A Flight to Remember
Don Ray Smith opens our hearts to the understanding that is gained in having pets, loving them and eventually learning about death when a pet dies. Through his sensitive and personal story, he acknowledges when a pet dies we learn that death is no longer just a word or a game you played when pets died or disappeared. Maybe death was real and it hurt more than anything else ever would and he gives us permission to grieve.
by Don Ray Smith
Live long enough, they say, and you will experience your share of heartache.
Before you thank me for that depressing thought and turn to something more uplifting, like the Game Show Channel, consider the lesson I learned from my bird.
Back when the Smith kids—my twin brother, two sisters and I—were in grade school, we owned a succession of pets. These included but were not limited to Gertie the alley cat, who made the fatal mistake of being in the furnace the first time it came on one fall; Snowball the mutt, who was of much freer spirit than she let on and simply walked away from our neighborhood one day; and Tweety the socially deviant green and yellow parakeet, who died of natural causes.
This was a remarkable accomplishment for Tweety, based on how we kids treated him. Since we were members of the pre-Gameboy era of the late 1950s, we used Tweety for some wonderful free entertainment. The most inventive game we dreamed up was the Rocket Ride. Wisely, we waited until my parents left the house before we tried this one.
My brother Ronnie and I took apart one of our model–a three-stage Saturn rocket–and inserted Tweety in the second stage. Then, rocket reassembled and in hand, we launched from the kitchen table and flew Tweety several orbits around the house. Being nine-year-old boys, we thought borderline animal abuse was great fun. Tweety thought otherwise, based on the wild screeching coming from inside the booster rockets.
Our sisters, showing more compassion for the bird than they ever showed for Ronnie and me, used their seniority (as fourth- and fifth-graders) to abort the flight and force us to return Tweety to his cage.
As soon as our mother got home, Tweety got even with us by breaking out of his cage and diving at Mama’s head. Mama let out a blood-curdling scream and ran for her life, while my brother and I risked injury to our young internal organs by stifling our glee and yelling stuff like, “You bad bird!”
One summer, after being a part of our family for years, Tweety died. It was Connie and Sandy, being the older, more mature, sensitive children in our household, who decided that something special was in order. Tweety, they announced, was going to get a funeral.
Several pieces of tissue were placed in the bottom of an empty shoebox and then one of my sisters, with her bare hand, picked up the feathered, motionless body and lowered it into the cardboard casket. None of us kids had ever been to a funeral but my sisters conducted the ceremony as they had heard and read about them.
In a very proper procession, Connie and Sandy marched us, solemn and dignified, in t-shirts, blue jeans and tennis shoes, to the gravesite. It was a hot, sunny day.
One of the boys started to giggle. “Don’t laugh,” Sandy yelled. “This is a funeral!”
“Sheesh, listen to Miss Bossy,” I thought. Sandy sounded just like old bossy Mrs. Pearlman, one of the third-grade teachers.
The ceremony continued. I might have been just 9 years old, but I knew melodrama when I saw it. The box was held out so all the mourners could take one final look at the body. Then, with its top put in place, the coffin was lowered into the hole, and the hole filled with dirt. At the head, two Popsicle sticks were made into a cross and stuck into the ground.
My sisters invited each person to say final words. I don’t remember what was spoken, but I think the most eloquent remark delivered with a straight face was something like, “Bye, Tweety.” The whole business then went totally over the top as one of the girls started singing The Old Rugged Cross. Under straining soprano voices – since all of us kids at that age were sopranos – a giggle erupted. Then another, and another, until the boys were out of control, shaking with laughter.
“This is really stupid,” I cried out. “It’s stupid!” Sandy and Connie shot me a dirty look, but I didn’t care. I headed for the house. The ceremony was over as far as I was concerned.
It took me years, and the deaths of several family members, to figure out that maybe there was some other reason I bailed out on that stupid funeral. Maybe there, in our backyard, I had my first dark suspicion that death was no longer just a word or a game you played when pets died or disappeared. Maybe death was real and it hurt more than anything else ever would.
The minute I would start to grasp that as a child, however, the fleeting thought would flicker out. Hey, there was baseball to play! Bikes to ride! Tweety was gone and there was nothing I could do about it. It was time to have fun again.
Today, at age 54, I am back to playing ball again, and riding bikes again. And I miss my mother very much. She died seven years ago. It’s like the whole family has been on a long trip, I told my sister Connie, and Mama left us before we finished it. It just doesn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right when she had a fatal heart attack, and it doesn’t feel right now.
Thank God we have the memories. Not only the tender, loving ones, but the silly ones, too.
Tweety, perched high atop the living room curtains, spots my mother entering the room. Instinctively, he dives …