One Saturday afternoon I took the family to the lake, where my 9-year-old daughter found a baby bird abandoned on the rocks.
She's helpless around anything that needs tending, that kid, which is why I didn't bother objecting when she cradled the downy body in her hands and immediately headed back to the trail. We had climbed down to where the spillway feeds a creek, and I wouldn't have thought it possible to climb back up without the use of one's hands, but she managed it, sacrificing her elbows instead, pinning her weight on them like ski poles, crabbing up the clay and granite hill until her arms were scraped and raw.
By the time I made it back up, the bird had been given both a name and a cozy makeshift nest inside her bug bucket. There was no question that we were taking it home.
I don't know if you've ever tried to care for a baby bird, Dear Reader, but they're a real pain in the ass. You have to feed them every half hour, for one thing, and the stuff they eat is disgusting — canned dog food, mashed boiled eggs, chopped worms. They make a pathetic chirping sound when they're hungry, which is all the time, so the whole house sounds like a smoke alarm that needs its batteries replaced.
My daughter loved every moment of it. She knelt on the floor dangling a torn worm for two hours until the bird settled down enough to accept food from her. Then she kept vigil by its cardboard box, talking to it, singing to it, smoothing the distress from its head feathers until it fell asleep.
Today we gave the bird to a couple who has experience raising and releasing birds back into the wild. My daughter was sad to see it go, but she was brave about it. Listening to her say goodbye, I remembered the last time I got really sick. It was the flu, I think, and during the worst night of it I lay on the couch alone, shivering and feverish. The fever wasn't quite high enough to deliver hallucinations, but it made the shadows on the ceiling much more interesting than they should've been.
I remember waving my hand in front of my face and talking to myself for what felt like hours, then passing out. Sometime before dawn, I woke to a cool hand on my forehead. It was my daughter, then only 7 years old. She sat beside me on the couch, rubbed her tiny palm across my forehead, and started to sing. I was too loopy to tell her to go back to bed, so I laid there and listened to her improvised song about kittens and unicorns and breakfast and Jesus making everything okay.
And for the first time ever, I thought, quite lucidly: "When it's time for me to die, I hope it's something like this."
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