This is probably a most uncharacteristically long first post in the realms of blogging. However I never knew what to write here and today I was finally inspired to write about something, so here goes, and I hope you (whoever you are) might find it worth reading.
Today at lunch, a friend asked me if I’d ever seen anything die. And I said that I had, and proceeded to tell a story about the death of a sparrow. I’d never told this story to anyone before because I was ashamed of it.
A few years ago, when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, my dad brought home a small cardboard box that contained two baby sparrows in some nesting material. One of them was clearly a newly hatched bird. It was smaller than my thumb, completely featherless. The most remarkable feature besides its tiny pink body was a bright yellow beak that was opened wider than its head, and its whole body bopped up and down in a perpetual hungry chirping rhythm. The second bird was clearly a sparrow, but also seemed smaller than the adult sparrows we normally see, his feathers softer and grayer. The baby was cute, maybe, but rather disconcerting in its nakedness and after a while, somewhat annoying. The bigger one was adorable, and we were excited at the prospect of having such a creature for a pet. My dad’s company had been cleaning out a storage space and had found a whole collection of birds nests in the wall, and rather than letting them discard it, he’d brought this one home as a present for my little sister, who was maybe eleven years old.
I had a nagging discomfort in the back of my mind about this whole sparrow-pet situation, because I remembered reading an article in middle school about how the sparrow is one of the noblest creatures because it refuses to be held captive. There were a few touching stories in the article about people who had tried to catch sparrows to keep them as pets, and how the sparrows had refused any form of nourishment and starved themselves to death. They would rather die than lose their freedom.
But I put that unease behind me and convinced myself that that was just the stuff of stories, something the writer was making up or myths about animals to make humans think about the value of life and freedom, etc. Our sparrows would of course eat whatever we gave them and make wonderful pets. Since the baby sparrow seemed so hungry, we immediately looked up what baby birds could eat, and tried to feed it a mixture of mashed up rice and corn on the end of a toothpick–a formula the baby readily accepted, though if you ask me it probably would’ve eaten any sizable object placed close enough to that gaping black hole. See? It’s eating. Everything will be fine.
The next day I was surprised to find that the incessant chirping had finally ceased, though we had tried everything we could to make it stop the night before, feeding it at intervals, or all at once, or with different mixtures. I asked my mom whether the baby had finally gone to sleep and she told me in a hushed voice that it had died, from overeating. We were shocked and a bit abashed that we hadn’t known enough to simply google and find out that the baby bird would keep on crying hungrily whether or not it was hungry. It probably wasn’t even developed enough to know what hungry and full were like, but would have depended upon its mother to know when to feed it. So I felt a small twinge of guilt, but considering it was so young, I hadn’t expected it to last long anyway. There was no way we could have saved it–putting it back outside by itself would also have led to inevitable death.
There was still the problem of the other one, the bigger sparrow, the one I considered a toddler. He had a lot of attitude the first day, flitting around the room, his flight only made slightly awkward by the string my dad had attached to his right leg–so that we wouldn’t lose him if he tried to fly too high–and constantly chirping loudly, probably in protest of his captivity. And he wouldn’t eat anything. We tried lots of things, rice, corn, different kinds of seeds and nuts and fruit, but nothing would tempt him. It was clear that the only thing that mattered to him was his freedom. It was a kind of single-minded pursuit that I had hardly seen before, in my fifteen years, the kind of determination that we mostly just read about. It seemed that the article was faithful to nature, that the sparrow really did have a super-ordinary sense of justice. We had no right to keep him against his will. I tentatively brought up this issue with my sister, but she brushed it off and said it probably wasn’t true, and I let it pass. After all, what was the potential dignity of a little sparrow worth compared to the enjoyment we would derive from petting his feathers and watching him bumble about on the balcony? The balcony was a safe enough play-pen because by the second day the sparrow had stopped trying to fly higher than just one or two feet off the ground. The rhythm of his chirping protestations had also slowed, but never ceased. That’s something that strikes me hard even now, that he never stopped protesting, even while he was starving and the strength was slowly seeping out of his tiny feathered frame. And that’s really what happened, he was starving, bit by bit, and we chose to ignore it, though as he grew weaker I grew more concerned and less able to suppress the knowledge that we were doing something incredibly selfish and cruel. By the third night as I watched the sparrow’s pitiful attempts to hop from one side of the room to the other, presumably still looking for an exit, my heart was wrenched by pity for the bird and sorrow that we had brought it to this state. So I told my sister that we should let it go; it wouldn’t survive much longer in our house. She couldn’t let it go and pleaded with me, saying that we would just keep him one more night and if he really looked much sadder we could set him free. I don’t know what I was thinking at that point but I again let it go and agreed to wait ’til morning. It’s probably that a small part of me still wanted to keep him for myself.
The next morning, the fourth day, the sparrow was hardly moving. He simply stood there, still chirping feebly at intervals, too weak to even reject the little bits of rice that we shoved desperately into his beak. But he didn’t eat them either, just sat there with his beak half propped open with rice mush, his eyes only half open as well. And I knew that we had gone too far. I took him out of the cage we had got him and tried to cut the string off his leg, though the part closest to his leg was tied too tight, so I could only be satisfied with cutting off the length of the string. My sister burst out onto the balcony and demanded to know what I was doing with her sparrow, and I told her that I was setting him free. She was completely against it and proceeded to argue with me, saying that it was her bird and that I had no right to set it free. Looking at the poor bird and what we had done to it, this time my heart was so disgusted by its previous shamelessness that I became consumed by a sort of wretched last-ditch attempt at redemption sort of righteous fury, and I screamed at her to Shut up and look at him, he’s DYING. Do you really want him to die? Is that it? I took the opportunity of my sister’s shocked silence to throw the door open and run to the elevator, holding the bird in my cupped hand.
My heart was pounding, and I desperately tried to ruffle life and health back into the tiny sparrow’s feathers, but I could see that even as the elevator took us down, towards the freedom that he had so desired, he wasn’t going to make it. He couldn’t even muster the energy to stand properly on my palm, but kept falling over to the side helplessly. And he had stopped chirping.
I ran outside and tried to prop the sparrow up on a nice patch of dirt, next to a bush where I thought he might feel safer. But he still fell over, he wouldn’t get up. I started to cry because I didn’t know what to do, why wouldn’t he get up? He was free, he could go! He had the whole world open to him, he could fly into that blue sky and never come back and never suffer again, never have to fight again for this most basic right of life that we had deprived him of. I tried talking to him, telling him to open his eyes, to look around, to see that he was released from bondage, get up quick and go before a bigger animal happens upon you, go, get strong again, sing songs again, maybe find a family and have some chicken-winged pink babies of your own… I tried over and over again to prop him up into the right position, but he only grew weaker and less responsive. I watched his body slump to one side for the last time and grow rigid, the head tilted at an unnatural angle and two legs sticking straight up towards me. He was dead. I watched him die. There was nothing more I could do at that point; I simply stared at his body lying there in the dirt, barely reminiscent of the bright-eyed, daring, and wonderful creature that had found his unfortunate way into our lives just four days ago. On his right leg still remained the glaring pink circle of the plastic string, tied too tight.
I don’t remember how long I stood outside. Eventually I went back in, and at my sister’s inquiring look I simply said to her, It died. And that was the end of the matter.
I repressed this story in my memory because I knew, that the sparrow didn’t just die. We had killed it. I killed it. Maybe not directly, but simply by inaction. I knew the stories, I knew we shouldn’t have kept him to begin with, that he would fight us silently to the death. His death. And I felt so guilty about it every time I remembered. Things like cruelty, animal abuse, and murder come to mind. But mostly I didn’t want to think about it because of the intensity of the emotions that came with that moment, as I watched the sparrow die. In those few moments, I felt a sadness that I find it difficult to describe but have no problem reliving even now, three or four years later. In those few moments, I loved that sparrow like I had loved nothing else before, and I wanted more than anything in the world for it to live. Give me a second chance, and I’ll never let this happen again, I’ll never sit idly by and let something so precious simply waste away before my eyes.
When I remembered the story today and told someone about it for the very first time, I cried. And I cried again still while I was writing it just now. But I also realized that there’s more to the story than I thought, because as I finished telling the story I remembered that it says somewhere in the Bible that God loves even the littlest creature, like the sparrow. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” Matthew 10:29 God loves the sparrow. I think I understood, finally, as I watched it die, just a little bit of how much God loves the sparrow. I couldn’t even take it in my small heart, it was so overwhelming, I had to turn my back and go back inside. I thought, if I can love this tiny sparrow that I’ve only known for four days, a creature that is otherwise of absolutely no significance to me or my life, if I can grieve so much over the loss of his life, how much more does God’s heart break for us? How much more pain does He suffer when He sees lives wasted before His eyes? And how much shame and how much anguish do we deserve to feel when, for whatever selfish, sinful reason, we sit back and tell ourselves, Tomorrow. I’ll show them the way to freedom tomorrow. It’ll be fine. Conversely, how much more joy is brought into heaven and earth when one of the littlest ones is set free to fly in liberty, released from the chains of death, brought back into the fullness of life as God intended it? For we are “worth more than many sparrows” (v31).
I didn’t understand this event when it happened, in fact, I was angry that I had been ‘put in the situation’ in the first place. I felt so strongly about what had happened, but I didn’t know how to talk about it, or how to write about it, not even in my private journal. I couldn’t see any good in it, so I decided to forget it until maybe one day I might have the courage to relive it and turn it into something more than just guilt and shame. And I think that God has done that for me, now. So many people may go through life in chains, not even knowing that they are being held captive, that they are dying, not even lucky enough to know, like the sparrow did, that there’s another kind of life that they could have. God, let this not be so.
Let me remember the sparrow.