Baby birds and aching hearts

The other day, when I wasn’t home, a bird flew into our glass patio door and knocked itself out. I got a series of distraught texts from my teenager, and got home to find her in a state of total grief.

The bird was by this time no longer on its back like a beetle but sitting weakly on the floor. I was at my wits’ ends to do anything except keep the cats indoors 😳.

My daughter wept and grieved for this little bird.

She reminded me of myself at age 10. My parakeet (Sugarpie – don’t ask, I think I got it from Archie comics) had suddenly dropped and slowly died, lying on his back, his beak working, and his eyes half-closed. I had to bury this little blue bird, a poor mistreated creature, snatched from its natural environment and kept in a small cage in a hot country by people who had no idea how to care for pets.

I still feel my grief from that moment, how I wept hard, and vowed never to have any pets ever again (yes, I break vows sometimes).

I was also struck by how my mother was more struck by my grief than by her own pity for the bird.

How did grownups learn to become this way, I wondered. How did very good and kind people learn to survive by detaching themselves from extreme compassion? I later found a journal entry my mother wrote about how soft-hearted I was. Her journal reflected on Sugarpie’s death, as well as my sorrow when Billie Jean King (my flea-ridden, skinny, partly-stray tabby kitten) got run over by a car.

I’ve always been told I feel too much. I’m told it’s impractical, and a little ‘crazy.’ “They’re OK,” I’m told, about animals and birds. “They’re OK,” I’m told about the poor and dispossessed. I had to shut down my heart a little, to survive.

The other day, as my daughter wept uncontrollably, yearning to do something, anything, I saw myself in her. And I saw all the practical grownups (and I use that loosely, because it includes plenty of young people) of my past in my own calm, kind, but businesslike, adult attitude to the bird, my attempts to protect it at least from the cats, but very practically not bringing it indoors and doing anything ‘crazy.’

I felt sad. For the bird and for my daughter – because I know what a too-soft constantly-breaking heart can do. And for me.

I did go back outdoors to check on the bird.

It was gone. I went back with a flashlight, before letting the cats out to the patio. I checked all the corners, looking for it, and it was nowhere. What happened? Did it get better? Fly away? Fall down to the ground from the patio? I hoped it was OK.

I swung the flashlight up, – and there sat the bird, on the railing, looking quite healthy. As soon as my gaze alighted on her, she flitted away into a tree, as if to say, Look, I’m fine. I can fly. Now you can rest easy.

I took a moment after maghrib prayers and asked my daughter to join me.

We prayed for the bird to be all right, to be healthy, to not be hurt, and to have a happy life. She wept. I did pray for the bird, of course. But I also wanted to give my daughter a place to put her heart, instead of telling it to not feel because “They’re OK” and it’s crazy to feel so much. I don’t want her to be ashamed of her huge heart, or to feel like it’s a dirty secret to be hidden away in a world of selfish pragmatism. I want her to embrace the huge aching world of compassion, but also to find a way to live with it.


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