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As an Umbrella Cockatoo, she was surely one of the most dependent birds I had ever owned. At 32 years old, her trust in me had been earned, and all of her social needs were met by me: food, water, toys, social preening, and nursemaid during her infertile egg-laying in spring when her hormones ran amok into craziness. I was her everything. With the window open, the woman pressed her hand into my palm, and wished me a wonderful day. I acknowledged her greeting, and unfolded my hand to find a twenty-dollar bill staring at me. Immediately, with tears running down my face, I thanked her for her support.
She returned to her car, unloaded her packages, and came back. "I didn't give you enough," she said, and handed me four more bills. "You and your bird need to eat of course. You look so comfortable together, so secure with each other. I have never seen such devotion with a bird." I thanked her, shaking my head, weeping inside my body. It was hard enough to acknowledge that as a homeless woman, living in my truck, I had responsibilities, which extended to making sure my bird was happy, healthy, and alive. It was harder still to acknowledge to myself that I was homeless — a label that connotes so many images that just don't reflect who I am.
Seeing dogs or even cats in a car don't conjure those same images. But a bird is a dead giveaway. It hadn't been the first time that Shoshan had provoked such a response from a stranger, but this time, it had been unexpected. Usually it entailed questions like, "What kind of bird is it?" friendly smiles from those who instinctively 'knew' what the situation was, or getting bird treats from other bird owners and understanding conversation from those who knew how difficult it was to do what I needed to do. This woman had done what no one else had: She instinctively knew that we were a pair, a bonded unit who took care of each other. Shoshan hadn't abandoned me, and I certainly wasn't going to give her up because I didn't have a place to live.
Robin and Shoshan, Oakland
To prepare for the new goldfish, Lauren brought a fishbowl and black gravel. Wyatt offered the pump, and Julia toted in leafy green plants. When Gimpy arrived the next day, my whole sixth-grade class crowded around his bowl, where they pointed, laughed, and cooed like new parents.
Having never owned a goldfish, I was clueless about things like pH and food flakes. In fact, I felt confident about only one thing. Belly-down: alive. Belly-up: dead. Thus, I entrusted Gimpy's well-being to the kids and secretly delighted in finding him alive each morning, floating around like a little slice of mango with paper-thin fins. He was cute. I liked him.
Days passed. The kids made up tales about Gimpy's previous lives and jostled for feeding privileges. A few even invented a "Fish Dance," a spontaneous display of gyrating hips and waving hands to celebrate, well, the fish. What they did not do, however, was care for his fishbowl. Before long, its glass sported a dark film of algae and its water became clouded with decomposing food. I pressed the kids to address the problem. "He's your fish," I said, wanting them to take responsibility.
Still, nobody stepped up. Excuses varied. No time. Don't have the proper materials. Don't know what to do. I held firm, but as another week passed — and the bowl's condition worsened — I grew nervous. Gimpy was nearly invisible now. Would I kill him just to prove a point?
No, I decided, asking for help from a seventh grader, a former student who professed great fish knowledge. After school that day we performed an Extreme Makeover on Gimpy's fishbowl, and in no time he was back to whizzing around in water that was clear as glass, straight from our tap. Who knew it was so easy?
Satisfied, I left to make photocopies, returning twenty minutes later to find Gimpy nearly belly-up, his fins waving lethargically; his tiny eyes already glassy. I quickly transferred him to a mug of spring water, where he tipped drunkenly for a minute and died. I was crushed, and confused. I would learn about chlorine later, but in that moment I just gazed at the empty bowl, chastising myself for being so careless.
The kids were less heartbroken. The next day they set Gimpy's tiny body into a hole in a flowerbed. A few fake-cried, some expressed genuine remorse, but nobody blamed me for his demise. "These things happen," said Lauren, the fishbowl tucked under her arm. "Fish usually die in the end." Until that moment I hadn't realized how prepared the kids were for this outcome, how many of their homes already contained evidence of a deceased pet: an empty cage, a frayed dog collar, a half-used bag of kitty litter. Their short lives — like it or not — had seasoned them for loss. The funeral ended and a small group gathered for one last "Fish Dance." As they hopped around Gimpy's grave, I found myself smiling, admiring their joy, their courage, their youth.
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