January 11, 2014: Requiem
Our pet cockatiel is dying. I have no doubt by the time I post this he will be dead.
Bartleby has been part of our lives for 20 years, a member of the Fleming family long before the arrival of our son, Lincoln, our two current dogs, Sylvester and Marcus, or our first dog, McTeague, long passed himself. Bartleby was our first pet as a couple, my first pet as an an adult, and probably the most romantic gesture two unromantics like my wife and I could ever generate. I will explain in a moment.
My tears are for the life I have not given the sweet bird. We ask ourselves, did we fail him by relegating him to a life in a cage? Even though guilt drives me to believe that, the reality almost certainly begs to differ. He was part of a pet bird market, probably never destined to live outside of his cage.
Recently moved to Detroit fresh out of graduate school, Pix and I decided one Valentine's Day that we should buy a bird to represent our love. Feeding blue jays and cardinals from a window-side feeder just wasn't cutting it. Looking in the yellow pages, we found "Birdland," a pet/bird store a mile or two from our apartment. Not possessing much knowledge of bird ownership, we jumped in the car to head to "Birdland," a rather non-descript shop in one of Detroit's less stellar neighborhoods.
Quickly realizing that parrots were well out of our price range, we asked the owner to show us the cockatiels. In a large cage in the rear of the dark store, dozens of painted-face cockatiels awaited. All were adorable. Almost all were incredibly active, singing, hopping around the cage, preening. One cockatiel stood on a perch in the back, quiet, reserved, non-plussed. Somehow, for reasons we couldn't articulate, this bird was the one we wanted.
After picking out a cage, food and a book on cockatiels (note how two well-educated people "educated" themselves on cockatiel ownership after the fact of buying one), the owner thrust his gloved hand into the cage, parted the sea of squawking cockatiels, and grabbed our "romantic gesture," plopping it into a brown paper bag with a few airholes.
"What sex is it?" we asked.
"Male," the owner grunted.
"6 months?" he shrugged.
We took the owner at his word. I have never been inclined to explore how to confirm a cockatiel's gender.
Our un-named bird earned his Bartleby immediately back at our apartment. After setting up the cage, I went to get him from the bag, took a nasty bite to my finger (gee, Dave, why do you think the owner wore the freaking glove?), and half-flung him into his cage. He promptly took a position on his perch that left him staring at the wall -- the only wall in any of the cage's directions.
"Ha, look at that. Just like Bartleby the Scrivener," commented the geeky English Ph.D. "I like that," said Pix, "let's name him that."
It didn't take us long to realize that Bartleby, like his namesake in the Melville short story, "preferred not to." Only after a couple of days did he turn and face the rest of his new home, or his lovely view of the Lodge Freeway out the patio window. Anytime we tried to hold him, we received an aggressive beak attack. His interest in talking to us was nil.
Still, for the few years we lived in that apartment, he probably enjoyed a decent life. If we opened his cage door, he would hesitantly come out and hop on it, eventually singing, chirping or whistling like a drunken sailor. However, he might just as easily take off from the door stoop and fly into the patio door, stunning himself. I will never know if it was the right decision, but clipping his wings, which we did discuss, was never really an option. That seemed too cruel.
His vocalizations could also as quickly turn to shrieks, laments about something which we never could understand.
"What do you want?" I would yell at him. "You have a clean cage, fresh water, millet and food. If you want another bird to get laid, you got another thing coming."
When we would visit family, either in Indiana, about 3 hours from Detroit, or West Virginia, about 7 hours, Bartleby would be seat-belted, cage and all, into the back seat, and be the extra guest that may or may not have been wanted. My mother, bless her heart, took to him like a grandchild and talked to him and even kept him several times when we had necessary pet-free trips.
After buying our first house in Livonia, we had a chance to finally get the dog we always wanted. That, unfortunately, pretty much cemented a more forlorn life for poor Bartleby. Between the 120-pound rottweiler/labrador mix, McTeague, and the ceiling fans in the home, I envisioned Bartleby living about five minutes if I left the door open. Sadly, McTeague was probably never a threat (again, we named our pet appropriately, this time choosing a big, simple, thick--skin and mind--lughead not unlike the title character in the Frank Norris novel).
Eventually Bartleby moved 3 times, so he was a trooper. He survived Detroit, Livonia and Grand Rapids, but will die in Edwardsburg. He survived the dust of major renovations in Livonia, the bizarre urination patterns of second dog, Sylvester (again, name appropriate, as he is about as close to a cat that a dog can get), at the base of the table he sat on in Caledonia. (My hypothesis is that Sylvester like me occasionally lost it with Bartleby's screeches.) And he technically even survived the infamous Polar Vortex, although with each colder day he moved more and more into the warmest places in the house.
And so as I write this now, he has died, a sweet bird and companion for 40% of my life. We struggled to know how to make his last moments comfortable. Pix laid small towels all over the floor of his cage, including a couple doused with water so that he could suck on them. We hope he felt some love in his dying moments.
Sayonara, Barts. Rest in Peace, Squawks. Find McTeague in heaven and wait for us.