The Bird Keeper

(Trigger warning: mental illness, suicide)

 

The foxgloves are blooming. So are the roses, the iceberg growing up the verandah poles, and the ones we bought Dad for Christmas last year. They’re still in their pots.

He wasn’t sure where to plant them, Mum says.

The fairy wrens, bright blue, flicker in the birdbath, and honeyeaters stick their heads into the mouths of flowers. I watch the birds from the verandah while sipping cups of coffee. A red-breasted robin perches on the side view mirror of Dad’s ute to preen.

Some people are cat people, or dog people. It’s a false dichotomy (all dichotomies are false), but most seem to fit into one or the other category. Dad was a bird person. He had hundreds. His aviaries are empty now, save for overgrown grasses and a few bottlebrush trees. Too sore and exhausted to take care of them, he sold most in one week. Only a few rosellas are left, but they’ve been sold too. All my life they were full to bursting with Gouldian finches, emblemas, long-tails, diamond-. Once when emptying the duck’s bathtub pond, I fell in. The ducks were beautiful, but they stank; the water was full of their shit. I hated giving the birds water when I was a teenager; it was laborious, repetitive and time-consuming. In the colder months the water would spill over my hands until they hurt with cold, and in summer the threat of snakes was in every patch of grass. A young tiger snake got into one aviary last summer.

*

Grief is different every time but I’ve grieved enough to know that. My family has lost so many people that death is almost mundane to us. I think of each time before this as a practice-run, a dress rehearsal. We have grieving down to an art, our coping mechanisms on standby. The pop of the champagne cork at 6pm sharp is habit. We’re not celebrating; it’s just what we drink. We used to start at 5pm, but when Granny died in July 2014 it kept creeping earlier and earlier. We instigated a 6pm start time. This is reasonable for Mum, who wakes up at six or seven in the morning, but for my sister and I who are usually asleep past midday, 6pm is still too early to be healthy. I want whiskey as well. I mix my drinks and forget to eat. Twice I am too drunk to remember calling my partner back in Melbourne, and they have to remind me of what I said the next morning.

As if things couldn’t get worse this year, while I am in Tasmania Trump is elected president of the US. We start drinking early that day, at 3pm, just to cope with the disbelief. Across social media platforms, people share suicide hotlines.

*

The morning of the funeral, a baby rosella emerges from its nest.

*

As a product of childhood poverty, Dad hated to throw anything away, lest he need it later and not have the means to buy it again. As a builder and bird-keeper too, almost everything was useful to him in some manner; scraps of wood or metal were kept for years before he made use of them (he kept a set of antique bank doors for more than ten years before finding the perfect place for them in our dining room); plastic containers and chipped crockery were perfect for bird dishes; certain weeds in the garden were left to grow, or replanted elsewhere so the finches would have a continuous supply. When Mum and I clean out his ute, we find loose screws, bolts, nails, tissues and receipts from as far back as 2010.

Did he even have this ute in 2010? I ask.

Nope.

My head hurts again, as it has for months, in my mouth and behind my eye. I’ve assumed it’s a wisdom tooth. I stretch my neck and jaw and sneeze a few times.

I don’t think your headache is wisdom-tooth-related at all, Mum says. I reckon it’s your sinus. Your father thought it was his teeth too. Went to the dentist but his teeth were all fine. They worked out it was sinus pain. We’ll probably find some Sudafed back here somewhere.

He’d need it in this dust-bunny of a car.

We don’t find the Sudafed, but we do find three pairs of socks, two tubes of sunscreen and, under the driver’s seat, an old porn magazine. We can’t help but laugh.

Dad! In the car, really?

I wonder where the rest of them are?

We find them in the boot of another car a week later.

 

We keep looking for the Sudafed in his bedside table drawers. The same pattern continues; old receipts, empty packets of pain medication, syringe parts for methotrexate (a drug used to halt the growth of cancer cells or rheumatoid arthritis), phone numbers scribbled on scrap paper or little blocks of wood. We unfold, un-scrunch and read every piece of paper, no matter how old or small, hoping to still find a clue.

f Dad had rheumatoid arthritis, why wasn’t he prescribed antidepressants? People with chronic pain are always advised to use antidepressants. Even people who have slightly debilitating surgery are supposed to take them for a while.

He was prescribed them. Years ago. But he never took them.

On cue we find the prescription, dated 25th July 2010. I try to think of what my life was like then. Sixteen years old, getting ready to travel to Paris the next month. Then we find the meds. A purple packet of Escitalopram, printed with the same date as the script.

 

I was prescribed the same medication when I was first put on antidepressants. The side effects were worse than my anxiety attacks; in addition to nausea so bad I couldn’t keep food down, I felt constantly dizzy and confused, and couldn’t see properly. I almost lost my job because I couldn’t function. I put up with this for a week before going back to the doctor, begging her to put me on something else.

We open the box of Escitalopram to find each pill still in its foil blister.

*

In her essay ‘The Suicide Gene’, Anna Spargo-Ryan links her grandfather’s suicide with her own illness and attempts. A family history of suicide is a red flag for mental health professionals: ‘do you have a family history of mental illness?’ is one of the first questions they will ask. As descendants of a suicide, we come to hold the weight of it like a legend that will repeat itself in our own genes, the sense of inevitability like a permission slip. “Herein lies the real risk,” Spargo-Ryan writes, “believing ones own suicide to be inevitable.”

My sister and I both attempted suicide in our teens. She was fourteen. I was nineteen. For the worst years of my illness, I thought about suicide every day. Not always in a planning way, but an idealised, romanticised kind of way. Imagining my breath slowing and life fading often helped me to fall asleep. I thought dying must be like taking off an uncomfortable pair of shoes.

My partner of eight months comes to Hobart with me, the very night I get the call. They’ve never met my family before, but it is Mum who asks them to come. MJ and I met on a festival panel about writing and mental illness in Newcastle, our first conversation about the respective ways our brains are messy and how we tackle that in our writing, in front of an audience. Our second conversation, in private, about our respective suicide attempts.

Who found you? We ask.

My housemate, I answer. She said I didn’t try very hard.

MJ won’t let me go down to the shed alone. Or while too drunk. I want to go the first night, but they say I should sleep. Instead we smoke weed with my sister after Mum’s gone to bed. Not even Valium has made me feel as relaxed as getting high has; the anxiety that underlies my every movement slips off. The tightening in my stomach unknots, and I can finally eat a whole meal without feeling nauseous.

*

While my illness and my sister’s are genetic, our father’s was circumstantial, at least to begin with. He grew up in an abusive home, one of seven children of a narcissistic father. Unlike his brothers who looked like their father, my dad was small. Tall, but skinny, freckled and redheaded. He loved animals. He was sensitive. He was the odd one out, the scapegoat. His father would beat him with a bullet belt. When Dad tried to protect his mother, he got the brunt of the beating.

His father never gave them anything, Mum says. He gave your grandmother maybe $50 a week for groceries. To feed the nine of them. The rest he spent on his guns or boats.

The emotional stress of living with an abuser over a long period of time (Dad didn’t move out of home until he married my mother at age 25) resulted in him developing morbid anxiety and depression. He never felt good enough, blamed himself for anything that went wrong, and never believed that anyone really loved him. Dad’s trauma shaped the rest of his life, up to its ending.

*

We stopped talking to my paternal grandparents when I was eight. They come to the funeral. We’re all furious, but my sister is the only one daring enough to say anything.

Rich of you to show up, Stuart, she says.

He looks at her for a minute. Who are you? As though he doesn’t recognise the same long blonde hair she had as a child, or Dad’s eyes.

I’m your granddaughter.

Oh, he says, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you girls…

And whose fault is that?

She walks away.

After the service, my grandfather tries to corner me when I’m finally left alone. Like an eagle, my sister storms out of nowhere. I tell her I can handle it. I’ve thought about what I would say to him for years. None of it comes out of my mouth now. He just looks like an old man, shaking and sleepless.

I don’t know why we fell out, he says. I’ve gone over and over it, but your father and I never really had a bad word between us.

I hear him out but I don’t believe a word he says.

I tell him to look after his wife, and that I’m sorry for the guilt he must be feeling. Later I feel sick that his act worked on me.

Thank you for saying hello, he says.

*

I wander through the aviaries wearing one of Dad’s flannelette shirts. A few doors have rusted in place and won’t close. The ceramic water dishes are where they’ve always been. It sort of feels like I’m in one of those scenes where the protagonist is walking through their childhood home or something, and the visual keeps cutting from the present to flashback. In the flashback the place is always lively, full of people and colour. Maybe it’s Christmas or a birthday. And then the present is quiet as a ghost. The colours dull, things dilapidated. They’re all the same things, but they’re different.

Before locking himself in the shed, Dad dug up a small fortune that he’d buried in the aviaries for safekeeping. I find the holes, three of them in different parts of the aviary. Dad took the money and left it in Mum’s sock drawer, knowing she wouldn’t open it until the next morning. Above the dresser are three portraits of my sister and me at different ages. He would have seen those.

If I retrace his last steps maybe it will help this make sense. What did he see, what thoughts were prompted? My brain is constructing a linear narrative, sorting events into a chronological order. From three years of studying it, I know the importance of narrative; I know how our brains need the logical structure to process trauma, to ‘bear witness’. At the end of the theory comes the practical exam.

We pick apart our memories for the foreshadowing. Gather evidence. Connect the dots. In hindsight, everything is either imbued with profound meaning or utter absurdity.

We spent all of Thursday at the Rhododendron gardens in Burnie, Mum says. He was fine, taking photos, talking about what else he could plant at the new house. The last thing we said to each other was ‘goodnight’.

*

It takes anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes for hanging to cause unconsciousness. Then up to twenty minutes for brain death to occur. A severed spinal cord shortens the process, if the drop is long enough.

Some people want to be found in time. Dad didn’t want to be found. He bolted the door from the inside.

I’m surprised he didn’t do it in the car, Mum says.

If there was a note, we never found it. The police found a portrait of my sister and I though, lying on the floor face-up to him.

*

At the new house the beginnings of another garden bed have been made; Dad sprayed the grass only a week before. The English garden he was going to cultivate that wouldn’t grow in the sandy soil at the old house: delphiniums, roses, rhododendrons, Sweet Williams, peonies, hostas, hydrangeas, aspidistras. When I get back to Melbourne my lobelias have died, and the lavender looks sick. My first thought is to ask Dad what I should do to save them.

*

Mum has been living at the new house three days when we find the baby birds. Or, the dog finds them. Six eastern rosellas, pink flesh and grey down, pulled from their nest by mynas. Mum pulls the lead taut, steering our golden retriever away from them. All the birds are dead, save one. Not peeping as you might think baby birds do, but squawking loud and shrill for home. My sister cups the survivor in her hands and holds it to her chest so it can feel her warmth. It’s barely bigger than her palm, and pinfeathers are sprouting out of its skin amongst the down. The dog frees itself of Mum’s grip and eats two of the corpses before we can catch her, bones and beaks crunching.

Mum catches the dog and settles her back in her pen, while my sister and I panic over the fledgling.

What do we do?

I don’t really know.

Dad would know. What would he do?

He’d already have a bird box and heat lamp set up for it in the laundry.

Keep it warm.

I take the heat pack from the cat’s bed and warm it in the microwave. Not too hot, just close enough to body warmth. Then I set it in a shoebox, and cover it with a towel and cotton wool. Another towel goes over the top, a makeshift nest. Once inside, the bird’s squawking lessens.

I wonder if I kept the crop needle… Mum begins searching the laundry cupboards.

She pulls out a container of lorikeet feed that I was sure I saw her throw out before the move. Well I don’t have lorikeets anymore, she’d said as she tossed it in a garbage bag.

Remember how to mix it? She asks.

I do. Like porridge; warm water and a little honey. She doesn’t find the crop needle, but she does find a syringe amongst Dad’s medicines (I thought she threw those out too). She fills the canister with the food and runs it along the bird’s hooked beak.

She talks to it, softly; are you going to eat this? Are you hungry?

The bird opens its beak and laps its little nub of a tongue in a resounding affirmative.

Oh thank God I don’t have to use the crop needle, she says.

I’ve seen her trying to feed baby birds that way before. Or sick birds, when they can’t or won’t eat. The long metal point has to thread down the back of the bird’s throat and into their crop, where they store food. It’s a tricky procedure; a misaim into the lungs can drown the bird.

 

We feed the bird every three hours but otherwise leave it alone to rest. The mortality rate for birds that fall from their nest is high. Without human intervention, death is inevitable. Even with human intervention it’s more than likely.

I doubt it’ll survive the night, Mum says. Don’t get your hopes up. And definitely don’t name it.

The first night is the hardest to survive. But if they do survive it, they stand a chance.

 

Mum won’t get up to feed the bird during the night; she says her newborn days are over, thank you very much. I haven’t been sleeping, so I take up the mantle, setting a timer for every three hours. I am anxious for its survival, feeling somehow as though my own is linked to it. At midnight, 3am and 6am, I cup the bird in my left hand and hold it to my chest. It dribbles a little food down between my fingers. I make sure the heat pad is still warm. Mum feeds it when she wakes up at eight. In the pit of my stomach I feel a glow of pride and hope. We agree the bird’s survival is symbolic. I want to keep it, hand-rear it, keep it close. But we have no aviaries and no bird-keeper anymore.

 

My partner and I take the bird to the wildlife rescue centre that afternoon. They take it, unceremoniously. I expect them to ask questions; what have you fed it, what’s its behaviour been like, but they don’t. Its arrival is mundane, everyday to them. On the drive back home I feel empty.

 

Lifeline offers crisis support services if you need to speak with someone. You can call on 13 11 14.

 

Vince Ruston (23) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, currently undertaking their Honours in Media and Communication at RMIT. They have been published in Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks, Scum-Mag, Writers’ Bloc, Rabbit Poetry Journal, and others. They live with a cat named Persephone.

 

1 Comment

  • Zoe says:

    Thank you for this. Beautiful writing. My dad also took his life and I wish every day he had had a better childhood. We can all do more to better understand mental illness.

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