26 Feb

What Dying Looks Like

CreditEleanor Taylor

NASHVILLE — Weeks ago, when they first appeared in the neighborhood, I assumed they were starlings. A flock of starlings is the bane of the bird feeder — a vast, clamoring mob of unmusical birds soiling the windshields and lawn furniture, muscling one another aside so violently that no other birds dare draw near the suet.

But this flock stayed high in the treetops, far from my feeders, too far away to recognize. Then a cold snap kept all the puddles frozen for days, and every bird in the ZIP code showed up at my heated birdbath to drink. That’s how I finally got close enough to know them for what they are: cedar waxwings, the most exotic of all the backyard birds. They are here in Middle Tennessee only during late fall and winter, when the hollies and hackberries and Japanese honeysuckle are bearing fruit. Seeing the entire flock at my birdbath seemed like a miracle.

But there’s a new slant of light in winter, and the trees surrounding the house are bare now, casting no shade. For birds, this combination can be deadly. Our windows have turned into mirrors, giving back the sky and making a solid plane look like an opening. I’ve made every adjustment I can — installed screens, put stickers on the glass door, hung icicle lights from the rafters — but migratory birds can be especially vulnerable to disorientation near unfamiliar buildings. The day after the waxwings appeared at my birdbath, I found one of them, its flock long gone, panting on the driveway below a corner of the house where two windows meet and form a mirage of trees and distances. When I stooped to look at the bird, it waited quietly.

Though I could see no sign of injury, I knew it must be grievously hurt to sit so still as I gently cupped my hands around it to move it to a safer place in the yard. It made a listless effort to peck at my thumb, but it didn’t struggle at all when my fingers closed around its wings, and I didn’t know what to do. So much beauty is not meant to be held in human hands.

Those golden breast feathers fading upward to pale brown, and backward to gray, give the cedar waxwing a kind of borrowed glow, as though it were lit at all times from sunlight glancing off snow. Its pointed crest and dashing mask — a wraparound slash of black — sharpen its pale watercolors into a mien of fierceness. It’s a tiny bandit with flamboyant red wingtips and a brash streak of yellow across the end of its tail feather. An operatic aria of a bird. A flying jungle flower. A weightless coalescence of air and light and animation. It was a gift to hold that lovely, dying creature in my hands. It was entirely wrong to feel its death as gift.

I didn’t know it was dying. I knew but didn’t know. At least half of all birds who fly into windows will ultimately die of internal bleeding, even when they seem to recover and fly away, and this stunned cedar waxwing was in no shape to fly. Even so, my only thought in that moment was to set it high in a tree where our sweet old dog couldn’t kill it with a curious sniff.

I should have taken that injured bird somewhere safe and warm to die. Instead I took it to a cypress tree a few feet away and set it on a small limb deep in the greenery. Its feet worked spastically for purchase but finally caught hold. It was clinging to the branch when I left it to go back inside. By the time I checked 15 minutes later, it had tumbled into the soft ground cover under the cypress. One wing was spread out like a taxidermist’s display, those waxy red tips stretched as far apart as fingers in a reaching hand. I didn’t need to pick it up to know it was dead. I knew it was dead, but I hadn’t known it was dying.

Why didn’t I know? My mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and I have seen up close what it looks like when a living thing is dying because its brain is bleeding and there’s nowhere for the pooled blood to go, no way to keep the blood from crowding out the living cells of thought, the living cells of self. “I love you,” I said as we waited for the results of my mother’s CT scan. “You’re my good mama,” I told her as her eyes closed. “Thank you,” she said. I was waiting for the doctor to come and tell me what to do, and I didn’t know that these would be her last words. I knew but didn’t know.

I wish I had taken that soft brown miracle of a bird into a dark, warm room to die. I wish I hadn’t noticed the way my mother’s hand was already cooling when she took her last breath.

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