"We're burying a dead bird," Darla said when we were at a birthday party for two of her friends. I had just been counting the minutes until I could leave and get back to staring at a wall at home while my kids fought and I agonized over putting my foot in my mouth repeatedly at the party.
I looked at Darla for a moment, utterly bewildered. Was this a good or a bad thing? I was in the worst position imaginable: I was forced to make a decision in front of other parents. This is something I typically like to do out of the public eye because I feel I choke under the pressure.
"Oh wow," I said. "Are you sure it's dead?"
"We're positive it's dead," Darla said. "We think it fell out of a tree. We're burying it."
Suddenly, the birthday party, with its potato sack races and cake, had turned into a morose funeral. Carefree laughter gave way to a solemn commemoration of the baby bird who fell out of the tree. I knew there was a life lesson about the inevitability of death in there somewhere, but I was too distracted by the parent, who I barely knew, standing next to me to suss it out.
When I looked at the burial from a distance, it seemed like good, old-fashioned kid-ding: very "Stand by Me," except it's the dead body of a bird. As a kid who, starting at the age of six, would leave the house on my bike at 9:00 and come home for supper by 5:00, it feels like so many real childhood experiences are missing from my kids' lives. I live in an area where the hills are too steep, the traffic too heavy, and the paranoia of stranger kidnappings too high to really let kids ride their bikes alone even in front of the house. There are not enough opportunities for them to make (and sometimes eat) mudpies or climb trees without me hovering a few feet away yelling at them to be careful. This bird funeral was a good opportunity to let Darla see what life was like when I was a kid and make amends for all my helicoptering.
The other parent, whose kid was also participating in the burial, and I looked at each other. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Did you touch the bird?" I asked.
"No, we just saw it was dead," Darla said.
"It's really nice you're having a funeral for it," I said, deciding that inaction was my best option. "Just be sure you don't touch it."
I watched her gather up leaves and dump them on the ground. I realized I should maybe walk over to where the dead bird lay since I didn't know if I should accept a seven-year-old reading of the situation as accurate. The children had piled green leaves and pink flowers over a small hole, completely covering the dead bird. It all looked carefully arranged and peaceful. I was confident in my decision to allow the kids to honor the passing of a living creature and participate so lovingly in the ceremony.
I was about to walk away when I saw a couple strolling through the park in the general direction of the burial site. They looked at what the kids were doing and overheard that they were tending to a dead bird. They gave me, what I perceived to be, a weird look and kept walking. I saw judgment in their eyes, which I am powerless to defend myself against. I wondered if the bird might still be alive and in need of help. Were we allowing the kids to bury the poor bird alive? Were we feeding some primal, sadism that lay dormant in these children? It started to feel like a situation they would later look back on with deep shame and become some dark bonding experience that would forever tie them to one another. Feeling overburdened by the responsibility, I grabbed Darla's hand.
"Come on," I said. "We really shouldn't be doing this."
Darla was hesitant to leave at first, but then she followed me over to the playground to play on the monkey bars. I stood by her and watched her play since none of her friends were on the playground anymore. They were all still huddled around the dead bird.
I felt sad for Darla at that moment. I saw all the other parents allowing their kids to participate in this timeless rite of passage. They all were so confident and open; so capable of free-range parenting when the situation called for it. Something about the experience seemed so natural and authentic. I looked at Darla playing alone. She needed to go back to the funeral.
"Are you sure the bird was dead," I asked as I watched one of the girls dump a full box of apple juice over the grave. Juice poured over a dead bird was a ritual offering. I think the same act, when done on a live bird, would be called apple juice boarding. I needed to make sure I was dealing with the former.
"Pretty sure," Darla said as she looked at the ground. "Well, actually, I touched it, and Kelsey picked it up and held it in her hands. She said she could feel its heart beating, but it looked dead."
Everything romantic and swirly about this ritual changed at that moment, and I became super practical. I immediately told Darla about how dangerous it is to touch dead birds. I told her about salmonella and trichomoniasis so that I could strip the situation of everything magical and earnest.
Darla looked worried and I felt like a terrible wretch for instilling fear in her. I let her go back to the possible burial/ritualized torture of the possibly dead/alive bird before we left the party. Darla hovered around it but was too afraid to get close now. I double checked and was relieved to see the bird was, in fact, dead. At this point, the party was coming to a close, and it was time to go. I told Darla to pay her final respects.
One of the little girls crouched beside the grave and sang jibberish in a sweet, soft voice. I could still hear her lovely tones in the background as I led Darla away from the party. Careful not to touch the hand that came in contact with the bird, I walked towards the other parents.
"Isn't this the sweetest thing?" I asked. "Oh, and just a heads up, there's no soap in the bathroom, and dead birds could have salmonella."
And then I walked away. The, now, panicked parents yelled at their kids to get away from the filthy bird. I had broken the spell. Sometimes, anxiety and worry can be more infectious than the most contagious of bird flu; I tend to be patient zero. At that moment, I was relieved to have company in my stress, but I felt slightly guilty that I had dispelled the magic of yet another experience. I resolved to not get involved the next time Darla decides to bury a dead baby bird. I'll watch from a distance; I'll look away when she sweetly pets the rotting corpse and immediately sticks her fingers into her mouth since I assume that's what a good parent would do. But probably not because salmonella really freaks me out and no amount of magic is going to convince me that nothing bad is going to happen.