When the Fiery One and I were first married in mid-2001, we bought two zebra finches. I have never liked living in a place that doesn't have pets, and I was determined that we would not go long without them. The building we lived in was supposed to be pet-free, so I knew that cats were definitely out of the question, but birds seemed perfectly reasonable.
Nothing about owning birds was actually perfectly reasonable at the time. Our building technically did not allow pets of any kind. Neither of us had ever owned birds. I did not like birds. We knew nothing about them aside from the fact that they ate seeds and laid eggs.
So, we ran out to a pet store and picked out the two most pathetic looking birds there. Elliott was the first one we chose, and we asked for him because he was the fattest bird in the cage. The pet books will tell you not to buy a fat-looking bird, but why heed conventional wisdom when you can act on pity?
When we arrived home, we held the open end of the box we had transported him in against the open cage door, and he threw himself into the bird cage in such a flurry of feathers and feet that we could not tell which part of him was which. We were alarmed that he would die before we had even put seeds in the feeder. He lay on his side, heaving his walnut-sized body with huge panicked breaths.
And then we saw a spray of blood along the plastic edge at the bottom of the cage. Fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck, I thought while we watched him huffing on his side. It was a relief when he finally righted himself and started hopping across the newsprint cage liner.
This was a fitting introduction to Elliott. He proved to be alarmingly clumsy and near-sighted. His continual accidents disturbed houseguests, but once you became accustomed to his falls and collisions, he could be quite amusing.
I don't know for certain if birds can be near-sighted, but Elliott sure behaved that way. He would stand on the floor of his cage eyeing the nearest perch for several seconds, darting his eyes left and right and up and down in order to guage its position, and then he would jump up. Most birds that I've seen land on whatever they jump to, but not Elliott. It was not a rare experience to watch him leap head first into the targetted perch, smack his head, and then land with a small thwock on the bottom of the cage. He did this from July 2001 until last week. He never got any better at it, but he always righted himself and gave it another shot.
Despite our having no good reason to settle on owning birds and my not liking birds and Elliott's obvious deficits, I grew to love that little guy. Over the last year, he has lived out of the cat's range in a side room where I iron my clothes. Every morning he greeted me with his trademark Woody Woodpecker chuckle accompanied by his patterned dancing circuit around the perches in his cage. I looked forward to his morning happy dance as one of the truly positive things I could count on every day. While I ran the iron over my work shirts, I chatted back to him. When I whistled, he would incline his head and listen intently.
Last Wednesday morning, I walked into the side room and refilled his feeder, but he didn't jump up to watch me fill it like he usually did. That when I saw him lying on his side in a corner of the cage, his beak slightly open and his feet curled together. I was surprised by the grief that I felt. It crawled over my skin like a thick nausea. I held my hand over my mouth like an old aunt.
I don't like change like this.
I don't like that all things end.
I don't like finality.
The next evening, the Fiery One and I took his body outside and placed him under a tree. I wanted something wild, even if wild meant an alley cat, to take him, because that would mean his not being forever cut off from all things by a layer of plastic or the mazework of urban plumbing.
After we left his body under that tree, I could not stop thinking about it. Elliott's death was becoming more than Elliott's death. It was becoming this symbol of so many things that have ended or are ending. When he died on Wednesday, it was like I had permission to feel a lot of the anger and loss and sadness attached to other parts of my life, and I am surprised by how bad I have allowed myself to feel.
Elliott lay under that tree for three days. Although some of his smaller underfeathers started to come loose, he looked just as soft and bright on Friday as he did when I found him on Wednesday morning. There was no visible deterioration aside from sunken eyes. Then, on Sunday morning, we noticed that he was gone. There were no feathers, no imprint left in the soil where he had been. There was no noise and no mark on the ground.
Saying goodbye to Elliott has forced me to take a look at how much I have allowed myself to collect painful emotions, how much I have avoided doing anything about them, and how much I have always done this. I don't need to do this anymore. Hiding these emotions and leaving them untended no longer protects me as I once thought it did.
I would like to take them out under a tree and lay them down. I would like to let them be taken away when I am not looking. I would like to give them away to the unknown as though they were things that could be disappeared.
On the other hand, I love that the death of so tiny a bird can make a person see so much. I am glad to have opened my eyes enough to want to be in the world fully again, to want to change, to want to affect change. It is not good enough for me to swallow the shit end of the stick and then perpetually pretend I am not choking on it.
Goodbye, Elliott. Thank you for your singing and dancing in the wee morning hours. Thank you for making my days happier. Thank you for pushing me to be greater ...
... even though you were about as bright as an electrified head of cauliflower.