I was once a sensitive person.
My mom tells me that we were driving down Granny White Pike one day when I saw a dead animal on the side of the road. “That hurts me, momma,” I said then.
“What happened to that tenderhearted boy?” she asks now.
The same two things that happen to every sweet child with no lock on his front door: middle school and hopeless romances.
Underneath my piquant sarcasm, smart aleck attitude, and general skepticism about progress, human enlightenment, romance, friendship, and every other true and lovely ideal, that same hopeful, compassionate boy still lives, though now with a more profound understanding of the world’s brokenness and a few bruises and scars to show for it.
I still hurt for hurting creatures, and I am learning how to open the front door to these experiences, rather than lock it. After all, the choice of greater, softer empathy is mine to make.
What knocked on the door one Saturday morning last May? A bird with a bum wing.
Let me tell you a tale about Bob.
I was drinking coffee, tidying my duplex, and chastising myself for piddling. Saturdays are supposed to be the days when I exercise my writing muscles.
The door between my side and my landlords the Kings’ side stayed open most of the time and we are close friends, so I walked over to see what they were doing. I could spare another fifteen minutes of procrastination.
Caroline had just come in from the yard where she was watching Daisy, their huge, blond, passive Anatolian Shepherd whose temperament reminds me of Snuffleupagus. She told Patrick, his step-father Michael, and I about an injured bird that she had noticed. Judging by its long, spindly legs and snakelike neck, she thought it might be a water bird, a stork, heron, or egret.
A shallow, trash-clotted stream called First Creek runs through our neighborhood, but the Tennessee River is three miles away in downtown Knoxville. What was a heron doing in Old North Knoxville with Greenlee’s Bikes, a vacuum repair shop, and dozens of historic homes?
One of its wings didn’t look right, and it was wandering around in front of North Knoxville Church of God next door.
Time to work on my sensitivity. I went out to search for this refugee, and two minutes later, I spied it standing in the narrow strip of grass on the side of the church. As I crept up, the bird—let’s name him “Bob” for his head ticks—extended its long, sinuous neck as if to show how big and intimidating it could be. Bob pumped his neck at me a few times, and though I’m not fluent in the East Tennessee dialect of Avian, I’m pretty sure that meant something rude.
The bird bites the hand that frees it.
Birds preen. They keep their pinions neat, oiled, and waterproof, but several of Bob’s stuck out in right angle. Broken wing? Hit by a car?
Strange. A bird with feathers askew is like a man wearing eyeliner.
Wounded animals sadden me, especially the ones that get hurt because we have bulldozed and developed and spoiled their habitat. They live on postage stamps: hawks on the side of the interstate, a family of raccoons in the storm drain, black bears in the Smoky Mountains attracted to the smell of campers’ garbage then killed by park rangers for our safety.
I decided to save this bird.