A family death

Yesterday our family bird, Tilley, died. She was a part of our family since my parents  rescued her from a neglectful neighbor five years ago. Though never tame, Tilley was a personality in our house, chirping whenever someone came home, alerting us to predatory birds in the backyard with her danger squawk, and nibbling crackers out of my daughter’s eager fingers. We named the salty rice crackers she loved for snack “tilley crackers.” At three years old, this is Arlie’s first encounter with death. She responded, in classic Arlie fashion, with immediate rage. “I DON’T WANT TILLEY DIED. NO! NO!” Because she is a prickly pear, and because I have been able to pay attention to her fury these last two years of being at home, I understand that her anger is a shield she uses to cover her easily pierced, sensitive heart, so as she yelled I wrapped my arms around her and did my best to comfort that inside rawness. She accepts this from me – sometimes.  I’m the only one who sees it, really. Everyone else buys into her anger as the full depth of her response. She works hard to make that so, investing deep reserves of energy and passion into her vehemence. But I’m her mama and I see beyond and I’m not going to let a little sharpness stop me from reaching in towards the soft parts.

After preschool, Arlie and I spent the afternoon drawing pictures for Tilley. Arlie kept saying, “Tilley will love this picture! We can give it to her and when she’s alive again, she’ll love to see it!” and I would gently correct her, “Tilley won’t be alive again, she’s dead. She can’t see pictures any more.” Arlie would respond brusquely, “I KNOW, Mama. I know she died.” and then a minute later, “But when she’s alive again…” It was a long afternoon of circling around the hard truth of her death. Arlie tried pictures and tilley crackers and petting as bargaining tools to help Tilley be not dead anymore, while insisting she KNEW Tilley was dead and to STOP SAYING THAT AGAIN MAMA. No matter which direction she approached from, Tilley stayed not-alive, and this was frustrating  to deal with. I was grateful for our first death experience to be with a pet – especially an uncuddly pet who spent her life in a cage and was enjoyed always from a distance and with a healthy amount of fear for that sharp, hissing beak. When Mom came to tell me about Tilley’s death yesterday morning, I knew immediately from her tone that something had died. My first thought was – oh God, don’t let it be Romey. I imagined our big black cat lying on our doorstep, fatally wounded by a coyote or fisher cat. I imagined having to tell Nathan and Arlie that their snuggly buddy was gone, that the friend who slept on their beds and sat on their laps and let them haul him around the house and yard, half dragging his tolerant body from place to place, had died. “Is it Romey?” I asked Mom, and must admit my first response was relief when she answered, “No. Tilley.”

Tilley was my dad’s bird, primarily. We all enjoyed her, but he was the only one who elicited her passionate welcome home tweets, and it was his head she landed on when she was allowed to fly around the room. I’m learning, as we spend more time living together, that my dad is quite soft-hearted. His voice often cracks and eyes well up with tears, and he lets himself be moved by stories and ideas and relationships. I appreciate this insight, especially because he can seem so gruff, and also because I’ve been struggling so much over these last few years to allow myself to feel things deeply, rawly, openly. Tilley is a loss for him, a life he felt responsible for sustaining, and a source of pleasure and affection.

We buried her next to a small pine tree, a sweet spot ringed with stones near our driveway. I talked Arlie and Nathan through each step of the funeral, but it was still a shock for Arlie when we put Tilley inside the hole. Nathan wanted to take pictures, a way for him to both distance himself and feel control over the situation, though due to the morbidness of his subject matter, we tried to keep his photographing down to a few gently staged shots of Tilley resting on a rock before the actual burial took place. We each threw a handful of dirt over Tilley, and said some words about what we appreciated about her. Dad covered her up, and Nathan helped stamp the earth down. I placed a heavy triangular stone over the spot. “It looks like her crest,” Dad said.


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