This evening I came home to a chilly apartment, no light on, no radio on and more importantly, no chirping cockatiel pottering about in his cage waiting for me to let him out for an amble.
Instead, I put the key in the door and heard no sound and entered with dread, because I knew that this morning I had held Rufus, this little being who had been in my life for 24 years, in my hands as he died.
I knew that I would have to face this reality now and man up to do what was needed.
To do it not with maudlin self pity but with love.
If I have learnt anything the last few years, it is that death is about love, not misery. It took me a while, and A LOT of bereavements, and I won’t lie, I feel just awful, but it is only love and empathy which can help us address any challenge.
Death comes to us all, it is the one sure thing, yet it is our attitude to it which is the key in how we deal with it. While it is a process and takes time, what if I told you that the groundwork to coping could all be laid throughout your life.
The last decade has equipped me with enough death to last several lifetimes.
How many photos in my phone or on my walls are beings that are no longer on this earth in my life?
Yet I now see so clearly that it is only death which really spells it out in big bright neon letters the point of it all.
Now, in theory we can know conceptually these things, but let’s be honest, life and all the distractions that go with it hinder our practice of them. Yet without them our lives really do lack any point at all.
Think about the words for just a minute and what they mean. Do you practice them everyday?
Just one enhances your life, all three on a regular basis transforms it in a way which will astound you.
Rufus was not just a pet bird but represented my roots and was my tangible link to the past. If anything I think keeping birds is a bit cruel and at odds with my vegetarian/ animal welfare ethics, but this tiny creature had come into my life when I was a child, and 24 years is a long time to know anyone.
My mother had fallen in love with him in a pet shop buying food for our then pet Westie.
His bright red cheeks had inspired my father to name him Rufus, and so it was. Our little family.
He used to sit in the lounge of my Grandma who died when I was 11.
He had sat on the shoulder of the father I lost at 24.
He had been cared for by my mother who died when I was not yet 30.
Rufus had sat in the back of the car in his cage along with the dog beside him and our most important possessions as I drove my mother away from the family home she had just sold to the new one where he would live.
He had been cared for by my boyfriend when I was abroad, which was the utmost test of our relationship! Rufus outlived him too.
An artist friend who lived in the nursing home drew him for me and now also is dead leaving behind the beautiful drawings as a reminder.
He lived in the corner of the living room in a beautiful white cage I’d just bought last year.
He was part of the fixtures and fittings.
As part of the family, he even got a mention on my mother’s headstone as the ones left behind.
He survived all my human family by 6 years.
This was no ordinary pet.
The last few weeks this little 24 year old had not been himself. No early morning chirruping, which although often drove me mad, I did miss. He didn’t seem as nosey or interested in things as usual. He didn’t even care much to chew the ends of my hair if I put him on my shoulder.
We can kid ourselves things will be okay, but I am a pragmatist. I saw what I saw and decided to make his life as wonderful as I could and take each day with him as a blessing. That empathy meant not wasting precious time chasing a cure but doing what he wanted even if that meant leaving us.
As a society we dwell very much on illnesses and treatments. What can be done to mend someone or prolong their life. But who is that serving, you or the dying?
I have been practising this wonderful new fangled thing for a while now which means I don’t feel this way.
Such a simple way to make life liveable. Everyday I write down (yes with pen and paper) three things that made me grateful, and what surprises me the most is I can fill pages. Even on the most rubbish of days, there is always something. And it truly brings a whole new meaning to your life.
Try it now…
Perhaps ironically so, loss is really about gratitude.
I felt blessed to have Rufus live with us. Every day was a blessing. I was not about to traumatise him with vets and medicine, and in all honesty, what can a vet do for a 24 year old bird.
The beautiful thing was, Rufus was ageless. Sure his plume wasn’t what it was and his feathers weren’t as fluffy but he was in a way childlike and innocent and I guess, a true unchanging constant in what has been a totally unpredictable life.
And so this morning, I saw him looking very sad, and I knew it was time.
I feel so privileged to have been able to see him off with no vets , no pain or trauma.
He could have chosen to die in the night or when I was out, but he didn’t and I am eternally grateful.
I put some light hearted pop music on, because it is all to easy to slip into a more morbid situation aided by downbeat music, and sat with him quietly in my hands pressed against my chest.
The dog beside me.
Sometimes you are right where you need to be.
That peace has eluded me most of my life in a constant desire to be somewhere else or doing something else. We only have right this second.
I could have been away for New Year. I could have been at work. But here I was.
Last night I had noticed he was even less perky and I prayed very hard for him to be okay.
This morning I prayed for what was right to happen. Not what I wanted, but what he wanted.
Death is not about us. It is the ultimate egoless thing.
He was done and ready to go. How many of us in relationships or in illness do we hold on to people who we really need to release because it us who cannot bear the pain of being left behind. But that is a choice, we don’t need to suffer to know that we are feeling pain.
As a child of one very half hearted Atheist parent I grew up with the same bent, yet at the same time had a spiritual ache which I only filled with things which quieted the ache but left an even bigger gap in my life once they were used or gone.
I found solace in one very useful thing, the new buzz word, gratitude. The rest of the spiritual awakening is ongoing and work in progress since I found out Atheism is just plain sad and unfulfilling. The benefits have been reward enough.
But gratitude is where it begins and ends.
I sat with Rufus in my hands and told him I loved him and was so grateful for all the mischief, silliness and love he brought to my life. Even the mess, which I dutifully cleaned up everyday!
I showed gratitude and appreciation for his soul being here.
Yes tears fell fast down my cheeks but they were tears of love.
So by now, perhaps you are thinking, but it is just a bird, though if you were and got this far, well done!
We elevate loss depending on status, age or role we assign in life to parents, superstars, children and so on; yet his soul had as much impact on me as anyone I have ever loved. I know he could not have been a more loved or cared for bird and I am grateful I could give him this experience on Earth.
If we all saw the souls behind the costume or vessel we come in it would be the most beautiful experience.
That is all it is . We are here to be joyful, and to help others be joyful. Everything else either fits into that or it doesn’t.
The doesn’t bits probably mean you are living your life out of sync, and believe me when I say, that never ends well.
In recent years I took up meditating and while my practice is far from perfect, Rufus used to sit in my lap and make little crunchy sounds with his beak which usually indicated all was well.
He made the practice more real, and I think the energy helped him. If meditating helps humans, imagine the knock on effect for vicarious meditating for animals who comprehend the world way better than we do.
Today, as he felt weaker in my hands, a pigeon tapped at the window, then another.
What world awaited him?
I was ready to release him and let his soul go.
This is the bit of love that people maybe don’t quite get, it’s definitely the hardest.
I no longer asked him to stay for me, I instead thanked him for being here at all.
Atheists can look away if they like, but he lay his head right back and looked upwards with his eyes very wide, and through my tears, in my heart I let him go.
He then nuzzled into me and I felt so lucky, more lucky than anyone I know to have this beautiful moment.
And then I knew he was gone.
The dog barked suddenly, and I felt very cold.
Maybe the heating went off, maybe I hadn’t noticed how cold it had been all along. Maybe the dog heard something.
But I think we all know we are part of such a greater force that it was probably none of the above.
When you truly love someone, you let them go. We are born free, every one of us and to imprison in any way by any control or demands is the antithesis to love.
Whether you trap them in a relationship or make them go through painful treatment and fight illness they would rather not, it is you who needs to let go and release.
Rufus represents familiarity. He represents a childhood and people I can’t share memories with and so this post is very important in giving him the status he deserves.
All he had to do was wake up everyday, and be.
It’s what we all need to do, just be.
That awareness is crucial in how we survive the challenges of life and find joy in the experience of living.
So I feel compelled to write all this down as I look at a little Christmas gift box a friend had put presents in for him, but now holds his little body which I had to put in there.
I may have dragged out the task of giving the dog his dinner, putting my things away, answering an email etc but I knew I would have to do this. I wrapped the box up like a lovely gift.
That is what he was – a gift.
Wrapping his lifeless little body, he no longer shone like Rufus. His essence left this morning.
How many people get to witness that? I feel privileged.
This very real, very raw necessity is something most people lack in their dealings with death. Not only do most people not really experience much grief at all but seldom get this closure on bereavements they do have.
To be honest, I could kind of do without it, but I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
If the thing we fear the most is death and is the worst thing possible then it would be understandable that the pain is so great.
What if we reframed death as the departing of a soul to rejoin a greater force.
After all, there is no TripAdvisor for death so none of us really knows anything about it anyway.
What if this inevitable thing we must all face, meant we savoured and cherished every moment so the joy was a win win for all parties?
Like Rufus being in the corner of my lounge, I never took it for granted and looked everyday with grateful admiration.
Complacency kills gratitude and it is important to keep check on what you hold to be faithful, reliable, never changing elements of your life.
Death is extraordinary in its total ordinariness because once you strip the fear from it there is nothing left but love.
What if like Ivan Ilych in Tolstoy’s novel, we asked if actually we had it all wrong and the material stuff and misery of the ‘shoulds’ in life were not what we were here for at all.
What if we are here quite simply to be free to experience joy and to help others to do the same?
Happiness comes and goes, no one wakes up and goes to sleep happy every day. But you can be joyful every day if you work hard at it.
Like bathing, it works, but you have to do it everyday to maintain it.
Pain as they say is inevitable but suffering is a choice. If in approaching death with love not fear we can make it less severe then that is a goal we could all aspire to reach.
Death brings a clarity to your views which is all too fleeting as I know. Like a sharp piece of mirrored glass, you are able to see everything yet in holding it the pain is searing like no other. But with that pain comes the clarity of the essence of life in all its beauty.
Thank you Rufus. The cheekiest, messiest most beautiful creature who bought joy to my life everyday in his just being who he was, and letting me love and care for him. He made my apartment a home, because without love in it, it’s just stuff.
Sometimes the doing, is simply in being.