Monday, March 26, 2007

A rare bird

I suspect the bird had been dead for several days. Long enough, at least, for it to have attracted a steady stream of ants, staking their morbid claim to the little mound of flesh and feathers in the gutter. I’m not sure which neighborhood child found it first, but soon there was a stream of them as well, congregating around the most exciting thing to show up in the cul-de-sac for months. Ethan, my oldest and also the resident bird lover, leaned in to took a closer look. “A female robin,” he said with a note of regret.

With the kind of passion for a CAUSE that only a pack of children could produce, they began planning for the robin’s funeral. There was no question of leaving it in the gutter. The bird, who had by now acquired a name (Birdie) and the status of a fallen war hero, deserved a more dignified fate than that. Nature had thrown a child-sized tragedy into their path and only they could make it right. The grownups were too tall to have seen the bird lying there, too busy to do anything about it, and too grownup to care.

The kids formed an ad-hoc committee, made the arrangements and collected the supplies, slowed down only by periodic snack breaks and heated debates over the various earth-shatteringly important details. Ethan carefully scooped the robin up with a shovel, ceremoniously slid her body in a coffin (an empty potato salad tub) and sealed it tightly with a generous wrapping of masking tape.

Had Ethan’s older friends been around, I’m guessing he may have felt too self-conscious to participate – the need for “coolness” winning out over his genuine sense of sympathy for the bird and the excitement of the moment. But in the eyes of his younger brothers and their friends, he was the leader, the mission commander, and the holder of the answers and the shovel. He conducted the funeral ceremony where each child took turns offering a few dramatic words in honor of the dear departed. I offered to walk down with them to an open field where they could bury the coffin.

We formed a solemn procession: kids with shovels, a few on bikes, the hearse (a red Radio-Flyer edition) and one mom, with baby in stroller, pulling up the rear. Later, when I told the story to my neighbor, I had a hard time describing the scene. Was it funny? Was it sad? Were my emotions just stirred up from remembering similar missions of mercy from my own childhood? How is it that as I watched them dig the hole and put the bird to rest I was both amused by the absurd drama of it all and envious at the same time? “It’s too bad you didn’t have your camera” said my neighbor. “You could have videotaped the whole thing.”

I’m glad I didn’t have my camera. I think for good reason people don’t typically film funerals and interment ceremonies – something about reverence for the dead and respect for the living. But I also know that recording the scene would have spoiled it. It touched me because it was real, spontaneous, unaffected. Had I pulled out the camera, the kids would have been performing, whether they knew it or not. For the sake of authentication, the moment would have lost all authenticity. Did you know that in order to paint, describe and catalog, in detail, the distinguishing characteristics of the birds of North America, John James Audubon had to shoot them first? One of his biographers wrote: "The rarer the bird, the more eagerly he pursued it, never apparently worrying that by killing it he might hasten the extinction of its kind." As the only adult guest at a burial for a dead bird, I learned a lesson that Audubon never understood: sometimes you should let the rare ones fly.

Harlequin Ducks by John James Audubon

13 comments:

Em said...

Every time I read one of your posts I think "this is my favorite one yet!" I love this post. It is perfect.

I think I will give up blogging and just read your blog instead... I truly think you have a book in you waiting to come out.

meno said...

The best description of an animal funeral i have ever read.

I resent the intrusion of the camera into every scene in our lives. No one else seems to understand why. But i see that you do.

Dedee said...

You made me think, again. I've been feeling the press of not only cameras, but electronics into my life. My dh bought me a blue tooth the other day and now I'm starting to feel the contrary feelings of wanting it on all the time in case someone calls versus feeling like a Borg. I struggle to not answer my phone. The computer and all things bloggical call me from my office. These things help me so much, but I wonder at times how much they are taking up my life. Thanks for reminding me that I need to leave the camera home, turn the blue tooth off and close the computer. Moments like this are so important, and yet so easily missed.

Kimberly said...

The bittersweetness that is life...

When I read a post like that I can't help thinking I'd gladly buy a book full of them. Small snapshots of reality. A precious commodity indeed.

An Ordinary Mom said...

My favorite memories of childhood are when I experienced life to the fullest. I want to make sure my kids grow up having spontaneous, fun and growing experiences like this, too.

Chanel said...

your writing makes the simplest events incredible. You have some amazing insight!! I agree about a book, you're something rare, the ability to bring us with you and make us want to be there.
RIP little bird.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

The only fowl species I want to see added to the extinction list is "A Flock Of Seagulls." When I heard they were still together, I was like, "Whaaaaaaat??!!??"

We bury dead things in dollar store Rubbermaid-knockoff containers around here. Well, that is if we can catch the deceased before our dog Reagan eats the carcass. He saves us a lot in funeral expenses.

Geo said...

We had a front yard flower bed funeral for our very old cat earlier this year, and the little children who live next door and loved our pet with bagels and jam were in attendance. One of those children has a disease that will cut his life short while he is still green, and so thoughts of death are ever-present in their household. I think it was good for them to be with us, and to talk about death in that kind of a simple, if slightly odd, setting. Thanks for your sensitive post. I loved it.

Lynn said...

How fortunate for you, that you were there to witness the events unfold...and how fortunate for the children present that you did not try to take-over or control the situation.

eve said...

We buried all of our pets in the backyard. It's a good way for children to learn the circle of life...

scribbit said...

My brother was a collector of all wounded living things. He'd find birds of all kinds and nurse them back to health (at least some of them recovered, but not that many). He was so careful with them and would talk with fish and game, trying to feed them just the right things. I hadn't thought of that in years . . .

Catherine said...

I've done a lot of thinking, and a little bit of blogging, on the topic of "somethings need to be lived, not photographed" since my son was born. Its such a fine line - some photos are treasures forever, and some just keep you from living in the moment.

Here's to our sons finding many many opportunities in their futures to be compassionate leaders rather than cool followers...

Shalee said...

I too am glad you didn't have your camera. Sometimes a picture isn't worth these 1000 words.