I own a caged bird made up of thousands of serious marks by several colored pencils on paper, framed. None of it is particularly bird-like except the woman I know who applied each one. I met her in a room in an institution in my grandmother’s country. She was one of a group who spent their days in an art room. When one of them began hitting his head and shrieking, I asked my colleagues to leave and I sat down and started drawing birds, too. The silent making in that space brought us all back home. Eventually their caregiver tapped me on the shoulder and said, we knew you were coming from far away. We have a song for you. They handed out instruments to each other and stood in a circle around their art desks and starting singing, loud enough to carry into the clinically sterile halls outside. I clapped my wings and let their foreign calls delight me, until an older man who could sing but not speak wrote on his dry erase board: Ask our visitor to sing a song for us.
If I sing these words about you, you stay alive with me. If I craft these scenes from our past here you still are in them. Humans, by dint of language, are the only beings capable of a future conditional tense. It enables the birds to sing in the daybreak after the night of our death, and we hear them. And the more sensitive, by the size of the eyes of the bird, the earlier the song begins. And the more comfortable and active they are in the dark, from where you also emerge.
At some point in their circle of death the birds turned towards me and they told me matter-of-factly you had been taken. Gone. Right from the middle of me. The swaths of memory that made you part of me flew out of an absence and circled themselves over and over as clear as today. Some sort of compensation for the violence that I will never see or talk to you again. I would also learn that someone took something from you when we were young that wasn’t theirs to take. It stole parts of your life increasingly, until you were gone. We were born right across the street from each other. Now I am living and you are not. This song is my deepest apology.
Some of the most beautiful birds in the circle know me through intimate, timely words over incredible distances. At the moment when I thought you were most gone, it was as if you were sitting across from me. In her knowing, the beautiful poet bird just then wrote: somehow when they leave the body, they become closer to our hearts.
And yes, these songs fall out like feathers, like when at the end of one morning, the birder opened her car door to leave and told me the lump was cancer. That same day I held Magnolia Warbler who had been found struggling on the ground, and in my hand he shrieked a distress which was the call that there is unfathomable suffering without the consolation of reason.
One morning of those 43 mornings in a row, before the other birders arrived, there at the edge of the puddle was a bird I knew well and would make me famous to other birders for the week. How funny since he was a common bird to me, Varied Thrush, from a dark path along the reservoir near my west coast home. But here, he was a long way out of range. The place I often find myself. Who knows how these specialists drift thousands of miles from their homes, how this tiny bird managed to cross over the Rocky Mountains. Surely alone. We are birds along a life-long commute of thousands of miles. These words are the apology when one goes off course.
Thank you to our parents who let us little kids out to play together hours on end, often into the darkness. Thank you to my mom who visited him a few weeks before in the hospital, to remind him he was not his diagnosis. Though the tattoos of darkness were adding up on his body, there is always the light of possibility for all our self-inked narratives to be not true.
After the 4 hours a day every morning I spent with these birders, the migration season was over. It reminds me of the moment I left that institution where the caged birds sang and made art for their entire lives. A part of me stayed behind to keep drawing birds. But along a corridor on the way out, a mother was visiting her son. He sat alone from the group flatly staring out a window, and she was petting his head, preening him with all her loving attention.
The birders leave because the birds move on. The last bird spotted was an emerald blur of a tiny hummingbird that was late for the cold air. It hovered over our heads just long enough for even the slowest of us to register and then it zipped away into the invisible.
“Birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass.” Jim Harrison