I’ve had a lot of losses in my life in the last several years, and I don’t really talk about it too much. It’s not something mentioned unless asked about, and they aren’t memories I like reliving.
It began in in June of 2008 when my father suddenly died from complications from type 2 diabetes. We had no idea it was coming, so it was one of the worst things I’ve experienced. A year later, my Grandfather passed. I was very close to both of them.
A month after my Grandfather’s passing, my Grandmother had a stroke that compromised half of her body. She remained lucid, and with physical therapy regained mobility with a walker. My mother and I cared for her for about seven years. With declining health, she too finally passed in August of last year. She was tired of going through all the health issues and being in the hospital. I even told her when she was still lucid that it was okay to let go, and that Mom and I would be fine.
I have no idea what happens when we die, or if any essence of who we are survives beyond this experience. All I have to take solace in is that none of them are suffering anymore, and that despite the loss of their unique sparks, life still remains here. Religion is not enough to convince me either way, and cannot answer any of the most pressing questions I have. Even scientific knowledge has it’s limits, as it has only begun to scratch the surface of all knowledge in the universe.
I suppose that makes me a pain in the ass when it comes to belief or non-belief. I don’t necessarily believe in a deity, but rather a system of multi-layered planes of existence we can’t yet comprehend. I don’t think of it as having a driver, but more like a river that flows through everything, continuing whatever processes life and death become. All of it is unfalsifiable in either direction, and yet, I still find myself hoping for whatever it is to exist. Only for the need to see my lost family again, to know that they still exist in some form. Maybe a part of their energy became part of the universe, making the cogs turn somewhere. How could I ever know? How could anyone or anything ever answer such a question?
Now I have lost yet another loved one. A companion of sixteen years, and my only true confidant. Riko ,a young quaker parrot, had been purchased from a breeder in north Florida in late 1999. I had to hand feed her baby bird formula every few hours, until she was weaned to solid foods. Quakers are named for the “quaking head” behavior when they are babies, and they often retain this trait into adulthood.
I was only fifteen when I got Riko, and we grew up learning and experiencing new things together. I read about parrots often just so I could continue to improve her life. I found out quickly that she loved to take baths in my bathroom sink, just like a duck to water. I had to cover the counter with towels to keep everything from getting wet by all her splashing. I occasionally took her in the shower with me where she’d bathe in the tub, or just sit on the towel rack and get some of the steam. When she was done, she looked ridiculous with her drenched feathers, but she really enjoyed herself. During winter months I would use my blow dryer on low setting to dry her off to keep her warm.
I always had Riko on my shoulder, whether watching TV, doing the dishes, painting, or writing. I always gave her a bit of my dinner as long as it was bird safe, and I often cooked veggies for her. In the last few years, I began taking her with me on dog walks. I made a perch for her carrier and strapped it to my back so she could get out to see the world with me. I sometimes got stared at, and I know I probably looked weird, but I didn’t care. I was doing it all for her benefit, and that meant more to me than what any passer by thought. There are so many nuances of life with this little bird that I can’t possibly list them all here. All the things I remember and miss through the haze of grief; all the funny moments, every time she bit me for some perceived offense, the way she smelled, the feel of feathers cuddled up next to my skin, a little beak playing with my hair, and when she’d tuck herself underneath my hair like it was a private hideaway. I still think I hear some of the calls and sounds she used to make sometimes, even though she’s not here.
In 2007, I went through a very severe depression, along with a move out of state. I was suicidal, and had many days I just didn’t want to get out of bed. Every morning she would squawk for me to open her cage door, so like a robot, I got up and did just that. Her cage was right near my bed, so I returned to my bed to crawl beneath the sheets. I was so taken over by misery and despair that I didn’t hear or notice she had managed to climb onto the bed. There was a moment when she stuck her little head under the comforter to look at me with one eye as if to say, “What’s wrong with you? Get up!” I knew then that I couldn’t leave her or the rest of my family behind. Just by being there in that moment, she saved my life.
Fast forward to 2015. This is when I realized she had health issues I hadn’t been aware of. Riko sustained a broken leg after being startled by a Halloween decoration and landing hard on concrete on my front porch. After getting x-rays, the vet discovered she had a calcium deficiency disease that made her bones brittle. It had little to do with diet since she was getting a good brand of pellets, veggies, fruits, and nuts. That vet stated that it could have been genetic in origin. From then on, I was careful of where I took Riko, and of the surroundings.
In 2016, I had to rush her to an emergency vet after she started having difficulty breathing. She was put on oxygen for 3 days, given some intravenous fluids, and antibiotics. I thought for sure I was going to lose her, and I was inconsolable. Blood tests came back with an elevated white blood cell count, but everything else appeared to be okay. Eventually, she came home once she did well enough to breathe without oxygen. Upon recheck with my usual vet, she was given another round of antibiotics just to be on the safe side, and from the tests, and my account of what had happened, he concluded that it was likely teflon exposure. I threw out every piece of non-stick cookware in the house, and have stuck to stainless steel, and aluminum for cooking. So, life returned to normalcy, or so I believed it would.
A few weeks after this scare, Riko began egg laying. Something she’d never done in all the years before. She never had any trouble passing the eggs, but I imagine it still hurt quite a bit. She laid a total of seven before she was done. She had to have an injection given in order to prevent further egg production, as it is such a stressful process on birds. It not only tires them out, but it depletes the calcium from their bones. I had to give crushed eggshells for a while just to make sure she had extra during this time. She never showed any maternal behavior toward the eggs, and most of them had cracked when they landed. She had laid them from high up on one of her perches.
In early April 2016, Riko had been more cuddly than usual in the past few days, often snuggling into the crook of my neck. Late one evening, I got up from what I was doing and took a look at her. She was panting, so I tried to get her to step onto my hand. She tried but nearly fell, and started having a seizure. She was still aware, but couldn’t right herself. Deep down I knew she had been through too much already, and that she might not make it this time. I rushed her to the emergency vet again, they put her on oxygen again, and then came in to discuss what they thought could be happening to her. They didn’t want to do too much because she was already in a fragile state. I knew I might have to make the decision, but I really didn’t want to. I didn’t yet know if she would recover or not, and I didn’t want to rob her of that chance. Within minutes, fate made the decision for her, and she passed. I knew that it could happen, but not so soon. I thought we would have many more years together.
They brought her body in a towel for me to hold one last time. I touched and kissed her little head , her lifeless eyes still open.
That night I went home both in pain and numbed from it all. I arranged to have Riko cremated so I could have her ashes with me. The following week, I picked them up from the ER vet. She’s in a cherry wood box with a plaque with her name and “Beloved Companion” underneath. They also made an imprint of her feet on a piece of plaster for me. I can’t tell you how much I miss her little feet. All I have left besides that are some of her tail feathers, and some of her toys.
While I am in pain, something in me has shut down on expressing it with others. I get that some people don’t view pets as family, or even as something worthy of being attached to. So, I’m wary of who I express my emotions to. I’m not someone who opens up easily during times of grief. I shut down, go numb, get angry, and in private moments, cry. It’s similar to the process I experienced in losing my father; the initial shock, sadness, anger, and then crying. I couldn’t cry for the first six months after he died.
Just knowing there are people around that see me as pathetic for being attached to a bird does make me angry, even though I know they have a right to their opinion. That’s where the anger stems from. No one’s even said anything to me like this, but I have a sense of people who feel that way in my extended family. I don’t care for them much anyway, but it still bothers me.
One of the most significant reasons I was so attached to Riko was that for a long time, she was the only friend I had. I went through a period of my teenage years with little to no friends, and all I had was that little bird to come home to and love on. It’s sad how when you need friends the most, they can’t be counted on. It’s a similar case when dealing with depression. People often shy away from someone so sad, and don’t really want to help or be around you. I can’t blame them in a way.
As a result of that experience, I stopped relying on the company of others, and didn’t go out of my way to make any friends either. I had my Mom, Dad, and Grandparents, and for a long time, that was enough. It hurt sometimes being alone otherwise, but I dealt with it. I had my little buddy, and as long as she was happy, I was too.
In the last few years I’ve gotten a little better at reaching out, and making acquaintances. I still have apprehension, but I’m okay. I still go through moments of sadness that I bottle up, and then eventually I release it one way or another.
It’s going to be a long time dealing with Riko’s absence, let alone all the others that came before.