A small death

Like most people I have a routine getting myself ready for work. First thing I’ll do is feed Rigby, who doesn’t have the patience to wait any longer than he has to, then I’ll let him out to do his business. I’ll check my email and if I’m up for it make myself a coffee, or fix a bowl of cereal. I’ll have flicked on the iron by now and will try to iron the days shirt, and one other, just to make some inroads into the never diminishing pile of  ironing.  The radio has been on long enough to check the news, then switched off again because I can’t abide the cheery and inane chatter of breakfast hosts. I’ll shower with Rigby poking his head around the stall, then shave, and finally dress. I’ll collect my bits and pieces, cast a last look about the place, and then leave. Rigby is always by the door, hoping that at the last-minute I’ll change my mind and stay. But then the door closes behind me and I’m on my way. All of this takes about 40 minutes, but I’ve been known to rush through in 15.

The thing about routines is that they become automatic. You do things by rote, following the course of well-worn grooves and unthinking muscle memory. Much of it is thoughtless. You’ve just woken, work is ahead, and in my case at least, you’re not overly blessed with beans at that time of day. The lights are dimmed.

Thursday last week something happened that took me out of that routine and woke me.

I’d let Rigby out and followed him to check on the weather. I stood there looking up at the sky, vaguely aware of the scratching of a bird’s talons on the tin roof. I took no notice of it. Then I sensed a movement from the corner of my eye and turned in time to see a pigeon fall to the ground. I stared at it, expecting it to collect itself and fly away, but it just lay there. Rigby too had noticed and he was approaching the pigeon excitedly, his ears notched and his nose close to the ground. I shooshed him off, and went to the bird. I squatted by its side.

It lay, breath gently trembling within it, its feathers fluttering with the breeze. The eye was unmoving, a brown pupil, still bright. I was conscious of the life in that small bird, and how frail it suddenly seemed. I urged it to recover. I didn’t want to confront this. I didn’t want to feel it, though I knew it a universal truth. I felt strangely affected by it, almost to the point of emotion. Get up, I thought. Get up and fly away.

Instead it just lay there, alive still, but struggling. What had happened, I wondered? Birds are meant to fly, not fall to the ground – and yet it must happen all the time. Was it sick? Was it just old? Did it suffer a condition? I studied it as if I could discern an answer. Rigby stood beside me, his eyes fixed on it too, equally fascinated. I had to get back inside, back to the routine, and off to work. I picked the bird up gently, so light that I could barely feel it, and placed it on a table away from Rigby and out of harm’s way.

I went inside and showered and dressed and all the rest of it, thinking about the bird, and hoping that when I went to check on it that it would have flown away. Each time I checked though it was just where I left it. It was there when I went to work.

It’s dark by the time I get home these days, but the first thing I did when I returned was check on the pigeon. My expectations were pessimistic. I expected to see the bird where I had left it. And so it was, wet with rain, and dead for hours. So it is, I thought.

A part of me wanted to give it a burial. I wanted to do it properly, except that I knew in a couple of months the house I’m in will be demolished and in its place a construction site. Instead I put in a bag, and the bag in the bin. I felt sad at the loss of such a small, but true life.

For that time, and perhaps since, I have been reminded of the subtle life all about us, and how it ends, and must, all the time. We don’t see it mostly, and so are oblivious to its weight. It’s good to remember though, because it’s real. Modern life cocoons us, routines become rituals, lifestyle becomes purpose, and all the while the eternal stuff of life goes on, out of sight and out of mind.

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