I was 8 when my first pet bit the dust. I hopped off the bus and was greeted by my sister’s tabby cat. She was fat and happy, purring like a freaking freight train. I scratched her between her ears and headed inside to hold my canary, Pickles.
It was eerily quiet on our screen porch. No tweets or whistles. I spotted the empty cage and proceeded to scan the perimeter. Pickles couldn’t have gotten far… her wings were clipped.
A few green feathers floated from the ceiling.
Mom walked into the room, drying her hands on her blue jeans.
“Oh, honey. I’m so sorry. Pickles flew away today. I saw her in the backyard playing with some robins, though. She seemed happy.”
Somewhere outside, that damn cat was cleaning her chops.
Years later, I would unearth the truth about that day. Mom had just finished crime scene clean-up when I got home from school, wiping God-knows-what off on her blue jeans. She explained gently that there was nothing she could do, and she thought I’d be happier imagining my bird hanging out with the neighborhood fowl.
“Pickles didn’t even get a proper burial!” I flung my arms up with emphasis. “You could’ve at least kept her body for me!”
Mom did not challenge my dramatic antics. She did not mention the fact that there wasn’t enough bird left for a shoebox. Instead she looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’ll keep that in mind next time. Promise.”
When I was twelve we got a cockatiel named Max. That bird was awesome. He pooped on my shoulder, smelled like rotten oatmeal, and bit my finger. Naturally, I adored him.
Late one evening I returned home from summer vacation. Exhausted, I dropped my bags and went straight to bed. I didn’t notice the silence. Or the empty cage. Or the feathers.
I slept, happily oblivious.
The next morning I plugged in the toaster and opened the freezer to grab a waffle.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!!”
There was Max, propped up beside an innocuous Eggo box. Stiff as a feathered British soldier, beady little eyes staring straight ahead at the frozen corn.
I poked him once to be sure I wasn’t seeing things. Hard as a rock.
“Oh, no,” I heard my mother murmur upon entering the kitchen. “Honey, I was going to tell you last night, but…”
“He’s frozen stiff!! Why is Max in the freezer, Mom? Next to the freakin waffles! What happened?!”
Mom thought I’d want to bury his body.
She kept me in mind.
I was too horrified, too disgusted, too freaked out to even respond. I left my waffle on the counter and fled to my room, slamming the door behind me.
I mean, it takes a little while to process something like that. It’s not everyday that you go scrounging for breakfast and come up with a frozen cockatiel carcass instead.
Max’s funeral was a beautiful event. We lowered him into the ground as a cassette tape played the Braveheart soundtrack. And kudos to my mother, he was well-preserved for the whole affair.
As a child, I used to wonder about my mother’s sanity. Her hair was a little wild. Our dinners were creative, so to speak. She made more than a few bizarre parenting choices in the early 90’s.
But looking back on things now, I’m beginning to understand her more.
Mom had three children, a full time job, and a whole lot of promises to keep. We were wild kids with hungry bellies and developing minds. She was doing her best.
I’m happily married now, with two dogs and a son. I pay my bills, love my child, and contribute to society.
No birds, though. Nope.
Somehow, I emerged from the gauntlet of parenting unscathed. And this gives me hope. You see, any time I doubt my ability to parent children into functional human beings, I think about that time my mama gave me the bird. And I think, “We turned out pretty normal.”
…for the most part.
Mary Katherine Backstrom