A Thing with Feathers


I’ve always been a sucker for wounded creatures. So when my husband let my seven-year old bring home a fledgling Cedar Waxwing that had been evicted from the nest, I loudly protested that it would not be my problem.  My 16 year-old son laughed in my face. Twenty four hours later I found myself in Petco, spending the last of my birthday money on a cage, baby bird formula, and a few toys for “Finn.”  Rationally I knew he couldn’t make it. But it didn’t stop me from rearranging my life so that someone could feed him every 3 hours. Or from scouring the internet for ways to get him flying. Because even though my brain told me that I was wasting my time and money, I could see how much it meant to my Beatrice, and in my heart I also yearned to see this little guy thrive.  It brought to mind some of my favorite lines from Emily Dickenson:

hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune-without the words,
and never stops at all.


If faith, hope, and charity are like three sisters from the Brady Bunch, then Hope is Jan, the oft forgotten middle child. (Can you imagine her saying in frustration, “Charity Charity Charity!”) But not surprisingly, Hope is the sister that I cling to.  During my last pregnancy (Beatrice), I was told early on that there was something severely wrong with the fetus. The genetic counselor said it was 60% chance of a genetic deformity, and 40% chance of a non-genetic problem, like a heart defect. When I asked what were the odds that my baby would be ok, she gave me a sad look that you might reserve for someone who can’t do simple math. The fall out was devastating on my soul. My husband, believing he was steeling himself for a traumatic outcome, shut down emotionally. I have never felt so alone in my life. But at a certain point I knew that I had to embrace Hope. Despite the outcome. Unlike her more confident sister Faith, Hope doesn’t make promises. But it “perches in the soul and sings the tune… and never stops.”  So I began nesting. In my home I readied the nursery; and in my heart I chose to hear a lullaby. Right before Thanksgiving we were blessed with a healthy baby girl.


Back to the birds. Did I mention that while we were trying to keep Finn alive, our two cockatiels, Pip & Merry (Lords of the Wing) were sitting on a clutch of 4 wee eggs? Did I mention both were supposedly male? Gender confusion was not their only issue. They were terrible parents, right out of “Teen Mom;” old enough to copulate, but too young to parent. They sat on the eggs sporadically, often pushing them out of the little cardboard nesting box the 11 year-old put in the cage.  I was not so secretly delighted. “Well, the eggs will never hatch but if they do you guys are going to have to take care of them.”  My four kids all nodded their heads in agreement but I could see that we all knew whom the big sucker was that would end up on baby birdie night duty. And just as Finn began to go down hill fast, losing feathers, not singing anymore, I awoke to a tiny chirp chirp and found an itty bitty piece of yellow fluff in the corner of the cockatiel cage, tiny enough to be wedged between the bars. I could not believe a chick actually hatched. When I put him back in the nesting box, Pip promptly used his beak to pick the baby up by the leg and toss him out. Teen parents indeed. You could almost hear them on their cell phones complaining about how irritating it was to have a baby, always chirping, always wanting regurgitated food, such a buzz kill when what you really wanted was to just eat a sunflower seed in peace! Dude!


I realized that we would shortly have two avian deaths on our hands. And I could not take it. I could not watch Bea go through it. So I had a heart to heart with Dave and told him the he had to take failing Finn to the nature preserve near us and help the little soul “fly away.” “You mean you want me to—“ I repeated my request and said I did not want to discuss it further. I had a cockatiel to try to keep alive. We all took turns feeding and holding the little guy. (when I posted about his arrival on FB, I requested a good LOTR name and these are a few of the responses I got: Gollum, precious, orc, Hobbit toe lint, and second breakfast!) He made it through the first night. That was good. The girls named him Hercules to try to imbue him with strength. But on night two, he seemed so cold. I went out to a party and came home to find my son typing one handed on his computer, gently cupping Hercules in his left hand. “My fingers are cramping, but it’s the only way to keep him warm,” he said. I sent Jonah to bed and took over bird watching. I lay down in front of a movie and knew what Jonah meant about the hand cramp. So I did what any mama would do: I swathed him a tissue and nestled him between my breasts, the safest, warmest spot I could think of. I knew he was going to die, but he would not die cold or alone.  When I went to bed, I placed him in a makeshift nest on a heating pad next to my pillow. But the damn pad turned off after 45 minutes so I set my alarm for every hour to turn it on again.


Bea woke me the next morning, sobbing as she held the tiny lifeless creature. I held her and we cried and buried him under the yellow daffodils that line our front walk and matched his feather color.  She told me that Hercules will wait for us in heaven with my Oma who passed away last month. I told her Oma will take good care of him and teach him to sing in German. This made Bea laugh. We sit on the front steps and listened to the different bird calls. 

hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune-without the words,
and never stops at all;

Robins and sparrows, chickadees and black birds. We hear a Cedar Waxwing and Bea is sure it’s Finn.  I hold her close and pray that we can always hear the song.   



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12 Responses

  1. Melody says:

    Oh my goodness! Heather, thank you for this sublime read at the start of my day. Just wonderful. Perfect.

  2. Linda says:

    Heather – this is gorgeous and, as usually happens when I read your stuff, I was both crying AND laughing out loud. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. Kirsten says:

    Perfect. Just perfect.

  4. Krista says:

    THank you. Just what I needed today.

  5. Kimberly says:

    Laughing and crying indeed. Thanks for a great story – inspiring and hopeful and real which somehow doesn’t undo the inspiring and hopeful.

  6. Susan Rugh says:

    Thank you, Heather. Helps me as I try to plump up my own feathers of hope.

  7. Aimee says:

    I love your hope and this story and the image of you with a little bird nestled to your breast. I had a similar experience with a baby bird this summer and found a simple purity and holiness in loving something that I knew I could only love for a few hours. Thank you for putting your experience into such beautiful words.

  8. Anne Wunderli says:

    Simply sublime, Heather. Your combination of humor and pathos takes my breath away.

  9. Caroline says:

    I am sitting in my Women in Islam class right now and I’ve got tears running down my face. Embarrassing! But what a beautiful piece. I love that you did all you could to love those little birds. I’ve always liked that verse in the bible about how God knows when even a sparrow falls. Godly love is loving and knowing the weakest and littlest and most insignificant among us.

  10. Rachel says:

    Heather, hope has been on my mind these last few weeks, because I was trying to write an abstract for a philosophy of religion conference on hope. The day before I read your piece, I read philosophers on hope, out loud, for close to ten hours. Your hope and your love brought meaning and depth to all of the things that I read. Thank you.

    I love imagining you holding that little bird close, and then your little daughter.

  11. Libby says:

    Oh, Heather. Beautiful as always.

  12. Brooke says:

    Made me cry. This post is beautiful.

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