Unfortunately, it didn't soften the scales sufficiently. A week
later, following his bath, the scales were soft enough to be carefully peeled
away. Byrd tolerated this well, too. After the scales were gone, his legs
were youthfully thin and he walked about with greater ease. After recalling
that memory, I carefully placed him head first into the black, nylon burial
bag that I had saved for the occasion. Since his tail feathers protruded, I
trimmed them slightly. He was then placed in a thin, white cardboard box of
his approximate size.
Since I regularly visited my parents on late Sunday afternoons, I
decided that the burial should occur at that time. I gently carried Byrd's stone
and his makeshift coffin in one hand and a spade in the other. The foot of the
lilac bush in my parents' garden was Pinky's final resting place and it would
also serve Byrd for that purpose. I set him upon on a dry log and raised my
spade. The Ohio earth was crusted with ice on that February day, but the
impact of my spade, fueled by welling emotion, split the soil readily. Even
roots of the lilac bush gave way.
After all of our years together, I couldn't imagine placing Byrd's body
into a shallow, icy hole. The thought of an animal digging up his body horrified
me, so I dug deep. At six inches, tears were running down my face. At 12
inches, a tightness in my chest turned into thudding punches of grief. At 18
inches, the punches dizzied me. My knees began to shake and my grip upon
the shovel loosened. I dropped to a knee, covered my face with raw hands
and wept deep sobs as the final rays of sun began to disappear.
After recovering, I began to dig more, but the same wave of grief
enveloped me. I was burying my guardian angel. I was burying the child that
I never fathered. I was burying my teddy bear. I was burying my own life
force. Steady tears heaved from a well of pain deep in my chest. Again, I fell
to a knee in order to brace myself.
I completed the task with a hand shovel, my tears falling into the pit.
After flattening the clay at the bottom of the grave, I opened the coffin and
kissed Byrd for a last time. After gently replacing him, I set his coffin at the
bottom of the pit, and then hand shoveled the finest soil on top. After a firm
layer of fine soil, the bigger chunks filled the hole. I placed the stone over
the coffin, taking my time to position it in the crumbly soil. Byrd was gone
forever—to sleep with every being who had lived before him. Only memories
and myth remain.
I needed the strength to change. From Byrd's example, I drew inspiration.
Byrd molting his head feathers. Approximately1993.
The economy cycled back to lousy, and as a result of  prolonged
unemployment, I had to take a lousy job. I became a lab technician with
an oil testing firm in the October before Byrd's death. For $9.00 per hour,
I was expected to learn a dozen tests using equipment worth hundreds of
thousands of dollars. Pay increases of 50 cents per hour could be achieved
by learning more tests. The maximum pay was $10.50 per hour. No health
care benefits were offered. And despite consistent 50-hour work weeks, the
job was considered to be part-time. Depending on the number of customer
oil samples delivered from local carriers, work days could last 4 hours or
they could last 12 hours or more. The work area was arranged to necessitate
standing through the entire shift, sometimes, in one place for hours. I missed
the defunct magazine that I used to write for on a full-time basis from 2004
to 2006. Hell, I missed the high school job that I worked for comparable pay,
better work conditions and reliable hours back in 1981.
Going to work at the lab was always difficult, but the Monday morning
following Byrd's death was particularly difficult. I fought to hold back crying
bouts. The sadness was cyclical. A thought of Byrd was followed by the
sense of loss, intense sadness and watery eyes. Finally, I had to force my
attention back to the task at hand. In 10 to 15 minutes, the cycle began
again. I barely made it through the day. I knew that the next would not be
any easier.
When I came home, I let myself freely think about him. During his life,
Byrd was courageous and bold. He challenged the vacuum cleaner, chased
off another robin, protected me from the evils of the night. He performed
circus-worthy feats that robins had never achieved before. A world-class
soprano would envy his voice. And as in an opera, he died in the arms of his
Was I living up to Byrd's example? Would he be proud that I work a
near minimum-wage job without any idea of when I'll return home at night?
Would he be proud that I developed pain in my middle back, lower back and
feet due to 6 to 10 hours of daily standing? Would he be proud that I now
subconsciously believed that I deserved such abuse?
Such thoughts led me to others. If I had missed his death for my lousy
job, I could never have forgiven myself for such outright stupidity. Byrd would
have died alone, perhaps frightened. I would never have had the opportunity
to share his final moments, to comfort him, to be his last thought. I would
have given everything to be at his death. And if he would have died on a
weekday, I would have missed it!
I didn't have Byrd anymore, but his mythical spirit still lingered upon
my hands—the same hands in which he died. I devised a new job description
for myself that involved steady hours and physical mobility. The owner read
the proposal in my presence, admired my effort, but refused the offer. Upon
refusal, I gave my notice. I had no idea of where I'd go next, but knew that I
had to molt that old life.
Less than two weeks after my resignation, I was contacted by the lab
owner. I accepted a different job within the firm. Although the pay is similar, my
work hours are 9:30 a.m.