Not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. – Matthew 10:29
About a month ago, I found a bird that was dying outside of my home. It was the day after the three-year anniversary of my grandmother’s passing, and I was steeped in the ghost of her. I wished that every butterfly I saw on my noontime dog walk was a sign that she was with me, every warming ray of sunlight, a gentle reminder that she loved me greatly then, and now, and always.
It was lying there, next to the small pathway to our front door. The dogs, eager to fulfill the role Mother Nature gave them, strained on their leashes to investigate the tiny, broken body.
I cried out, thinking that the stunned creature was dead. I swept the eager, open-mouthed canines away from the lifeless bird and ushered them inside.
From the other side of the glass door, I pinched my eyes together, clutching a plastic bag to my chest. I knew I would have to remove the animal from the walk, but the thought of tossing the poor thing in the dumpster with the feces of the neighborhood pets and the scraps from our dining room table seemed unthinkable. It seemed unsuitable.
When I opened my eyes and focused on the nearly spherical brown and cream body, I noticed that the feathers on his downy chest were moving in a haggard and pained way. As I rushed outside, I saw the one, black beady eye open and close slowly and with effort.
I ran back inside and took the stairs in threes. I began searching my closet for an old t-shirt to wrap the creature in, a gigantic white thing of rough cotton given to me after a race, never worn and faded after one wash.
I wrapped the bird in the t-shirt and sat on the stoop, rocking it back and forth. I began to sob.
I knew a decision was upon me: to end the bird’s life and to bring its suffering to a halt or to sit and wait until the bird left this world on its own. I thought about with one, swift twist of its precious head, the singular, working eye would close, the quivering chest would ease, and the ineffectual legs that spasmodically kicked would relax. I thought about how the plastic bag that stood empty on the kitchen floor through the other side of glass would cut his oxygen supply off. A quicker death, I thought. Maybe more peaceful? I thought about yielding a large rock or the surface of the ponds that would hungrily swallow him whole. They say that drowning is a peaceful death, but then, how does anyone ever know?
Yet, every time I felt my hand move from the nest of cotton I had created, I sobbed harder, rocked him again, and prayed more loudly.
How can the “humane” decision, feel so barbaric and cruel?
And so, I sat on my front porch, the hot September sun turning my pale skin a slow and steady crimson. Tears ran fervently down my cheeks, mixing with the mucus that poured unstoppered from my nose. My mouth mumbled words to God, urging Him to ease his suffering, as my eyes remained locked on the dark eye that struggled to stay open.
We sat like this for over an hour, the little bird and I. I watched him as he slipped in and out of death. He watched me slip in and out of grief.
Eventually, I placed the folds of the shirt on the bricks that line our garden and dialed the number for my mother. Through inconsolable sobs, I told her what had happened and how I was lost. I couldn’t take the bird’s life, this both she and I knew. Couldn’t just walk away.
She didn’t laugh as others did when I told them this story. She did not sit in judgement of how foolish I was, how silly it seemed to spend so much time making a mountain out of a sparrow. Instead, she sighed when I sighed, and soothed when I needed soothing.
Then she instructed me to take the bird to the woods and allow it to go in peace.
And so I did – picking the bird up in its coffin of cotton, I began to walk to my favorite place in the woods. We passed the two ponds, not yet cluttered with the colors of autumn, and turned down the small road. The sunlight fell glittering through the thick tree tops, splattering him and I in golden white triangles.
My eyes burned, producing the last remaining tears in my body. They fell slowly onto my arms and into the valleys of the cloth I carried and the precious animal inside.
As we walked, the bird jerked itself onto its back, so it could look up at me, its belly fighting gravity as it took some of its final breaths. The sole, black eye that followed me so closely for the past hour and a half was joined by its partner, swollen and bruised but open and lovingly looking up at my face. And though I can never prove it, I felt a deep sense of trust and understanding pass between him and I. A knowing.
I rounded the bend by the old, stone farmhouse and came upon a nest of ivy next to the babbling creek. I placed him carefully in the green leaves and with one final blessing, left him to die in peace, surrounded by nature and the sound of the bubbling water.
When they had told me my Nonie died three years earlier, I was angry.
I had been careful to instruct all of the nurses at the hospice to call me the minute something had gone wrong. I had told my family the same. I was determined to be there with her as it happened. I wanted to be with her as she took her last breath, just as she was present with me when I took my first.
That was how it was supposed to happen.
When I arrived at my aunt and uncle’s house, I yelled at my parents. And now I can’t even remember if I hugged them first or if I just launched into how it had all gone wrong. They were supposed to have told me. Why didn’t my father call me? The nurses should have called. Why didn’t they? I was supposed to have been there. How could this have happened?
Nothing was going as I had planned and if I was to lose one of the most important people in my life, it would happen in the way I wanted it to happen. And it didn’t.
A week later, a marble box stood before me, a plaque telling me this rectangle was now my grandmother. There was no viewing to help make sense of the loss, no final moment with her body to ease me into the grief.
And I was angry at her for that. I wanted her to have the final moments she deserved: long lines of friends and family to walk past her coffin and wail and wrench and throw themselves over her body. I wanted to see the many lives she had touched, the magnitude of this woman, celebrated and honored the way she deserved. And, ever so cruelly, I wanted to see her dead, because then the tiny, childlike voice inside of me who said it was all a lie could stop filling me with hope of her return. It could silence the dream that I would get one more embrace, one more telephone call, one final “I love you.”
And I was angry that even in death, she was trying to protect her family from pain and suffering. Even after a life filled with sacrifice and devotion, she chose to sacrifice yet again, chose to keep her death as humble as her life. Chose to slip away quietly and peacefully, under white, cotton sheets.
I began saying shortly after my grandmother’s death, once the anger plunged into grief and sorrow, that she would not have wanted me present on her final day. She may have even fought it, knowing that I was there. She had wanted me to remember her as alive, not as some soulless thing in a pine box.
And I knew this was the truth, but knowing and deeply understanding are two very different enterprises. And while my mouth made the sounds that a rational, logical-thinking adult would say, the orphaned child inside of me drew her hands into fists and punched her legs and stamped her feet and denied the understanding from permeating the thick layers of loss that surrounded my broken heart.
That is, until I saw him, the bird, turn to me and open both of his eyes in gratitude and trust. I was instantly reminded of how my grandmother looked at me as I left her on our final day together. The love that was profoundly understood, the knowledge of each other that needed no clarification. The trust that I would be well. The belief that I would live. For her and for me.
The way it was supposed to be.
Hamlet: There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.