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Denise Ullem Headshot

A Bird and a Lesson

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"Mommy?! Mommy!"

"Yes, babe?"

"I need to show you something. Can you please come here?"

"Let me finish bringing in the groceries and I'll be right there."

I rounded up the last bags and dropped them in the kitchen. I walked through the house, looking for Abby.

"Abby?"

Her words curled through the open front door, "Out here. On the front porch."

I met her there and she greeted me with downcast eyes. I noticed her pensive thoughtfulness. She spoke quietly,

"Mommy, a bird died."

I looked down to where she pointed. The smallest, downy bird lay on the red brick of our front steps. Its eyes were open. Its wings rested softly around its body. By my estimation, the bird measured no more than three inches long.

"Mommy. I want to touch it."

"Ok, Abby. I'll get some latex gloves for us and then I'll carry her to the forest for you. Would you like that?"

"Yes, but what if she wakes up?", she asked in one, big exhale.

"Honey, she won't wake up. She's dead."

"How do you know, Mom?"

"Well, because birds are afraid of humans and don't typically sleep on brick steps."

This answer sated her.

Into the house I went to get the latex gloves. I learned upon my return that Abby decided she wanted to carry the body of this bird to the forest. I swallowed the lump in my throat.

Led by his intense curiosity, Henry had finally wandered out to the front porch. Abby showed him the bird, told him it was dead and explained what we were going to do. Henry crunched his 5-year-old body down over the bird and whispered,

"Oh sweet wittle biwrd. Oh poor sweet little biwrd. What happened? I'm so sowwy you'wre dead."

(long pause)

"Mommy?"

"Yes, H?"

"I want to come to burwy the biwrd, too."

Shoes and more latex gloves were procured.

*****

We were in the last hours of the afternoon, the chill of the pending fall evening sat in the valley of its shadows. Abby leaned down and gently patted the bird's downy underbelly with her latexed pointer finger. Then, she deftly cupped her hand and picked up its dead body.

"Mommy?"

"Yes, Abby."

"Why do we bury things?" Her query teetered on the edge of a thousand more.

I left her question lingering in the air.

Solemnly, Abby led our single-file procession and we headed to the woods in our yard.

Halfway on our journey, Henry asked if we could pry open the bird's beak and look into its throat. I discouraged this. If I had a scalpel handy, Henry would've performed a dissection, right there in the front yard.

We reached the forest. Abby sought a spot where she hoped the little bird would be very comfortable. With the dappled, late-afternoon sunshine and autumnal scents as our companions, I pushed aside a layer of October leaves, revealing a damp, midnight-black patch of Earth. Abby squatted down and gently laid the bird's body onto the dark, mulched forest floor.

Henry, the budding biologist/doctor/engineer asked for one last "tuwrn" with the bird and stretched its wings to full capacity.

I watched in amazement, thinking about how remarkable it was that we all got to touch a bird that had flown in the sky. Simple, I know, but magnificent. I watched their curious heads, tilted in toward the bird's body. I watched their red cheeks and probing eyes and noted their somber reverence. I stood in wonder of Henry's constant curiosity and by the depths my 8-year-old daughter's compassion.

After Henry completed his turn, Abby confidently and gently returned the bird to its final resting place. With a small stick, I covered its body with fallen leaves. Abby found some forest flowers while I found a rock for a headstone.

After all was in place, the three of us squatted around the grave. Then, I spoke. I thanked the bird for being a part of our world. I talked about life. And death. And how each requires the other.

We stayed in silence for a few more moments. I noted the dark of the grave and the waning light of the sun; the softness of the bird's feathers and the dark, cold Earth; the tenderness of my children absorbing this searing lesson in life and the hard reality of death.

*****

A few hours later, the light retreated and the darkness descended. We started our inaugural fire of the year and I set up dinner in the family room. As the golden flames flickered in our brick fireplace, we sat in a circle. Before we ate, I asked Abby if she'd like to say grace. She nodded quietly and then spoke, offering thanks for our food, our lives, our health. And then she offered,

"I hope that little bird will make its way back again one day."

I basked in softness and wisdom of Abby's grace. I felt, like a whisper, a divine fluttering in our space.

This post originally appeared on Denise's blog, Universal Grit.