Little Bird

Nicholas Rex

                                     All the glory that the Lord has made
                                     And the complications when I see His face
                                     In the morning in the window. (Stevens)

          I keep worrying about whether I’m washing parts of the car you can’t reach with the hose. I stay by the front bumper and scrape off bugs from Canada and Kansas, hoping you don’t notice the new crack in the windshield and ask me where I got it, because I’ll have to tell you Pennsylvania, and you’ll ask me about the birds out there, and what else I saw, and I’ll hesitate about how much to tell you, and wonder if you’ll get jealous, or depressed, and I’ll want to curl beneath the car where the soap bubbles pop on the pavement and breathe in the suds until my lungs ferment and I no longer have to be your older brother.
          You’re slumped forward in Dad’s camping chair precariously set up on the driveway, your cane under your right armpit, garden hose in hand waiting for me to give the command to spray the lather off the car. Mom and Dad are at work, I’m home on a college break taking care of you. You’re twenty-one.
          I have to wash the back bumper. I go around and watch you through the windows, you start to play with the hose nozzle, flipping through the different spray settings until you find a soft frizzy one you like and sprinkle the flowers on the side of the driveway. You cup a hand over your brow and study the sky for birds. A pair of eagles nest in the neighbor’s old pine tree. You watch them take off at dawn and sit in the shaded branches at noon; vultures sweep the sky every now and then, circling for some unfortunate carcass. Your eyes come down again, and you’re stuck looking into your knees, the hair that runs along your forearms, the cat-smudges on your eyeglasses.
          The seizures haven’t been as bad lately. The doctors never knew what to call it—we think it’s spasticity, a rare symptom on the autism spectrum. But there is no way to tell for sure.
And even if there is, there is no cure, just a destiny. And you’re already sitting in it.
          When I come around the front of the car I say, dude, can you spray some more, and, hey, you missed a spot, and I can’t even look at you while I wash the wheels because if I see you
in the camping chair I’ll hunch over and cover my face with the drying towel to conceal the tears and the trembling that start to erupt in me, too.

          The first time it happened I was laughing. We’d hiked hard down a canyon wall and up the other side, after twelve miles with forty-pound packs in the desert. You said you needed to
rest, so we sat down, and your legs started to shake, and I said, what’re you doing, the Irish Jig? and I watched through my video camera, where I can still hear myself snickering in the
shaky video. Your legs are moving but you are not moving them on purpose, they are snapping like rubber bands, and the face you are making is not for fun, it is a look of pain and terror—
because you knew and our brother knew that something had just been unleashed, and that everything was going to change.
We set up a tent and laid you inside while our brother and I stood outside and talked about what to do. But we started to hear a crinkle in the tarp and a very scared fourteen-year-old little brother start calling for his older brothers and so we came, and we ripped open the tent, and you were lying there in between tangled sleeping bags and open bags of trail mix and you were whacking the floor with your elbows and slamming the ground with your knees and crying out for us to help you and we each grabbed a side of your body and held you down but your neck started to pound the back of your skull into the dirt so I grabbed a coat and put it under your head and you couldn’t even make a sound as you started to cry, little tears forced themselves out of your caruncles and I thought how precious, like tears shed in the Sahara Desert, or Antarctica, and you opened your mouth and tried to say words, water, leg, stretch, left, hold me, and you puckered your lips and you inhaled sharply and grunted while your chest heaved compulsive motions downward, and eventually you asked us to ask God to bless you, and I closed my eyes and I held your body and I huddled over you like Mary might have done over the dead man she loved, and I wept bitterly that my tears mixed with your sweat and I asked God to somehow heal you.
I worked at an old folk’s home in high school. I served them dinner Monday to Thursday. The residents were mostly elderly widows and widowers, seventies, eighties, one lady in
her nineties. It seemed like they were all waiting to die. Each lived alone in a room with yellow wallpaper. They had a calendar of monthly events that gave them something to look forward to: Bingo every Tuesday and Friday night, church service Sunday morning, field trips to the mall every other Saturday—but the thing that kept them alive was socializing at dinner.
Every night we started seating at 6:15 p.m. But some formed a quiet little line outside the door, eagerly perched on the edges of walkers or benches, at 5:30. They had nothing to do but wait. Wait until Friday night. Wait until Sunday morning. Wait until 6:15.
I’d sit down with them after their dinner plates were served. We’d talk about me mostly, which I grew tired of and felt selfish about. They had experienced a lifetime more than I had but all
they wanted to talk about was how was the football team this year, and how would we cast the musical with so many young boys, and what was my plan after high school again? I told stories from the scenes of my youth because being young was the only thing they wanted to remember. I had what they wanted: mobility, a family that was present, freedom.
One day a lady who couldn’t speak English asked me to deliver dinner to her door and when I arrived she motioned me inside. I entered her room and noticed the yellow wallpapered walls. Barren. On her kitchen table, next to an unsolved Rubik’s Cube, was a photograph. We used Google Translate on our phones to communicate in silence. I passed her my message, Who is he? And she smiled and her eyes lit up and she passed me her message back. My son. Where is he? He put me in here and went back to Mexico. Her name was Dora, and she asked me to teach her English because she couldn’t understand any of the other residents and none of them could understand her. It was rare for a resident to receive visitors of any kind—they were usually family, if they ever visited at all—but Dora had no one. Dora’s probably dead now, and I don’t know if she ever got to hear any of my news about the football team or young boys being cast in musicals. I don’t know if her family ever came to visit her, or if she waited for every other Saturday to go to the
mall, unable to tell anyone how good the Cinnabons were.
I don’t know what the right thing to do is when a family begins to witness the deteriorating health of a loved one. I don’t know if hiding the daily pains of the disabled helps nondisabled people feel less guilty, or if turning from other people’s pain denies the compassion that makes us more than a reptile. When a young caribou is injured and lags behind the herd, his mother will stay with him and protect him a while. But when the wolves come, she must leave him, knowing there is nothing she could do to save her child. Perhaps washing our hands of the pain we cannot fix is the only way to move forward—but letting go of the people we can’t protect is no easier to live with than putting our heart into a tourniquet and expecting to run a marathon.
I don’t know how many elderlies volunteered to live alone for the end of their life. Every night at dinner I saw them—other people’s family members—all yearning for connection. We talked about the casual privileges of youth and I put on a fake smile and hid my weeping for their loneliness. After a lifetime of connecting with others, now what they hoped for was the dinner conversation, Monday to Thursday night, with the young dinner server boy who could brighten their day with a story about his school lunches and his spring break vacation with his family to Mexico.
When I moved to college, I thought I was supposed to go make myself into something and be someone and do something—Jesus did it, Buddha did it, every single role model I ever had did it and had to leave their family to do it. Sometimes I imagine a big party in my future when all my life’s work after leaving home accumulates and culminates and I am recognized for doing something worthwhile to someone in the world outside my family home, and some woman in a flowing dress on a well-lighted stage with a high-quality microphone hands me a shiny trophy with little wings and says congratulations, thank you for your accomplishment, and I think about all my work and the sacrifices, and you, how it’s all proof that leaving you behind was logical, that I am a brother not a parent, that family raises you but you must become your own person, that I can’t grow up where I grew up.
In an alternate scenario I see you shaking in a wheelchair, we are both old now and I am bathing you. You will still grumble about the same things you did when the shaking first started. You will make jokes about being an old grandpa, but now you really are old. All your books and maps about the world will still be in your room, but there will be no trophies of any kind, no winged golden flying metal reflecting the setting sun of your magnificence. And no one will ask about you or about me, and no one will know us, because we will have done nothing but care for each other all our lives. And instead of knowing the world we will know each other. And when we both lie
down to die, our life will have been our choice, and I will say, I loved my little brother, and I refused to accept his destiny, because sometimes destiny must be raged against and sometimes love must be unreasonable.

          I watched a little bird die today. His mother sang songs until he died. His little head curled down into his chest and he stopped breathing. His eyes never opened to see the world.
Sometimes gravity plays a trick on little birds before they can open their eyes, sometimes they are pushed out by a selfish older brother, sometimes it is just the wind, blowing wherever it listeth. The birds that fall before their time almost always die—if the impact on the earth doesn’t kill them, a predator will find them.
Birds that live to adulthood also make the jump from the nest, but they choose to jump when they think they are ready. The first flights of all birds are the most miraculous of decisions. Only days, weeks, or hours into the world, little birds with hardly their down feathers leap from the safety of their nests to meet the bitterness of the earth.
One of the most awe-inspiring jumpers is the barnacle gosling. A gosling is unable to eat food brought to him by parents, so immediately after birth he must venture to the feeding grounds. However, the grounds are miles from the nest. And barnacle goose nests are built hundreds of feet high on arctic cliffs. Within the first thirty-six hours of life, the barnacle gosling must jump from this cliff.
His down feathers are a small parachute for his lightweight body, but after he jumps he falls and falls until he collides with something—a cliff wall coming down, a bad rotation twists him in the air and he smashes his head on impact, maybe he survives the fall and tumbles over shrapneled rock until a wing or a foot gets ripped or snapped. If he stops falling and he stops rolling and he is still alive, he must avoid predation from waiting fox and watching crow, waddle miles over boulder, snow, ice, crevasse, hole, cavern, fatigue, hopelessness, the unequal and unfair disposition of Nature on his innocent body that desires an equal chance to live—to reach a temporary heaven
miles away.
You were fourteen the first time you had a seizure. You fell, blind or featherless or both, and hit the ground and broke your little body. Seven years later, I’m pitying you and turning my eyes from your pain before it becomes mine. I drive and drive and think and think and write essays and ask street preachers and witches to pray for you and I stand at the altars of empty churches, after the night has ended but the webby streetlamp has shone through the window all night, then go shake my hands at the sky because I don’t know whom to blame. What did you do? What could I have done? Was it me or God who pushed you out too early and abandoned you?
One summer, during a brief positive lapse in your health, you and I went bird watching. We walked through a dusty braided riverbed looking for nests in trees to sit and watch at dusk. We hadn’t seen more than a few crows and vultures all day, but as we walked back at sunset you stopped. Sand settled in the air. Two American kestrels swooped into treetops. You crouched so as not to disturb them. You looked at me with urgency in your eyes. You told me Go!—you go! and I’ll stay!—and I didn’t take time to think about how this moment or our whole distancing lives might affect you so I left you there, crouched in the sand, watching from a distance as I approached the winged creatures.
I left home for college, jobs, girlfriends, some future I have a shot at—and you’ve been required to watch as people around you have moved into the next stage of their lives. The places you dreamed of visiting were past the ability of your body, so you put maps of those countries on your walls and studied them as you lay, for days and weeks and months, prostrate, assigned to a bed with a sickness no doctor and no bishop and no stake patriarch can explain.
Maybe this is what we do for the people we love—scrutinize the Fate that disregards our righteous desire. But if I can’t protect the people I love from the world, then how is love enough? Why could Jesus heal Mary Magdalene because He loved her, but no matter her faith, Mary could not stop Jesus from the cross or save Him from the tomb? Will our love ever be enough?
Am I prideful or afraid in the face of what I can’t control? Is my evolutionary instinct to care for the weak because I, too, am weak alone, and afraid of living beyond the safety of a familial or religious nest? Do I love selflessly, or do I love in order to cope with my existential fear of young adulthood, thrusting myself into the most absorbing type of love and calling that a purpose? Is loving another person just an opportunity to relieve myself of my self? Is all I see when I look at you my own exhaustion and disappointment for what I could have been if I’d been a little more independent and brave? Do I scrutinize your fate because I am tired of trying to figure out mine? Is Fate unfair, or am I just afraid of having faith?
For years I struggled coming home to see you in your wheelchair, or you with Grandpa’s donated cane taken shyly out of the closet, or you pulling yourself slobbering and sweating up the stairs using only your arms. But today driving away is harder. Most of the time I drive a few miles away and pull over and cry.
As we wash the bug-plastered windows and scrub the roadworn tires, I can’t help as tears work themselves out and I watch you leaning on your cane in the driveway in the camping chair, scanning the sky for birds, scanning the sky for signs, scanning the sky for God. And I’ve been obliged to think that our will is not entirely our own, and that God sometimes determines the choices we get to choose from, and sometimes we hate them all, and want to curse God, and pose ourselves against Him. And God obstinates to His will because He can call it righteous, and we must cower in our pride, and call ourselves sinful, and stubborn, and arrogant, and humble ourselves to the dirt because we are not magnificent.
But if this Nature is God’s love, then I don’t understand God or love. Because when I feel the beauty in that sparrow mother singing songs until her baby dies, I know Nature is not vengeful or unjust, only bound by rules. And I know that love is much more powerful than the indifference of evolution, casually selecting who will survive and who will die, and though a little bird may fall and break its neck and back, trees still grow into the rocks of mountains’ sides, and elephants migrate in
packs through the Sahara Desert where there is no water or comfort except their family members for hundreds of miles, and barnacle goslings leap hundreds of feet over cliffs they can’t see the bottoms of and walk for miles over pointy rocks and gaping swallowing holes using their little bruised feet that have no say in whether they slip on snow or outrun foxes or hide from crows as they journey toward the heaven placed so far from safety.
Our Father tells us to jump with the promise that a Savior will intercede before we hit the ground. We trust that in the end all will be made right that is not right, that the lame will walk and the blind will see and the deaf will hear music, the mournful music of sparrow mothers reconciling to the irrefutable will of Nature. But is God any more than a safety in the end? Will He intercede before we hit the ground? Or before we step through thin ice? Or before the fox and crow? Didn’t He send the fox and crow? We are destined, or damned, to love, impotent to Nature’s intention. And yet, choosing to love in the face of so much overbearing uncertainty is why any of us live on. Because not striving to free and be free accepts a disadvantaged death. Nature is hostile to love—and we must love.
And so I gravitate toward your side of the car and wash in places where I know you can reach with the garden hose nozzle, and I let you do your best at trying to wind up the hose on the side of the house, and when you need my help getting up the porch steps I put my arm around your waist, and say heave on three, and we lift, and it is beautiful, it is magic, we lift each other off the ground, two brothers so vastly different, so innately opposed, so changed in love. And when you grumble I tease you, and when we laugh we laugh until your body starts shaking, and I worry if this is the onset of something worse, and when we cry we cry so deeply that our snot drips in the same way down the front of our mustaches, covering our lips with the sweet glaze that is the pain of loving so fiercely that we are angry with God when He curbs a good desire.
And this time as I drive away I do not cry, but the whole time I look up as I cross the plains and the mountains and the desert, I am looking for you, I am waiting for you to join me, I am watching the sky for little birds, and sometimes I see you, when the weather turns and the surviving creatures congregate the air, I see you catching currents and flying freely. One day your life will move beyond the maps on the walls of your room and your imagination will fill the whole world. One day you will be magnificent.

Works Cited

Stevens, Sufjan. “Casimir Pulaski Day.” Come on Feel the Illnoise, Asthmatic Kitty Records, 2005.