Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Bird and a Car

I tend to think everything is a symbol and have been wrestling with an event that happened to me last week in Vermont.

My husband and I had just spent a satisfying few hours at my son’s boarding school—dinner with one of his teachers, followed by an end-of-school jazz concert. Our son plays the trumpet, and we were glad to see him performing.  We’d been attending his concerts for twelve years, the first one when he was five years old.

You could see summer in the students’ faces.  A professional photographer, hired by the school, was stopping groups of kids for smiles and arm-in-arm pictures.  We didn’t linger after the concert because our son had to finish an English paper, so we made our way back to my brother’s house--driving down a pretty road with farms on either side and the sky full of dusk and warmth.  I felt happy and was recounting the goodness when a flock of birds flew low across the road and we felt a light thump under the car. 

That thump sent me into gloomdom.   Me and the sky got very black.  I asked my husband to please drive slowly, fearing more unseen birds, and I became angry and disoriented because my moment of pleasure once winging through me had been smacked down, and now my thoughts twisted over whether we had killed or injured the bird and how it was all my fault.  We turned onto the state road and stopped at a gas station about 2 miles from where the bird collided under the car. We needed milk for our morning coffee.  

When I came out of the store, a small bird was hopping around the pavement next to the car one wing pointing up at an odd angle.  It was heart ripping.  Somehow it had got stuck under our car. Of course the poor thing was terrified, flapping and hopping on the oil-stained pavement near our car tires and blinded by the store’s bright security spot lights. I didn't want to leave it.  So we tried to nudge the bird (the size of my hand, duff-colored and sleek) into a paper bag but it kept trying to fly away.  In its panic (and mine—I was shaking), it flopped onto the busy state road.  My husband, good man that he is, walked out to the middle of the road and calmly put his hand up to stop traffic. And stop they did (which is why I adore Vermont and my husband). A small line of cars waited patiently as my husband shepherded the panicking bird across the road.  One man opened his car window and said quietly, “It looks like his wing is broken.”
Finally, the bird got over to the other side onto a thick, green lawn and managed, after another huge effort (and my failure yet again to get it into the paper bag), to disappear under an evergreen tree next to a white, clapboard house.  At that point, we stood there in the dark.  We could have tried to fetch it, but then what?  I guess I felt that we had done all we could do for the dear bird.   I said a prayer for it and for the rest of the night and the next day kept thinking about it and wondering about it under that tree.  How was it doing? Was it still alive?  Would a cat find it?  Would it drink water beading on the tree’s low lying limbs? Would it have the strength to poke for  bugs? Would the person who lived in the house next to the tree discover it?  Save it?
My heart hurt over this as I tried to understand why it had happened at that moment and how it was my fault. Was the bird accident a portent of something to come?  
The next day I learned my father was admitted to the hospital for chest pains and weakness. But all his tests were negative and after an overnight stay, he was sent back home. I also learned that a friend’s neighbor, a young father in his forties, was rushed to the hospital. A healthy man, something had gone wrong neurologically. It was sudden and awful. The neighbor is still in the hospital.  All his neighbors, including my friend, are rallying for him, taking on chores, helping his family.  I’m sending prayers. 

And I keep thinking about that bird.

Last night I googled “how to help a bird with a broken wing” and discovered that I could have done more. I could have taken the bird back to my brother’s house and found a vet the next day.  I could have tried to wrap its wing with gauze.  I could have. I could have.

But I didn’t. So I try to let this go. I thank the bird for touching me with its spirit.  It’s so sad, and yet so very much what nature throws at us all the time. --My father’s chest pains; my friend’s neighbor’s seizure.

I still think I need to try harder next time. One instant that bird was soaring across the road and then its life changed, and so did mine.


  1. What an incredible, amazing essay about the moments that do change us--really haunting, Jessica, and beautifully, beautifully written.

  2. It's so true about things changing in a moment's time. My friend whose son was brain injured after an overdose and brutal assault was just told that while her son's youth will certainly serve him well in terms of brain healing, the likelihood that he will ever be self-sufficient or able to live normally is near zero. Her life and the lives of everyone in her family are altered forever as they enter a long, difficult period of advocating for services for him.

    When I received the call that my father (at home with Hospice care for nearly a year) was probably having his last day, I finished my morning barn chores and then set out to go be with him and my mom.

    On the way, a large turtle was crossing a road near our house where logging trucks tend to travel at speeds far too fast, and in a panic I called my husband on the cell phone, torn between wanting to stop and do what we always do - carry the turtle safely to the other side of the road - and continue on my way to my father, who was ready to say goodbye.

    Looking back, there was something so poignant about that turtle, that morning, and my husband calling me back to say that he had driven to the main road and rescued the turtle. To know that on the day I would lose my father, my husband was busy rescuing turtles for me was both a sign and a comfort.

    I have no doubt that your encounter with the bird brought a message to you. Sometimes it takes us awhile to sort out these messages, but that we are open to them, and honor them, is the important thing.

    If you haven't read Ted Andrews' Animal Speak, you might enjoy it. It's a book that stays on my desk at all times.

  3. Such beautiful writing and perfectly true observations... from "You could see summer in the students’ faces" to the startling change in the day when the bird met its fate.

    All I can say is that I am desperate for this blog to become a book.

  4. Billie-what an inspiring and moving story. Something about your dad and that turtle, and your husband's lovely gesture intertwining with you creates its own kind of symphony. I'm definitely getting Ted's book. Thank you.

  5. Sue-I'm working on it. Thanks for urging me on.

  6. It made me think of a time I was walking through the woods and came across a great horn owl. It was on the ground and did not attempt to fly away when I approached. I was about a three mile hike from my car, it was getting dark, and I did not know what to do. I wanted to help the bird, but I did not want to alarm the bird. So I left.

    All night I thought of the poor owl, so I got up before sunrise and drove back to the trail head. By dawn I was back at the site. The bird was there, but it was dead. I wept. I felt so bad. I still feel bad. I always think, maybe I could have helped it, got it to a vet, something. I ended up burying the bird.

    I still think of it, though.

  7. Blue Moon:
    Woah! Your comment made me feel less alone. I think most of us, if not all of us, have encountered something like this; yet, somehow we imagine we can fix everything, which of course, we can't. Thank you for sharing this story. I bet that owl was gorgeous. And I'm glad you had a chance to bury it. It's not the ending you wanted, but the cycle was completed.

  8. Adding that Blue Moon is Naseem Rakha and everyone reading this must read her book: The Crying Tree.
    More about Naseem here:

  9. Your piece on the bird in Vermont reminded me of hearing Kathie Russo, Spalding Gray's widow, interviewed on Fresh Air. A little bird serves as a symbol, or perhaps messanger, to help her and her children deal with Spalding's suicide. Here is a link if you want to hear the interview...

    Remembering Spalding Gray: Kathie Russo : NPR
    Terry Gross speaks with Kathie Russo, Spalding Gray's widow.

    One more thought...I suppose that all symbols are messengers, aren't they?

  10. Paula,
    Thank you so much for this NPR link and your thoughts. I agree with you about symbols. Whether we notice and listen is another matter. Off to listen to Kathie Russo--

  11. This was written so beautifully and is such a metaphor for so many things. I, too, believe in "signs" but I also feel terrible that you took it so personally and wished you had done more. You are such a gentle and caring person and so is your husband.

    Maybe that is the message...that none of us are perfect but if we are kind and always try to do our best, we can get through anything?


  12. Robin--I'm all for what you said: Maybe that is the message...that none of us are perfect but if we are kind and always try to do our best, we can get through anything?

    A comforting thought.

  13. Robin,
    What you said:
    "Maybe that is the message...that none of us are perfect but if we are kind and always try to do our best, we can get through anything?"

    That's a comforting thought. Thanks.

  14. I love you so much for this story. If a fraction of us had the compassion and sensitivity that you and your husband showed to that bird, this would be a different world.

    Of course, I can't help thinking of all the birds in the Gulf, preening oil from their wings and claws. It is an ongoing heartbreak.

  15. Patry,
    What you said has left me speechless.

  16. I love you for writing this ... and your husband for caring ... and Vermont drivers for not leaning on their horns ... and your friends for leaving comments ... and oh, see what you've done to me? I'm melting into a puddle.

  17. Ellen,
    Thank you for stopping by here. I was so glad to meet you in NYC last week. I've put your novels next on my reading list after I finish Gilead and The Quickening.