From a Sparrow

January 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment


There was a noise coming from the dryer duct: a dry, rattling sound. My father disassembled the mechanical intestines and pulled out a breathing, feathery fairy tale -- a little sparrow. Dad was an animal lover too; in fact, this part of me came directly from him. He pursed his lips and gently brought the bird to his gray electrician's uniform, cradling him to his solar plexus.


"I have to go to work," he said. "You and your sister take care of him until I return, and then we'll figure out what to do."


He handed me the sparrow and I held him closely, astounded to have an animal entrusted to me. His rapidly beating heart both coiled and catalyzed my nerves.


"I'm sorry little friend," I whispered, "But I'll take care of you."


Truth be told, I was afraid of the responsibility. It left an oversized rock in my stomach, but I wouldn't leave him either. And anyway, I was proud to be a wildlife rescuer at such a young age, and that drove me more resolutely than fear did. I don't think I was more than 7. My sister would have been 9. (On a side note, do children that young still stay home alone?)


We dressed the bathroom in what we thought was a proper habitat. As many houseplants that would fit, extra branches for perching, towels to capture any messes, and seeds and chunks of white bread scattered about. In retrospect, we knew nothing about sparrow diets, but this was before the age of Google. It was even before the age of beepers. All we had were our single-digit aged imaginations.


I stayed in the bathroom with him. I read to him and sang to him. 


There is a bird in my bathroom, a bird in my bathroom! I'm going to save him.                 


The thought delivered me to new territory. It made sense.


"Gosia?" I cracked the bathroom door open and called my sister by her Polish nickname. "He keeps flying into the mirror."


"Maybe he thinks it's another bird and he's fighting with him?" She sat in the bathroom with me. We both watched him in amazement, then took turns sitting with him until Dad came back later that afternoon. He was working the first shift so it was still light when he arrived.


"How is he?" he asked.


"I don't know," I replied. "He was really active earlier. And now he's just sitting here."


I handed him to my father, because fathers are fix-it men. My dad inspected him from head to toe, a task that took lasted as long as his sigh.


"What did he do today?"


"He was okay, dad, nothing happened." I swallowed, because his tone had changed. "He was flying around all day; he was even playing with himself in the mirror because he thought he was another bird."


"Did he fly into the mirror?" 


"Yes, he thought he was another bird and he wanted to check himself out."


"How many times?"


"A lot."


"Misia." That was my Polish nickname. My father crouched down and looked gently at me, his eyes creased in the corners. "He's dying."


It was a lie. He didn't know how to fix him. I took the sparrow back, the tiny creature who, like me, encapsulated life, and scared me with his audacity to do so. I felt betrayed.


"No he's not." 


"Yes, he is," he said. "I'm sorry. He has damage to his brain from flying into the mirror so many times."


He wasn't going to help. I ran to the living room, the sparrow tucked in my hands, and balled up in a corner of the couch. It was my fault that he would die. A knot developed in my throat and hot, sticky tears rolled out from my eyes. It was the kind of crying that, as adults, we only permit ourselves when something really, really breaks us: a thick constrictor from the throat to the gut, choking on saliva and snot run amok from the orifices.


I'll pause here to remember what I remembered then: a passage from Where the Red Fern Grows, a horribly traumatizing book that I loved anyway. Billy, the protagonist, wanted to get a dog, but his family couldn't afford one. He prayed every day to God, but remained nary the richer in the field of canine friends. So he doubted his efforts, or God, or prayer, and confronted his mother. 


I went to my mother and asked her if God answered prayers every time one was said. She smiled and said, "No, Billy, not every time. He only answers the ones that are said from the heart. You have to be sincere and believe in Him." 


And Billy finally did get his dogs -- so if it worked for him, then that meant that I could save the sparrow's life. I knew I was asking for more than Billy was, but that wouldn't be a setback to whom I was pleading. If anyone could do it, God could. 


Please God, please. I felt my seven-year old, unsullied, wonder-filled heart. It was with me. Please God, let him live. Please let him live. 


But, you know. I'm not the first person who has been refused by God. And, of course, there are many who have uttered unrequited laments to that Incomparable Mystery who have suffered far more loss than I could ever imagine. But it wrecked my seven year old mind nonetheless. That little bird died in my hands, his final breath escaping his body with such wretched finality that my heart still aches for the child who sobbed for his passing.


For some reason, I remembered this event the other day. As can be expected, my feelings about Life and Death, the Divine, and the Rhythm of Existence have vastly changed, even if I do believe I was wiser then. I won't ever pretend that one is right over the other, because, like you, I don't really know. But I am at peace with the truths I have come to, and today, I enjoy discovering the stories at the intersection between Science and Spirituality. And with that, when I remembered this story, I also remembered what happened later that night. 


I was sitting on the couch, tucked into my father. We were watching syndicated reruns of All in the Family, which, by the way, my parents still watch to this day. In the episode, Edith was pet-sitting for a cockatoo or parakeet who was kept in one of those antiquated, tall, round bird cages. At some point during the episode, the Bunkers find that the bird had died. I can't remember the cause, but I do remember that Edith was sad, and that there was some confusion as to why the bird had to die.


To my seven-year old mind, it seemed an especially cruel episode since we had just lost the sparrow that afternoon. More so, it felt like a pretty big "eff you" from God. But today, I find a deeper symbolism in this series of events of that heartbroken child: something about the complex layers of existence; about the beauty and sanctity of ephemerality; about recurring lives and interconnectivity and meeting from life to life; and yes, even about the serendipity of an All in the Family episode mirroring something that I had just desperately prayed to God about. I am not a religious person, but when I use the word God, I use it with a capital G because there is something that exists that I cannot completely understand, but it is something that I profoundly respect. It includes evolution and genome sequences as much as it does messages and signs from the Universe. It lives in seven-year old children and sparrows, and inspired the Vedas and the Bible and the Koran, as well as reams and reams of scientific research. 


That's my tweet, inspired by my sparrow friends.


(sparrow image from:


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