Once, when I was 15, my father spent five hours sleeping on a bench in Disney World.
He said he had caught the “bird flu,” and ever since then I’ve been on my toes about birds of all kinds. It’s how I show I care. First we loved them and then we hated them. The change came without question. Birds were just a means to our end. Simply put, before the bird flu, he loved me through birds. After the bird flu, I showed him love by hating them.
Before Disney World, I found birds interesting. My father used to bring me wild birds that he found wounded in the yard. The first was a crow that limped and couldn’t fly. We kept it outside in a large, shallow box in the vegetable garden. I named it Blue Willow, and it died two days after we had rescued it. Then, there was a baby sparrow. It was calm around people and hadn’t learned how to fly yet. It was starting to try, and I helped it by holding him on my finger, jolting him up and letting him try to stay up in the air or glide down to the floor. My Dad got an old laundry basket from the basement, and I made it livable. My father was the only one who would put his hand anywhere near the bird’s mouth. I soaked Cheerios in milk, and my Dad served them to the sparrow as if they were coiled-up worms. We set the sparrow free once he learned how to use his wings.
My Dad facilitated and supported my interest in birds, even thought it was spotty and I had a tendency to kill my charges. So, when my Dad caught the bird flu and started getting wary of birds, I did too. I questioned them.
Before Disney World, the world of birds was simpler. I had a bird named B.J. that my father let me have after I practiced being responsible by winding up an antique watch every day. But he never knew I always forgot. I could always just set it right, wind it up and resume my show of diligence. He let me get a bird after a week. I picked the prettiest one, which also turned out to have the nastiest disposition. B.J. pooped on me, but he pooped on my father much, much more. My father did all the cleaning and feeding. He used to groom B.J.’s toes with a small electric sander. Birds have blood vessels in their nails, and my Dad knew just when to stop. B.J. died in my father’s hand, and that was the only time I have ever seen him cry. My Dad dug him a grave while I read from the Bible.
But now we don’t like birds. My Dad doesn’t, and I don’t either.
After the bird flu, we were still unsure what to think. Shortly after our return and despite my father’s insistence not to, I tried to look at a bird’s nest in the bush near my front door. The mother bird attacked me and that was the last straw. We got rid of all our birdseed, but instead of throwing it away, my Dad and I scattered it on the grass as a farewell gesture. For days more than a hundred crows sauntered around my front lawn as if it were a convention hall. My Dad and I watched them, bitter.
My father was betrayed at Disney World — not by the birds, but by me. Ever since my Dad caught the bird flu at Disney World, he’s been afraid that sickness will swoop down upon him like a mother bird. I didn’t care when it happened — I was riding the rides while my father was acting like a bum on Main Street, U.S.A. But when we took the monorail home, and my father said he suspected he had gotten the bird flu, I looked at those gulls, herons, and mallards around the Florida swamp. And I felt angry. I was pretty old back then, old enough to care. He must have been so sad, alone on that bench with all those children asking, “What is that man doing?” “Mommy, why is that man so sleepy?” “Daddy, did that man come here alone, just to sleep?” The very least I could do was get angry at the avian world.
My Dad had always showed me love through birds. So ever since Disney World, I’ve done the same. As I’ve grown older, for his sake, my interest in birds has focused and darkened. I’ve had impulses to learn how a duck’s beak works — how beak connects to feathery flesh, and how wide the duck can open it. It’s a far cry from the way my Dad and I used to coddle our birds, but then again, in his own way, my Dad taught me how to use my wings. So it’s only natural that we fear the things that could harm our flight together.
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