Birds Aren’t Permanent
My freshman year of college, I strolled down Chancellor’s Walk with my best friend in tow. We were on our way to lunch, joking and laughing and generally disturbing the peace of those around us. As we neared the first bridge leading to the student center, arching over the rivulets running through that side of campus, my eyes fell upon the painted black posts. I had crossed this bridge countless times at this point. And every time before now, it had simply been part of the path to my destination.
But in that moment, I saw it. A white, rectangular Birds Aren’t Real sticker was slapped over top of others decorating the right post. I laughed and pointed it out to my friend.
“Girl, that’s been there,” he said.
Shock hit me first, then embarrassment, as he commented on my lack of observation. How had I never noticed it before? The reality of the world overwhelmed me for a moment—the voices of those around me, the brightness of the sky, the clang of the planks beneath my feet.
Outside of my favorite coffee shop, I encountered a corpse. I had been watching my feet traverse the unsteady pebbled parking lot, but still almost stepped right on it. Blending into the gray rocks was a gray bird, lying belly-up toward a cloudy sky.
My stomach turned as I took it in. The bird was so real—feathers ruffling in the breeze, talons tactile, beak firm as bone.
I had always laughed at the Birds Aren’t Real thing, but secretly, I agreed with it. I’d never been able to get close to a bird without it zipping away. How could that not be the response of a government spy?
But here one was, stilled by death. The bird could not run away now. I thought about reaching down to touch him, feel whether the body was still warm. How long ago did he die? Had he been trampled on yet, by someone less careful than I?
I attended my first funeral virtually. Except it wasn’t technically a funeral—my church dubbed it a celebration of Luke’s life, a time dedicated to commemorating his impact. Luke’s loved ones mounted the stage one at a time to share a favorite memory or quality, mourning him together.
I walked to work on campus with my headphones in and eyes glued to the screen. His mother, in miniature, incomplete form, showed the audience some of his favorite objects. She laughed through tears as she pulled his beloved Birds Aren’t Real shirt out of her box.
My friend—his dedicated girlfriend—came to the stage afterward. She was accompanied by several other girls, who placed their hands on her for support. Part of me wondered if that support was literal—that, if they took their hands away, she would fall to her knees.
The speech she gave was slow, loving, difficult to receive. I recalled, as I sat at the front desk of a dorm on campus, when she first told me about Luke’s seizures, her eyes glazed over with exhaustion and worry.
“The doctors will find out what’s going on,” I had said to her. A bold assumption in the face of her distress.
When the livestream ended, I basked in the callous silence of the dorm lobby.
I did not think about the Birds Aren’t Real sticker again until junior year. Two years later, I thought to check if it was still there. I walked from my afternoon class to that same bridge.
Instead of the sticker-clad posts I remembered—a plethora of colors and messages—the bridge stood bare. Looking closer, I could distinguish a fresh layer of dark paint coating the bars. The outlines of warped layers underneath caught the sheen of the afternoon sun.
Just as before, I had passed over this bridge many times after I first saw the sticker. And after noticing it once, I became blind to it all over again.
The only reason I saw the dead bird in the first place is because my roommate texted me about it. After a few minutes of being there, we decided to check it out as a group. The bird lay still in the same spot, and my roommate, in her scrubs, knelt next to it. She placed two fingers on his chest and remarked at how firm the body felt. She pressed down, mimicking CPR.
A guy we had recently met had come to the coffee shop with us. He stood by me, observing, until my roommate backed away. Without warning, he grabbed the creature by his legs and tramped to the trees bordering the parking lot. He threw the corpse into them.
I thought about that moment for weeks afterward. Every time I did, it was as if I became aware of a coat of filth covering me. The bird had been a living thing once. Its body, the remnant of a living thing. It had been real, had a life, had (maybe) some friends, a mate.
He had laughed, as if the corpse were a doll, rather than a reality.
Days before Luke’s celebration, my best friend and I sat parked at the beach. We were there celebrating one of our birthdays, and yet the atmosphere in the car weighed heavy. We had just seen the Instagram post announcing the funeral.
I rarely saw my best friend emotional, but tears came to his eyes.
“I wish I had spent more time with him,” he choked out.
I agreed. We talked about the time the two of us had played Ninja with him and Sophia outside the church—one of my only personal memories of him.
It is now approaching one year since Luke died.
I never stopped to truly appreciate him, and it is the strangest thing to know I will never get to correct that mistake. I am not someone that is familiar with death. My friend still posts pictures of the two of them together, and I cannot fathom that the man in those photographs is no longer here. He is not walking around my church, ready to welcome strangers into his arms. He is not standing with Sophia when I go up to talk to her.
I know he is in a better place, truly. And yet, it doesn’t make his earthly absence any less real.
Why is it that I don’t see some things until they’re gone?