This is Nell, the cockatiel. He died back in 2000 when I was pregnant with my first and only child. Nell was an unlikely friend, and one of the sweetest, gentlest beings I have ever met and known.
As one gets older, the holidays are often a time of remembering loved ones who are no longer with us in the flesh. I found myself needing to find and pull out the one photo I have of a dear friend. This bird, who was called Nell.
It was my first year in college and I went back home to visit my mom on a break. To my surprise, besides the two cats I had left, she had somehow acquired a bird, and in a cage no less. She told me that an elderly woman she knew could no longer care for him and pleaded with her to take him. I had never been around captive birds and was immediately put off by the idea of a bird in a cage. The cage was spacious, not cramped, but still, I was looking at something foreign to my life. I leaned in close to get a look at him and what did he do? He hissed at me! Being a sassy 18-year-old, I rebuked the bird and regarded him with greater disdain.
Mom was actually fond of him. Weird.
Fast forward 5 years and my mother has moved and I am living in her apartment in the city where I went to college. I have been given the cats and bird to care for while I live in the apartment and while my mother has moved on to another place, where she cannot have any animals. First thing I do is get Nell a really big cage and I begin letting him out regularly to fly around and be more free. We become buddies. Nell is gentle and has as kind and loving eyes as a dolphin or whale.
He makes large swooping laps around the spacious living room that is furnished with over 40 plants. I am sure he felt he was in a temperate jungle. He clearly loved it. I made sure he got his calcium and I made a nest for him to sleep in. The nest was the flat part of a rope basket I made with scraps of fabric. It was sort of made like this, except I didn’t sew it. I bound it together with the fabric scraps. He loved it, but once in a while I would have to make a new one because of how birds poop wherever they happen to be (a slight drawback of loving a bird). After laps around the room, Nell would ride on my shoulder as I did whatever I needed to do around the house. We became buddies, through and through. He even had a tender spot for the cats. One cat was friendly to him and the other, the female, I had to watch like a hawk when Nell was out. The male cat though, was a different story. He would let Nell stand on his back and groom his hair. Nell was a nurturing kind of bloke.
I learned how to whistle back to him in his language and whenever I did, he would puff out his feathers and rub his beak on a branch in his cage and answer me. Basically, over time, there was no more hissing or reproaches between us. It became pure love.
Since I had taken voice lessons for years and had been in choir in college, I often would sing at home, especially when I would clean and when I was in the living room, which had great acoustics. I would let Nell out while I cleaned in the living room and after his laps he would stand on the top of his cage, to hang out. One day, I began singing and noticed Nell was doing something very unusual. He was acting like he was drinking the air. Wow, I thought, he loves the singing! He is drinking the air, like he does his water. What an amazing compliment! Sure enough, I tested the theory out many times and each time I sang, he would “drink the air”. Since I have been too shy to sing solo in front of people, that was a great and profound gift/award.
Some years later, I was married and we had moved to a 50’s ranch house in a more quiet part of the city. Nell and the cats were still with us. However, something began slowly to happen to Nell. He started to not have the energy to fly much and he began plucking his feathers out. So, I made little clothes for him, to cover the area that he was plucking.
Since I am not good at sewing and have never learned to use a machine, the clothes were kind of primitive, but did the job of keeping him warm in the bald area without impinging on his wings. He seemed to like them. What was happening with Nell was that he had a cancerous tumor in an inoperable area. The only thing to do was to keep an eye on him, to make sure he wasn’t suffering and to know that at some point, he would need to be euthanized. The vet said that I would notice a difference in his behavior; that I would just know.
The difficult part was, I didn’t, not for a long while. Because, I finally realized, Nell would never stop being sweet or gentle or brave. He kept on shining bright, being who he was. But there was a day when I realized that Nell was going to be brave and strong and hang in there for as long as I needed him to, without question. We had grown so close.
There was a morning when I removed his clothes and began sobbing, realizing that I and he couldn’t continue like this. I was pregnant and I didn’t want to have to euthanize him. I had never had to do that before. I sat on the couch with him on my shoulder, sobbing. As I sobbed, Nell moved to nestle against me under my chin. It felt so precious, that moment. And as he nestled my neck, he began drinking from the stream of my salty tears. I knew then that he was saying yes to the letting go.
Mom drove me and Nell to the vet. On the way, I sang him his favorite songs as he stayed in the crook of my neck. At the vet, he showed me, finally, how tired he was and how ready he was to move on. He laid his head down on me and closed his eyes. I gave him a kiss, told him how I loved him. When he left this world, I sobbed like a baby.
Afterwards, Mom and I went to buy a bush that would feed the birds outside in honor of Nell. We got an elderberry bush and a stone and buried Nell beside it. That bush, each year, would flower and produce an abundance of berries for all the birds, and they loved it.
Nell is someone special who is always a part of me and in my heart. He changed me, in a way I had never expected. I met a being who was someone I had never thought I would want or need to get to know. And here I am, 14 years later, still getting teary and emotional as I share our story.
In the dream class I am attending, I had a dream visioning encounter with Nell, almost two weeks ago. And that is why I was moved to share our story. In the dream visioning, Nell came to me and showed me his life with me through his eyes. He showed me how tender his heart and soul is for me, and how wise he is. He then became enormous. Big enough for me to ride on his back. He flew far off, with me on him, and took me to a beautiful green landscape. His home on a greened cliff overlooking a green land. And he had a large family there with him, he wanted me to see. I felt deep peace and love and the vigor of this liminal life that feels as real as, if not more real, than this one. I felt the immense size of souls/beings like Nell that are love through and through. I think of how CS Lewis illustrated in “The Great Divorce” that Heaven and the beings in it are enormous. It felt that way. And that our souls accomplish such a crazy feat in even being manifest in the compact figures that we are.
There is no rhyme or reason or even a real standard as to when the loss of a loved one may come up just as fresh as the day it happened. It could be decades later and still the heart is awakened to the heart connection and responds with tenderness and an outpouring of emotion, like love, and the yearning that comes from distance in the flesh.
Meeting with Nell in dream visioning and re-visiting our story of love and friendship this season, reminds me that life and living is really most importantly about simple honest gestures, heart connections and our stories together. I am looking forward to more grace and beauty….of being aware of it and of witnessing those stories being remembered, told and honored, in myself and with others.
Chandra S Sherin 2014 ©