semper free: of hummingbirds & heroes

I once found a sparrow hatchling, pink, blind, naked as a grocery store whole roaster but so very, very much smaller. I housed it in a plastic bin with warming lamp, fed it baby food and watched it live, grow and spout baby feathers that eventually covered its tiny body. I held it on my finger and touched it with my nose. But then in my ignorance and selfish inclination to indulge myself at its expense, saw it die after allowing it to ingest solid seed it could not process. I cried when the young bird died and I was furious with myself that I did not relinquish the bird to someone who could have finished my folly, my work, so to allow the stalwart bird-child to mature to some point where it would have simply flown off and away and into a life for which it was intended. The bird, I know, might have possessed a congenital, ultimately fatal flaw in its makeup; I know it is highly likely it was pushed out of the nest with intent. Maybe it was a runt forced out by Darwinian-favored siblings. Whatever the intended life span, I screwed around with a front yard foundling and the Fates stepped in and reminded me of my error.

Years later, I was given a small gift of redemption. I hope sparrows fill heavenly trees and know I meant well and know that I hold to this day the lesson of the hatchling sparrow’s unanswerable exit from this plain of existence.

The gift: I thought it was a leaf lying among other dry, dead leaves in the crevice where the sidewalk met the glass walls of the sporting goods store. But something – most likely my subconscious having detected some thing odd and having sent a wordless question mark to my consciousness – or can a creature in distress call out for help, which a willing inner ear can hear? – made me stop and turn around and look again. Sure enough, what had stopped me was not a leaf on the ground. What had stopped me was a miniscule hummingbird lying perfectly still, no bigger than a leaf, no more colorful than the detris that surrounded it.

I picked the bird up with my bare hand, needing to inspect it. I knew it was not a diseased animal – clearly it had collided with the reflective glass wall of the store. I would wash my hands in a minute. My first intention was to merely take the body to a kinder surface upon which its little body could decompose and rejoin the soil as was more correct than the icy concrete of a pedestrian walkway. But then I saw it was alive. I saw it breathe.

I immediately walked from the shadowed space of the sporting goods store out into the sun. I sat down on a bench set into the middle of the open mall and held my hand aloft, cradling the tiny bird so that both the warmth of my hand and the heat of the sun could reach it and feed it with its life-giving energy.

A few minutes passed. I could see and feel the rhythmic movement of the bird as it pulled in breath after breath, no doubt coming to from its stunned shock, no doubt its paying a price for its having foolishly flown into the false, beckoning sky of a sporting goods store façade.

All of a sudden, like a little engine revving, the hummingbird’s throat flashed ruby red. The brilliant red as unmistakable as it was so quickly there and then gone again. But then it flashed red once more, and then again and again and again. Energy pulsed and was being directed to a place where I too was supposed to see it – no territorial show, no flirtatious display but simply the hummingbird telling me to stay put a bit longer, asking me to hang on: “Stay with me here; I’m working on this.”

Alive. Alert but perfectly still. I knew I needed to chuck whatever meaningless shopping excursion I had thought I had been on and deal proactively on behalf of his brave little soul. We went into the sporting goods store and asked for a phone book – yes, this was back when our cell phones were nothing other than phones – and I looked up the closest bird supply store. I called, asking if they had anyone or any place they could recommend.

The pet store attendant on the line told me he knew of a “bird lady” who of all things lived only a few minutes north of the shopping center. I took down her address and number. I called her and we spoke. We were soon on our way, I as passenger with my extraordinary guest still resting in the room of my cupped hand.

The bird lady’s home was an old farmhouse situated on a sliver of bucolic land, on the outskirts of encroaching surburbia. Birdcages and random creature containers stood everywhere. The lady met us at the door and I handed the hummingbird to her immediately, not willing to diminish any of its life chances by nabbing one single, spare and selfish second with it in my possession. The bird lady had a feeder ready and quickly stuck its needle of a beak into the stopper. The bird did not just drink; it guzzled. He was our trooper, hell-bent on living and flitting and zipping around another season, and in keeping with that level of determination, he drank with the gusto of a micro-sailor on leave on a Friday night.

The bird lady placed our little man into a small, cloth-lined box. My mother handed her a twenty – the bird lady accepted gifts of money to help fund the gift she gave of her expertise and sanctuary. She asked if we wanted any follow up calls from her as to the hummingbird’s progress. I declined. The hummingbird’s survival was to me a closed book of intermediate but stellar success. He had survived and I had been able, thanks to the help of my family, to do just the right thing. No more, no less. And that was good enough. By not knowing the specifics of a future I had no part of, that mighty hummingbird could, whether in spirit or body or both, be a survivor, one who to this day serves as sibling or father or grandfather to the exquisitely formed and feverishly spirited, winged pilots who dive-bomb the air over my backyard deck and come to light at my red and yellow hummingbird feeder, to guzzle the sugary punch we serve them, awe-struck, bumbling humans with good intentions that we are.

Semper free.

this story is dedicated to all sons & daughters who serve and have served & to those who dedicate their lives to helping them, respectfully submitted by a writer who is also a marine mom

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