One who has never had a pet can never understand how difficult and painful it is to lose one. Today I mourn the passing of Oochie, the oldest of our four pet birds, who died this past Thursday, May 1. We do not know exactly how old Oochie was, but he was at least 16 and may in fact have been a bit older than that. The average life expectancy of a pet cockatiel being somewhere in the 15-to-20-year range, Oochie thus lived out what was roughly the equivalent of the threescore years and ten which, according to scripture, are allotted to human beings. That knowledge affords me some reassurance and comfort even as I wonder if I could have done anything to keep Oochie with us for a few years longer. (For the record, I rather suspect that I could not.)
We acquired Oochie in December of 1998, at which time he was at least a few months of age and, as noted above, possibly older still. He was a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, Joyce Hansen – known to one and all as Dodie – to our son Colin, who at the time was not quite ten. Colin wanted to give him an Italian name – honestly, that was his idea, even though I’m the one who ended up learning the language – and Oochie is derived from uccello
, which means bird.
Colin and the bird bonded almost instantly, and soon my wife Sheila did so as well. Cockatiels tend to bond mainly with one or two individuals, so although I loved the bird, he seemed to think of me as being part of his staff, which made me feel a bit envious of my wife and son. (Because of my apparently more formal status, I usually addressed him as Mr. Uccello, which nobody else ever did.) But Oochie was loved and pampered by all of us, with the exception of Vanessa, who never really cared much for Oochie or any of the other birds we acquired later. His antics amused us endlessly, and his vocalizations and whistling provided a sort of soundtrack to our domestic life. Soon it became difficult to imagine life without him around.
We nearly lost Oochie twice, under circumstances that would have been devastating. One day when Colin was about 11, we heard a blood-curdling scream and went to investigate. Colin had stepped outside for a moment, apparently forgetting that Oochie was perched on his shoulder, and the bird flew away. He didn’t make it far, however; he landed in the middle of the street, where fortunately there was no traffic at the time and Colin, while badly shaken by the near-disaster, was quickly able to rescue him. The second time was in September, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when Oochie escaped through the door of our house in Bountiful, Utah, and disappeared. We prepared some flyers, made inquiries throughout the neighborhood, and spent hours searching for him in vain. All of us were heartbroken, having concluded that Oochie had perhaps been eaten by a cat and that we would never see him again. But to our joy and gratitude, we found him two days later, almost by accident, in a tree about three blocks from where we lived. He was a bit frightened and hungry but otherwise safe and sound. We brought him home, where I was surprised and amused to discover that a tiny bird could eat like a horse. This little adventure left Oochie none the worse for the wear, although for some time afterward he would become agitated if any of us stepped out of his line of sight. Fortunately, nothing like that ever happened again during the remaining 13 years of Oochie’s life. (Because of this experience, I now make it a point to have all of our birds' wings clipped regularly.)
In the fall of 2002 we moved to Arizona, and along with Sheila, Colin, and Vanessa, Oochie spent the following summer in Utah, where the rest of my family had gone to escape the relentless heat in the Phoenix area. I missed everyone while they were gone, but wished Oochie had been left behind so that I could at least enjoy his companionship while the others were absent. This proved to be his last visit to Utah, and until last week was the only time Oochie would ever spend as much as a single night away from home.
In the spring of 2004 we acquired a second cockatiel, this one a female given to us by an LDS family that was moving out of our ward. We named her Ceci (pronounced Chichi), after mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. So it was that Oochie finally had a companion, although we didn’t want to start breeding cockatiels and thus carefully avoided letting them out of their cages at the same time. That fall we also acquired a stray budgie who had been found in the front yard of our former bishop’s house. The bishop’s wife called Sheila and asked if we would take the stray bird, and Sheila in turn asked me the same question when I arrived home that evening. Of course we would, I said without hesitation, although I was starting to feel like Thidwick, the big-hearted moose in the Dr. Seuss story. The budgie went without a name for several months because none of the ones I considered quite seemed to fit; but finally I came up with Elbie Jaye, in honor of the nation’s 36th president, and that one stuck. (We call her Elbie for short.)
On April 23, 2006, a Sunday, Ceci died suddenly while I was away at church, and I found her dead in her cage when I returned home. We never knew what killed her, but strongly suspect that it was egg binding. The sudden and unexpected loss broke my heart, and it has always haunted me that I was not there for Ceci when she died. Two weeks later I purchased Yo-yo to replace Ceci, and another two weeks after that I visited a local bird store and immediately fell in love with yet another cockatiel, who joined our family a couple of days later and was named Spoots. Our feathered menagerie became complete at that point. In the meantime, Colin had become involved with drugs and went to live with relatives in Utah, and over time Sheila gradually lost interest in the birds and eventually started referring to them as “your [meaning my] birds.” I ended up taking almost all responsibility for their care and feeding, and for giving them the human attention that cockatiels in particular need. But they have always been a joy to me, and I have never minded inheriting them. Later Colin moved back in with us a few more times for periods of several months each, but eventually he, too, almost completely lost interest in Oochie. (He had never shown much interest at all in the other birds.)
Oochie’s health was consistently good, but I started noticing a slow decline about five years ago. He began putting on weight, became somewhat quieter and less active than before, and seemed to tire more easily. Sometimes he would not leave the cage on his own, and I had to perch him on my finger and remove him myself in order to encourage him to get some exercise. I attributed all of this to old age and continued to watch him closely, but by the beginning of this year he had declined to the point that I began wondering how much longer my little friend would be with us. On Sunday, April 27, I took all four birds to the home of a couple in our ward who had agreed to take them in for two or three days while the interior of our house was being painted. (Paint fumes can be lethal to small birds.) I went there the next evening to feed them, then brought them home after work on Tuesday, the 29th. This proved to be the last time Oochie would ever spend a night away from home.
On Thursday, May 1, I returned home at my usual time of around 5:45 and suggested to my wife that we go see “Heaven Is For Real,” which I thought might help her to deal with the recent deaths of two of her siblings. She said she would prefer to go the next evening, then asked me to run an errand for her. As I was heading out the door, I noticed that Oochie was sitting listlessly at the bottom of his cage, which alarmed me because I knew that was a sure sign that he was very sick. I inspected his cage and was even more alarmed to discover that he had not eaten any of the food I had placed in his tray the night before. I had him perch on my finger – which he did with some difficulty – then took him into our bedroom and told my wife that I thought Oochie was dying. Under those circumstances, I would have cancelled our movie plans anyway. I quickly ran my errand, and haunted by memories of what happened with Ceci, I prayed all the while that Oochie would hang on until I got back home.
When I did return home about 20 minutes later, Oochie was again sitting nearly motionless on the bottom of his cage. I removed him from it, took several pictures of him with my smartphone and DSLR camera, and prepared for what I now knew was at most only a few hours away. I sat on our sofa, spread a bedsheet across my lap, and placed Oochie on the sheet, where I started petting him gently and speaking to him from time to time. For the next 90 minutes I did nothing else at all, and didn't even turn on the television. I told Oochie that he had been a good bird and thanked him for being part of my life and for giving me and mine so much joy and delight. A few minutes later Sheila came in and sat on a nearby easy chair as we both awaited the end. I wondered how long this vigil would last, but was prepared to stay up all night with Oochie if necessary to ensure that he, unlike Ceci, would not be alone when he died.
He rallied briefly a couple of times, during one of which he struggled to climb onto my shoulder one last time, where he nuzzled against my neck for a few minutes. I have wondered since if this was his way of saying goodbye. Sheila asked me if I thought I should give him a priesthood blessing for comfort. The idea had not occurred to me, but I pondered it for a moment and said I thought it would not be inappropriate. I remembered stories about Mormon pioneers blessing sick oxen as they crossed the plains, and I reasoned that the Father who created all living things and notes the fall of the sparrow would surely not be offended or displeased by this act. I held Oochie in my left hand, cupped the right one over him, then blessed him that he might be comforted in whatever way birds can be comforted, and that he might know with assurance of the love we all had for him. I added a petition that he might be healed if the Lord so willed, although I knew that request would almost certainly not be granted that night; and if it was in fact Oochie's time to go, I prayed that he would not suffer needlessly, or for long.
The blessing seemed to help in some way, as he remained very calm, but by about 8:15 his eyes were shut for good and he was obviously having trouble breathing. I knew the end of his suffering could now be no more than a few minutes away, and it did in fact come at 8:33 p.m., exactly eight years and eight days after we lost Ceci. I continued petting him for about five more minutes, then laid him atop our piano and began preparations for his burial. I wrapped Oochie in two pieces of red cloth cut from one of my old shirts, placed him in a small box that I had found in our garage, sealed that with electrical tape, and then dug a little grave in our backyard, perhaps 8 feet or so from our sliding patio door. A few minutes after ten I placed the box in the hole and covered it with earth, then arranged three flowerpots on the grave to prevent cats or other scavengers from disturbing it.
I still miss Ceci eight years after her death, and know I will always miss Oochie as well. This morning I posted a picture of him as my cover photo on Facebook, where I plan to leave it for the next 30 days or so; then, as life does have to go on, I’ll revert to the one I took down, which was of a Diamondbacks baseball game I attended a couple of years ago. I am not yet accustomed to the fact that we now have three birds instead of four, and while I don’t have any immediate plans to replace Oochie, I do not entirely rule out that possibility. But I have to consider such things as my own life expectancy, which at this point – I will be 61 next month -- might well be less than a newborn cockatiel’s, plus the fact that Spoots and Yo-yo are both in fine health and have a good chance of living for another eight to ten years, if not longer. The thought of losing another bird, while sad enough by itself, does not trouble me nearly as much as the thought of leaving one behind with nobody to play with it or take care of it.
Meanwhile, I wonder if I will be reunited someday with Oochie and Ceci, as well as a parakeet named Bob, whom I knew and loved during my church mission in El Salvador 40 years ago. (Bob might be a subject worth sharing here in some future post.) We are taught that all animals have spirits, which obviously presupposes that they also have an afterlife. We don’t have sealing ordinances for our pets like we do for the human members of our families, but people often do develop strong bonds with their pets, who sometimes go on to form an important part of their lives over many years; and to me it stands to reason that such love and devotion were not meant to perish in the grave. Sheila and I did go to see our movie on Friday, the day after Oochie passed away, and on the way home I mentioned to her a number of individuals who I hope will be present to greet me when my time comes to enter the paradise of God. I like to think that the birds I loved so much will be there, too.