Maya Angelou – “I know why the caged bird sings.”
“A small bird will drop frozen from the bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.” – D.H. Lawrence.
The other day, we went to visit my grandma and my aunt in Perkins Pavilion rest home. In the lobby, they have a glass-enclosed cage that is full of finches. Birds provide a sense of comfort and a spot of nature for the residents, many of whom rarely go outside. These finches are of several species, and they always make me think of both Darwin and captivity. When Darwin visited the Galapagos, he was more interested in geology, and had tasked another with cataloging the many bird species on the islands. At the time, cataloging meant shooting them and taking them back to England. Once back in England, an ornithologist realized they had different beaks to open the shells of the nuts they found. Different nuts for different islands, apparently. This led to sub-species that were better suited to each micro-climate.
Once I begin thinking about adjusting to micro-climates, I wonder if it is difficult. Do we not, in fact, do that all the time? Don’t we have to “read the room”, “feel the mood”, or “know your audience”? Matter of fact, instead of developing a specialized “beak” for social interaction, we have developed an “all-purpose” interface so we can get along with the greatest number of people possible.
The Finches of Perkins seem happy. They do seem upbeat. They do appear to be content. But are these not human emotions? I have a sneaking suspicion that all they care about is that there is a steady supply of food. Their swift and nimble travels between the straw nests they have built and the seed boxes placed throughout the enclosure brings joy to a watcher. Though mostly dull-colored birds, they have an unmistakable vitality.
As I consider these sweet birds, I draw a parallel to the human residents of Perkins Pavilion, a full-care retirement facility. Grandma and Aunt Rosemary live there. My dad refers to them as “the sisters”. They eat every meal together, just like when they were kids. They are happy, although they both wish for better health. I wonder if they feel trapped. I wonder if they long for the wide open farmscape of their youth, or their fertile gardens so lovingly tended, or the open road at vacation. Do they remember the sweeping pastures of the flint hills? Do they remember the stink of the hen-house? Do the dream of the chilling winters, the searing summers, or the perfection of a spring evening before the mosquitoes have hatched?
I know Grandma has said she is ready to go on to heaven. It is not that she hates living, it is just that she does not feel well, misses Grandpa, and is not having a ton of fun during her days. She appreciates her family and loves keeping up with friends, grand kids, great-grand kids. She still looks at pictures, reads cards, listens to my dad read her letters and keep up with all the news from our extended family. She still prays for all of us. She turned 100 years old last November. We celebrated both her birthday and my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary with what amounted to a family reunion. The most that had gathered in several years, in fact. Grandma not only made it to the venue, she stayed for several hours. Her clear and evident joy at seeing her people together was worth any amount of miles driven, plane tickets bought, schedules re-arranged. Her prayer at Christmas Eve dinner this year had all our eyes stung with tears – words, just a few, of humility and grace. In part, she said “we need to forgive, to love, and to care for each other”. Forgiving each other for our hurts – how we wish we could master that.
Aunt Rosemary does not remember too many specifics about all of us, or where she is living, or where she used to live. She is really happy, though, and always has a smile on her face when we go to visit. She enjoys hearing about our few chickens and can tell a story about when she cared for chickens back on the Gfeller farm. Although Rosemary does not go out (except for medical appointments), she loved hearing about the gathering for Grandma’s birthday. Even when she is not feeling well, she still smiles when she says where it hurts. Smiling through pain – how we wish we could master that.
I believe the finches daydream of wide open spaces and trees to roost in and nuts to crack and bugs to catch. I believe the sisters have a lifetime of memories to sustain them through the slower hours of their days.
I do hope the sisters – do the finches? – know what lessons we learn from them about contentment in life.
Do the sisters – and the finches – know how much joy they bring us still?