It is March on the front range of Colorado, which means that more snow is coming, but today it feels like early summer. I moved to a new home in December and the gardens have secrets to tell. I do not know what will bloom this season or the next. I have a lot of work to do, and my son and I get started. We trim down the ornamental grasses. Tall stalks that surround the deck gave me a cloistered feeling from inside my house this winter, but it is time to make room for new things. And then I notice the dead bird on a small bare bush in one corner of the yard.
Look, a dead bird, I tell my six-year old son.
I will bury it, he says.
This past week my dear friend Corina, who is a child and trauma therapist, shared some important insight about my son’s development. His sister, Mary Rose, died when he was two and a half. The experience of watching me struggle through my sad second pregnancy and meeting his sister one day, only to have her gone the next day are blueprints of his life. Had she died when he was older than three, perhaps this would not be such a strong indicator of his behavioral patterns. Now at six years old, his understanding of life is concrete. He drew a family portrait at school with the three of us. He tells me that dead doesn’t count, that he doesn’t have a sister if she doesn’t have an earthly body. So I get plastic gloves and instead of talking about Mary Rose, we bury the bird together.
Tim gets a shovel and works hard to break into the cold earth under the grass. I reach for the small gray bird, but its feet are still hooked onto the bare branch. I pry them off. The bird is holding on even in death. The bird is light. I carry it to the hole in the grass.
Dead is not bad, I say to my son, as I lower my hands. Just different. See how the body is still from no more breath?
The angel came to take the bird’s soul, he replies.
I lower the bird into the earth.
Do you want to say a prayer? I ask.
God help the bird’s souls, he says.
We cover the burial place with brown grass. My son reaches for the yogurt container that he was using to move dirt in the garden and shows me a brown rock.
I will put this rock here, so I can remember the bird, he says. And he does.
We read the book The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown a few months ago. Dear Judy Baumel sent me a pdf with the original illustrations by Remy Charlip. My son followed the story this early spring day. He even wanted to make a sign The Dead Bird on paper, as the children make a sign in the story.
Rereading The Dead Bird I wonder about the seeds of the book living in my boy who has known such loss. In the book Margaret Wise Brown shares a song that the children sing to the bird that they find and bury.
Oh bird you’re dead
You’ll never fly again…
We sing to you
Because you’re dead
And we buried you
In the ground
With ferns and flowers
Because you will never fly
Again in the sky…
Little Dead Bird
And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird…
Reader, do you have a song for your dead?
Last weekend Aniela’s spiritual mother died, but when she was still dying, Aniela asked me to pray because Eleanore was afraid. I sang Eleanore a song in the night that is almost morning. I sang Eleanore a song, because even though we never met, we are one creation living and dying and walking through the thresholds. I cried for Eleanore as the angels gathered to usher her soul to the Light, and I cried for the bird in my hand.
In church Alexandra tells me You do grief well. I held life and death in my womb and in my hands. I cannot unknow what I now know. I believe in life and I believe in death. They are both the reality of all who live on this earth. Some of us do not ignore death or the dead. I remember the ones I love who left their earthly bodies as I sip my tea and sing my song. I clip away dead flowers and trim branches. But the branches of my red-stemmed bush are not dead. They are green inside and they will continue to grow and bloom and reach for the sun and the foothills.
And I will continue to sing for my baby girl and my miscarried babies as the years go by.
Please join me. We are living together, and we will not forget.
Illustration above by Remy Charlip.