Weeks afterwards, she thought about something he had told her one day. He’d said that his mother was convinced that he could charm the birds out of the trees. She knew this was just a silly expression. And yet . . .Perhaps his mother had recognized something in him that no one else had.
Her three-year old daughter had been tired all day and now lay sleeping on the sofa with her new Barbie backpack clutched tightly in her hand. On the day she received it, he had taken a photograph of her wearing it, almost as large as she was. Her first backpack.They had laughed at the image of her attending her first day of school not too many years from now with the pack strapped to her back.
As she watched the small form in its slumber, she drew up her legs tighter, took another sip of wine and for the first time in almost a month, closed her eyes and allowed her mind to drift as the warm blanket of alcohol began to comfort her.
The birds. It was such a small and seemingly silly thing he had begun. Perhaps because there was no longer anything left in his life, or perhaps he saw them as the only living thing he could relate to. Whatever his reasons, he fed the birds every morning and they became known as Daddy’s Birds. There was no proper bird feeder on the deck, just an upturned piece of plastic upon which he poured the birdseed mixture, albeit sufficient to feed every bird for miles around. And they would come. Every day. In many different varieties. There were Blue Tits, Mouse birds, Bee Eaters, Northern cardinals, house sparrows and many others she did not even recognize. But among these twittering, flittering bursts of color and song, his favorite had been a simple common dove that, for reasons of its own, had taken to sitting on a branch of a nearby peach tree to wait for him. He would amble onto the deck when he awoke from yet another night of pain and terror on the couch and fill the plastic tray with seeds. The small dove that he maintained was a female would perk up, its head bobbing and its tail wagging when it heard the seeds being dispensed. As soon as he closed the patio door, the dove would glide down, peck at the morning’s offering, looking up every now and then and bob its head as if in gratitude.
Once the birds were eating, he could often open the patio door without too many of the birds fleeing. The dove, although a bit skittish, would not fly away unless it was approached. He would stand and make small cooing sounds, which the bird appeared to enjoy as it pecked at the seed, apparently aware that it was in no immediate danger. And the whistling. He would stand at the patio door for a while, before his legs went numb and he had to hobble back to the sofa, and whistle between his teeth, trying to mimic the sounds the birds made.They responded to this strange man-made sound and would often chirp back at him. The dove’s head would bob back and forth more vigorously and its tail would flash up and down like a metronome. She wondered what he was saying to them and if they somehow understood. He’d been doing this for months and she had taken to buying special packs of wild birdseed so he always had a fresh supply. The dove particularly like sunflower seeds while the others would eventually pick up every scrap of millet. If he were late on some mornings, depending on his pain level or degree of panic, he was greeted by a chorus of wild birds, lined up along the top of the deck as if waiting for their breakfast. They’d flutter away when he went out with the cup of seed but would return as soon as he went indoors again and he’d watch them from the door, careful not to move the curtain and startle them away.
The last morning was like any other and she had been preceded down the stairs as usual by their daughter, Kinsley, shouting, “Good morning, daddy!’ – the latest addition to her rapidly expanding vocabulary. The night before had been particularly hard. He’d had a massive pain attack and had lain on the floor, his face white with terror and his eyes a rheumy yellow green color as the pain gripped tighter in his spine and chest, threatening to squeeze the life out of him like a sponge. She wasn’t sure what he thought at times like this, but when she looked into his eyes she often felt, and hoped, that he drifted away to some imaginary place where the pain could not reach him. But she knew it was not really that way and that she was only consoling herself. He had not slept in their bed for almost two years. It was too painful. Instead, he stretched out on a long leather sofa in the lounge downstairs, tossing and turning until he found a position that would allow him to drift into an unfulfilling doze. He never really slept properly. It was more of a respite from exhaustion and the powerful narcotics he took.
She had watched him fading away for almost three years. Watched as the pain attacks became more frequent, more vicious and more personal. Pain had relentlessly drained the life from him, dulled his eyes and stolen his personality and character; leaving behind a scared, withered shell of a man. The pain medication did work, but not enough to offer any real relief, ‘painkiller’ being a misnomer. He lived with the shackles of pain constantly. He’d recently been prescribed a very powerful narcotic but was too scared to take it. Several deaths had been ascribed to some of its irreversible side effects, notably that of respiratory failure. It was a drug intended for terminal cancer patients to control their breakthrough pain. Patients who received round-the-clock morphine. Patients who no longer cared about the adverse effects of pain medication and who would welcome the oblivion such a drug might inadvertently bring them.
The look on Kinsley’s face that morning was etched into her mind. She was standing beside her father with her hand on his arm and for the very first time, he had not acknowledged her enthusiastic morning greeting. The air in the room was heavy and stale and she had known without looking that there would be no greeting. His hands had been a pale blue color and as she had slowly walked over to him, her heart filled with dread. She had felt a certain relief when she saw that his eyes were closed and that if there were any justice in this world, that he had simply gone to sleep. Through searing tears she had said, “Let Daddy sleep a bit more, sweetie. He’s tired. Really tired.” And then she had made the phone call she had known was inevitable and things had moved quickly. Kinsley was taken next door to play with her little friend while arrangements were made at home. Before she left, Kinsley was told to kiss daddy night-night and had remarked, “Brr, daddy’s cold.” And then with great care so as not to awaken him, she had had pulled the blanket up a little more to keep her father warm.
The church service had been short and personal with just one close friend and her sons in attendance. Kinsley had spent the morning asking where daddy was, which had made it almost unbearable. He had insisted on being cremated, because pain would not likely be interested in mere ashes.
The days drifted by and blurred into each other. The well-wishers had tapered off and the house felt bigger than ever, with Kinsley often asking where her daddy was and saying that she missed him, even though she meant that she loved him. But perhaps she really did miss him, too. This had produced the strongest tears and all she could do was say that daddy had gone away to sleep and that they would just have to wait until they could see him again.
It had been a brighter-than-usual morning and it was Kinsley who had first remarked on the noise. Even from within the house, the sound of birds was quite loud, almost demanding attention.
Kinsley had pulled aside the curtain and shouted, “Look, Mommy. Birds!”
And she had known immediately what her daughter was looking at. She had opened the cupboard, taken down the half-filled bag of birdseed and scooped up a full cup of the contents. Taking Kinsley’s hand, she had pulled aside the curtain on the patio and the sight that met her had made her gasp. Hundreds of birds of all sizes and shapes were lined on the top of the deck. There were birds in the jasmine vines, birds in the peach tree and even some on the ground. But among this assemblage, sitting in its usual spot was the small dove watching her intently, its head and tail bobbing. Some of the birds had flittered away when she had walked out onto the deck, but most of them had simply watched her in silence through black, beady eyes as she emptied the cup into the plastic feeder. She had felt as if she somehow offered them an explanation, but was not able to do the bird whistle he had done so well. Besides, what would she whistle to them? She had barely made it back indoors before the birds had descended and they had watched them, Kinsley rapt with fascination as the birds ate the seeds. And then, with a final glance towards the door, they took to the sky in all directions.
The birds never did return, no matter how much seed she put out. A few squirrels dropped by and stole the peanuts that were often included in the feed, but the birds never came back.
Except one. Some days, sitting in the peach tree as if waiting, was the small dove. But it never again ate any of the seed. She had picked up and kept a small gray and white feather that the bird had shed.
Sometimes, when they were out shopping, a bird would fly by or they’d see one sitting on a fence post. With great delight, Kinsley would shout, “Look, mommy! Daddy’s bird! Is Daddy still sleeping?”
The birds they saw may have been daddy’s birds; she would never know. But they took some solace in the fact that no matter how many birds they saw, they all appeared to be happy and not in any pain at all.