It was only after my little sister began to lose her hair that she asked us to dig up our dead bird.
But that took two months. Every visit we paid to the clinic the doctor asked her to tell him what was wrong, to tell him what hurt. And Gracie, perched fragilely on the edge of the examining table looking pale and lost in a giant paper gown would chirp meekly, “Nothing” or “I don’t know.” And every time upon hearing this refrain the doctor would scratch his two days’ worth of stubble with the end of his pen and pretend to study her medical chart.
But there wasn’t “nothing” wrong with Gracie. What my mother and I knew to be ailing her wasn’t anything that could be remedied with antibiotics, and eventually the doctors agreed with us. At first they thought she had hypothyroidism because of her severe loss of appetite, but her blood tests came back pristine. When she started coughing the doctor pulled out everything from bronchitis to tuberculosis, but the x-rays of her lungs looked like clean, moonlit snow. The weight loss prompted accusations of a tape worm though the jury eventually returned a bewildered “not guilty.” Her frequent nosebleeds elicited more blood tests which elicited more stubble scratching and more pretend chart reading. She was perfectly medically healthy.
And she was dying right in front of our eyes.
His name was Claude, our dead bird.
Claude was a cockatoo. As he himself was eternally eager to tell you, he was a very “prettybird” with an abnormally perky headcrest. My mother named him after Claude Monet because she and my father had visited the painter’s house in Giverny a few weeks before they bought him, she told us. She had been so permanently impressed by the willows and poppies and the permeating beauty of the place where my father proposed that she wanted a living, breathing, preening reminder to hang in the dining room of the house that she and my father had purchased together. It was just a bonus if he could learn to say his own name, which he more or less did. It always kind of came out like, “Claaaw!” He would only say the D for Gracie.
My mother and father had met in France only a month before that daytrip to Giverny on a guided tour of Paris. My father, a native Frenchman, was a tour guide and my mother was a tourist blowing off the steam of four years of grad school at the University of Chicago with a summer abroad. They bought our house in the Chicago suburbs sight-unseen a week before they left France and were married the morning they flew out of Charles de Gaulle. They bought Claude impulsively at a pet shop in the local strip mall before they even bought a couch. My father had wanted to name him Rocky. He loved American movies, especially ones about sports.
His name was Paul David Rennot, our dead father.
I was thirteen when Grace Noëlle was born, so I was past the crucial stage of needing my parents’ unwavering attention and into the stage where I started slamming doors. I was able to love Grace so completely unabashedly because I didn’t have to resent her. There was no competition; Grace won me, too.
When she started getting sick she had just entered the first grade and was consistently earning smiley face stamps on her handwriting assignments, which she took very seriously. She would come home from school and immediately swing her purple vinyl backpack onto the kitchen table, climb onto one of the high-backed wooden chairs, take out her pencil case and workbook, and vigorously apply herself to the work. This was the only time I ever recall her eschewing the company of Claude. Usually I would cut up a pear and place it in front of her, giving her slim back a poke with my knuckle to let her know that she should eat. She could stay like that for hours, her tiny blonde head bent deeply over the workbook, her nose an inch from the page, her pencil moving so slowly, so smoothly, making the bellies of her B perfect or putting a precise curl on the tail of her lowercase G. She pressed so firmly that where she sat the lacquered wood of the kitchen table was indented with thousands of thin lines and curves all on top of one another. Sometimes a stray “cow” or “book” remained legibly imprinted on the table for a few days before effaced by “man” and “duck” and rows of Q’s.
“Grace notes!” my mother would chuckle, fondly stroking the marred tabletop with the tips of her long fingers. She used to play piano.
“Make sure you don’t get boogers on your homework, Gracie,” was my contribution to the afternoon routine. Really, her nose almost touched the paper.
“I won’t,” Grace would say irritably, not even looking up. She was always so serious about everything. She was a very old six years.
“Let me see your homework, chouchou!” our father would call from the living room when he determined that she needed a break. Gracie would eagerly slide off the kitchen chair, dragging her workbook with her. Her sudden appearance in the living room would send Claude into a loquacious tizzy.
Before he had to stop working our father normally missed the post-school pre-dinner events because he had a thirty minute commute between his desk and our kitchen in the very best traffic and he rarely left the office before six anyway. His arrival was always greeted by the instantaneous and unconscious smiles of my mother, Grace, and myself, and a whistling “Howdy, Rex!” from Claude.
My father had very patiently tried to teach Claude a much more dignified “Bonjour!” and in failing at that just “Hello!” but to the day he died, the only greeting Claude ever knew was “Howdy!”– the “Rex” part was optional. It pained my father that the majority of French in Claude’s lexicon was swear words which were usually reserved to be violently lavished all over the mail as it splashed through the slot in our front door every morning.
You see, Claude was a “used” bird when my parents bought him. Cockatoos have been known to outlive their owners, sometimes living for up to eighty years. Claude was already thirty-eight when my parents found him in the pet store. He had had at least two other owners and sported a middling vocabulary. My parents were told that the store only agreed to resell the bird—that it had not even sold originally—because he was in such superior condition and so instantly agreeable. If he were making too much noise and told to pipe down, he would apologize. If he were being taken out for exercise, he said, “Why, thank you!” when the cage door was opened for him. The employees loved him. My parents, too, loved him.
Claude was forty-five when I was born, much older than my parents were. My memories of Claude begin with him teaching me French curse words—I believe I said “Howdy, putaine!” to my mother one afternoon. He was already starting to show his age by the time Gracie was old enough to be aware of him, to play with him. He was over sixty then and was known to be a little snotty from time to time, especially just after being woken up, but he was always an angel with Gracie. As much as an elderly cockatoo could, Claude put on the ritz when Gracie was around. He was never short on “Why, thank you!” or “Prettypretty!” when he was riding proudly on her bony shoulder. He positively fawned on Gracie’s long blonde hair, tenderly moving ribbons of it here and there, whistling suggestively at her with each stylistic change. Grace and Claude could sit for hours in front of Disney movies, the bird snuggled in the crook of her arm while she absent-mindedly stroked his fluffy chest with the delicate fingers of her other hand. He would get fidgety if I tried to do that. In his final years he was not above biting me gently when he decided that I had annoyed him. Of my family, I was Claude’s least favorite; I never came home from high school a single afternoon without sending him into a fury of bobbing and shuffling and a raucous chorus of “Ça va?! Ça va?! Ça va?! Ça va?! Ça va?!” Grace, of course, came home to delighted cries of “Prettypretty! Prettypretty!”
Claude showed surprising tact when my father got sick. The bird grew eerily quieter as the disease progressed, though he seemed to be contenting himself by thrashing a leather strip of jingle bells much more often and, of course, by playing with his Grace. When my father came home from the hospital to die Claude could usually be found—at least when Gracie was at school—perched on the handrails of his rented hospital bed or playing tug of war up and down my father’s shrinking legs. During this time my father even prevailed in teaching the bird to whistle the first bar of La Marseillaise.
My father was the victim of an astonishingly quick cancer. It was pancreas and stomach, but in the end it was everywhere. To me it seemed like he vomited blood for the first time one day and the next my mother and I were taking turns on deathwatch. One of my senior prom pictures shows me crouching by the hospital bed set up in our living room, my father smiling hugely behind an oxygen mask. In another I am a giant pouf of color draped across his lap and his stick-thin arms are wrapped tightly around the sequined bodice of my dress.
“Ma petite,” he said to me, his lips brushing my made-up cheek. “Mon ange. Que t’es belle. Très belle.”
When I started to cry he abruptly pushed me upright, and my earring caught on his breathing tube. He and I both giggled and he said, “You will mess the make up! There is no crying. Now, amuse-toi bien, cherie!”
“I love you, papa.” I said, kissing his pale cheek.
“Merde!” piped Claude, but softly.
Gracie didn’t cry at all before or during our father’s memorial service—only after, only once. He had been cremated so there was no body for a viewing or to sink in the earth, which, I admit, would have terrified me. My sister sat like a waxen doll on my mother’s lap, staring straight ahead. At the reception she allowed herself to be carried like a baby and passed around to various relatives and family friends though normally she would have politely but disdainfully refused even my mother’s lap in favor of sitting on her own chair, like “real people,” as she would say. It disturbed me to see my little sister, my serious Gracie with the beautiful handwriting, handed around the room like an offering plate; everyone took her, no one seemed to acknowledge holding her, and passed her on without looking. I wanted her to wriggle to the floor and announce that she was done being treated like a baby, thankyouverymuch, which is what she used to shout at my father when he would scoop her into his arms and cover her with kisses. No one was fooled; she worshipped him in much the same manner that Claude venerated her.
I finally took her from Cousin So-and-So and placed her firmly on the floor. Her patent leather shoes slid out from under her for a moment, and I caught her upper arm and held her until her knees and ankles solidified. I took her hand, which felt hard and cool like a seashell, tugged her over to our mother, and told her that Gracie and I were going home. My mother nodded silently, and then hugged me roughly before gliding away into the crowd like a deflated black balloon. I felt my eyes begin to burn, but I couldn’t mourn for my mother then.
Grace was silent on the way home. It was only mid-September but the sky was bleak and it had been raining on and off all day. In the diluted light Grace looked like a little frozen ghost in a pretty black dress. She was a phantom on her way to a posh posthumous party. Her hair gleamed white in the grayness.
“Let’s go play with Claude,” I heard myself say in a disgustingly cheery voice. She didn’t nod for several streets, but when she did I was heartened by this first acknowledgment. Something was penetrating. The thought of Claude was penetrating.
I knew he was dead the second I opened the door. There was nothing, no sound, from within the house. While Claude had been increasingly silent over the course of my father’s cancer, he had always persisted in announcing our comings and goings, at the very least with a cascade of tinny jingle bells. Grace noticed the silence.
I have said before about Grace that she was a very serious six-year-old. When she was greeted only by Claude’s ghost she did not call out his name or whistle for him, or run frantically about the house looking for him. She did not turn to me and demand some explanation as I am sure many of her peers would have done. Instead, she calmly took off her dress shoes and lined them up neatly on the shoe rack in the foyer. Then she walked quickly to the living room, and though I couldn’t see her I heard the rustling and squeaking that told me she was climbing onto our father’s recently vacated hospital bed.
I broke my wrist by slipping as I tried to run on the wet foyer tiles when Gracie started screaming.
When Grace got sicker, when she kept missing days of school, the teachers and school administrators began calling the house. Yes, we said, we’ve taken her to a doctor. No, we said, there’s nothing we can do. Yes, we said, let her talk to the guidance counselor. You know, we said, you could leave us the hell alone– we’re mourning.
My mother looked ten years older than she was, and that was on her good days. She stopped answering the phone because she was sick of talking to concerned teachers and guidance counselors. This kind of pity can kill you, she said. She read every medical book, every psychology book, picked the brain of every doctor and child psychologist in the area. She took Gracie to a grief counselor. Nothing appeared to be helping. Gracie would admit to nothing. She felt fine, she wasn’t sad or upset, nothing was hurting her, nothing was wrong. Everyone should please stop worrying, she said. I can’t say whether it was worse to watch my sister dissolve into denial or watch my mother hate herself for it.
I had long ago decided to defer my admission to U of Chicago, so my being available for the two of them wasn’t the problem. The problem was that there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say, no way to fix my family. As absurd as it sounds, I found myself getting angry so many times—not at my father for dying or at God or fate or whatever—but at Claude. I was angry at the stupid bird. The bird that could have saved my sister, which would have preserved my mother. It seemed to me that Claude’s death was the one that had shattered our family, not my father’s. I know it’s irrational, but it was easier to blame the bird than to blame my papa.
My mother and I had found Claude in the bottom of his cage, cold and stiff but still fluffy. He appeared to have died of natural causes; after all, he was in his mid-sixties. While Grace, sedated, slept in our parents’ bed upstairs, my mother and I—and my newly set wrist—put our dear Claude in a shoebox with a few of his favorite jingle bells and took him out to the back yard and buried him with a plain, solemn dignity that was almost painful. Truly, we had all loved the bird and enjoyed the notion that he had loved us. Had my mother not been standing there alone with the shovel and fiddling with her wedding ring while I found a stone to mark the grave, both she and I would have cried for Claude much more than we did.
Grace took to sleeping in bed with my mother after our father’s memorial service. I use the term “sleep” rather loosely; Grace writhed. She was constantly twisting and rolling, contorting her body this way and that, often kicking or scratching my mother, and, though asleep the whole time, she would wake up ill-rested with dark plum stains under her eyes. Other nights she wouldn’t wriggle like a hooked worm but she’d wake up multiple times coughing, or with a nosebleed, or vomiting. No matter the case, my mother would hold her until she went back to sleep.
It was the middle of November when Gracie came to my mother and I around midnight one Sunday. She and I were sharing a silent cup of herbal tea at the kitchen table. My mother was vacantly tracing the old indentations of Gracie’s handwriting exercises with her long middle finger. I noticed that it trembled slightly.
Gracie padded into the room almost silently. In one hand she held her red plastic boar bristle brush, and in the other, a long wispy chunk of her hair. Grace’s once-golden hair had of late come to appear as though she soaked it in laundry water every night. The chunk she held looked worse still.
I watched my little sister pad across the linoleum in her oversized sleep shirt and, still holding her artifacts, hoist herself onto the large high-backed chair. She placed the brush and clump of hair on the table in front of her on top of all the thousands of phantom letters and regarded the items discriminately. Her concentration was so intense that my mother and I found ourselves staring at them, too. I noticed that an abnormally large tangle of hair was clogging her red brush. I wondered how long she had been losing her hair, and I shuddered involuntarily to think that all of that might have come out tonight. I could hear the fluorescent light above the stove buzzing and the hiss-tick of the kitchen clock. My mother and I stayed silent, waiting.
Finally Gracie sighed.
“I would like to see Claude, please,” she said softly but clearly.
My mother was too exhausted to express her shock. “Gracie, Claude is dead. We buried him in the back yard. I’m sorry, sweetie,” she said gently. The apology in her voice clawed at my heart.
“I know,” Gracie replied, looking my mother squarely in the face. In the dim, jagged light she looked positively ghoulish, like a child from a horror movie. “I would like to dig him up and see him, please.”
I looked from Gracie to my mother and back until my mother flicked her eyes up at me. Her eyebrows lifted a fraction of an inch. Barely a twitch.
“I’ll get the shovel,” I said.
The ground was cold and I broke into a shivery sweat stamping the blade of the shovel into the hard ground. My wrist, fresh from its cast, was tingling with the beginnings of pain. My mother and Gracie stood hand in hand, watching the hole begin to open at my feet. Frost had iced the ground like a rumpled cake and the sterile moonlight only magnified the crystalline whiteness.
I lost all concept of time until my shovel hit something that gave way with a soft thud. I had struck the shoebox. Estimating its dimensions with the shovel, I began to pry it out of the ground. When I dug my hands into the soil to lift it out, the earth was surprisingly warm, like I was touching something alive. The box was little more than mush but it held together enough for me to remove it from the hole and place it on the crisp, iced grass. My mother and sister knelt next to it. I followed.
I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, but Grace did. With her small, dollish hands she reached forward and ceremoniously removed the lid from the box, then leaned toward it without a hint of fear or repulsion for the dead bird within. Most of it was gone, obviously, but stretched over some of the tiny toothpick bones were a few sunken patches of skin and feathers. What was left of his downy fluff was covered with dirt or mold, it was hard to say which, and his beak had fallen into his skull and was lodged there in something dark and ominous looking.
I looked to my sister, unsure. She was bending earnestly over the bird, over Claude, looking at him with the same concentration that was so amusing when applied to her handwriting. She sighed.
“Oh,” she said, as if it were obvious, as it she should have known it before. And then, very gracefully, she started to cry.
My mother wrapped her arm around my sister and stared at the bird. I was struck by the difference between how she cried then– how she wept, really– and how she had cried the day of our father’s service. She had shrieked and sobbed and thrashed so violently that I honestly feared, though perhaps my judgment was clouded by the pain of my freshly snapped wrist, that she had gone completely insane, that we had lost her, too. Her screams had been those of outrage and fear. Of pain.
And now, all of us curled up in the frost of our back yard, I watched my sister cry again. This time with pain, yes, but the pain of comprehension, the pain of acceptance. Of love.
After a time, my sister wiped her eyes and nose on the sleeve of her nightshirt, just like a six-year-old would do. She kissed the tiny tips of her fingers and touched them lightly to the corpse, saying, “Prettypretty.”
I remember when Grace was just an infant and my father would hold her up to Claude’s cage. Claude would tussle with his jingle bells and delightedly bob up and down at my baby sister, who would clap her hands and laugh.
Shannon Deep is a writer, playwright, and dramaturg in New York City. Originally from Pittsburgh, she attended Carnegie Mellon University where she studied writing, drama, and arts management. With her writing partner, composer Scott Wasserman, she hosts a weekly podcast about the sillier side of the songwriting process called Song Salad. You can read more of her writing on The Huffington Post or on her portfolio, This Millennial Life. Follow her on Twitter @sldeep or @songsaladcast.