A true story, by Aaron Paul Lazar
My grandson and I trundled along on our John Deere lawn tractor, pulling a cartful of leaves and sticks toward the burn pile.
“Papa!” Julian shrieked “A birdie! Don’t run over it!”
I slowed down and turned off the tractor.
“It’s okay, buddy. We didn’t hit it. But I’m afraid it’s dead.”
The starling lay on its side; its plumage glistened blue-black in the hot sun; its eyes dulled in death.
“Why’s it dead?” Julian lamented.
“I don’t know. Maybe it was a very old bird.”
Or maybe it hit the window, I thought.
“Did someone shoot him?” he asked tearfully. He climbed down from my lap and walked over to examine the corpse.
Shooting had become a big deal in his life and I couldn’t figure out why. Everything he picked up that remotely resembled a gun was aimed and “fired” at bad guys. Empty paper towel rolls, dried perennial stalks, plastic table legs… it didn’t matter what it was, it turned into an instrument of death.
“Did they…did they shoot him?”
“No, no. I’m sure that wasn’t it, honey. I think he was just old,” I fibbed.
Allouette sat on the porch, eyeing us with her jade green eyes. Her fluffy black and orange tail plumed up and down - a bad sign for a cat. Had she killed the bird? I shrugged off the thought. Normally her prey was delivered neatly on our doorstep with a cacophony of catcalls.
We got back on the tractor and headed for the burn pile.
“Papa? Is the bird dead?”
I nodded, kissed the top of his curly hair, and answered again.
“I’m afraid so.”
We pulled up beside the pile. “Okay, key man. Turn her off.”
“I’m the key man,” he smiled as he reached for the key. Once the rumble of the engine faded, he added, “Why did he die?”
I sighed. This one wasn’t going away. “I’m not sure, Jules.”
I grabbed the rake that leaned against the cottonwood. Armful by careful armful, I tossed the dried twigs and leaves onto the crackling fire. The dead leaves floated up like ghostly bats, fluttering on the breeze as they rose to the heavens.
“But what will happen to him?” he asked plaintively.
I didn’t tell him that I planned to scoop it up with a shovel and toss it way back into the woods.
“Come here, buddy. Let’s sit for a minute.”
I rested the rake against the tree trunk and offered my hand. He took it, then followed me to the green metal glider.
I smiled and lifted him to my lap. “There you go. Are you comfortable?”
He nodded, but his brow furrowed again. “But the birdie…”
An idea sparked in the back of my mind.
“Would you like to bury him, Julian? Would that be a good idea?”
His eyes lit up with hope as he nodded his head vigorously. “Yes! We should bury him. But…” His eyes scanned the property. “Where?”
I pointed toward the woods that curved around the back of the yard. “Over there. Come on, let’s get our tools.”
I set him back on the ground and headed for the barn. Julian scampered beside me, chattering all the way. “Can I use my shovel, Papa?” he asked as he ran inside and lifted his blue plastic shovel off the nail.
“Sure. I’ll bring my shovel, too.”
I grabbed the spade and we walked back to the tractor. After throwing our shovels in the cart, we drove back to the lawn where the starling lay. While Julian observed, I scooped the poor bird onto the blade, set it in the cart, and got back on the tractor. Julian jumped up on my right knee.
“Okay. Key man. Do your thing.”
He turned the key. The engine roared to life. He looked up at me, beaming. “You’re the potato man.”
I laughed out loud. We’d just planted three long rows of potatoes that morning. “I guess I am.”
“And I’m the key man.”
“Right. Okay, let’s head out. You wanna drive?”
My three-year-old grandson looked at me with wide eyes.
“Sure. Here. You can hold the wheel.”
He moved closer to the wheel, grabbed it eagerly, and almost plowed us into the lilac bushes.
“Oops. Turn it left, buddy. That’s right. Now straighten it out. Okay. Okay, good. Now right.”
He “drove” us to the woods and automatically turned off the key when I braked near a row of old apple trees. Quickly, he dismounted and ran to the bird in the cart. I hurried to his side.
“Don’t touch it!”
He took a cautious step back.
I slid the bird onto the ground, then found a soft spot of dirt beneath a gnarled apple tree.
“This looks good.”
I began to dig. It took only a few minutes. The dirt was typical of our land – soft and loamy. Julian helped, then I lowered the bird into the hole and covered it. He patted the dirt on top. I considered fashioning a cross to complete the burial, but decided against it.
We put our shovels back in the cart, then headed toward the barn. My key man turned on the engine and steered with my help all the way back. After parking the tractor behind the barn, we hung up our shovels and headed back to the burn pile.
“Will he come alive again?” Julian asked as his eyes darted to the woods. “Will the dirt make him better?”
“No, honey. When you die, it’s forever.”
A sudden thought flashed through my brain.
I don’t want my grandson to think it’s really over when we die.
I kneeled beside him.
“His body is dead. It will stay under the ground. But his spirit is free now. He’s in birdie Heaven.”
I flinched at the words, realizing I was pushing it. Although embarrassed to admit it, I actually pictured my deceased cats and dogs in Heaven, frolicking around my father and grandparents, waiting for me to join them someday. I truly believed we’d all be reunited when we passed. But I hadn’t actually considered whether birds had souls. Somehow, the idea had appeal. If Julian could begin to understand the concept of Heaven and spiritual beings...
I tried to explain about the body and the soul for the next half hour. I used images of an angel, which Julian had seen, to stand in for the spirit. I don’t think he completely understood. But then again, neither do I.
The next day, Julian and I were outside at the burn pile, throwing on the deadened limbs from our Stanley plum tree.
“Can we go see the bird again, Papa?”
“We can’t really see the bird, honey. He’s buried.”
“But we can dig him up!” he said. “Maybe he’s alive now!”
I explained, again, while we drove to the grave.
“We don’t dig up the buried body. It won’t come alive again. It stays there.”
“But he’s happy, right? He’s in Heaven with God.”
I looked down at my little pal and grinned. A surge of love blossomed within me.
“Yeah. That’s right, honey. He’s happy now.”
We walked hand-in-hand back to the house as he chattered about life and angels and Heaven. I gripped his soft little hand and sighed with joy.
I love being a grandfather.