Someone once said something to me about the importance of a child experiencing the death of an animal. Give a boy a dog so he can learn about loss. Gift a girl a pet so she learns how to let go.
Yet, it’s unclear to me that loss is a lesson you can ever really learn, if, in ascending the ladder of loss—from Golden Retriever to Grandpa to God—you become any wiser to losing.
I was staying on a farm in rural Nebraska, an artist’s residency some seventy-five miles north of Lincoln and one hundred forty-five miles southwest of Omaha. Around the farm, corn and soy fields settled out in reaching expanses. At any given time, no more than fourteen of us resided on the property, and few people lived in the small town of Marquette, two and a half miles down the gravel road. No air conditioning. Spotty Internet.
So much land, so much quiet. Morning and night denoted by the songs of grackles, robins, and wrens in the trees surrounding my cabin. Social communion via encounters with cottontails and shrews. The anxieties of yesterday evoked by the dried coyote shit lying on the path walked from the studio on sunrise. There, you existed in relation to the signs and symbols of animals.
Before his death, I had been raising the robin for three days in a plastic ice cream container, changing out the paper towels and clothes scraps when he soiled them every few hours. Another resident and I were talking about the death of animals unknown. The whale who drowned on seventeen pounds of plastic bags. The sea turtle suffocated on a shrimper’s net. The deer hit by a car, its shit scattershot on a tree beside the road as the fender made contact with its body, a grave marker few would acknowledge. In other words, the animals forgotten, unloved by some human, their feelings unknown.
How easy it is to love a dog because we are taught to love dogs, she said, but what about those animals that we never learn to see as lovable, those without names, those scaly and spiny and alien?
Back home in Louisiana, I said, my neighbor tied a puppy to a tetherball pole.
I said, The pit bull in the local news was left to die in the trunk of a car.
I said, The tabby cat was run over in the street and the cars drove by, ignoring the pulsing curl of its front paw.
Even the ones we are supposed to love, I said, we cannot see beyond their fur and claws to recognize their feeling, their own emotional lives.
The day the baby robin dies, suddenly, unexpectedly, I am a wreck. I keep to my cabin, avoiding the passing small talk of residents. As a child, when I fell and scraped my knee on the driveway and my mother tried to offer comfort, I pushed her arms from me. I went to my room and locked the door, giving myself a space where I could cry on my own.
I like to think that perhaps I am canine in spirit, that, like the dog that goes to die under the house, I am just trying to contain suffering as much as possible in a world filled to the brim with it.
I am of course anthropomorphizing the dog and aggrandizing an animal response in myself, I know that. I know that, after the baby bird died, I felt a loss that many others would likely write off as absurd. Behind the red-winged blackbird, robins are said to be the most common land bird in North America. This is no white rhino or pet poodle. What is the loss of a robin?
The robin dies on a morning not unlike the previous ones. I wake and he is hungry. From the coffee tin filled with worms, I drop breakfast into his mouth. Grasping for the slithering invertebrate, his small beak latches onto my finger, momentarily, and something in me latches on to this gesture as meaningful. I wrap him in a new, clean piece of cloth, some scrap of floral yellow fabric, and place him in my coat pocket. Here, in this nest, his chirping quiets. I make coffee and go out to my studio to write before the farm awakes.
This day, I had planned to get him on the ground, to introduce him to the feel of soil, to help him train his ear for the vibrations of worms beneath his feet. I had hoped to diversify his diet with mulberries. Just yesterday, I had trained him to perch on my finger. I had been thinking about what would happen to him when I left this place. Would I take him with me, one of the residents asked. While I recognized the absurdity of packing a wild bird into my car for a twenty-hour cross-country drive, I entertained the idea. I contemplated riding with him nestled in his bucket or some cage I found at a Grand Island yard sale, shotgun-side. I fantasized sneaking him into a Midwest motel (How many people have snuck wild birds into motels? Are they middle-aged women with ash-gray hair, elastic waist bands, and practical shoes, wrinkled men who’ve never left the country on the way to visit their son in the big city?). I considered this baby bird growing into bigger bird, of him learning to recognize me as kin, of flying away to forage and then returning at night to my shoulder, to home, to roost.
But when I put him on the ground he does not chirp; he does not hop about.
In my cabin, I watch the robin die. Gradually, his body falls onto one side. He contorts into some fetal position, his head thrown back, legs pressed into his chest. I see that he has relieved himself in this position, and this is when I know. I take his plastic container out beneath the tree where he was born, near the spot where I found him on the ground that wet morning after the storm blew the nests from the trees.
From a water bottle, I soak a q-tip and dab around the edges of his beak. He opens his mouth to absorb the wetness, the muscles in his throat moving to take in his last sips. His leg twitches. He tries to move his head but it does not obey. His upward-facing eye looks up, at me, I think. It is okay to let go, I say, as some people say in movies when they believe a loved one is holding on to life, just to say their last goodbye to the one they love, and I am aware of this cheesiness but I mean it with all my heart.
Beneath the tree in which he was born, I dig a hole. In my hand, his body now seems weightless. My hand knows that he is gone.
In the same yellow cloth, today’s nest, I wrap him up and place him in the hole. I do not mark the grave, because this is how it should be for a wild bird. He should die wild as he was born. I have never understood his feelings, but I have tried.
Death on a farm is constant. One afternoon, while we residents stood around, breaking from work, a baby raccoon wobbled out into the daylight, his little body quivering with illness. After the baby bird died, I am told about the other animal deaths, about the raccoon a resident cradled in her arms for a short while, learning that taunting intimacy I had come to know, about the pet dogs who overheated in the Nebraska summer. That’s why they don’t let dogs here anymore, you know.
This place was, is, maybe all places are, so harsh.
What is the loss of a robin? It is not something easy. It is never any easier.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.
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