Thursday, July 31, 2014

Requiem for a little bird

I vaguely remembered this song from my childhood: though we weren't exactly the Von Trapps, we were given to singing in harmony, even in round, and I may  have taken the soprano part (though I doubt it). Then the whole thing was tossed to the back of my brain, to the point that I began to think I had imagined it. For decades, it just didn't come up.

What shook it loose? Uhhhh. . . my bird got sick. That's right. I was ridiculed on someone else's blog  just for having a bird, and a large picture of me was posted with Jasper on my shoulder: anyone who has birds must be nuts, some crackpot old lady half out of her mind.

I'm not. But to get back to the original point, we did some painting upstairs (in my office, in fact: it's now a lovely soft blue with a touch of dove-grey) and my bird got sick. We tried everything to keep him away from possible fumes. It may not have been the paint at all. He has something wrong with the toe on his left foot, and has partially lost his grip. Did he take a fall? For whatever reason, he was puffed up, ruffly and almost unresponsive, and we feared the worst.

When I picked him up (for he no longer had the energy to just hop into my hand as usual), he snuggled down in my palm as if in a nest and buried his head in my hand. Not normal behaviour, at all. It was then that the song began to play in my head. After more than 50 years, my sick birdie pushed "play".

Ah, poor bird. Take thy flight. For some reason I remembered my brother Arthur singing it. It was one of those songs that came from who-knows-where: nobody wrote it, apparently. It just "was". On doing a bit of digging, however, I discover that the roots of it may well be Elizabethan. No doubt it sounded different hundreds of years ago and there were/are many versions, but this is the one I kept finding on YouTube.

This was the only decent version I uncovered.  It's an amateur group, but they're definitely singers. It's touching, if not perfect: meaning, it's music. I like the way they sing it more than once, the way they work on it and discuss it and let it evolve. The process is everything (and I particularly like their obvious joy in singing).

Most of the videos I found were of Godawful children's choruses singing wildly off-key. It's a children's song, apparently, like Frere Jacques. . . buthey, do you hear a sort of similarity? Flip Frere Jacques into a minor key, and there you have it. With only a few changes, we have the original Ah Poor Bird, stolen by who-knows-who.

Way leads on to way. The next association was with Gustav Mahler and his - what, second symphony? We played Mahler recordings endlessly when I was a child (along with every other classical composer, up to and including Kurt Weill and Alban Berg). One day the slow movement of this symphony was playing, and my older brother Walt said, "Listen to this. It's Frere Jacques." "No it isn't." "Yes it is.  It's just in a minor key." "What's that?" "You know. The sad key." I was probably eight years old, but it somehow stuck. 

I found a recording of the Mahler piece and will post it next, along with some revelations about the composer and Leonard Bernstein, then deemed the go-to guy for interpreting Mahler symphonies.  It's funny how finding one video, or remembering one bit of tune due to a sick bird, can open out memory telescopically, or rather, kaleidoscopically. 

By the way, my bird suddenly recovered and is now hopping into my hand, devouring millet and humping his plastic toys with his usual elan.

POST-BLOG THOUGHTS. This is a repeat of a piece I wrote over two years ago.  Last night Jasper died. He was nine years old and had been doing poorly for a while, but we kept hoping he'd bounce back like he did last time, the only other time in his life he had been sick. I had been preparing for a while, though I know that sounds strange. Everyone copes in a different way. Bill cried and cried, but he's a cryer much more than I am, except for sudden torrential floods of sobbing that come upon me suddenly, triggered by the flat-out tragedy of a deteriorating, perhaps even plummeting world, and my uncertain, maybe even impossible place in it.

I had something ready for him, a little Twining's tea box that had held mint tea bags. It was quite pretty and mint-scented and the perfect size. We buried him with two of his favorite toys, and I made him a little stone with his initial on it. Found a small branch of heather in the front yard with little white flowers on it, an earthy, durable sprig that somehow seemed appropriate. 

I have this cage to scrub out now, and - .  But not today. I know it will get harder the longer I leave it. I slept lousy last night, just lousy, and have that raw bagged wired feeling that will last a couple of days. I tip easily. Oh so easily, which is why I stand my ground so fervently when I can. Where others have wooden beams or even stone, I have eggshell. If that.

Jasper came into my life when I badly needed something to take care of. He was so little that he'd do that baby bird thing, quiver his wings and look up at me, all but opening his beak to be fed. He bonded with me quickly, for he had to: I was survival for him. There were disadvantages to a bird, mostly the incredible mess he could spew. He didn't just go splat. His shit was shot out of a tiny cannon and could fly horizontally more than half a foot. Dried, it was like cement, but wet it was even worse,and it stained. The other disadvantage was the racket, sometimes so shrill I could hardly stand it. 

At the end he kind of lost his will. He wasn't climbing up on Bill's glasses any more (a behaviour he never practiced with me, though he often preened my hair at the back). I knew he was going. I began to wonder if there was music I could listen to, to help this along. I immediately thought of Ah Poor Bird, the lovely sad round that doesn't show up much on YouTube. Then I thought of the Mahler version, a sort of Frere Jacques in a minor key that is also meant to represent the funeral procession of a hunter, with all the animals walking in a single file behind the casket. Not bloody likely, but it makes a lovely mournful tune. Then I thought, to hell with that, I'll find something else. But today I find I want to hear the Mahler. 

Ah poor bird, take thy flight. In the end he was fragile, but then he always was, like a little bright brooch you'd wear over your heart. My dread of seeing him dead was unfounded. He lay relaxed on his back, his feet curled around an invisible perch, his yellow breast exposed like a drop of sun. He was okay, this Jasper. This Jasper helped me through a time in my life when it looked like I might commit suicide from despair, when everything I had depended on in myself, all my recovery so carefully nurtured and worked on for fifteen years, just fell out from under my feet. I wanted to say, to cry like a thwarted, lied-to child, "But you PROMISED!" You promised that if I stayed sober, did all the things I was supposed to do, worked really hard on myself and all my issues, that I would stay well, that I would never again be swallowed by a hospital and be poked at with sharp sticks.

They were wrong.

But I had this bird, this tiny fragile thing that was somehow feisty. I had him a long time. Did things get better? Better, worse, up, down, sideways. Many losses, many disappointments, some agonizing near-accomplishments that as usual were jerked away just as they brushed my fingertips.

But my mood grows dark. Can't tell you why, maybe it's because my bird died and I seem to be doomed to carry on.


  1. So sorry, Margaret. This is a beautiful eulogy. Brought tears to my eyes. I feel as if I knew the little rascal.

    I didn't watch the TV show Glee, but one night as I walked through the TV room while Sarah and her mother were watching it this scene came on. I stood there transfixed. I was weeping by the time it finished. Blackbird

  2. That's strange, maybe not so strange, that Blackbird was one of the songs I was listening to yesterday while my bird was clearly dying and there was nothing we could do about it. Mercifully, he seemed to be in a very deep sleep. But we knew what was coming. I think Blackbird is my favorite Beatles song. Strangely, I also landed on A Nightingale Sang in Berkely Square, an unlikely choice, but very beautifully sung by Mel Torme. I ended up going back to the morbid old Mahler, the "ah poor bird" because it just snagged something in me. I do appreciate your tears - not many will get this, as I think most people will think, it was just a bird.