July 2004

A couple weeks ago, while staying at my family's mountain cabin, I found a bird on the ground. Some would say it was alive. Its feathers were torn or not yet grown, leaving a patchwork of pink skin and feather stumps. Its leg, its neck, its stomach were bleeding. Its wings, useless limbs. Its eyes were clenched shut as its small body expanded and contracted with each strained breath. Ants and flies crawled over its body, tasting the exposed muscle and blood. Every few minutes, the bird twitched in a futile attempt to dislodge the insects from its body, and limply turned itself over. One of the bird's claws was stuck in a piece of styrofoam I had brought back from a hike, meaning to dispose of it. A young bird, this could've been its first journey out of the nest. Perhaps a hawk had snatched it, only to drop it. Under the hot sun, the bird's body was drying out, spurring the efforts of the insects. I asked my mom if killing it would be the most compassionate act. "Killing it would end its physical pain," she remarked, "but would affect its spirit and its karma, its ability to evolve, in ways we cannot know. If it were our pet, we could put it to sleep. But this animal has a nervous system designed to panic and flee from us. It doesn't have long to live; hopefully the hawk will see it moving and come back for it. This is nature, we shouldn't interfere, except as compassionate witnesses." So we said a prayer and left, so that a predator could come. Not long after that, the air cooled as a big black cloud moved to block the sun. My dad set up a microphone and recorded the storm that followed, rife with sounds that conjured to mind Thor and Zeus, giants hurtling boulders in the sky. Perhaps it was this display, this great and glorious distraction, that allowed the bird to slip away unnoticed, with dignity. Or, perhaps it was the cold air which coaxed an end to a frantic heart. Or maybe the bird had gone to join the thunderbird that loomed above, and live forever in the sky. Regardless, the storm soon moved on, and with it the bird; its body now lay lifeless on the wet ground.

Points of coincidence, karma, and comedy:
        Two days before finding it, I performed Monty Python's dead parrot sketch in front of a camp of kids (I was a pirate merchant selling 'discount' animals)
        Two days after finding it, I came across two more dead birds, found by kids in my group. One was the size of a fingernail, the other was fully grown. No logic could link the two.
        You will remember my story of a month ago, yes? About the boy who found a bird with a broken wing? I was very tempted to take the bird and nurse it back to health, but I suppose I'm learning from my lessons.

"Dying is an art, like everything else," wrote Sylvia Plath.

There are worse things than death. They reside in nursing homes. I will never forget the smell of Manor Care, the facility in which my grandmother spent her last few years. It smells diapers and food filled with laxatives. It reeks of unlife, masked by sterility. The constant hum of machines mingles with the television turned to top volume. Everything is plastic, in spirit if not in matter.

My grandmother was dead before she entered that building; it took four years for the undertaker to catch up. She had lost her memory, she had lost her mind, she had lost her muscles and teeth. She had lost her will, and all that remained was confusion and fear. All the machines, the safe-T-edged but fundamentally uncaring tools and attendants of passivity served to delay the natural as long as possible. The nursing home is not a place of healing, it is a place of denial. The activities room, a symptom of the sickness, the (dis)ease. Elders do not need isolation, imbecile entertainment, or mind-numbing activities. They do not need soft-spoken attendants administering drugs and colostomies. They need change, continued challenge. They need to share their love and wisdom. They need to be seen and listened to by people who care. Death can be a thing of comfort, an old friend waiting to play. To circumvent a natural dignified death is to cut a person from life. A culture which ignores its elders is an amnesiac culture.

I have lots of fun at work, but I feel fundamentally unsatisfied. With my arms outstretched, I radiate warmth, but with no one to hold it dissipates. I long for a person to receive what I have to give. When Mississippi John Hurt was asked what he wanted more than anything, he answered, "I just want the whole world to love me as much as I love the whole world." I guess that's kinda how I feel right now. I look for someone to stop and eat of the fruits I bear, someone with whom to play the game. At the same time, I can see there is a reason for my current situation, and I need to learn from my solitary stance, to feast of my own fruits and dig deep, cultivate a stronger stance so I will be more ready to receive. Pain is a blessing, for it teaches surrender.

May you all find your wings and take flight And may you be forever dying with grace

Lovingly and Morbidly yours, Harper


to contact me, email hstone (at) harperstone.org