Ever since I saw the dead bird on the sidewalk when I was a child, I knew I wanted to be a writer. More than anything, I wanted to describe the reddish hue of its spread wings, the glassy stones that had become its eyes, the way the natural shroud of death had spread over the bird completely.
So many people see a dead bird and all of a sudden they are infused with an overwhelming, burning desire to be a vet. I can understand this kind of thing inspiring someone to become an coroner, but how exactly would a vet treat a dead bird? Ignore the question mark. It’s not a question; it’s a statement. I don’t need an answer, though I half-anticipate a certain overzealous reader of this blog to explain it in some detail. (You know who you are. Please stop or I will block you.)
Looking back, I think it was actually quite a traumatizing experience. I remember I caught a glimpse of the dead bird as my foot descended towards it. In that terrible moment, I could almost hear the crunch of its bones; feel my shoe sink into its body; feel absurd guilt flow through my veins. It didn’t happen, of course. I managed to avoid stepping on it, albeit just barely. Yet, even as an adult, in the moment between anticipating something happening, and the actual occurrence, I’ll sometimes feel the same sinking feeling and think of that little dead bird.
Today I sit at my computer, watching the cursor blink at me tauntingly, wordlessly daring me to perform some feat of cunning, to transform the unthinkable into something structured, something comprehensible. Words in a sentence, sentences in paragraphs, paragraphs on pages: I’ve always relied on words. I think I’ve done right by them. Words aren’t supposed to fail me--me, of all people, with half a dozen New York Times best sellers under my very well-buckled belt—but today they do.
Today, the words in my head are the doctor’s, as he says he regrets to inform us that Andy doesn’t have much time left—a few days, maybe a week, at most. My wife and I have deathbed conversations in code, the kind you never think you’ll have until you do.
“I should go with him. I’m his mother.” Gingerly, she pushes his hair away from his closed eyes.
“You’re Penelope’s mother, too. You have to stay here for her,” I tell her, “I’ll do it.”
But Joanna’s eyes fill with tears again as she whispers, “She needs you, too. And I can’t do this without you,” and my broken heart shatters even more.
I find people expect life lessons from writers, some kind of translation of horror into normality, so here’s a bit of wisdom for you: no matter how small the pieces are already, a heart can break into smaller ones. I’m sorry if you wanted more from me. Maybe another day I’ll be able to tell you how he fills me with the strength I need to continue living in this world without him. I hope that day will come. But that day is not today.
Today, I watch him sleep. I try to savour the moment, remember exactly which way his hair curls, and how his little fingers clutch the pillow, and I lie to myself. I tell myself I’m like any other father watching his son sleep. I write a happy ending and imagine him all grown up, watching his own sleeping child. My breath comes in synchrony with his laboured one, mine catching when his does. I watch him sleep and I see that little dead bird, feel that helpless in-between moment, and wish, more than anything, that I could take a miraculous sidestep and avoid this completely.
Strange, isn't it? My son is dying and all I can do to make sense of it is write about the dead bird of my youth.