Sins of the Father

Like this Heart of Mine

There was a bird in the downspout—every time we walked onto the porch we’d hear it thrash its wings and its claws would screech against the metal. “Chill out, bird,” I said, before realizing that it wasn’t just defending a nest: it was stuck. During our last heavy rain I’d seen water shooting out of the seams at the top of the drain, spilling over the edge of the gutter where it lined the roof. I’d known it was clogged—but I couldn’t understand how a bird could get itself stuck in there, if that’s what had happened.

The thrashing was loud and unsettling. I thumped against the metal once to see if I could scare the bird into flying out. Silence.


Zettie and I started from the bottom of the drainpipe, pulling out a few handfuls of the pine needles, twigs, and grass that were packed so tight inside its mouth they came out like bricks. Then I disconnected the bottom two elbows of the spout so that I could reach up into the straight pipe that ran down the corner of the porch. Moldering duff was crammed all through it. I was surprised to see so much of it, as no tree hangs over our house—all the debris in the gutter had been carried either by the wind or a bird.

The trapped bird remained silent as I dug up higher and higher. I got kitchen tongs to extend my reach, and kept clearing until the tongs were disappearing up the pipe, then my hand too, and still I was pulling out more debris. “Maybe I can get my small hand up higher in there than you can,” Zettie offered—but then the last clot came out with a thunk and the trapped bird flew out, shrieking, and made straight for the top of a tree about 50 yards off.

What a strange feeling of relief it was, like we’d performed a kind of magic trick: turning a clogged drain into a flying bird.

“It smells,” Zettie said, her nose curled.

“It’s been rotting in there for weeks, I guess,” I said, looking back down at needles and twigs and straw, all cured to black like something dug out from under an old log.

“Oh but look: I think there’s a dead bird,” she said. She pointed to a spot where a yellowish beak made a clear line against the mess of decay. “And another one—there’s two!”


The birds were curled in on themselves, covered in rot. I used the ends of the tongs to brush one free and then turned the bird gently and noticed that it was curled around a second bird, as tightly entwined as if they were twins in utero. The other bird was the same—not one, but a pair of birds pressed together—four corpses in all.

These weren’t babies. They had full wing feathers and long legs, full beaks. What had happened? Had they been born there? Had a nest, built in the top of the spout, slid down as the babies grew and gained weight, until finally it had fallen so low that there was no way for fledglings to get out? Had the parents continued to bring their trapped children food, watched helplessly as they grew so big that they ran out of room even to move and smothered one another? Was the bird we’d freed a parent who’d gone back in for one last feeding only to find it couldn’t get out again?

We dug a hole in the lily garden and buried them together. Zettie made a headstone for them and named them. For birds who’d lived lives of inconceivable indignity, a final insult:

“Here lies Joe, Bob, Steve, and Karen.”


For I will consider my Cat

We got to our family’s farm in Virginia after a 6 hour drive, aware that M’lou’s sick kitten Chloe had taken a turn for the worse in the car. We thought fresh air and water would revive her, but when we put her on the grass with some water and food she took a step toward it and collapsed.  It looked clear she wasn’t going to make back to Brooklyn for the appointment she had at the vet two days later, even if she lasted the night.

It was an almost ridiculously beautiful evening—dry and cool after a hot muggy day of driving—and we sat in the front yard, huddled around her barely moving body as she lay on a purple towel. There was nothing to eat in the house and not much in town so we ate Pizza Hut and watched her tail twitch and her eyes move but those movements—which had initially struck the girls at least as signs of life and reasons for hope or sources of consolation—quickly began to look to all of us like the first twitches of death. M’lou said it felt weird to be eating next to her, especially Pizza Hut, but we ate anyway (and we had to admit, also, that it was good, much better than we remembered or expected).

Jennifer found an emergency clinic near Richmond that could take her in and we all brought ourselves around to the reality that she needed to be put out of her pain. I explained to M’lou that “euthanasia” came from the Greek for “good death” (or so I thought at the time–I still haven’t checked) and she said “why do all our important words come from somewhere else?”

To get that good death, though, we would have to drive 45 minutes–back in the car, still warm and stale from a day’s drive–to a sterile room in an all-night clinic. We’d hand her over to strangers. Her body would be taken away and mailed back to us weeks later, ashes in a decorative tin. I kept hoping she would die on the grass in the front yard and that we could just bury her there. I thought about calling my uncle to see whether there was a rifle in the house. I’d done that job before, even as a kid, but in this case–the thought of the girls standing in a bedroom and hearing that rifle crack ring across the field, the thought of me standing in a field with a rifle barrel against a kitten’s tiny body—the scene was too much to imagine. And the reality that we’d have to explain to M’lou that if we didn’t bury her here we’d have to put her in a ziploc bag in the freezer and save her for a week—that absurd situation, trying to keep corpse cold over hundred of miles of summer driving, also felt too much.

But the end we faced in fact was also ridiculous. The clinic was nearly empty, only an old golden retriever with a sprained ankle in the waiting room, tugging at his leash as his owners tried to settle their bill. On the TV Guy Fieri was playing, his sunglasses pasted inexplicably to the back of his head as he raved over galangal and scallops and sucked his fat fingers. We filled out paperwork and looked over the check-in log at the other animals who’d been brought in that day. Reason for Visit: wasp sting. Snake bite. Penis problem. Jennifer took the pen and wrote “euthanasia.”

I left the girls in the waiting room and went back to an examination room. The gentle vet tech brought me Chloe wrapped in a fleece blanket, a catheter held to her foreleg by a few twists of purple gauze. She was stiff with pain, her gums gray and her teeth turning black, her mouth open, her breathing raspy and labored. She gasped when I moved her. There were signs for grief counseling on the walls of the room.

I started writing this because I wanted to get to this: are all scenes of death both heartbreaking and absurd? It’s hard to know how sad you should feel as a grown man over the death of a kitten in your arms, or how sad you should acknowledge feeling. And how even your own assessment of your sadness feels awkward and self-conscious and absurd. I suppose self-consciousness is inevitable at the moment of death, as you watch a spirit separate from the messy life you’ll have to go on living. Even the spirit moving on from the body of a kitten can remind you of that.

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]“, Christopher Smart

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