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THE VISIT OF LIFE
January 27, 2004
 
His tail and one leg protruded stiffly from the snow. Oh, dear. I walked over and picked him up: some kind of swallow. I put him under my arm inside my jacket. I have read of birds who appeared to be dead and then came back to life again by being placed under peoples' arms for a time. Maybe this would be one of them.

I pulled him out briefly to show Q. Maybe he's not dead, I said. I've read that sometimes they come back to life if you warm them up. I walked around the house with the bird under my arm for a little while, pausing occasionally by the fireplace to give him an extra bit of warmth. Nothing. But his eyes were open. So if he did come alive, he'd at least be able to see things. His little body was hard and cool in my hand, but it seemed that I felt it growing a little softer and warmer. I imagined feeling a tiny heartbeat. I took him out again and looked at him. Nothing.

As interested as I was in this enterprise, I did have work to do. Eyeing Kate, who slept innocently on the couch within easy striking distance, I carefully set the bird inside the fireplace screen to get the full benefit of the embers. Nice and warm, but not hot. I went upstairs to my office; back to work.

Once in a while during the course of the afternoon I went down to check on the bird. He hadn't moved. I don't know how long it takes for people to hold birds under their arms and bring them back to life, but we seemed to be running out of time.

In the evening, I came downstairs, to be greeted by a roaring fire. What about the bird? I asked Q. He's having a decent Christian cremation as we speak, he said, pointing to the fire. I nodded. That's only right.

A satee*, our guest murmured, and we all smiled a little. Well, who knows. Maybe it was a girl bird.

I would have been thrilled to feel the little heartbeat begin, to feel the tiny beginnings of movement in my hand. I would have been thrilled to see someone cross back over from seeming death. I have sat, many times, at the bedsides of people who have died, felt the awe of watching life leave its physical home, looked and seen that the body is still there but that it is now unoccupied, had the crazy wish that it could be started up again: all the parts are there, everything is there, could we not help her back into life? And then remembered that, somehow, life is more than its mechanics, than the presence of all the parts. That it comes -- visits -- for a season, and then it goes.



*In ancient Hindu tradition, a satee is a widow who immolates herself upon the funeral pyre of her husband. This against the law in modern India, but once in a while it is still reported among Hindu fundamentalists.
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