It was sometime in November when I got the call. My Mom’s friend, Kerri, contacted me at work to propose we join forces to buy my Mom a couple of birds for Christmas. Apparently Mom loved Kerri’s birds, so why not?
Kerri said she would supply the birds if I purchased their cage. I was in my early 20s then, and I knew this was a bad idea. I knew that taking tiny creatures meant to fly and trapping them inside a prison for human amusement was wrong; in fact, it made me feel anxious and sick inside. And I seemed to know it would be especially wrong to place those imprisoned, tiny creatures in the care of my Mom.
See, my Mom does not know how to bestow unconditional love. I’m not saying she can’t love or doesn’t love, or is a bad person, but hers doesn’t make you go, “Alright, this love is solid, no matter what!” It’s the sort of love that feels, from a sensitive child’s perspective at least, dependent on not pissing her off, either through bad judgement or for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My Mom knows judgement, anger, yelling, screaming and withdrawing love. She knows hitting. That’s how she was to me growing up, and that’s how she was with our long-gone family dog, Precious. My Mom knows “I don’t like this” and then reacts accordingly. She does not know “I don’t like this but I will let things be.” Please, God, don’t let these birds be chirpy. Don’t let this turn out how I think it’s going to turn out.
I went along with Kerri’s plan to get the birds, because who was I to say this was a bad idea? Maybe it was a good idea that just felt wrong to me. In any event, with my purchase of a small, metal-barred cage from Walmart, I was now an accomplice. Kerri brought two fragile, innocent white birds to their new home on Christmas Day.
The birds took up residence in a corner of the basement. At first, Mom was able to overlook and forgive their incessant chirping. I think we all presumed that once the birds were “house trained,” they would behave in accordance with how their human captors demanded. Surely they wouldn’t be this annoying forever.
But as the weeks and months went on, it became apparent that the birds were not going to shut up just because Mom (or me, I admit) wanted them to. They had already been denied the right to fly around, save for the tiny wing flap required to jump from the feces-lined floor of their cage up to their hanging wooden swing. Now, apparently, they were expected to sit in complete silence their entire lives, too.
“Quiet!” Mom would yell after the first or second chirp while she attempted to watch TV. When the birds would inevitably not be quiet, she would hit their cage, frightening them. When the fear wore off and they would chirp some more, they would be sworn at or threatened. Yep, that’s right, threatened. This was their life now. They never learned to be quiet. Mom never learned not to be an evil bitch towards them when she didn’t get her way.
We would regularly spot tiny eggs in the bottom of the birds’ cage, beside their dried drops of white feces. Bird owners know that part of the deal is stealing their eggs so you don’t end up with more birds. But when my Mom would do this, it felt particularly vile. It was like the final brutalization of those innocent little creatures Every goddamn thing they were meant to do; fly, sing and procreate, was taken from them. All for human convenience, without a smidgeon of love sent to them in return. We humans didn’t even draw entertainment value out of the experience, because how much fun is it to watch sad little birds not fly and not sing?
I was still living at home at that time. The sorry existence of those birds hurt me more than I was ever willing to let myself feel. I’m sure part of me felt even worse knowing I had contributed to creating their pathetic lives of captivity and intimidation. I should have just told Kerri it was a bad idea and bought Mom some slippers instead.
I too was guilty of mistreating the birds. When I would watch TV and they would chirp, I would reach into my pocket and fling a coin at their cage just to shut them up. Because, you know, my enjoying some mundane show was more important than a bird’s entitlement to simply be a bird. Coins never worked, however, so I would then opt for the more humane tact of placing the cage in the distant rec room. In the rec room, no one can hear you chirp.
One day, one of the birds was found dead at the bottom of the cage, beside its feces. It wasn’t all that surprising. What exactly does a bird that can’t fly, can’t sing and can’t make babies, and which is constantly harassed and even threatened while trying to make the best of its confined space, have to live for? They say if you’re not growing, you’re dying, and those birds must have been slowly dying inside since their arrival at our home. When the second bird later died, the cage was summarily cleaned and stashed away, never to be seen again. No one missed the birds, and the birds sure as hell didn’t miss us.
A decade or so later, as an awakening empath, I have been thinking about those birds. I have thought about just how painful it was for me to watch and hear their plight, how painful it was to see my Mom be so mean to creatures so innocent.
I love my Mom, but I just don’t understand meanness, or why anyone has pet birds.