My meditation on birds and healing starts with two childhood memories: robins pulling worms from our backyard and my father shouting plays to the #Philadelphia Eagles as they ran across our TV screen. I grew up in the hard core football territory of Pennsylvania. We lived halfway between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, but were raised to love the #Birds.
Through many seasons of heartache and disappointment, my father stayed loyal to his team. He made his daughters learn the rules of football so we could understand why his Birds were so good/bad/full of potential. Despite his coaching, I still loved real birds more than the ones on TV. Many seasons of football games with Dad never prepared me for the experience of seeing a live eagle. In fact, I never thought much about what his team’s name meant until I landed in the Poconos years later. Eagles nest in this region. You don’t see them often, but their magical visits stick to your memory like hair to duct tape.
Real eagles are majestic and predatory. If I were a squirrel in their path, I’d be running awfully fast. While I love the sight of these wild birds I’m more drawn to those that won’t eat you for dinner. I’m cheering for the Eagles during this weekend of #Super Bowl madness, but it’s a bittersweet bird season for me. Last week I lost my beloved cockatiel, Duda. The twitch of his wings is no longer part of my life’s soundtrack.
Pets and Healing
When Duda entered my house, he was a scrawny creature purchased from the pet department of Woolworth’s. I bought him to be a companion for a young boy from Mexico who was a guest in our house while he was learning English. He was far from his home and family. I thought the bird might be a healing antidote to the loneliness he felt.
Like most love stories, this one had a strange twist. The bird who came to help our guest heal his homesickness ended up staying for 28 years! While I was a full-time caregiver for my mother, the cockatiel was a critical member of the household care team. Mom and Duda were keenly interested in each other, yet also rivals for the attention of the many helpers who visited us. Aides loved to whistle to the bird, but they also fawned over my mother. Each built a strong fan base using their own peculiar charms.
The bird’s cage sat in the kitchen right outside my mother’s bedroom door. He kept a watchful eye on her to make sure she was safe and not stealing his admirers. Mom liked the sound of his chirps and the way he imitated our laughter as if he understood the punchline of each joke. But sometimes Duda got testy or talkative at odd hours when Mom wanted to sleep. Suddenly the bird become her arch enemy. Despite these occasional temperamental differences, Mom and the bird bonded. They had a healing effect on each other.
Unfortunately, this winning team has dissolved over the past few months. My mother’s need for high level care forced us to move her to a skilled nursing facility. Then just last week, Duda left us to go to the Great Bird Spirit in the sky. His departure came three months after my mother’s — and twenty-eight years after his arrival!
Here’s to the #Underdogs!
Even as I reflect on their absence, I believe that we had something good going on in our home all these years. The estimated life span of a cockatiel is 16-25 years. Duda surpassed that by a good margin. People with my mother’s dementia diagnosis (cortico-basal degeneration), are given a life expectancy of 5-7 years. Mom is now ten years into her journey with this disease. The survival rate for good football teams is much less predictable. My father did not live to see his Eagles play in the 2004 Super Bowl (which they lost) and he’d probably be surprised to see these #underdogs playing in the national extravaganza tonight.
Naturally, I’ll be rooting for the #Philadelphia Eagles because Dad did — but also because I’m a lifetime lover of birds in any form. It’s strange how we get attached to these sports teams full of players whose lives are so different from our own. But they become powerful symbols of the strange loyalties that add meaning and excitement to our lives. Like Duda and my mother, the #Eagles are real underdogs who have exceeded all predictions and inspired lots of fan love along the way. I hope the many #Underdogs among us find strength to soar above the hardships of illness and caregiving. Long may our great birds fly!