Why we attach meaning to things when we go through hard times

By Krista Genevieve Farris

Timmy the budgie moved into our house when chemo coursed through my veins. My husband and I had more than one spirited conversation about the wisdom of bringing another animal into our menagerie for which to care, while we already struggled to keep up with everyday household tasks amid a chaotic schedule of medical procedures and cancer surgeries. But, our youngest son, in middle school at the time, was falling farther and farther away from us and he wanted that bird.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I remember sitting in our make-shift upstairs office/game room petting my son’s pet rat Sheila. The rat snuggled into my soon to be dismantled chest and slept while I talked with a nurse advocate on the phone about all things breast cancer.

It wasn’t too soon after those first few months of being sick that Sheila died. So, it was with that memory of how that rat, that beautiful affectionate rat that I didn’t initially want, brought comfort to me that I acquiesced about the bird. And the green and yellow cutie came home with us.

My son brightened when he paraded around the house with it on his shoulder or perched on his index finger. Our dachshund and our mountain feist quickly became accustomed to the constant chirping. Our son took photos of it hidden and camouflaged among the stuffed animals on top of a wardrobe in his room- amid the soft fluffies that soothed my son when he, himself was tiny. 

For me, Timmy became like a canary in a coal mine. After warnings from an avian expert, we made sure not to have any harsh chemicals around the bird that might make it sick. We kept things copasetic around Timmy’s cage to prevent startling him or stressing him out. 

And, as I write that, I realize we had done the same for my youngest son. As the doctors declared my current state as “no detectable cancer” and I forge on with a steady course of medication, my son also calmed down during the past four years. He grew into a teenager and we took to just letting him be. We stopped riding him 24/7 about the type of things we most certainly harassed his older brothers about. We stopped arguing endlessly about many of the things that we once thought important—staying up late, wearing something other than shorts, participating in extra-curricular activities at school. 

The bird became a household barometer. If I heard his chirping, I knew all was well. I knew my son was outside of himself—that he was taking the covers off of his head and getting out of bed. That he was caring for another creature, bringing it water, letting it fly. That he was taking part in the world around him, instead of hiding in his room. 

If I heard Timmy’s bright calls, I suppose I subconsciously believed our home was a safe, healthy place—the type of space where a brightly plumaged bird with the tiniest of bones could safely sing.

I was feeling pretty good when I came home from work today. I taught a few exercise classes and the groups were on fire. I got myself a bowl of watermelon and sat on the couch. 

I didn’t hear Timmy greet me. I looked in his cage and I couldn’t see him on his favorite wooden perch. He was always on that stick, looking at himself in a mirror and telling us all about it, cheep-cheeping like there was no tomorrow. 

But, the living room was silent.

I walked toward the cage. A wide span of green covered the sunniest corner. He was tummy down in his miniature yellow bathtub, his beautiful wings spread wide over the rim.

That beautiful being hoisted itself onto its own catafalque.

The vet thinks it was cancer—

this lifelessness—

this drifting away without a peep—

I don’t want to tell my son.

Krista Genevieve Farris puts her anthropology and English degrees to work as a freelance features writer for her local newspaper. When she’s not writing, she can be found flipping around at gymnastics or leading exercise classes at her favorite fitness facility. Links to her work can be found at: https://kristagenevievefarris.wordpress.com/

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