Another birdsong

 

I held death in the palm of my hand
and I was surprised
at how light and small and soft it was.

Still warm
just a few moments before
it had been delicate and hungry Ė

yes, so very hungry.

Not death at all
but a life. Alive.
I nursed it through the night
and saw it peer at the sunlight
and at me through squinting eyes
for the very first time.
I heard it cry for the last time
Without knowing it was the last time.


Itís not right.

Death should feel different than life;
it should have no warmth;
not hold even a little residual heat,
not even for a moment.

It should not be a small soft thing;
death should be cold bones and a grinning skull Ė
so unlike any living thing
that it cannot jerk tears
from a man with better things to do
than care for baby birds
whose parents in their wisdom
left them to die.

I have never understood death.

By reckoning of the Book of Life
I am myself
more than half way to death
and my feeble mind
still cannot grasp
itís reason or its power.

I first met death on a bright spring day
in the woods of New York Stateís Catskill mountains.
It appeared to me in the form of a blue jay.

I had never seen anything so beautiful
so near to my young eyes:
The colors were so profoundly rich
that I was too busy considering myself lucky
to be close to something so magical
that I did not realize the bird was dead.

I picked it up in my small hands and it felt warm.

I cradled it, making sure
the lovely creature would not be hurt
as I walked back to show my grandmother,
the one I knew I could not bear to see die.

Itís dead, she told me, matter-of-factly.
Go bury it in the woods.

But her words made no sense.
How could something so beautiful be dead?

Iíll put it in a tree, I told her. Birds belong in trees.
Yes, she replied, that is almost as good.


The next year they told me my grandfather was dying.
In six weeks he would be gone.

Those words too
made no sense.
How could he die?
He was too old.
Heíd been old for as long as I was alive,
even if that was only five years.

In church while the Sears catalog electronic organ
droned the music of the Agnus Dei
from the 1917 version of the American Lutheran Hymnal,

the most beautiful music in the world I thought,

I prayed that God would not let my grandfather die
I prayed that He would not let anyone or anything die.

But that was before the Sunday school teacher
had taught me about Original Sin
and the Cross and Judas and Pontius Pilate.

I still cry when baby birds die
even though Iíve seen a lot of life;
sometimes I think a lot more than Iíve wanted to see.

I have prayed at the bedside of those
who were begging their Jesus to take them home;
prayed with their hand in mine;
prayed until I felt their hand go limp;
prayed until I heard the rattle.

I talked a man out of killing himself once;
He had the gun in his hand and he gave it to me.
I threw it into a storm sewer. I heard the splash.

I almost talked another out of killing himself.
It didnít work. I read about his death three days later.

I talked a man out of killing me once.
He had the gun in his hand and I saw him pull back the bolt
and when I started to pray
he began to cry.
He cried.
I cried.

Iím always crying about something.

He handed me the gun, butt end first.

I flung it into to woods.
It was night and I woke the birds.
I heard them flutter nervously and craw their annoyance
and I hoped none of the babies fell out of their nests.

I even died myself once.

My heart and my breath stopped and I saw that tunnel of light;
the one scientists who donít want to hope too much
tell us is just our dying brains
responding to the decay of the visual cortex.

I never got to find out because they brought me back.

Iím old enough to know now
and my education is full of sacred Ėisms.
I really should be able to make sense of it now.

I even have a pet crow that I love almost as much
as if she were human
that a woman more innocent
than I ever was, even as five year old
told me means I must love death.

But all that withstanding

I simply

do not

understand.