66: The Bird

66: The Bird

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

The Bird

Good manners are just a way of showing other people that we have respect for them.

~Bill Kelly

First there was a knock on my bedroom door. Then my mother’s voice called out: “Jean, there’s a bird in my bathroom.” Before my husband, Doyle, or I had time to respond, Mom appeared like an apparition at the foot of our bed. “Come quickly,” she said. “You’ve got to get it out.”

Doyle pretended to be asleep. I peered over the top of the covers that were pulled to my chin. In the semi-darkness I could see my eighty-four-year-old mother’s eyes ablaze with conviction. Her short white hair stood on end, spiking off at irregular angles. She wore a light summer nightgown, inside out, backward and slightly askew. I wanted to cry.

Mom lived with us because she had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. We had grown accustomed to her quirks: the searing hot Florida days when she applied layer upon layer of clothing to her frail body, the storing of canned goods and buttered garlic bread under her pillow, the repetitive questions. But a hallucination caught me by surprise. That was enough to send me under the pillow, at once trembling in fear and denial.

“Mom,” I said, “birds can’t get in the house.” This was an eighty-eight-degree September day. We never opened the windows. Our air conditioning hummed twenty-four hours a day.

“Je-e-an.” Her hands went to her hips; her chest rose and expanded.

I cleared my throat, hoping that would clear my head. “He won’t hurt anything,” I said. “We’ll get him out in the morning.”

“Je-e-an.” She was accustomed to being in charge, like the fourth grade teacher she had been for thirty years.

Arguing seemed pointless. A bird was in her bathroom — a windowless, second-floor room with a skylight that did not open, a room entered only through her bedroom — and she wanted that bird out now. Her face wore a look that, even with her teeth out, said she was not leaving my room until I followed her out.

I slid out of bed and down the worn oak floors in the hallway, into her darkened bedroom. “There’s no bird here,” I said.

“In the bathroom.” She pointed to the door. “Go look.”

I stepped into the bathroom. My eyes struggled to adjust to the bright lights that only illuminated the dreadful floral wallpaper I had regretted choosing the moment the paste dried.

No bird. I checked the shower, behind the toilet, under the sink. “Maybe you had a dream, Mom.”

“I know what I saw.” She pointed to the skylight. “Right there. A bird was flapping around, trying to get out.”

“Well, I guess he made it.” I clapped. “Good for him. Can we go to bed now?”

Mom hung her head and wrung her hands. “I know you think I’m crazy,” she said. The smartest woman I’d ever known looked bewildered and close to tears.

Guilt over being too flippant weighed on my conscience and pulled my shoulders into a slump. I turned my weary self back into her bedroom and looked up to the heavens for guidance.

From the top of the armoire across her room, a huge black bird looked back. “Whoa!” I screamed.

To my stunned eyes, the bird appeared the size of a giant condor. I threw my arms around Mom, although she showed no sign of needing my protection. She drew in a breath that raised her shoulders all the way to her ears, then sighed relief, like a witch whose burning had been called off when her visions proved to be true.

The grackle, in reality about a foot high, took wing. Black, iridescent plumage glistened in the low light as the bird zigged, then zagged over our heads. Panic glued my feet to the floor, my hands to my mother.

The sounds and smells of fear must have jolted our cat, Ray, from his nap on the first-floor sofa. Little padded feet pounded up the wooden steps, then galloped full speed down the hall and into Mom’s room.

Swoop! The bird found the door. Screech! Ray ground to a stop, jumped in the air and reversed course. The bird, the cat, and the panicked daughter flew, raced and bumbled our way out of the room, along the hall and down the stairs. At the bottom, I turned to see Mom gliding behind, head held high.

The terrified bird careened around the kitchen, seeking an escape. I sped to open the back door where I stood like a flight attendant, pointing to the exit, wishing I could whistle to get the bird’s attention, failing to see the imminent danger posed by Ray. After all, cats can’t fly, I reasoned, as Ray jumped onto the kitchen counter and soared into space. Snap! He caught the bird in his jaws mid-air. Plop! Ray landed. The bird hung in limp clumps of black out of either side of his mouth. Out the door they went.

Doyle arrived in the kitchen. “What is going on?”

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” I said. Mom and I laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“A bird was in the house,” I said.

Doyle rubbed his chin and regarded me with suspicion.

And for one enlightening moment, I imagined how desperate I would feel if my husband didn’t believe me, if he second-guessed everything I said or did.

When my children and friends called in the morning, I spun elaborate versions of Mom’s triumph. She pressed against me, soaking in every word as I told of her patient effort to make me see. Mom knew she was losing control over her life, giving up her freedom and her home, but she seemed to find comfort in believing that we still listened to her and trusted her judgment.

Rather than a harbinger of death, our black-plumed visitor served to remind me that my primary mission in caring for Mom was not to prevent her dying, but to preserve the dignity of her life.

~Jean Salisbury Campbell

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