On another trip out to the chicken coop I spied a bird dying. It was a smallish bird and I do not remember its definite color. Breath still moved through it; the gift of life had not yet gone from the creature. Soon it would, but for now life still lived.
I left the bird there to live out its life the best that it could, the last dance worth having.
A short time latter Cecilia came into the house crying, for there was a bird that was dying.
“But Papa, there are ants eating its eyes and it is still alive and can’t you kill it and put it out of its misery?”
“Yes, I could,” said I, “but the gift of life is not mine to give and I should not take it so easily. For that bird is alive and if I kill it, it will not be.”
I told Cecilia that life is precious, that it is a gift that does not last; that the difference between living and death is everything.
I told Cecilia that life must be lived moment by moment, making each one matter.
I have seen the puzzled faces of the living as death became them. I know that there is no way back. We are here, then we are gone. Infinity and immortality are conquests of imagination, of a spiritual being, a way of forward understanding. But they are not the beating of a four-chamber heart gone still. They are not lungs filled with air repeatedly, and then forever fallen.
I told Cecilia that the life that the bird was living was all of the life left to it. No matter how painful that life might seem, it was still life, the gift, the living. To kill the bird would be to take all that it possessed; to take life was to take everything.
Tears and stuttering breath rolled through her body. I knew that she understood insomuch as any living thing can understand with compassion the dignity of life, the salient grace of all that are born, the irrevocable knowing that all of this ends.
I knew not what else to teach her, which words of meaning that I might impart to span a distance so great as mortality.
In the morning the bird was gone, flown not away. Consigned to the flesh of another, life lives on life that way.
Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Garden Nursery and Café in Cortez, Colo.