Birds, and the heart

A few months ago, I found myself struck with a profound sense of deja vu while reading Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. There’s a passage where she describes a recurring dream she has:

‘…I suddenly remember I have a number of pets living in my home that I haven’t tended to in years. Rabbits, hamsters, iguanas, stacked in dirty cages in my closet or beneath the bed. Terrified, I open the door, and the light touches them for the first time in ages. Desperate, I dig through the clumped, wet wood chips. I’m afraid they’re decomposing in there, but I find them still alive, thin and milky eyed and filthy. I know that I loved them once, that they had a better life before I got so distracted with work and myself and let them shrivel up and nearly die. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I tell them, as I clean their cages and fill their bottles with fresh water. “How can I make it up to you?”’

I have this dream too. Once or twice a year, maybe more often, I have variations of this dream, almost all of which involve my pet bird, Harriet, from my childhood. My dreams follow two main narratives – either I am confronted with Harriet in a filthy, cramped cage, close to starvation where I have forgotten her; or I find a cage crammed with dozens of birds, all of them unwell, the stench overwhelming, and Harriet is in there somewhere, gazing at me reproachfully.

Both dreams make me feel sick and itchy inside, nauseous and anxious. I always wake up with avague sense of something terrible creeping up on me. It is awful.

There are some obvious themes here – a fear of having too many commitments and not being able to honour them; a fear of missing something or of letting someone down; a fear of confronting the bits and pieces of myself that I have crammed away in a cage somewhere; but most confronting for me is the most obvious theme of all – a fear that I neglected Harriet, or that I did her an injustice somehow.

I have had many pets, and most of them deserve their own story. But Harriet played a particularly significant role in my life.

Harriet was a small, baby-blue budgerigar, from the local pet shop in my hometown. My mother bought her as a surprise for me when I was 11 years old, after I begged for months.

I remember seeing her for the first time and immediately falling in love – she was anxious, flitting from one side of the cage to the other, but even then I felt like we had something special.

Harriet was a few years old when we got her, and she had the kind of grumpy but loving personality I associated with stroppy grandmothers.

Over the course of several months, I gradually coaxed her into loving me. I sat beside her cage for hours, talking to her, cooing and telling her stories. Eventually, I could hold her and she’d clamber onto my finger easily. She would tilt her head so I could scratch under her chin and around her neck – something she enjoyed so much she would close her eyes and make little chirpy noises of pleasure. In return, she would nibble on my finger affectionately, almost as if trying to preen me.

Harriet had a big personality – she’d yell if we were too loud, and sometimes would get upset with me and ignore me, shuffling around on her perch so that her back was turned to me while I tried to win her back.

But she was also often ill. My worst fear was coming home to see Harriet croaky and exhausted, her feathers streaked with sweat and her eyes watery.

My parents have never been strongly inclined towards getting pets veterinary assistance, seeing it as an unnecessary expense. But my mother would take one look at my anguish, and we’d be in the car, Harriet’s cage clamped between my arms.

We had four good years together. In a time when I was transitioning from primary school to high school, Harriet was my best friend. When I was profoundly unhappy, I would talk to her for hours, her beady eyes seeming somehow compassionate, understanding.

The most simple parts of our relationships were the most fulfilling – she always looked forward to seeing me.

As I got older, I had less time for Harriet. I would still play with her, and make sure she had some time outside of the cage – but high school and my friends started to take precedence, and our bouts of time together waned.

Some days, I would rush through cleaning her cage and filling her food and water, only giving her a cursory scratch. Other days, I would beg off entirely, leaving my long-suffering mother to take care of it while I went to debating, or horse-riding, or to hang out with my friends.

It was also around this time that I was awakening to the cruelty of keeping birds in cages. I was reading a lot about animal welfare, and had recently become a vegetarian. My guilt was like a poison, and made me anxious when I spent a lot of time with Harriet.

I wasn’t with her when she died.

When I found her, she was splayed on the floor of her cage, her wings out and her body frail and tiny in death. I buried her in our garden, and wore black for days in mourning, completely grief-stricken.

I remember my family being amused by my grief in a way, their initial sympathy giving way to bewilderment at how a budgie’s death could affect me so deeply.

Mum and Dad seemed to think it was almost cute, sweet in the same way as a child crying over a lost toy. I felt as if my siblings were moments away from blurting out, ‘She was only a bird’.

But for me, I had lost a being I felt more connected to than anyone else I knew. The fact that we couldn’t communicate with words, that she was tiny and relied on me completely, heightened how important she was to me.

When I have those dreams now, and jerk awake feeling sick and anxious, it’s always with thoughts of Harriet and how I let her down in her last few months of life. I was too busy, too selfish to really make the most of her company.

If I could, I would whisper to her. ‘I’m so sorry. How can I make it up to you?’

Image: Faris Algosaibi

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