Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Firsts: Twootles vs Uncle Charlie

(To break me out of my occasional writer’s block, I’m creating a series of posts called Firsts. This is where I’ll explore various Firsts in my life. In today’s Firsts, I’ll talk about my first death)

I learned about death through a parakeet and my uncle. I grieved the passing of one, and was morbidly fascinated with that of another. I’ll explain.

Up until I was 9, I lived in my grandmother’s house with her, my mother and my aunt. I never thought about the benefits of an all-girl household until Uncle Charlie moved in and changed everything. Uncle Charlie was grandmom’s brother and he was the oldest person I ever saw. He was everything I thought about old people – bald, wrinkled, gray – wrapped up in a pair of dingy white pajamas. His health was failing, so he came to live with us. He took over grandmom’s room and she slept elsewhere, if she even slept at all. All I remember is her spending every waking minute taking care of him.

Well, I couldn’t stand Uncle Charlie. Before he came, grandmom’s moth-scented bedroom was my personal haven. It was where I went to watch Three’s Company, while everyone else watched Sanford and Son. It was where I toyed with her dentures and, because I just started to read and barely had any books of my own, I’d read her collection of Our Daily Breads.

Uncle Charlie turned her room into a hospital, with his medicine bottles everywhere. He never smiled, never spoke. He was satisfied just to lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling. A few times, I tickled his feet and he didn’t budge. Then I heard him whisper to grandmom what I’d been doing and that he’d smack me if I ever did that again. I was banished from the room, forced to listen to his hacking coughs and vomit from outside a closed door. That was just fine by me. But I missed Three’s Company.

Eventually, Uncle Charlie died, right there in grandmom’s bed. I don’t know who was more upset, my grandmom – this was one of the few times I remember her crying – or my aunt, who became a screaming fit after discovering his body. I didn’t know much about death then, but I was morbidly curious. My older cousin, aka My Tormentor, once told me that dead people had worms coming out of their noses. He also said that once you die, your arms and legs stretch out so long that you become a giant. I tried to sneak a peak of his body, but nobody would let that happen. And my aunt, scared to her core, never went inside grandmom’s bedroom again. (With the exception of the times my mom tried to push her in)

Fast forward a year or two and my dad bought me a parakeet, which I named Twootles. It was the typical Your Mom and I Are Finished And Getting You A Pet Will Really Piss Her Off So Here You Go gift, but I loved Twootles anyway. The pet store people told me he was a parakeet, but he was light yellow and everyone always asked if he were a canary. I was determined to teach him to talk, so I’d spend evenings next to the cage enunciating “hello.” He tried, but he just didn’t get it.

Twootles started getting sick. He’d ruffle his feathers and march back and forth on his bar like a crazy bird. Then one day, I lifted the towel off of his cage and found Twootles on the bottom. He was on his back, tiny clawed feet in the air, sprawled out on the funny papers that held his excrement.

Oh, I screamed and screamed. Hot tears fell from my face and I screamed at the injustice of it all. Mom comforted me as best she could, but that was a distant memory when I ran into my older cousin, aka The Tormentor. He pointed at me and screamed – “THAT’S WHY YOUR BIRD KICKED THE BUCKET!” – and my grieving process started all over again.

I became depressed. My schoolwork started to suffer. When my teacher asked me what was wrong, I told her about Twootles. She sent me to the priest, who told me that when animals and people die, there’s something beautiful inside them that starts to grow. Or something like that. I don’t remember what he said, but I do know they cheered me up. Later, my mom told me she contacted the pet store and learned that Twootles had a breathing problem. Because we had his cage by the window, that aggravated it, leading to his death.

Eventually, I got over it. But for years, whenever we drove past that pet shop, I’d scream that they were liars and thieves. I can hold a grudge, so I kept this up for years. Even now that the store is closed down and another business is in its place, I have to catch myself from raising my fist and shouting about my injustice.

Photo from http://www.parakeets.net/PARAKEET-YELLOW.jpg

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