Birds of a Feather

When I was about eight years old, I had a parakeet. I had two parakeets actually, both named Pete. Pete I had a short life, living in a bird cage in the corner of my bedroom. I don’t know why any of us thought this would be a good idea, but we would open up Pete’s cage, and allow him to fly around the house a couple of times a week. We were not unattended children making this decision, Mom was right there with us too. Dad was a long-distance truck driver at the time, and he wasn’t part of this. He likely would have wanted no part of this.

We also had a cat and dog. That’s right. The flying around the house thing was a bad idea from the start. Mom tried to make sure the dog and the cat were locked in rooms when Pete was flying around the house. But she was only one person, and she had three elementary school daughters, a toddler son, a golden retriever, a cat, and a bird. You know, best laid plans, and all that.

One night we let Pete out of his cage to fly around the house for his very grand adventure, and somebody either forgot to shut the cat away in a room, or the cat somehow escaped from the room, or the cat somehow outsmarted us. My vote is on the latter.

In fact, now that I’m thinking of it, the cat was hiding under my bed waiting for her moment to shine in the sun, and use all of the feline skills that she possessed to stalk and kill my beloved Pete. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what hit him.She made short work of it. Death came unbidden that night. My poor mom.

We three little girls were beside ourselves with grief. This was a tragedy unlike any we had ever experienced. We had emotions, and we weren’t afraid to emote them. All night long, one of us would start in with wailing and weeping, and all manner of “Why Pete?”

“Why God?”

“Oh humanity!”

“Why do bad things happen to good birds?”

Or, you know, the little girl versions of such questions. Our little brother, who was about two years old, and had no idea what was happening, was right there with us crying, pointing his finger at the cat, and shouting gibberish. My mom found herself in the throes of an existential bird crisis. It was all because she wanted Pete to have a little bit of freedom in life. As the evening turned into night, and she finally got all of the children settled in, and quieted if not comforted, she doled out ice cream sundaes and promises of burying Pete in the backyard while we were asleep, as well as promises of a new bird very soon.

This was Southern Minnesota in the middle of February. Burying the bird in the backyard would have been difficult, if not impossible, because of the frozen ground and three feet of snow, and that kind of thing. But I took my mom on her word, and the next morning where she pointed to the far corner of the backyard where she had buried Pete, I didn’t question it. In retrospect, I also didn’t see any human tracks, or signs of digging, or a grave marker, but I’m not so much a detail-oriented person.

While my sisters and I were waiting for the bus that day, I heard some snickering and giggling. They seemed to have gotten over their grief much faster than me. The snickering and giggling turned into “Kate, look.” There, in the pile of garbage, waiting for the garbage truck, were, you guessed it, the discarded remains of Pete. I do not remember much about the conversation with my mom about that one. I am certain we had words. I didn’t go to school that day.

Instead, we went shopping and we bought another green parakeet named Pete II. He was the spitting image of Pete I. What a coincidence! Or as my dear old dad would say when he was alive “What a ko-ink-ee-dink!” This might have been one of those “Don’t tell your father” type of things, and he may not even have known about the transition of Pete I to Pete II until years later, if ever.

Pete II lived a much longer life than Pete I. I was a kid, and I wasn’t that great of a bird steward, but I managed to keep him alive for about four or five years. Or probably my mom did. I assume he was a boy. He never laid an egg. As a young teenager, I babysat in the neighborhood, and watched a lot of HBO while I was babysitting. On one particular night, I was watching Poltergeist on HBO - the first one - the scary one. There was a scene in the movie where a pet bird had died, and the family was sad, and they had a bird funeral. I was a teenager at that time, so I scoffed at the idea that the death of a bird would cause such great tragedy. (Yes, this is despite my great love for Pete I, and my own tragedy. Such is the nature of disenfranchised grief - which we often find in pet loss. Sometimes it’s internalized).

I’m walking home from babysitting that night with these unkind  thoughts about that bird scene, and I get back to my bedroom, my haven, my safe place, and low and behold, Pete II had died while I was gone. Is that like some instant karma or what? All of the drama of the previous loss of Pete I got played out all over again. This time, my dad was home.

After the crying and the wailing, and the weeping, I went into the kitchen where my mom was doing the dishes. She was standing at the kitchen sink. It was pouring rain out, thundering and lightening, and all of it. The weather matched the storm in my heart. My mom just happened to flip the switch for the garbage disposal as I came into the room, and shouted at her from across the room “Stop! You’re putting Pete down the garbage disposal!”

She looked at me aghast and horrified. “I’m not!”

“You are!” I screamed. “You put Pete I in the garbage, and we found him and caught you, and now you’re putting Pete II down the garbage disposal! Have you no respect for the dead?”

She looked at me as if I had lost my mind. It wasn’t the first time, and wouldn’t be the last. “Honey, I promise you I am not. I didn’t. Come here. Look out the window.”

I walked across the room suspiciously, checking for signs of tail feathers and bones and blood and guts. I didn’t see any, but I wasn’t sure. She pointed out the kitchen window. There, standing in the worst thunderstorm that had ever rolled across Southern Minnesota was my Dad, illuminated by streaks of lightening burying Pete II in the backyard. Perhaps a metal shovel wasn’t the smartest move ever, but it’s the thought that counts.

“What’s he doing?” I whispered.

“You know what he’s doing,” my mom replied softly.

We looked at each other in amazement and wonder. My dad just wasn’t that kind of guy. Or we didn’t think he was. At that time he was a chain-smoking active alcoholic. (As a mental health therapist, I must point out that the correct terminology is he had a severe tobacco use disorder and severe alcohol use disorder.) My mom and I watched him as he continued. It didn’t take long, of course, Pete II was a tiny bird, and the ground was soft. He came in, awkwardly patted my shoulder, and said “There.”  He wasn’t so much a hugger at that time although he did change when he stopped drinking a couple of years later.  He couldn’t come up with anything besides “There.” He went to change his clothes, and came back to the kitchen for his nightly ritual of watching three M*A*S*Hes in a row, as he downed three drinks in a row. Or maybe more. I’m probably lucky he didn’t offer me a drink during my time of sorrow.

There. A kind gesture and a one word response. It made all the difference.

Don’t even get me started on the duck story. If you want to hear a trauma, drama, and grief story wrapped in a nice bow, it’s definitely the duck story. That’s for another time.

And if you'd like to speak to someone and get some guidance and much-needed perspective, please reach out to Kathy Link.

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