“Everything you love must die…”
I MET HER ONE YEAR AGO this month. We were just visiting the Bird Is The Word store to get some seed for our “flock.” And Shaun and Geri and I all held this little green Canary Winged Parakeet that they’d just gotten in from a breeder in Florida. She was a baby and a cute little thing… and somewhat rare — the store had never gotten one of that type in before from a breeder — and they’re a longstanding store that deals solely in exotic birds. A couple weeks later, our budgie parakeet escaped our house in a fluke accident and we were heartbroken… but after a few days we decided to go back to the bird store and bring home that green Canary Wing if she was still available.
On September 8, 2018 she came home with us, and we named her Pepper. Like the Jalapeno. She was supposed to be Shaun’s bird, but she bonded to me. So much so that after a few weeks she hissed and opened her beak with a protective fierceness at anyone who came near me while she was sitting on my shoulder or hiding in my lap… which was pretty much every waking moment I was at home. She made herself MY bird.
Just under a year later, tonight on August 12, 2019, she left us. Tonight I can’t sleep until I tell her story.
The start of it all…
Pepper was a rambunctious thing right from the start and seemed a normal, happy bird. And definitely the most affectionate bird I’ve ever had.
She got sick a couple months after we brought her home though, and I left work early as soon as my wife called to let me know she was “down” so that I could take her to the vet. I already was so in her thrall after a few weeks that I would have walked away from anything to keep her safe.
She got better in November after some vitamin treatments and we mostly forgot about the illness, thinking it was just a “cold” that she’d gotten over. She was now a normal member of our flock, accepted by the other birds, and a feisty one at that. In the mornings she’d push the cockatiel away from the food I set out on my desk while I was answering morning email, and at night she took over my right shoulder and snuggled against my neck for hours.
We watched a lot of “Barney Miller” and “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns together after dinner. She healed my heart when Lem, my geriatric cockatiel of 30 years finally succumbed to old age a couple months ago, slimming our flock from five to four (a cockatoo, cockatiel, budgie and Pepper).
This summer, she became a baseball fan, because when the Cubs were on, she knew that she could have my chest and shoulder to lounge on for three straight hours at a time. Hell, sometimes she even rolled on her side and let her legs go limp with her feet both sticking out into the air when I was rubbing her.
She surrendered everything when she was sitting with me. When she was in her cage and heard me cough or sneeze from another side of the house, she instantly gave out a monkey-like “ehhh-eh-eh-eh” chirp demanding that I come get her. She would be quiet on weekend mornings… until she heard me stir upstairs.
I love all my birds like my babies, but Pepper demanded my heart. And I had to give it. In all honesty, I did feel a little guilty because she quietly displaced Stormy, my grey cockatiel who used to own my shoulder much of the time. While I still scratched Stormy’s head in a way nobody else is allowed to, for most of her “out time” Stormy became “Geri’s bird” over the past year as Pepper staked and fought for her territory. Me.
The start of a long decline…
When 2019 began, Pepper got sick again, and we made many trips to the vet.
She went back on vitamin and immune system building drops. I started checking her weight every few hours every day on a little scale in my office, because she had dropped 1/3 of her body weight since her fall visit and I hadn’t realized it. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. I had a special feeding mix that I fed her with a syringe whenever her weight dipped to make sure she stayed level.
She got better for a few weeks… and then got worse again. Ended up in the bird hospital twice over the coming weeks, staying there for days at a time with pneumonia. It seemed like whatever her internal problem was, came in cycles. She’d be good for a few weeks, and then plummet. The vet gave us drops to boost her immune system, because it didn’t seem to be working on its own.
At one point, before she stayed in the hospital, I was sure she was going to die. She caught a respiratory illness and was struggling for breath and would go into a panic when she couldn’t quite catch it, running and stumbling across my shoulders.
Two different nights I sat up with her until after 2 a.m. She watched Sartana Italian Westerns with me (they were subtitled, so I could keep the sound low) until the dark and the warmth of my shoulder settled her to an uneasy sleep. I was almost sure both of those nights that I was going to wake in the morning to a dead bird.
But she pulled through that time.
And again and again. As Spring turned to Summer, it seemed that we might have finally licked whatever disorder had plagued her. She started making whistles and chirps on sunny days that she had never made in the first six or seven months we’d had her. For two or three weeks, it seemed like she finally had beaten whatever was wrong inside.
I was excited that we maybe had finally turned the corner. She still had not grown in new wing feathers, which was troubling. The store had clipped them before we brought her home in September, but birds molt every few weeks or months, so she should have gotten “new” wings well before spring.
She did have a small molt in late May or early June, and a couple new wing and head feathers came in. But not enough were replaced for her to fly. And her overall look was motley, since her body was covered in mostly “old” feathers. And her tail feathers, which she seemed to snap off every time one started growing in, stayed stubby.
A couple weeks ago, she began showing signs that something else was wrong. This time she didn’t have breathing or weight loss issues. Instead, she was stumbling. As if she’d pulled a muscle in her leg. I thought that was what it was at first because her energy remained good… but then the appetite started dipping and the “limping” got worse. We made another vet appointment, and I started feeding her more formula again to keep her weight up in the meantime.
By the end of the week, she was no longer craning her head when I let her out of her cage and saying “Hi!” to me, which she usually did when I came to let her out. She just threw herself up my shoulder to take her place there to cuddle.
We had an appointment tonight and I figured we’d be doing x-rays and seeing just what was going on this time to lay her low. Not that any prior tests had ever discovered the root cause of her issues. All of her cultures and blood tests came back negative for worrisome issues every time. I suspect that whatever was behind all of her health issues of the past year was one and the same. Tumor. Neurological disease. Cancer. Digestive organ disorder. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter now because nobody ever solved the puzzle.
I took her out of her cage tonight after I got home from work and weighed her, and she flapped and struggled to stand straight. She was a little low in weight, so I said, “let’s get you some food before we go to the vet,” and took her to the kitchen to make the formula. I set her on the counter, and she stood for a second… and then simply laid her whole body and head down. I reached out to her and said, “what’s the matter” and she suddenly bleated out a staccato call that I’d never heard before.
It was her death cry and I knew it instantly for what it was.
I picked her up and saw the light leaving her eyes. I cried “no, no no” but her head lolled, and she was gone.
Just like that.
Life is fleeting, fickle and cruel.
Whenever you are responsible for a life — child, elder parent, pet — you will always second guess your decisions. Could I have done this and it would have been different? Should I have done that? What if we’d had an emergency vet visit a couple days earlier? What if we’d gotten her anesthesia and had x-rays done the last time she got sick? It’s a horrible game that our minds play and mine has certainly played it tonight. But no self-recriminations will bring back the little green spirit that brought me so much joy this past year.
Geri told me later that she had had a difficult day… a lot of fluttering and trying to stay up on her perch when she couldn’t maintain her balance.
Pepper had struggled and held on and waited for me to come home to her. And as soon as I did come home and picked her up… she could finally let go. She waited for me to say goodbye.
I understand Pet Semetary now. I get all of those horror novels where people foolishly use voodoo and radioactive chemicals and invoke demons or a Monkey’s Paw. I have cried all night that I just want her back. When I reheated dinner, I looked at the pork ribs I grilled last night and burst out in tears… because I cooked them to have as leftovers for the week solely because the bird liked them… and she never had the chance to eat them. I would do almost anything to have her back, snuggling against my neck. I want to walk to her cage and have her little green neck extend happily and say, “Hi!”
But those eyes won’t look into mine again. That “ehhh-eh-eh-eh” won’t greet me as I walk down the stairs late on a Saturday morning, asking me why the hell I stayed up so late last night watching bad movies and slept so long.
Because she is sleeping now. Kiwi and Stormy and Coraline all understood her passing, I think. They were all strangely quiet tonight… the flock is now three.
I cried tonight when I thought of Pepper’s wings, and how they never filled in so that she could fly around the house and to my shoulder as the other birds do. I cried that I didn’t recognize how close to the edge she was.
God in heaven, if you are there and fair at all, I pray that you let her at last fly high and free as she never could here with me. If spirits live on, she should fly.
Nobody deserves it more. My Pepper deserves a high-flying soar and rush.
I held her after she went away for an hour or more tonight, not letting her get cold. But now I visualize and hope for only one thing. Green wings, extended and swooping just below the sunset’s rays.
Rest in Peace, my sweet, loyal bird. I will never be the same, for you took over my heart and your passing leaves a large empty hole there. I will always miss you now, but even though it hurts like hell, I’m thankful you came into my life for a little while.