Prison is a State of Mind…

Not Broken Beyond Repair

Sitting at my kitchen table checking my email this morning, I heard a loud thump on the window behind me. My heart sunk. It was the unmistakable sound of a bird flying full force and colliding in a losing battle into the window, likely causing its instant demise. Pausing my typing for a moment, I looked at the window, but there were no marks which would indicate anything had splattered. I glanced outside, but couldn’t see the ground two stories below. After just a short consideration, I rose from my seat and made my way to the front door, ready for the unpleasant task of burying the dead bird.

From the top of the stairs I could see the white belly of a bird on its back. It’s never pleasant for me to find a run-over cat or even an insect which has died. I have buried countless lifeless critters since third grade when my family lived adjacent to a desert and I attempted to rescue a rabbit who had much of its left side chewed away by some hungry predator. I have accepted this duty in my life, an obligation to assist those in need, human or not. The question always pops into my mind, “WHAT IF that were me? What would I want done?” So, as I approached the belly-up sparrow, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “WHAT IF it were me, what would I want done?”

The bird had the softest looking new feather on its belly which looked like a fluffy cloud or a cotton ball. It was still alive, barely it seemed, as its heart was pounding furiously and its eyes were wide open in panic. Up and down its belly went at it instinctively struggled to get air into its tiny body. There was little doubt in my mind these were the final breaths of this little bird’s life. I began to wonder what the bird was feeling, thinking, and experiencing with this big strange being hovering over it with a curious expression on the human’s unfeathered and beakless face. I took a seat on the ground and was simply willing to witness the passing of an innocent bird because of one fatal flying mistake.

I prayed for the little guy, hoping its transition would be swift. Part of me wondered if it was more cruel to just sit and watch it die, or if I was better off putting it in a box out of the way of the encroaching ants. I spoke in a soft voice, knowing it was likely the bird with its little bird brain was not going to understand anything, but I felt compelled to offer something soothing, anyway. Maybe just for my own sense of doing all I could. “Ok, little guy,” I said. “I am going to pick you up and find a little box and I am going to be there until you leave this earth.” The little bird’s breathing and rapid heart rate spoke of the innate fear all living things have when shocked or knocking on death’s door.

Knowing the bird’s neck was likely broken, I paid particular attention to how I lifted it from the ground. Placing one finger like a splint against the left side of its body, I tenderly scooped up the barely breathing pile of broken feathers with my right hand. I closed my grip gently, just enough to feel its heartbeat and keep it from flailing in fear. Empty boxes are not something I collect or let take up space in my sparse world. I am not a collector or a keeper of things, choosing to get things off to their next owner as quickly as possible. At this moment, however, I was really wishing for an empty shoebox. Well, I reasoned. It would not be too long before the bird took its last breath. So I decided to take a seat on the hammock outside and hold the bird while it made its transition.

The sun was warm on this first day of fall and there were remnants of summer in the morning rays. The sun hit my body with soothing warmth that settled the situation for me. There was no need for me to do anything more than to just sit with this little creature and make it as comfortable as I could until that time when it was no longer alive. The music from inside the house was barely audible but enough so that I had a rhythm to rock to while on the hammock. Soon enough, I began to hum the tune and I placed my gently closed hand at my chest where the sun was hitting just perfectly. The bird’s heartbeat and breathing had slowed, almost undetectable. Six months prior, on March 10th, I had watched my own father’s heart beat slow until its undetectable beat stopped altogether.

As I held the bird gently at my chest, thoughts of my father crossed my mind; grieving thoughts of transitions. But more than anything, my thoughts were to the privilege we can experience if we are willing to help other living beings make transitions with all the tenderness and compassion which can be mustered in a time of pending loss. I hummed and gently swung the hammock back and forth. Now the bird’s eyes were closed, his heartbeat nonexistent and his lifeless body still cradled in my hand next to my beating heart. What a wonderful way to die, I thought.

Every living being leaves this earth sooner or later, but as bird-passings go, this had to rank among the best possible. Here was this little bird that had never had a human touch, never experienced touch at all, unless it was from another bird while tending to a nest or while mating. Here was this little bird, gently cradled in the arms of love, with a huge human beating heart so close to its own, and will the gentle warmth of the fall sun stroking its wings. I felt complete, as if I had done exactly what I would have wanted done, if I was the bird. If I was the bird, I would have been scared, and lonely, and hurting. While I might have been frightened to see a huge giant human approach, I would have liked to have heard a sound which was soft and tender, a voice of understanding or compassion. I would not have minded being placed in a box away from the ants, but would have been even happier to die peacefully as I rested my broken body listening to the heartbeat and gentle humming of someone who cared. Yes, as deaths go, this bird got the royal treatment. His death was better than any scripted plan which could have possibly been written.

My mind drifted to where I would offer a burial for the bird and I adjusted my position in preparation to get up. Just then, the little bird opened its eyes and its little feet moved against the skin of my chest. “Well, then,” I said. “You are going to be here a little longer?” The bird kept its eye on me, not moving its body, but I could feel a tiny heartbeat under my forefinger. “Ok, then. We will just sit here till you decide to go,” I said out loud, happy I didn’t have any neighbors walking nearby who would return home with the idea that they had seen Coach Taylor talking to herself in the hammock.

I think I fell asleep for a bit, or I just drifted off into a pseudo slumber. I remembered the last breaths my father took, and holding his hand. I thought about my own passing, and where would I be and who would be by my side. I thought of the inmates dying in prison and the family they miss and the support they receive from other inmates as they leave this world. I thought of the infants who die in the arms of neonatal nurses because their drug addicted bodies cannot win the fight to live. I thought of the grace which exists when we are of service to our fellow living beings, and of the blessings of stopping the email long enough to be present for an event important in the life of another.

When I awoke, the little bird opened his eyes as well. It seemed he had been napping, too. I loosened my hand from the bird’s body, wanting to assess just what might be broken. A wing? It’s neck, perhaps? I pulled my hand away and just observed. I was more than a little surprised when the little guy rose to its little feet and tilted its head just enough to look me square in the eye, eliminating the assumption that the loud thud against the window had broken its neck. My thoughts were now moving toward what form of a cage I would need to house the bird with the unbroken neck but broken wing or other broken bones which would eventually mean its passing, just not as quickly as I had suspected. Obviously, this bird was not broken beyond the ability to squeeze out a little more living, if only for a few hours or a few days.

“Well, little fella, what are we going to do now?” I asked. It tilted its head as if attempting to understand what the giant was trying to communicate.

I placed my hand back on top of the bird’s body, its legs went limp against my chest and we swung in the hammock a little bit longer while I considered some options. The sun in the fall morning is lovely as it makes its final attempt to keep the breeze warm. In a week or so, the sun will lose the argument and the breeze will make way for the snow which will make way for the spring and a new batch of sparrows in the trees.

It’s not really a matter of fighting against the course of nature, attempting to keep things alive or being angry at the perceived cruelty humans wield upon themselves and others. It’s not really about collecting stuff and squirreling things away, just in case. It’s not really about being busy or getting things done. As I swing on the hammock, I am keenly aware that the emails are of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important is this moment, this very moment, as the sparrow and I close our eyes and feel the warmth of the sun.

I am not sure I believe in miracles as I think at their very root, there is a logical and scientific explanation for most everything. This does not mean I do not believe in Divine intervention or the tender touch of an angel which guides our path. Some may call it a miracle. Some will say the sparrow was simply in shock from the unplanned encounter with a pane of glass. Whatever it is called, the unmistakable truth is that the little sparrow rose to its feet and looked at me with the clarity of a perfectly healed and healthy being ready to take flight.

“Well, well well, little guy. Aren’t you a lovely little miracle,” I said. The bird had every bit of strength in its body. I could tell by the way it held its head, its wings perfectly in place, its little feet ready for the next grasp.

I took the bird in my hand and made my way to a wood post. I wanted to set the bird there, just to see what it would do; just how disabled might he be. A smile came to my face when it grasped tightly to my finger, almost suggesting that it did not want me to go too far. I stayed there for a moment, but it still held tight to my finger as it looked at its once familiar surroundings. Then, the most remarkable thing happened; it moved its other foot to my finger so the entire weight of its body was on my hand.

“Is that so, little fella,” I commented. “Not too ready to leave the comfort quite yet.”

I took a nearby seat and just held the little guy on my finger as if it was a trained pet which was purchased at a pet store and knew no different. If the bird was able to say something, I was certain it was expressing gratitude and comfort, a connection between unlikely beings which would never be replicated in this bird’s life. It seemed as if the bird was growing increasingly comfortable with me as its new partner, firmly planted on my finger and not too anxious to explore beyond my care. I wondered what our world would be like if all humans were to treat all beings with a profound concern for their care.

What would be possible if all beings felt witnessed and understood, appreciated and protected? Could it be that man could live in harmony not only with the animals, but with themselves? Could color lines and religious barriers be eliminated if we would all walk away from emails just long enough to make a significant contribution to the life of another living being?

The bird and I both heard the noise that would end the moment we shared. To me, it sounded like the sparrows I had heard for the entire summer. But this time it was a slightly different sound. Call it my imagination, but it sounded as if it was a family member, a sparrow who knew this sparrow, as the call had a slight urgency or longing to its notes.

Both the bird and I looked to the pine tree to source the sound. The call was offered again. As the sparrow in the tree came into view, I had the profound feeling that these two sparrows knew each other and there was a world within the life of birds, a world of community to which I was now a witness. My little miracle of a bird looked at me, tilted its head to get a better look, and then looked toward the tree. I set him down on the wood railing, certain that this was the moment, this was the time. If he was to fly, it would be because he would not resist the call he received from one of his own.

“Go on,” I said. “You can do it.” He hopped two or three times, moving a few inches from me.

Then, at the sound of the sparrow in the tree, he took flight. I didn’t hide my tears. I let them stream down my face. I asked myself, WHAT IF I had not left my computer? WHAT IF I had not been still enough to hold the bird to my heart? WHAT IF I had been too busy to miss this magical moment?

I am now back at my computer, but not as the same woman I was a few hours ago. I realize the blessings in everyday life are there for us if we will only slow down and welcome them. Even inside a small cell of an over-crowed prison, the blessings can be found when we slow down and permit them to guide our every response. There are very few important things in life; being still enough to hear the call of a miracle ranks right up there at the top.

I have turned up the soft music playing in the background in my home. Behind me is the window and beyond that is the tree. My little sparrow has joined his family. I have a deeper knowledge that appearance can be deceiving. Even the most broken among us may not be beyond the repair which comes from love. My little miracle was not broken beyond the repair but he needed my participation in his recovery. And, as I sit down to resume my attention to emails, there is no doubt in my mind that it is I who receives the biggest blessing for my participation in his healing.


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