To Hold Death in One’s Hand

Today, I found a bird on my porch. It must have flown into the window and suffered enough damage to not wake up again. A fitting day with death, I thought, just days before I depart on my journey toward chaplaincy. I am going to spend the next several years becoming more and more comfortable with death, so why not now?

“What are you going to do with it?” Also with me was my partner of two and a half years – we were in the process of separating and had spent the previous evening packing some of her things, an emotional step toward parting ways. In the midst of ending of our relationship as we knew it, (and as we wanted to know it) here was death, right on our front porch.

“Bury it,” I said, with a shrug. My mind trailed off thinking about the ensemble of small birds I had buried last summer. They had each fallen fate to the bite of my dog or to run-ins with other cabin windows.

I sighed as I turned around, heading toward the recycle bin. I found a box that was once used to hold garbage bags and thought, this could be a perfect casket.

I had seen these birds in the yard often, singing and dining, especially after a hard rain. But I had not had a chance to see one up close until now. As I grew closer, I watched my mind continue with its story. I wonder if maybe the bird just knocked itself out momentarily. That maybe upon touching it, it will awaken and fly up, like a Phoenix Rising.

I reached out slowly and touched the bird with one finger, pulling my hand back quickly in anticipation of some sort of movement. There was none. I reached out and touched it again, this time placing my whole hand onto its soft feathers. Picking it up, I placed the soft round body onto my left hand, its head rested on my fingertips and its tail feathers extended past my wrist. Its body seemed to fit my palm perfectly. I sat down with my new friend in hand and noticed my breathing.  In, out… Deep, slow…

And in this moment, as I held death in my hands, I saw the whole world. I time traveled back fifteen years to the hospital room my father died in, his hand in mine as his vitals grew stagnant and death was upon him. To the hospice care of two dear friends whose families invited visitors to come and say their final words. To my many “last goodbyes” with lovers. I thought about my dear friend who had just lost her mother days before, and what her last words may have been.

“I love you. Thank you. I forgive you.”

In my hand, I saw the whole world. The tiny bug that crawled upon the bird’s back, not needing to know the profundity of the moment. The open sky calling the clouds to their next destination. The water whose tides push and pull at our our collective subconscious. The gentle, all knowing breeze.

I placed the bird in the box to prepare for burial. I walked slowly, observing my left hand outstretched, the hand that just moments before had held death so gently.

Even as I write this, I look at compassionately at this hand, as I discover again, one of its very reasons for existence.

(This post was written on March 2, 2017, two days before I left to begin my Chaplaincy program.)