When I was young, a baby Robin fell out of the nest in our front yard and was abandoned by its mother. It was small and pink and featherless, and I made a little nest in a shoebox, but my parents told me not to expect it to survive the night. I know it may seem strange to think that a child growing up in an atmosphere of violence and fear could still have an unbroken heart, but in many ways I did, and I think my parents were trying to protect my heart and prepare me for disappointment if the bird didn’t make it through the night… but it did.
I named the Robin “Tweet” and it grew feathers and hopped around. When Tweet was very small, I fed him/her through an eyedropper. As s/he got older I dug up worms and mashed them up for him/her. I tried to get Tweet to watch me dig up the warms so that s/he would learn how to do it. I took Tweet outside but mostly s/he stuck by me. I got used to cleaning bird shit off of my shoulder and the front or back of my shirt.
I was never sure if Tweet was going to be able to fly but one day s/he did. And then one day, when the seasons were changing and the nights were getting colder and longer, Tweet flew away and never came back. I knew that was for the best, I had been working towards Tweet being independent and free so I knew this meant I had completed what I was supposed to do — I had saved a life — but I still locked myself in the downstairs bathroom and turned the fan on so that nobody would hear me crying my eyes out after s/he flew away. Tweet was my best friend.
Today I went to the bank to open my own chequing account because my wife and I are beginning to formalize the separation we agreed to in mid-December. In Ontario, it is easier to get a divorce if you have been separated for a year first. And we are getting divorced.
The woman at the bank was wonderful and sensitive and friendly and kind. She remembered my children and commented on how lovely my daughter was. After I told her where I worked she told me that her daughter had committed suicide eight years ago. Within twenty-four hours of being released from a mental health ward in the hospital she was dead. She was twenty years old. Everybody’s got a story that will break your heart and, baby, my heart broke when she told me hers.
It seems that most of us want things to be black and white, we want there to be good people and bad people and we want to be on the side of the good people so that we can feel superior to the bad people (at least I’m not poor… at least I’m not a criminal… at least I’m not a woman-beater… at least I’m not a goof… everyone wants to feel superior to somebody, right?). But really, babe, there’s just broken and lonely people and everyone of us is trying to find our way from there.
I was still whistling in my funny childhood way when Tweet flew away — whistling while breathing in instead of out — and for the first few years when the Robins came back in the Spring, I used to whistle to them to see if Tweet was back and would recognize me and come and perch on my shoulder. But none of them ever did.
I think it was around the same time that my dad accidentally killed our pet rabbit, Flops. I sure wept hard when that happened. I think my dad felt real bad about it. It’s the only time I remember him sitting me on his knee and trying to comfort me. I remember thinking I would never recover from that loss — that I would return to school and simply sit and mourn silently at recess and that my peers would look at me and whisper in hushed tones, “Oh HIM? His rabbit DIED.” And they would be amazed at my loss and silent fortitude — that I had loved so deeply and lost everything but bore it all silently — and they would also be secretly grateful that this was happening to me and not them.
I’m probably understating things to say that I was a bit of a melodramatic child (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose)!
It is harder to know which is more difficult to bear — privately carrying the loneliness of feeling unloved or publicly admitting to the world that you are not any good at making another person feel loved.
We had two dogs when I was a child — a white German Shepherd and a Samoyed — but my old man sold them both (on separate occasions) when us kids were all away at school.
People grow and people change in good ways and in bad. Some of our wounds heal over time, some tear open at unexpected moments. Some of us sprout wings and learn to fly, others of us fade away like fires in the early hours of the morning. Some of us have our best years ahead of us, for others of us, those years are already behind us. There is no knowing which way any of us will go in advance and you can only hold on to each other for so long when your river forks and what used to be a single current pushing you along together turns into two separate currents pushing you in different directions. You keep holding on and the water batters you and you both begin to drown.
What are you supposed to do?
You search and search for an answer but you learn that those who are wise realize that they cannot advise you, while those who are still learning to be wise give poor advice. You also learn that there is no God out there who will help you out or save you or tell you what to do one way or another.
And then you learn how complete your loneliness is.
I was fully and completely in love with the beauty of animals when I was young. The only shows I was really allowed to watch — and which I absolutely loved watching — where nature shows and documentaries about badgers or cephalapoda or tigers or the great barrier reef or whatever wonder was yet to be revealed to me. Every night, before I would fall asleep, I used to pray: “Dear God, if you only ever answer one prayer in my life, let me be able to talk with animals.”
But then the documentaries started getting more and more sad. Everything would begin beautifully, but then the final third of the show would be dedicated to talking about how this animal was now on the brink of extinction or about how the environment was being destroyed. Man, I was a child. This was all too much for me. I stopped watching the shows because I couldn’t stand learning, time after time, that all the beauty I was seeing was being destroyed. Completely destroyed in the never-coming-back, never-living-again kind of way. How could I process that as I child?
How can I process it now?
Listen, children: we live for a moment only. In a second we are born, we live, grow old and die. We vanish like drops of rain in the ocean, like every breath we exhale into the air. But, listen, children: that second is sacred. Sacred in the manner that is wondrous and sacred in the manner that is terrible. It contains everything — all of our great loves, all of our great sorrows, all the little but not insignificant things, too, and, yes, everything else as well. But, listen, children: I will ever only be grateful that, within this second of mine, I got to share it with you. If all of this is a part of what it means to be with you, it is worth every goddamned thing that ever was or ever will be.
I love you, Charlie, you are my sun and my stars.
I love you, Ruby, you are my beloved.