Thursday, September 3, 2009
Be Free, Little Bird
Gracie flew into our lives in March, 2007. She flew out yesterday, after 2 years and 5 months with us.
Ty found Gracie perched on a branch by the trash can. She stepped onto his finger and into our hearts. For awhile. I remember falling in love with Gracie. Ty was driving us to Idyllwild, and Gracie was cuddled up next to my neck. She was making soft, clicking sounds like she always does when she is sleepy. She was warm and soft and amazing, this little bird falling asleep on my shoulder, pressing into me for warmth and comfort. "I love Gracie," I declared, and I started to cry. I realized that I loved something I had never loved before, a member of a species that I had only watched in the past, never touched. Birds were rather distant before Gracie; members of a foreign country or an alien race. They were cool to look at, but I had no real connection to them. And then, this green-cheeked conure changed all that and made birds intensely personal, connected to me in such an intimate way that I never recovered from the shock of holding a bird in my hand, this warm, feathered soul who communicated in ways no cat or dog ever could.
By the time I had fallen in love, Ty and Imanya were long over their warm feelings for Gracie. She is a difficult bird. She bit every single person who ever met her, except for my friend Grant (Grant has secret bird powers, so his case is an exception to the rule). It wasn't just a nibble either: Gracie bit with conviction. Ty's loving, affectionate relationship with Gracie finally ended the night that she was struggling to snag one of his grapes off the bunch, was thwarted, and bit him on the nipple. Hard. One would think that she was quite aware of her actions, since she had picked the most sensitive part she could to make her point. After that, Gracie was my bird alone. Imanya no longer was willing to hold her after a series of painful bites to her neck. No one could blame them for their decision; indeed, I was the one who received the most criticism for not finding her a new home . . . but I couldn't, because I had fallen in love and wasn't able to understand Gracie with logic or reason.
Gracie has been labelled spoiled, tyrranical, willful and nasty. She is probably all of those things, but those are human categories of understanding. Somehow, I learned Gracie's language. I never fully figured out the reasons behind her biting, but most of the time it was clear: she wanted something she couldn't have, she resented spending too much time in her cage, she was thirsty or hungry or she simply wanted to be left alone. For the last several months, Gracie and I had honored our relationship: I tried to read her needs, and she didn't bite me with conviction. I loved her, and she loved me. It was simple, and I thought it was working.
I didn't want to clip her wings. It was hard enough to see her cling to the bars of her cage, desperate to get out, when I had to leave the house or wanted to take a nap. I thought allowing Gracie to keep her wings was a kind of trade-off: since I have to keep you in a cage, I won't also remove the last vestiges of your wild nature. I should have seen the warning signs. Over the last couple of weeks, Gracie was starting to test her wings. She flew a circuit in the house before landing on the sofa. She flew around the den a couple of times before landing on me again. Last Friday, she had taken off--startled by construction across the street--to our pine tree by the laundry room. It took over an hour to coax her onto her green sleeve (Gracie's bed) and back down to my shoulder. Ty rescued her that day, a testament of his love for me. No matter how damaged his relationship to Gracie, he was bound and determined to get her back for me. But Gracie was anxious. She seemed more and more willing to take off, startling at noises and other birds in a way she hadn't before.
Finally, yesterday, I made the fatal mistake of walking on the deck with her. I was thinking I could fill the finch feeder quickly and get back inside before Gracie had any time to react. A jackhammer shattered the calm, morning air. Gracie took off, panicked, and hit the window. She spun in a circle and landed on the closest eucalyptus. Ty tried the sleeve at the end of the fishing pole trick, but the fishing pole came apart, leaving the sleeve useless on the tree. Gracie tried to fly back to me, but couldn't or wouldn't make the first jump. She could only fly when startled. She leaned in towards me, walking to the nearest branch, slipping, panicking, reversing direction, trying again. This went on for hours. I had to leave. Before I left, though, I asked for divine guidance. Either Divine Guidance was not on my side, or I had misinterpreted the message. I grabbed the hose and sprayed her, hoping to soak her and cause her to fall from the tree. She simply flew off to a more distant tree, angry that I had treated her poorly.
I came back from work multiple times to try to encourage her to fly to me. She leaned in, attempted to reach me, stumbled, backed up. The last time I came home from work, she was high up in yet a more distant eucalyptus, impossible to reach. I enlisted the neighbors' help and even called three fire stations for help. "Let me get this straight," said a firefighter from Calabasas, "you want me to rescue a bird who is stuck in a tree." "Yes, please." "How did she get to the tree?" "Well, she flew there . . . " "So, ma'am, if she flew there, she's not stuck."
I had no answer for that. I tried to explain that she could only fly when startled, that she didn't know how to fly down, only up and across, but the firefighter was not impressed. I apologized for wasting his time. In the effort to rescue my bird, I made yet another fatal mistake. I showed up at my in-laws' for dinner like usual, as if this were an ordinary Thursday. While I was eating, Gracie was preparing for yet another flight. By the time I arrived at the tree where she was last seen, she had taken off. A neighbor informed us that he heard her down another street just an hour ago. Ty and I started our Gracie rounds, hoping to find her and bring her home before night extinguished the last light of dusk. He whistled from the car, and I called out her name from the passenger side. Up on one street, we both heard her. We jumped out and called, but nothing. She had responded, but she didn't continue to respond. She was out there, somewhere.
We had to give up and come home. We put her cage outside, foolishly thinking she would want to return to it. I spend the night crying and calling out to her at odd hours. This morning, it seemed that every bird that flew by was Gracie. None of them were. There was no characteristic Gracie scream from the hills. I drove back to the street where I last heard her, but between the garbage trucks and the gardeners with blowers, there was no way to hear her. I thought I could make out the sound of her call, but by then my mind was playing tricks on me. I think I hear her everywhere, all those little noises she makes--loud and soft--that are her language.
Gracie is not dead. She is out there somewhere in the treetops. I only cry today when I think that she is hungry and thirsty, and can't find her way home. I wonder if she wants to come home; it appears that she doesn't, that she loves me but needs to be free. I understand that. I know how her incarceration hurt both of us. I hated to see her staring out the window from her sleeve, listening to all the birds that never knew a cage. I also knew that when I held her in my hand and petted that tiny, green head, she blinked softly and made those little noises because she loved me. Not in a human way, but in her way. It was amazing. She was a whole lesson in love and understanding. She opened up the world to me.
I don't know how to understand what has happened. Is my little bird alone, hungry, thirsty and tired, unable to come back to me? Or, is my little bird free to follow her nature? Is she a survivor? Does she need me? If she is hungry and tired, I can't feed her or put her to bed. If she needs me, I can't hold her. I want to think that this is simply the next, natural step in our relationship: we had our time together, and now she has to move on. I will never know, not unless she returns to our home. Even then, I may never know.
I suspect that none of us will ever see her again. I may hear her from time to time, calling out from the tree tops. I won't know if she is calling to me, or to the wilds of the Santa Monica Mountains. I can only offer her my hands, so empty now. I can't offer her the trees, the wind, the sky, and the company of other wild things. To be human is to feel alone. I can only wish better for her.