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Posts Tagged ‘death’

“And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,
With smiling bastards lying to you, everywhere you go,
Turn to, and put forth all your strength of hand and heart and brain,
And like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.”

– Stan Rogers, “The Mary Ellen Carter”

Ever since Aaron Swartz killed himself last week, people in computing seem unable to talk about anything else. Some talk about Swartz’s life or how he was harassed by the American legal system. Even more talk about when they felt suicidal, or give advice about how to deal with the possibly suicidal – all of which leaves me feeling rather left out, having long abandoned my own flirtations with suicide.

My deficiency is not due to any lack of existential angst. I mean, I repeatedly read the collected works of Byron, Keats, and Shelley in my teen years, so I know all about the romance of dying young. And it’s not that I’m a stranger to depression, or never known weeks when ending it all seemed the smartest career move. In fact, at the risk of sounding egocentric, I’ve probably known these things better than most people, and with better reason, although you’ll have to excuse me if I leave the details private.

Yet the fact remains that I never attempted suicide. Even at my lowest point, I never worked past a bleak and overwhelming despair to considering ways and means – even though I’ve been in situations where many others did kill themselves. Partly, I was lucky, but, looking back, I suspect that my habits and mental attitudes played the largest roles in keeping me going.

To start with, after the inevitable experimentation, I was never been a heavy drinker. Missing half the next day to feeling attenuated and cramped all over lost its appeal to me before I hit twenty. I enjoy a few drinks when I’m out, but months have sometimes gone by without me having any alcohol. With these habits, I was never likely to drink myself to a point of rashness where suicide seemed sensible or I took careless chances because of my depression.

Even more importantly, I’ve always been a regular and heavy exerciser. With daily doses of adrenalin and endorphins rushing through my veins, even the most intense depression ultimately didn’t have a chance – especially since one of my reactions to depression has always been to take long walks. In my worst state, those long walks were not enough to leave me with a jaunty walk and a smile, but they did dilute the depression to some degree. Moreover, if I walked long enough, I would collapse into long, dreamless sleeps, which are probably one of the best states I can hope for when depressed.

However, an even more important reason that I survived serious depression is my personal mythology. That mythology, born of the lessons that Robert the Bruce supposedly learned from a spider and hours of training to improve my running was that I was a person who endured and kept on.

Moreover, I had read large chunks of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. I knew all about the stages of the hero’s journey, including the descent into the underworld. Consequently, as bad as things have been on occasion, a part of me was always utterly convinced that eventually change would come if I waited.

Meanwhile, I told myself, I would endure. I might sing “The Mary Ellen Carter” over and over to myself, sometimes until I was too distracted to do anything else, but I would endure. I was, as I kept telling myself, simply that kind of person. After a few hundred thousand repetitions of such statements, I started to believe them with some small corner of mind, even while the rest was being overwhelmed.

But the strongest reason I survived was even simpler: sheer curiosity. Like any intellectual, a part of is always standing a step or two back, watching what I am doing and saying. This part of me is as addicted to the show around me as couch potatoes are to their favorite TV series – I don’t want to miss an episode.

While the main part of me has been busy shoring up my life and despairing at ever managing to do so, this watching part was noting how depression and helplessness felt, how my time sense and eating habits changed, and a thousand other things I had never before had the opportunity to experience first hand.

Had I ever attempted suicide, this watching part would have been furious. Committing suicide would have forced it to miss too many episodes. So, I didn’t, and kept struggling on because that was what my image of myself forced me to do, and I was convinced that – unlikely as it might seem at the time – my current state was only one episode and others were coming along. This reaction never leaves me, and when I actually get around to dying, I suspect that my final words will be some variation of, “Not yet!”

Perhaps I am a biological optimist, and I survived for no better reason than an accident of chemistry. However, that’s not what it felt like at the time. Rather, I think that, partly by accident and partly by choice, I evolved a useful set of coping mechanisms against the effects of depression. Those coping mechanisms didn’t always operate smoothly – in fact, they often felt like they were dragging me naked across a field of snakes and broken bottles – but they turned out to be stronger than any inclination to depression or suicide.

Almost certainly, they wouldn’t function for everybody. All of them were the result of a lifetime of habit before they were needed, and probably they couldn’t simply be assumed at will. The most that I can say is that they worked in my case, and are enough for me, at least, to be going on with.

“I am not looking for loose diamonds,
Nor pretty girls with crosses around their necks,
I don’t want for roses or water,
I’m not looking for God — and I just want to see what’s next.”

-Ray Wylie Hubbard, “The Messenger”

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Today, my nanday conure Ninguable died, surviving his mate Sophie by just under thirteen months. He died in my hands. It was the last act in a relationship that had lasted twenty-eight years.

He had been listless for the past couple of days, but yesterday evening he had seemed to rally. However, the improvement didn’t last, and this morning he was lying on his back when I opened his cage. I thought him dead, and although he roused feebly, I knew he wouldn’t last out the day.

I had no means to euthanize him, and taking him to the vet would only make his last hours uncomfortable, so I sat with him through the day. He seemed to have suffered a stroke, because he struggled to move his left leg, growing testy at times.. Sometimes, he yawned with his beak tilted up. He didn’t show any signs of pain, just frustration. I was just putting him on to a towel in his cage bottom, so I could use the computer with one hand while stroking him with the other, when he collapsed beak first and twisted sideways.

For a moment, I swear I saw a light in his brown eyes. Then he was gone. I waited a few moments, but I knew what was left was no longer him. The time was shortly before 2PM.

Ning was our first parrot, and responsible for most of the others coming into our lives. We had been fascinated by a friend’s dwarf macaw, and had spent over a month looking for our own small parrot. We briefly considered a blue-crowned conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store, but debated if it was quite right. Then we saw Ning at the store in Kingsgate Mall, and immediately knew he was right for us.

Had we known what we knew a few years later, we probably wouldn’t have bought him. He was missing a nail on one foot, and part of a toe on another – a likely sign that he was wild caught, and had had his feet tangled in a net. Plus the store owner swore he was eighteen months old when by his markings he was under a year. Later, we realized he had probably been smuggled into the country, an abusive practice that we wouldn’t have wanted to support.

But he was so feisty among all the much larger birds in the room, hanging from the bars of his cage and trying to attract the attention of the red lory who was the only bird of his size. We put a deposit on him, and stopped on our way to the Vancouver Folk Festival to feed him cherries and grapes, all of which he greedily devoured.

On Trish’s birthday, we brought him home. We left him to acclimatize while we went out to dinner, but we were both so excited that we could hardly eat. We named him Ningauble, after the ever-curious wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

In the next few weeks, I worked with several times a day in the spare room, teaching him to climb up on a presented perch, then on a finger, feeding him and praising him loudly as a reward.

In the evenings, I would take him out and herd him on to my shoulder, where he would sit nervously before starting off. He couldn’t fly much, because we had clipped his wings, but that didn’t slow him much. He would glide as far as he could, and resolutely trudge along the floor and up the furniture until he reached his cage.

One evening, we were sitting reading when he reached over and gently preened my hair. Between my nervousness that he would bite my ear and my delight at this sign of trust, I hardly dared to move. But the next evening, he preened one side of my hair followed by the back, careful not to miss a spot, before giving up.

He seemed relieved to realize finally that he wasn’t responsible for all my hair, and after a few more evenings, settled down to a token preen in return for having his ear holes and neck scratched. He would sit and preen me for a couple of hours, then waddle down the couch to Trish to give her a couple of hours of attention.

I was in grad school at the time, and used to work in the spare room we had converted into a library. For a while, I used to take Ning into the library, since he would scream for me if I left him in the living room. Unfortunately, he would not only wander the shelves flinging books off, but also produce what our local used bookseller called parroted editions that had been thoroughly chewed to the point where they were unsellable.

After a couple of years, we decided he needed a mate, so we brought home Sophie, a malnourished, abused bird. Our plans to quarantine her for a month were immediately overturned when the only way to keep them from calling from room to room was to introduce them. Under our anxious eye, Ning jumped into Sophie’s cage and immediately started regurgitating to her.

If Sophie could talk, I swear she would have said, “Excuse me, sir? Have we been introduced?” but they immediately became inseparable, eventually going on to produce six chicks, one of whom is still with me, and one who returned to us before dying at a young age from the second hand smoke in a home where he briefly lived.

Ning wasn’t that skilled at feeding babies. But he kept Sophie fed while she was brooding, and delighted in teaching them the basics when they left the nest. At that point, Sophie was glad to pass along the responsibility, and Ning always pined when the babies went to other homes.

Because of the trouble and heartbreak of finding new homes for the babies, we eventually stopped allowing eggs to hatch. But Ning and Sophie didn’t seem unduly troubled. They continued in happy monogamy, with Ning in the adventurous lead and Sophie chirping nervously behind, but following him – on to the floor, or up on my shoulder, where they would sit preening each other and occasionally me while I worked on the computer.

In between, Ning would have territorial wars with the other male birds housed in the living room, always with the psychological edge. Although not particularly large for a nanday, his electric blue and green feathers showed he was the epitome of health. And, anyway, he was the cock with the hen.

He also showed an uncanny ability to find what unsettled his rivals the most at the least risk to him – for instance, sitting just inside another male’s territory on the floor, in a spot where he couldn’t be dive bombed.

And so things went on, the living room full of bird calls, affection and avian macho, until I got into the habit of thinking they might go on forever. But Trish sickened and died, and, five months later, Sophie died. Ning responded by a fit of macho, rampaging around the dining table until it was clear that this previously neutral ground was now his. He was also inclined to mope unless he spent as much time as possible with me – something I didn’t mind in the least, considering we were widowers together.

In the mornings, when I came to open the curtains, he would greet the sound of my voice with a liquid trill that would continue for up to a minute — one of the most beautiful sounds I ever heard, and one I wish now that I had got around to recording.

Despite his increasing age, Ning showed few signs of slowing down until the last four months of his life. One day, waddling over the carpet, he stopped and began biting furiously at his right wing. When I picked him up, I could find no damage, but he never flew far again. Instead, he would call anxiously to me, squirming until I picked him up and carried him to where he wanted to be. By this time, I could guess his destination with almost total accuracy.

I had seen similar signs in Sophie, but, considering Ning’s better health, I had hopes that his senior years would be prolonged. Until a few days ago, I even had hopes that with therapy he might fly freely again, since several times he managed short flights when frustrated.

As I write, it’s six hours after his death. I’ve taken his body to be cremated, and removed his cage from the living room – and I still keep looking for him as I type. He’s the one who taught me that parrots had sentience and limited planning abilities. He’s the one who kept me amused with his unabashed enthusiasm, and supported me with a preen and by hanging out when I was discouraged or grieving. He’s the one who taught me that parrots can purr.

Given all this, what could I do but sit with him in his final hours? I talked to him about our years together, sang him his favorite silly songs, and repeated my pet names for him. I cried over the inevitable before it happened and I hoped for a miracle, knowing I wouldn’t get one.

And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it. Because those are the sort of things you do for a friend. The only shame would have been to leave him to die alone, and my only comfort is that I did for him what I could.

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Widowhood is a state of transition. It’s the time when you decide what you are going to do after the most important relationship in your life is gone. Or, to be more specific, it’s the time when you decide whether you are going to risk another relationship, or spend the rest of your life solo. Fourteen months after Trish’s death, that’s a decision I haven’t made, but, what most people don’t understand is that if I end up alone, I wouldn’t be overly disturbed by the outcome.

This fatalism has nothing to do with a morbid nostalgia. Trish and I met a month after her first husband died, and became a couple two months after that, so I don’t feel any need to stay loyal to her memory. In fact, several times, she told me that she hoped I would remarry if she died. So, if anything, I suppose I should be trying to meet people.

But the truth is, while one or two intriguing possibilities exist, I don’t need a relationship merely for the sake of a relationship. I’m comfortable with my own company, and as a writer I need a degree of solitude each day regardless.

Part of my attitude is my hyper-awareness of a fact that is obvious, but that no one likes to emphasize – namely, that a relationship ends with one person either leaving or dying.. As you get older, the possibility increases that the end will involve a death. I would rather not face the other person’s death, and I am no more eager to leave her facing my death and having to settle my affairs.

As time passes, this reluctance will probably fade, of course. But the truth is, I just don’t have the pressure to be in a relationship that people younger than me have. When you’re in your twenties or early thirties, being married or in a common-law relationship is a mark of maturity and independence. It can be a way to settle any lingering doubts you have about your sexual orientation. Most of all, it’s something everyone does, which often panics people into bad relationships, just so they don’t feel left out or appear odd. To be young and single by choice takes great strength of character because a more or less permanent relationship is part of what you’re supposed to want or do.

But at my age, the situation is different. I’ve paid my own way since I was eighteen, so I have nothing to prove. I long ago discovered I was a straight male with eccentric ideas about gender roles and an indifference towards them. Nor, for some reason, does modern industrial culture have many expectations about widowhood and its aftermath.

If I were still married, no doubt I would feel the pressure of the expectations placed on long-married couples – but suddenly, and through no wish of my own, my possible choices are broader than they have been since high school. I don’t have to rush to decide whether I should be single or committed, because the decision doesn’t matter except to me and any woman with whom I might be involved.

And if I do end my days single, so what? I’ve had a relationship that was better than any I see around me. That’s not just my opinion or the distortion of romanticism, either – I lost count years ago of the people who said that Trish and I acted like newly weds or who were surprised that we were polite to each other (as though politeness was something you owed strangers, and not those you loved), or how we consulted each other about mutual decisions.
Should I never be in another serious relationship, I’ve been in one that people envied. So why should I settle for anything less?

That would be the real betrayal of my past – not staying single for the next three to five decades, but blundering into a relationship because when I’m tired or not sleeping I feel lonely. I owe the memory of Trish better, and I owe myself better, too.

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A year ago, at 2:55PM, I was widowed. About an hour later, my sister-in-law and I stumbled out of Royal Columbian Hospital into a summer day that was strangely normal, and I began the process of figuring out how I was going to live the rest of my life.

Fifty-two weeks later, I can’t say that I’ve got very far in the process. A happy relationship that lasts for decades becomes a filter for everything you do, and, in part of my mind, I’m still married.

Nor is a year long enough to shake off fifteen years of nursing an invalid. I still don’t fully realize that my time is now my own, or that I can travel. I’ve spent much of the year just coping, making no great plans. I’m camping out in the ruins of my life, just getting by day by fragile day.

Ever sat in a movie theater until the credits rolled, and the lights came up? That’s where I am now, the story ended and what comes next uncertain.

Still, I’ve changed in numerous small ways in the last year, and learned more about myself. I’ve learned that I’m a tidy person, but, while personally clean, not too reliable about dusting or vacuuming. Perhaps that’s because of too many years when caring for Trish was more important than housework.

I’ve learned to endure washing dishes, which was never my task in our division of labor. I did the cooking, which I’ve also had to relearn, since portions for one always seem too small.

I’ve learned that it’s easier to do a chore when I notice it needs doing. Now that most of the townhouse is in ordered to a degree that it hasn’t been since before Trish took ill, attending to things immediately is the easiest way of keeping the place uncluttered.
I run more errands, because there’s nobody to split them with. The same goes for paying bills on time.

I wander more, and stay out longer and later. When there’s no one to come home to except your pets, regular hours don’t seem so important. I stay up later and wake later for the same reason.

I’m still learning now to have a social life by myself, although I had occasional practice in the last few years as Trish became more house-bound. But I can’t say that I’m easy yet, socializing when I’m no longer part of a well-established team. I’ve joined the board of a couple of non-profits, and organized a couple of meetups about art, just to counter any tendency to become a hermit.

As for being a single man, mostly I don’t go there. Although sometimes not being in a relationship hits me like a kick in the ribs, I’m not sure I’m ready for another one. Maybe I’ll never be; the social games of men and women seem more mutually degrading than anything else.

Probably, I’ve grown more eccentric, talking more to my parrots, recording my remarks in my journal or on Facebook and Twitter, because nobody’s around to share them. I grin more at my own jokes. I work harder and longer, but at more irregular hours. I tend to work out too much at a gym. I talk more to neighbors, and to people on the bus. I wonder if I’ll end up as one of those garrulous old men who pour out their life story to polite but secretly embarrassed strangers.

I worry that I might get sick or be crippled and no one will know. I wonder if one day I’ll be found weeks dead on the living room floor, and whether the birds might starve to death if a car hits me. I’ve made my will, but life appears capricious and arbitrary.
But what I’m going to do with myself for the next few decades? Frankly, I don’t have a clue. The wounds may have scabbed over, but they have a tendency to open again if I move the wrong way (or hear the wrong song, or pass the wrong place, or have the wrong memory come bubbling up out of the unconscious).

One year later, I’m still waiting to see what happens. The most I can say is that, if a new career comes along, or a new cause or a woman to share some time with, I’ll respond like one of King Arthur’s knights, thanking the God in whom I don’t believe for the adventure. But deliberately seeking a particular direction is still more than I can manage.

Meanwhile, so much of the texture of my life has changed that I sometimes look back at episodes in my married life and wonder if I really am the man who said or did those things. Often, that time seems to be sinking into the past much faster than the calendar would indicate.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that I still feel like an amputee, learning to walk on one leg or to dress myself with one hand. And I suspect that phantom pain will be with me the rest of my life.

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Wanting to feel useful, today I tackled a task I’ve been putting off: cleaning up the plant pots from the courtyard outside my door. I imagined that I shirked the task because it would be dirty and exhausting, but I had barely begun before I understood that the real reason was I didn’t want to face the memories that lay in wait for me.

Except for the laurel, none of the several dozen pots had been planted by me. It was the sole survivor of three that Trish and I had bought years ago when the strata council had chopped down the fir that shaded our balcony. The others had quickly died, and this one had been moved to the courtyard when our deck was last rebuilt, only to die in last summer’s heat wave when I was too distracted to notice. Our parrots Ning and Sophy had enjoyed having it against the outside of the living room window, since it gave them a hidden place from which to peer out at the world.

The rest were the remnants of miniature roses and one or two efforts at growing mint and other herbs. I had never had a hand in those. They were Trish’s, and among some people she was as well-known for her roses as for always carrying a craft project with her.

Before the carcinoids took hold, an hour or two in the evening or weekends was a part of her life. She was proud of them, having never had much success with gardening before, and she kept her notes about them in a leather-bound book stamped with Celtic knotwork designs. She enjoyed, too, going to the monthly meeting of the local rose society, and she delighted in the names of each rose: Pandemonium, Golden Amber, Black Jade, Pinwheel, and all the rest.

But the real point of growing the roses was distributing the blossoms, few of which were over three centimeters in diameter. Regardless of whether she was going to her job, or we were going shopping at Westminster Quay, the parrot shop, or a bookstore, her departure was always delayed by her snipping the latest blossoms. At summer’s height, she would soak paper towels and carefully wrap the blossoms to preserve them. When she got to wherever she was going, she would hand them out, to the delight and occasional puzzlement of the recipients.

I suppose you could rationalize the distribution of the blossoms by the fact that Trish had several dozen plants, and, when they were blossoming, we hardly had room in our townhouse for more than a few blossoms. But, although we never talked about why she went to such efforts, I knew that she enjoyed offering the small gifts that she had produced to those she saw regularly.

Once, a cashier snootily refused them, and we never shopped at that bakery again. For my part, I was furious that such an innocent and pleasant gesture should be met with hostility. Most people were pleased by the gesture in the middle of their workday, and some came to look forward to it so much that they were visibly disappointed if Trish had run out of blossoms or the plants weren’t producing that day. To some distant acquaintances at Westminster Quay, she was simply the Rose Lady.

But as Trish sickened, she had less energy for roses. One by one, their numbers feel due to frost or disease, and, increasingly, the losses were not replaced. When she could, she still enjoyed tending them and distributing the blossoms, but, with each year she had less energy for anything so active. Nor did she want my help; the roses were her activity, and, not being a gardener and increasingly worried myself, I did not offer help as often as I could.

Two years ago, her health was poor enough that she hardly had time to fertilize the roses, let alone prune or keep them free of disease. Last year, as she struggled with pneumonia and slowly died, she had no time for them at all.

Today, I found that only three rose bushes survived, and one of them will need some concentrated attention to thrive again. But I decided that, despite my lack of gardening skills, I will do my best to keep them alive. The effort is a way I can continue to connect to a time that, nine months later, already seems so fabulous and distant that sometimes I wonder if it existed at all.

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Since I was widowed, family and friends have made extra efforts to draw me out of myself. They make a point of inviting me over, and, at their parties, they are likely to ask me several times how I am doing. Socializing, they keep telling me, is better than “moping around at home.” Their efforts are well-meaning, and I appreciate the concern behind them, but I admit that I accept their invitations out of politeness more than any other reason.

To start with, I am not a person who easily accepts pity or help from others. When I’m sick, mostly I just want to be left alone to get better. I’m not surly with nurses, but I hate feeling helpless or putting people to any trouble for my sake, and twelve years of caring for a chronically ill spouse has only strengthened my preferences. I remain much more accustomed to caring than being cared for.

Just as importantly, what most of my acquaintances don’t realize is that I’m not exactly lacking social opportunities. Even without their special efforts, my social life is more active now than it has been for the last few years, when I was caring for an increasingly fragile partner. I’m now exploring all sorts of events for which I had no time a year ago.

In fact, recently, when someone sat down across from me and earnestly asked, “So, what have you been doing with yourself?” in a tone that suggested that I must have long, empty stretches to fill, I had to suppress a howl of laughter. Far from being eager to seize every opportunity to get out of the house, I have often found myself bowing out of events, just so I could have a quiet night for a change. But I have always moved in several different circles, none of which overlap, so probably few people appreciate how busy I actually am.

Not, you understand, that socializing comes easily to me just now. I usually test as someone balanced almost exactly between extrovert and introvert, but I am learning how to socialize as an individual, instead of half of a couple. Consequently, while I am glad to see people, being with more than two or three at once is a strain. I no longer know that someone automatically has my back. I find, too, that I automatically scan a group every few minutes to check how Trish is doing.

In other words, rather than helping me to forget my situation, being with other people accentuates it. I especially feel my changed situation when an event ends, and I return home, alone and unable to discuss what I’ve just seen with anybody. Sometimes, the better time I have with other people, the worse I feel because of a mixture of guilt at being still alive to enjoy myself and the contrast between my married life and now.

But there’s something else that most of those around me don’t seem to grasp: while I don’t want to cut myself off from people altogether, I don’t always mind being alone, either. Being alone with my memories is the closest I can get to Trish now. Moreover, I have a lot of things to process – not just the mechanics of probate and the winding down of Trish’s affairs, but assimilating the memories of our life together and figuring what I am going to do with the rest of my life. Although I sometimes talk over these matters, I also need to think about them, long and carefully by myself. I’m not going to adjust to the changed conditions of my life if I have no time to mull them over in my mind; right now, I need more time alone than most people do.

I can’t help thinking that, culturally-speaking, we’ve swung from one extreme to another when dealing with grief. Where once we accepted a period of mourning as a natural transition from one stage of life to another, we now view it as unhealthy wallowing in depressing subjects.

I’m sure that many people chafed at the culturally-designated periods of mourning in Victorian society, but our own attitude is no better. Depressing subjects don’t go away because you evade them – if anything, they often become worse if you don’t face them. All the well-meaning people who keep inviting me to places don’t seem to be aware that, for all their good intentions, in the long run they may actually be making me less able to cope instead of more.

But, to some extent, I suspect that all the invitations I receive are extended for the sake of those who make them as much as for me. In our death-denying culture, seeing someone in mourning is an uncomfortable reminder that there are somethings that you can’t escape and can’t mitigate with positive thinking or some other nostrum. If someone in mourning is seen socializing, acting more or less the same as everybody else, then everyone else can forget the unthinkable more easily.

Perhaps all these remarks are unfair to people who are only trying to do me a favor. Knowing exactly how to support someone in mourning is difficult, and I don’t want to suggest that I am ungrateful for the efforts being made on my behalf. Really, I’m not. But I do want to suggest that the situation is more complicated than most people imagine. There is such a thing as trying too hard, and even a well-meaning action can sometimes obstruct rather than help. Some problems, as I am finding, people have to work out in their own way and time.

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“In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says, ‘I can’t fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It’s just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings’”
– “Charlie and the King of Rome”

This morning when I took the cover off the cage, my parrot Sophy was lying on one side, with her mate Ning hovering over her. She didn’t open her eyes, and her breathing was labored. I scooped her up and put her on the table, and she barely opened her eyes. I knew then that she was dying, so I decided that cleaning the cages would wait.

Sophy had been in a convalescence cage for the last few days after she slipped from a perch and started favoring her left leg. But her appetite was healthy and she was otherwise acting normally; the convalescence cage was just so she wouldn’t climb until her leg was better. Last night when I put her and Ning to bed, she was moving better, and I was cautiously optimistic that she was healing.

But she was thirty years old – old for her species — and had been growing quieter over the last year, so her condition this morning was not a total surprise. I debated taking her to the vet, and decided she was better at home, where she could be in the company of her flock when she died. Besides, the way she looked, I was not sure she would live long enough to arrive at the vet, or that the vet could do anything I couldn’t.

So I sat there as the sun rose, scratching her ear and trying to fed her corn. She refused the corn, and the loving regurgitation of Ning. In fact, she seemed to have trouble waking at all.

When the sun poured into the living room, I stood with her for a while so she could bask in the light, something she would do for hours, given a chance. The sun on her feathers roused her, but only a little. I placed her back on the table and continued waiting, scratching her neck feathers.

A few minutes later, she shifted her head awkwardly once or twice, as though trying to get comfortable. The eye that I could see grew misty. She seemed to stiffen, and all at once she had stopped breathing. Ning prodded her with his beak, and, when she did not respond, moved a body’s length away, preening himself with an air of apprehension.

That was the end of my twenty-four year relationship with Sophia J. (for Jabberwock) Bandersnatch. It was an end that I could hardly have predicted from the start.

When we bought Sophy from the bird-sitter, she had been neglected and abused for several years. She had no tail-feathers, and she had plucked her breast. Recognizing her as a nanday conure was so hard that we almost had to take the fact on faith.

We were told that she had locked in a cage for at least three years, and fed only on sunflower seeds. When she made a noise, a hand or a thrown boot hit the side of her cage. The only noise she could make was an outraged squawk.

Under these conditions, what could we do? If ever a bird needed rescuing, it was Sophy. When the bird-sitter reported back to her original owner that we found that she had a sweet personality, his reply was, “Sophy has a personality?” – more proof, if we had needed any, that he had no idea how to care for her.

When we brought her home, we placed her in the spare room, thinking to quarantine her for a month before introducing her to Ning. But the two birds started calling so excitedly that after a couple of hours, we brought Ning in for a visit.

We were ready to supervise, but there was no need. Ning leaped down off my shoulder and sidled up to her on the perch and immediately started regurgitating. Sophy made a stifled sound of surprise, as though to say, “Excuse me, sir, but have we been introduced?” but her objections could not have been too serious. Moments later, they were mating.

After that, Sophy and Ning were nearly inseparable, eating, bathing, playing with chew toys, climbing up on me. Always, in season and out, they mated, even on my shoulder. If one of them strayed more than the width of the living room, the other would start making anxious squawks. Ning was the more independent and aggressive of the two, but we soon noticed that anything Sophy wanted, she got. In anything she cared about, she was the dominant bird.

With Ning as her companion, Sophy blossomed and started to accept us. She would go everywhere with him, even occasionally down on the floor, which she obviously regarded as a dangerous place. I remember the two of them constantly worrying a small tin back and forth as though playing football.

One time, she crawled into one of Trish’s boots that was lying flat on the floor. She made an inquisitive cheep and, frightened by the echo, retreated squawking.

Over the next couple of years, her feathers grew in. But she remained an over-zealous preener, so that her feathers often looked ragged and you could see the gray of her down on her breast.

A few years later, she was healthy enough that she started laying eggs. The first one surprised her as much as it did us. She kept looking behind her at the egg, as if she could not quite believe that she had produced it.

Other eggs followed – so many at first, that she became egg-bound had to visit the vet just after Christmas. Ning moped around, and, early on New Years’ Day, we took him to pick her up. His rapturous purr as he started preening her in the examination room was as true a sign of devotion as you could see anywhere.

We bought a nest box, and watched her excavate the peat moss that lined it to her liking. Soon, eggs and hatchlings followed – Frumious (because what else should a Bandersnatch produce?), Jabberwock, and Rambunctious, Rogue and Rapscallion, and Madrigal, all born in the living room. Sophy would spend hours cooing over her hatchlings, over-preening them but caring for them fastidiously until they were weaned. Once they were eating for themselves, they were Ning’s concern for a few months so far as she was concerned, and she always seemed relieved when her offspring left for new homes.

A flock, a mate, and babies mellowed Sophy immensely. She never was much for hands after her previous experience, but she came to trust us enough that she would simply press her beak firmly around an encroaching finger, instead of drawing blood.

We knew that she trusted us, because every morning, she would lean from the top of the cage to preen our faces, more gently than any parrot I have ever met. She was the only bird I trusted to preen my eyes, because even a sudden noise would not excite her into nipping me. When I lowered a shoulder, she would scramble across the cage, careless of any obstacles, to climb up on me.

She would sit for hours on my shoulder, with or without Ning, as I worked at the computer. Sometimes, I would sing silly songs to her, and she would shake her tall and fluff out contentedly just at the corner of my vision.

I could go on and on – but I see that I already have. But I can hardly remember a time that her playful and loving presence was not part of my home life. All the birds were a comfort to me in the weeks after my wife died, but she was the one who sat with me the most, and seemed most sensitive to my grief. In return, remembering her sitting contentedly on one leg on the back of the cage, I like to think that we helped her put the years of abuse and neglect behind her.

As I type, Ning is restless, hopping from my shoulder to the table to the floor, and flying up to the cage. He keeps looking around as though expecting to see her, and is unable to keep still.

Without any anthropomorphizing whatsoever, I know exactly how he feels. Even after watching her die, I still can’t believe that gallant little Sophy is gone.

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