that, even if the events in the film aren't real now, maybe they could be real, later. (Maybe that's why I will choose the MST3K version of old sci fi DVDs over the originals). 

But Tammy wasn't actors and make-up.  Although I didn't think about her much when I wasn't at my grandparents' house, she was alive and breathing.  She had a personality.  And Giggie's reaction, from a woman whose only emotion I had observed was jollity and exuberance, stabbed at me.  Not that she did anything wrong...I don't think she even knew we had arrived, at the time.  But this somehow was more real than the playfulness and lovingkindness sometimes was.  It was raw and clearly not a mask for something else (I think in hindsight), and it was pain unbridled.

So partly out of empathy for Giggie, and partly out of the shock of realizing something or someone you expected to be there forever was gone, I sort of dissociated, feeling that life around me had changed somehow.  The sight of Tammy dragging her mouth through the gravel grounded the idea of death for me, like Helen Keller connecting "water" with the sign language for the word as Ann Sullivan forced her to spell it under the pump stream.  It is real.  It makes its mark on the dying, on those of us who survive it.

I bounced back relatively soon after that loss...maybe even the next day.  I have lost many people I held dear since then.  At their wakes and funerals, I felt raw, not in control of my emotions, like when I spontaneously cried, "Daddy!" and slumped to the ground as I saw my father's body in the casket....decades after the last time I called him "daddy."  And the pain was hard and long and stubborn, reaching inside me to wrench out my guts just when I thought I'd been able to pick myself up and start to walk on.   Life changed a little after each loss, and I got older, envisioning my own last years, shuddering to think I'm only eight years younger than my dad was when he died.

And you feel some growth there, eventually.  Death stops being something that only exists in make-believe and becomes real, but also a natural part of the cycle of life.  For a Christian, especially, hopefulness of the loved one's peace and our eventual reunion, death opens the door not only to our loss but incredible joy and transcendence.  I thought about that aspect of death, too, yesterday.  I tried to remember that crows and hawks and anything else that preys on robins need to eat, too.  For heaven's sake, I'm actually eating chicken right now, protected from the awfulness of the slaughterhouse and thus able to desensitize myself to any of the chicken's suffering, which may have been as great as the baby birds'.  

But something unusual, something like losing Giggie's dog, struck me hard yesterday when I saw the empty nest where the day before three hatchlings who couldn't possibly be able to fly were peaking over the edge. I went through all the stages of grief, sort of lingering a long time at bargaining.  I should have done something, I told myself. Maybe I could have brought the nest in the apartment.  If I'd been paying attention I could have shooed the crow...or whoever the perpetrator was...far away.  Maybe they'll come back.  Maybe mom is just teaching them to fly....but it's been over twenty-four hours now.  

I guess the mother had built her nest where she did to keep it as far out of the vision of predators as she could.  I live in a two story building on the first floor, and above me and my exterior light and the nest is the balcony for all the people upstairs.  And it makes me angry that she worked so hard to start that family, sitting so still, night after night, on the eggs, guarding the trembling, open mouthed hatchlings, only to have it be destroyed a few days later.  Had she been away searching for food when it happened, and hasn't come back to the nest out of her own confusion and unsteadiness?  Or did she die trying bodily to protect her young?   

I hate that damned old crow.

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