A month ago we laid Joe the Bird to rest. How he came to be there is a story of horror, humor and even a little hope.
We all come down for breakfast on a Tuesday morning. I’m trying to get out the door to drop Carter off at school on my way to work. Kelsey and I are discussing something – the details are lost to history – when we hear all three boys doing one of their favorite things: being loud.
They’re gathered by the birdcage in the corner of the kitchen across the bar from us. The cage is home to two parakeets – Joe and Felicia (named by Carter) – whom we inherited when Chad and Tiffany Statton moved to California (I found out we had them when my wife wrote the following on my Facebook wall: “Can you pick up some parakeet food on the way home tonight? Thanks!”)
We shush the boys and keep talking. Their voices keep rising, talking, chattering, until Carter’s voice rings out through the din: “It’s important!”
I walk around to see what the fuss is and stop in shock. Joe the Bird is laid out on the bottom of the cage, not moving. His feet are sticking out. He looks still and lifeless. Felicia sits alone on the wooden bar running through the cage.
That’s when I realize – I forgot to feed them last night. I noticed their food bins were empty and meant to fill them up all evening and just forgot. There was always one more thing to do. Surely he didn’t starve to death, did he? Nah, there’s no way. I remember seeing food in there a few days ago. The birds have lost a lot of feathers lately; maybe they had some kind of problem.
We talk to the boys, explain that Joe is dead. They have questions, but we muddle through them until I can grab a blue shoebox from the garage, open the cage and reach in with a paper towel to get poor Joe out of sight of the boys.
He looks stiff, but he’s not. He’s still warm, soft. He can’t have been dead long. Wait, he didn’t move did he?!
No, he didn’t. He’s dead. I pick him up, set him in the box wrapped in the paper towel and put the box on a shelf outside.
Carter said later he knew he had to get our attention because, as he put it, “Joe was down.” The boys seem okay. Kelsey and I are not fully okay – Felicia’s looking awfully lonely. Those birds loved to cuddle together, especially at night. Now what’s she gonna do?
Should I go buy another parakeet? Maybe. But do I really want more birds? Not really. I think I’m ready for fish.
Later that morning, I Google “How long does it take a parakeet to starve?” The answer: 48 hours. Shockingly fast. “Oh no,” I think, as I stare at the screen, my hand over my mouth. “I killed that bird.”
The week gets busy and we don’t get around to burying Joe for a few days, although the boys occasionally ask where he is. Felicia still looks lonely. Finally on Saturday morning, it’s time to bury my awful mistake.
I open the box slowly, afraid that maybe an animal got to Joe. But no, he still looks perfect. His feathers are still vivid green and yellow and he’s still got the bright blue spot right above his beak that was really the only way to tell the difference between him and Felicia.
I pick a spot for the grave at the corner of the narrow alley between our fence and the neighbor’s fence in the very back of the yard. I scuff dead leaves aside with my shoe and dig into the damp dirt, chilly after a few months of lower temperatures (let’s be honest – we never really had winter this year). The boys want to help, so Carter pushes the shovel in a time or two and we eventually have a good hole.
Kelsey comes out and joins the three boys and me for our first family funeral service. The boys are lined up next to the grave. I try to explain briefly that because Joe is dead, all that’s left is his body. He didn’t have a soul like we do that will live forever. They kinda get it, kinda don’t.
Carter bends over to place the box in grave and there it is – a blue rectangle in the brown earth, all that’s left of Joe the Bird.
I ask the boys if they want to say anything. We think Taylor(4) tells Joe to “stay there.” Carter, in his 7-year old wisdom, says, “Joe was a good bird. They had fun together.”
I cover the box with the dirt from the grave, stamping it down with my foot so it’s nice and tight (the former landscaper in me has to do it the right way). Carter wants to make a marker with Joe’s name on it and I tell him that maybe someday we can.
The boys are off, running around the yard, ready for the next adventure. But Taylorhas one more piece of advice for Joe. He leans over the grave and shouts with a smile, “Have a safe trip!”
A few weeks later, Felicia is still doing fine. I check her cage when I walk by, afraid every time that I’m going to see her laid out on the bottom.
But she’s still alive, kicking and missing Joe. A basketball game on tv the other night caught her attention as the players’ sneakers started squeaking on the court. She began chirping away, answering her soulmate Joe, who she must have thought was calling to her from somewhere beyond the blue.
Oh come, Thou rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’ver the grave
Emmanuel shall come to thee, Oh Israel!
I met an almost-15 year-old tonight. His birthday is tomorrow. He’s in eighth grade. He plays the tuba and kinda likes it, but isn’t over the moon about it. (“It’s better than the clarinet,” he says.) His marching band is going to a competition this Saturday and might get to go to an amusement part afterward — if it doesn’t rain, which it’s supposed to.
He’s not happy. He specifically said that, but he didn’t have to. His whole demeanor shouted it. Slouched in his chair, bored but hurt expression, sarcastic comments, cynical outlook. Thing is, who could expect anything else?
He’s an only child who lives with his mom. He’s never met his dad, doesn’t even know his name. A step-dad was there for a while, but moved out when he couldn’t stand the mom anymore. The almost-15 year old says he doesn’t blame the guy — he doesn’t like his mom either.
She messed up his birthday plans for tomorrow night. There’s a new movie he wanted to see. Talked to his friends, made plans to go. Then last night his mom gets mad, says he can’t go. He tells his friends. Tonight, she changes her mind, says he can go. He texts his friends, but they all have other plans now. He’s left in the cold, with nothing to do and no one to be with on his birthday.
He likes watching fights at school. (One guy got beat up by about 12 girls after he cheated on his girlfriend – the crowd included both the girlfriend and the cheatee. Another guy kicked a kid dcwn the stairs.) He says his school is all jocks and preps and he doesn’t fit in either category. He’s right, given what I see — shaggy hair, oversized t-shirt and shorts, cockeyed black hat. He likes heavy metal and video games. Likes to read and write and thinks math is cool.
He’s looking forward to being reunited next year in high school with the one guy he considers a good friend. They can just sit next to each other and talk and hang out (even with the tv off) and not be bored.
He’s headed to a sleep clinic tonight because he might have sleep apnea. He’s tired a lot, but has trouble sleeping — just kinda zones out. Last night he watched a tv show called “A Thousand Ways to Die.” One guy died when he fell in his driveway and ended up in the path of a big streetsweeper coming down the street.
He says his mom is always the last one to pick him up from places. The other night, she got there even after the janitors had locked up and left.
He used to go to a church in town, but quit going to the youth stuff on Wednesday night because he hated the seventh graders who drove him crazy. He almost punched one of them one night.
I ask him what makes him happy. “Nothing,” he says, and tells a story about when he went to Disney World in 4th or 5th grade. He didn’t like it, thought it was a waste of money to go.
As I drive away, he sits slumped against a brick wall, waiting — again — for his mom.
He just wants to be loved. He needs a dad. He needs friends. He needs a Happy Birthday. Most of all, he needs Jesus, but how’s he gonna find him?