Today the grandkids and I buried one of the baby scrub jays that live in the tall stretch of arborvitae lining the upper edge of our backyard.
Last week we befriended one of the babies when he ventured out onto the narrow ledge. He sat and scrabbled around in the dirt, still unable to fly. His downy feathers stuck out in all directions, more grey than blue. He was the first of the babies to venture out that we’d seen, though we’ve heard their scratchy calls, like a rusty hinge, in a continuous chorus. The parents are ever present in our yard, often sitting on the raspberry trellis, beating us to the ripest, juiciest berries, and no doubt carrying them off to their babies. They also jockey with the crows for worms and bugs in the vegetable beds, scaring each other off in turn, and just making themselves at home in general.
When the baby showed himself, Rosa immediately named him Puffball, and ran off to gather a few raspberries to feed him. He let us get fairly close, and she tossed the berries to him, hoping he’d reach out to eat them. After a short while, he disappeared again into the hedge.
Soon after, we heard a great ruckus; lots of screeching and flapping, and we all watched in amazement as the two adult jays chased a crow from the hedge into the willow tree that drapes gracefully from the neighbor’s yard over ours. The jays flew at him repeatedly and noisily, as the crow hopped from branch to branch, just out of reach, but not giving up. Finally after several minutes he flew off, and the jays returned to their babies.
But then yesterday Rosa came running to the back door, calling us to come out and see, but refusing to explain. “I can’t say it, you have to come look,” she said. I followed her to where Ezra stood guard on the ledge calling urgently, “Nana! Nana! Come look at this!”
There lay one of the baby jays, quite dead, gutted, and already smelling. We just stood there looking, and I was called on to explain this mystery and tragedy. At 5 and 8, they have had some discussions with us and their parents about death. Ezra is too young and too much of a scientific observer to express much emotion about this, but Rosa worries about death, in particular, about the eventual demise of her grandparents and GG, her great-grandmother. She has said that she doesn’t like talking about it, but it keeps coming up. And now that she’s hearing so much about the deaths of black people in the streets and in their homes, it’s even more present. It’s an overwhelming idea for her sensitive soul.
After I explained that birds lay several eggs, especially for this eventuality, she decided that this was definitely not Puffball, the bird she befriended last week; it was a sibling, and a stranger to us. And so that’s the way it was.
I grabbed a shovel and we found a quiet out of the way spot for the burial. I said a few words as I covered him in dirt. They were directed to the bird, but aimed at the kids, saying how we come from the earth and we return to the earth, thanking him for his life, and hoping he would rest in peace. I said how much we liked having his family in our garden, being our friends. The kids were solemn, staring down at the mound of dirt. Rosa declared she would no longer chase the scrub jays away from the yard, and that they could have all the raspberries they wanted. I didn’t disagree out loud, but I’ll be out there in the early mornings anyway, collecting my share of the berries.
Later in the day Rosa expressed concern about how downtown Portland is closed, and that could mean that if the police find black people there, they might shoot them. It took my breath away for a moment, how the bird and current events were being conflated in her mind, and how all this death is so confusing and scary for an eight year old. At the same time, I thought, how privileged she is, we are, to be able to conjecture and worry about others, without it being a personal threat of being accosted, harassed, or even killed, just by stepping out our door.
Later Rosa painted several rocks for the gravesite, and made a picture of the jay, newly named Bird Friend. Rest in peace indeed, all of us.