Saturday, May 06, 2006

Goodbye, Old Friend

1983 - 2006

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket--safe, dark, motionless, airless--it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves


Yesterday morning as the kids were getting ready for school they asked me why Sidney was staying on the bottom of his cage. “He’s probably just biting the paper like he usually does,” I replied. However, when I returned home around lunchtime and he was still sitting on the cage floor, I knew something was wrong. Another sign of his being in less than optimal condition was that when I reached in to pick him up, he didn’t playfully peck at me as I’d come to expect. It didn’t take long to discover that something was wrong with his right foot. He wasn’t putting any weight on it nor could he grasp my finger with it. It felt limp and lifeless.

For years I had been trying to prepare the kids for Sidney’s inevitable demise. Now I feared it was at hand.

I called the nearest animal hospital to see if I could bring him in only to be informed that they don’t treat birds. They did, however, recommend other practices that did. One of them, about ten minutes away, did have someone who specializes in birds but her appointment schedule was booked for the day but she did take walk-in clients after five. When I called my wife and told her that that was the earliest I could find she wisely noted that that might be best as it would give the children an opportunity to see Sidney after school, perhaps for the last time.

I felt so helpless. I shed tears. I prayed. I regretted not playing with him more often (which made me think about the human relationships I currently take for granted and neglect that will one day be no more). I hoped that this might just be a minor injury caused by getting one of his claws caught in his cage cover overnight but I couldn’t convince myself of that. I knew that Sidney had exceeded the average lifespan for cockatiels by a few years and that this was most likely his waning.

As expected, when the kids arrived home from school and were given the news that something was wrong with Sidney they were deeply saddened. In a matter of moments my son was in tears, feeling sorry for Sidney and for me. He asked if we could pray and we did. We prayed for Sidney to be spared undue suffering, we prayed for the vet who would be seeing him, and we prayed that the Lord would prepare us for whatever happened. We also thanked God for the years of amusement, companionship, and wonder he added to our lives through this small creature.

When the veterinarian witnessed Sidney’s behavior her first concern was that he might be experiencing kidney problems. She said that in older birds lameness in one foot is often attributable to this. However, she said that she should be able to feel a mass of some kind if that was the case. She couldn’t detect anything which was a relief. After further examining his leg and foot and taking an x-ray which revealed no fractures, she concluded that somehow Sidney had injured his foot, possibly spraining it. But she couldn’t guarantee that this was so. She prescribed an oral pain medication the first dose of which she administered with a tiny syringe to show me how to do it. It was a crushed up pill mixed with syrup and Sidney didn’t seem to mind the taste. How relieved I was to return home with Sidney and a diagnosis that gave cause for greater optimism than I had left with. I reminded the children (and myself), however, that Sidney could still die. Sometime last night, he did.

Sidney came into my life in 1983 when I was a sophomore in college. He was hand fed and tamed as a baby but he could still be ornery. He was a macaw in a cockatiel’s body or so he thought. If he didn’t want you in his space he’d use the pointy tip of his beak to let you know. He could apply enough pressure to draw blood if he wanted but he usually refrained from such drastic measures. He’d usually play fight with my fingers, stopping now and then to bow his head so I could scratch it. Sidney loved feet whether in socks or out. I first discovered this while studying on my bed one day in college. I was lying on my stomach reading and put him on my back, thinking he would sit quietly on my upper back. He proceeded to waddle down my back, over my rump, and down my legs until he reached my tube sock-clad toes. He began to chirp at them as they wiggled and then broke out into melodious whistling. Since then, Sidney always opted for a foot over a shoulder. I have no explanation for this odd phenomenon but it has provided my family and me great entertainment over the years.

So, today marks the first day of Sidney’s cage being vacant. We’ll miss his vocal contributions to our home’s environment. As long as Otto, the African Grey, is our guest, though, we’ll hear echoes of Sidney thanks to his amazing mimicry.

Yes, I’ll miss Sidney. But I’ve lost pets before. What’s harder is watching my children encounter grief for the first time, knowing that it will not be their last. They will have to part with other dearly loved animals and, even more sadly, people. There is wisdom to be gained for each of us in saying goodbye to Sidney. I pray that we will.

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Rock Slatestone - Editor said...

Dear KP and Family,

We are praying for you as you work through your loss.

in Christ,

The Slatestones

Rock Slatestone - Editor said...


How do you prepare children for losing a loved one or pet?


KP said...

Thanks for the prayers, Steven.

I don't think one can fully prepare children for such a loss. My attempt to prepare my kids for Sidney's death consisted of periodically reminding them that Sidney had already lived a longer life than average and that most likely he would be dying in the near future. I didn't want them to interpret his spryness as an indicator that he had a long life ahead. I was trying to prevent his death from taking them completely offguard.

My wife and I used to be youth leaders in a high school group years ago. I remember one night when the youth pastor asked how many had never been to a funeral. I was shocked to see how many hands went up. This was so foreign to my own experience. By the time I was in high school I had attended a number including one (if my memory serves me correctly) in a home.

If others have found helpful ways of readying children for the death of pets and loved ones, please share it in a comment.

ernie the elf said...

Jeannie and I are sad about your loss. You wrote a very nice piece on Sydney. It was good to see that Brandon was reaching out to you in your grief.

empressbarb said...

So sorry about Sydney. We have had Cockatiels and really loved them.
As for how to prepare children, you did well. My husband and I found that
honesty, appropriate to the child's age, is a good place to begin. Talking about what it means to die, and what happens after death is important. Grieving in front of the kids is also important. Death stings now, that is just the way of the fallen world. You did well. We can prepare kids, but death is an intrusion, not of God's original plan, so it will always be hard.

KP said...

Sean and Jeannie, thanks for letting us know we're in your thoughts. Since we can't seem to touch base on the phone, the blog is the next best thing, I guess.

I look forward to catching up with each other soon.

KP said...

Thanks, Barb

You make a good point about the importance of grieving with the kids. Weeping with those who weep is one of the potent ways we can show love for each other. I must confess that I was tempted to hide my tears from my children but I resisted my pride and was honest about my sadness. My children will be exposed to enough lies about what it means to be a man without my contributing to the falsehood.

Daily we're acclimating to life without Sidney and have even thrown around the idea of getting another cockatiel in time. I learned today that Otto will be going home on Sunday so we'll be saying goodbye to another feathered friend in a week's time.