Earlier this week a wren flung herself against the sliding glass door that leads to our patio. It was the hard thump that alerted me … and Barley, my mid-sized golden doodle. We looked at each other for a few moments and then headed over to see what had happened.
The poor bird was lying on her back fluttering her wings, propelling her body in a circle on the step. At one point she was able to flip over on her front, but as soon as she tried to fly, she flipped back over, panting. Her soft plump body was heaving.
When I was a child, so many birds whacked into the old farm house window that I was hopeful she would recover, as most of them did. So I left her laying there, hoping that Buddy, our neighborhood prowler, didn’t sniff her out. Barley decided to keep her company inside. He lay with his nose and paws as close to the window that separated them as he could get, staring at her like she was a gin & tonic on the 4th of July.
On my childhood farm we talked about “putting animals out of their misery”. Dogs, cats, badgers, the occasional coyote who got a little too close to the combine. My mom would always look at me mournfully and say, “Honey, it’s suffering. You don’t want it to suffer do you?” Meanwhile dad would head out with the 22. I wasn’t so sure about that. I dreaded hearing the crack of the gun. It made me a little wary about my own demise.
It probably didn’t help that I watched Gunsmoke and similar western movies. I anticipated the moment when a horse would break a leg. I swear it happened in every movie. Really? A broken leg meant the entire horse should die? I didn’t really get it. Still don’t.
When my maternal Grandfather died, whom my mother adored, my mom said that all she felt at that point was relief. It was a drawn out, difficult passing. I couldn’t help but think that she missed her calling as Dr. Kevorkian’s assistant. If she had the choice, she would have cranked up the meds happily to ease Grandpa out of his (and her) misery. If you have had a loved one die slowly, you know that the distance between hospice and Dr. Kevorkian is pretty small. To cope she chain-smoked Salem Lights and drank whiskey at noon.
I got that empathy gene, I guess. (Not the whiskey or smoking gene, knock on wood.) I hate it when people are hurting. No matter the cause. I rarely think someone deserves their suffering, emotional or physical. Suffering can be the result of poor choices, and perhaps that is as it should be, but mostly I think suffering really sucks. It will be question numero uno on my God list when the roll is called up yonder. I really hope there is a God because – seriously – I have some majorly unresolved questions. I will be so mad if there isn’t.
Back to my little bird. A little over an hour later, the poor thing was still there, exposed on its back, eyes darting around, breathing heavily. I thought about the farm. I thought about the bird. I felt I needed to do SOMEthing.
So, I grabbed a dish towel and went outside, gently scooping up the bird. She fluttered a little, but calmed down – I hope because she felt a little safer, not terrified. Before I placed her under the Japanese Maple where she would be protected, I stood there holding her soft body in my hands and talked to her. I promised her everything would be alright, and that I still believed she could make it. I told her that she should just let herself rest thinking if she died, she could do so feeling a little more protected with the dish towel and leaves. We were there together a few moments, looking at each other: me lost in the wonder of her little eyes, her peering at me. Then I placed her gently under the tree.
What is kindness and respect in death? Is “putting something/one out of misery” the natural approach? I suppose I could have taken a shovel and ended her suffering like it is done on the farm. But, if you know me, you know I really couldn’t have. Let’s just say fishing is not my sport.
It seemed like the kinder thing (for her and me) was to provide her with a safer, more comfortable place to hear her last song. Or if, by some miracle, she was to recover, all the better. I do not equivocate a bird’s suffering with human suffering, but we have a connection to all animals that is special – and when an animal suffers, we do too.
Later that evening I checked under the tree and she was lifeless. So I picked up her soft little body and found a place to bury her up from the creek behind my house. Even in death she was such a beautiful, precious bird.