Goodbye and Godspeed, little one

My beloved Congo African Grey parrot, Pippin, died during the night of November 10, 2018. He was 15 years old. That’s very young for a Grey, who routinely live to be 60 years old or more. He had been my companion since he was three months old. This is his story, and the story of how we came to be.

African Grey
Pippin is regarding my friend Scott with some suspicion, in this photo taken on the deck of my Michigan cabin in 2009 or 2010.

On a sleety November night in 2003, I stopped at a pet store in Birmingham, Alabama, to pick up some dog food for Boon, my black standard poodle, and Chief, the young black-and-tan coonhound pup I rescued the previous summer.

As I made my way back to the dog food aisle, I saw a young Congo African Grey in a cage on the display floor. I stopped to look at him because I had wanted an African Grey for more than a decade – their intelligence fascinated me – but I hadn’t gotten one because I wasn’t sure I could give it the time and attention it would need.

As I stood there looking at what clearly was a very frightened young bird, his eyes still black, the store manager approached me. “Would you like to hold him?” he asked. No, no, I demurred. I’d just never seen a living Grey before, only photos of them.

The store manager went away and returned a few minutes later with leather gauntlets – huge, bulky leather gloves that rose to his elbows. He opened the cage to get the little bird out.

With a growl and a squawk, the little bird flew past him to the shoulder of my black London Fog trench coat. He ran along my shoulder until he reached my neck, cuddled into it and made a kissing sound. When I reached to remove him, he was trembling with fear and clung to the shoulder strap of my raincoat with all his strength, cuddling closer into my neck and kissing frantically.

Well, fuck, I thought. I guess I just bought a bird – a little parrot who chose me.

The cage barely fit into the back of my Subaru, and the little bird rode home in a cardboard box strapped into the passenger seat beside me. On the advice of the manager, I set up his cage at the foot of my bed, where he could see me sleep and know that he was safe. I carefully plucked him out of the box, put him into the cage and made sure he had food and water. Then I propped myself up in bed, where he could see me, and began to read everything I could find on the internet about caring for parrots.

For two days, as instructed, I left him in his cage. I was afraid to handle him, afraid of that strong, black beak. But I spent almost all my free time in the bedroom near him. He whistled at me, and I whistled back. I talked calmly to him, as I would to a young child. We watched television together.

On the third night, I decided to see if he would allow me to handle him. The moment I opened his cage door, he flew to my shoulder, as he had done at the pet store. This time he moved around to my chest, again cuddled against the curve of my throat and made kissing sounds.

From that day forward, I was never afraid of Pippin again. And from that day forward, we were bonded in a way that I’ve never experienced with any other animal.

My Annus Horribilus

In late winter of 2003, at the beginning of the year, what started as a raw, red patch on the side of my nose spread within a week to a fiery, terribly itchy rash that covered my entire body. A gifted dermatology resident at the University of Alabama, Dr. Bethany Bergamo, did a couple of skin biopsies and diagnosed the rash as pityriasis rubra pilaris, a rare skin disease. She told me that the worst was yet to come. “Is it going to kill me?” I asked when she gave me the diagnosis. “It might,” she said, referring to ancillary effects of the disease.

Nobody knows much about PRP, or what causes it. Some people with PRP contract it as children, and struggle with it throughout their lives. Mine was fairly typical of the adult-onset Type 1. There may be a genetic connection. Stress may be a factor. There are other theories. Because PRP compromises the skin so severely, its sufferer is always at extremely high risk of infection – the skin being the largest organ to protect the body in that way.

My PRP journey was inexplicable and horrifying. Within a couple of weeks, I was bedfast. Everything that touched my skin had to be washed and bleached twice a day. My skin sloughed off, a blizzard of foul-smelling flakes that could amount to several cups a day, swept up from wherever I had tried to walk. Over the span of the next eight months, I lost all my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes; my fingernails and my toenails peeled off. The soles of my feet and the palms of my hands became thick and cracked; they, too, peeled off as if I’d dipped them in wax, leaving the red flesh beneath the skin exposed. The disease caused my lower eyelids to sag, which meant my vision was deeply impaired. Flakes of skin clogged my ears so I could not hear. The itchy rash drove me mad, but I was allowed to bathe only once a week, in cold water, and had to immediately cover my entire body with a thick, petroleum-based salve as soon as I stepped out of the bath.

Day after day, unable to read or knit or watch television, I lay in bed. I wept a lot. I couldn’t imagine ever being well again. The medicines that Dr. Bergamo prescribed had their own horrible side effects: steroids that made me ravenous and mean; methotrexate, a chemo drug that can damage the liver; Soriatane, an acetretin that can cause mood changes, depression, headaches, high blood sugar, and many other things. I suffered all of those.

After eight impossible months, I began to slowly improve. My hair and nails began to grow back. Being so ill for so long had changed something in me. I no longer wanted to put off the things and experiences I had set aside for years. I was weak and tired easily but determined to recover my health. The long stay in bed had caused plantar fasciitis in both feet, making walking painful, so I thought perhaps riding a bike might be the answer.

On the test ride of a new bike, I fell and broke my right ankle in three places. Its repair meant surgery and three plates to hold my fractured ankle together. That consigned me to another six weeks in bed.

I was still limping from the fracture on that rainy night when Pip and I met.

The African Grey: Life with a feathered imp

Pip began speaking before he was a year old, when his eyes were still black; at about a year old, Greys’ eyes change to a straw color. “What dat?” he’d say when I added some new food to his bowl. “Oh, that’s broccoli,” I might say. “I like it. It’s good. See? I’m eating it, too.” If he saw me eat it, he would at least try it. Sometimes, his response was positive: “Dat’s gooood,” he’d croon. Other times, he was less than enthusiastic: “Don’t like it,” he’d say, as he assiduously threw every speck of the offending food onto the floor of his cage.

Over time, he trained me to his likes and dislikes: Nuts of all kinds, but especially walnuts, yes; blueberries and cherries and raspberries, yes, but kiwi and pears, no. Cooked sweet potatoes, yes, but cooked winter squash, no.

He learned quickly to say “Wanna step up!” whenever he wanted to come out of his cage and travel to the rolling play stand where he spent a lot of his time when I was home. Sometimes he’d say, “Wanna come out!” instead. “Wanna take a shower?” he’d ask. “Let’s take a shower!” He loved perching on my hand for the last few minutes of my own shower and made his sweet, soft cooing sound to show his contentment.

Over time, his vocabulary expanded to amazing levels, and he taught himself words from overheard conversations, the television, and radio. He understood these words and put them together in surprising ways – ways that communicated what he wanted to convey, but that I would never have thought to put together myself. “Boonie go out,” he would say, every time I opened the door into the yard so the dogs could get some exercise. Sometimes he invented words. “Let’s do dat,” he said to me one day. “Do what?” I asked. “Let’s rectate,” said Pip. Rectate was the word he invented to mean playing together on my bed, propping pillows up to make tunnels he could run in and out of.

Pip also learned that he could call Boon over to his cage, using an eerie version of my own voice. Ever obedient, Boon would go to Pip’s cage or play stand, sniffing around for the tidbits he knew that Pip would drop for him. And as Boon dropped his head to the floor to nuzzle around, Pip would lean waaaaay down to pull the curls on the top of Boon’s head. When that good dog flinched, Pip would laugh and laugh.

I grew used to Pip’s cheery burbling and loved hearing him talk to himself. Sometimes he told himself little jokes, always followed by laughter – “Who’s a good bird?” he’d ask himself, looking at himself in a mirror, then answering quickly, “You’re a good bird!” Sometimes he told me that I was a good bird, and he frequently told my ex-husband – who never listened to the things that Pip said – that he was a bad bird. In fact, the last time he saw my ex-husband, Pip said, “No! You go! You are bad, bad dog!” One morning, when I uncovered him from his nightly rest, I said, “Whatcha doing, little bird?” “Sleeping!” said Pip, doing his morning first-one-side-then-the-other-side yoga stretch of legs and wings. “Good morning!”

African Grey
After snagging his beak on a toy made with a metal chain, Pip never got another like it.

Every vet who ever met Pip fell in love with him. “I’ve never known a Grey who was so easy to work with,” said one. “He’s like Gumby, he’ll let you do anything with him.” Said his vet in Chicago, “I’ve worked with Greys for decades. This guy’s a real Romeo. Never a moment’s bad temper with him.” The flips of his beautiful crimson tail – a giggle, in Grey body language – said he didn’t mind visiting the vet, even for distasteful (to him) procedures like claw-clipping and beak trims.

Occasionally, he nipped me, never severely but sometimes drawing blood. In every case, it was because I was pushing him to do something he absolutely did not want to do – to go back into his cage, perhaps, or to step off my hand onto a perch or something. From the first time he did so, he always said, “sorry!” in a wee whispery voice. My philosophy became quite simple: The little guy always gets his way.

In our time together, Pip and I moved several times – from Alabama to Chicago, then from Chicago to Michigan, from Michigan to Kansas, and finally from Kansas to Arizona. Each move entailed long rides in the car in his carrier or a travel cage and stays in strange places, which he endured with incredible good grace. And although Greys have a reputation for disliking change, Pip made every transition without a moment’s discomposure. He settled in quickly in each new place, once we’d done a walking tour of every room so Pip would know how the house was laid out.

In one house in Kansas, the walking tour paid off. Pip’s cage was downstairs, while my computer desk and bedroom were upstairs. I was surprised one night, working on the computer, to see that Pip had somehow opened his cage door, climbed down onto the floor, walked over to the stairs and climbed them laboriously, and was now walking toward me. He climbed my pant leg, up my shirt to my shoulder and whispered, “What doin’? Watch TV?”

Although Pip was incredibly verbal, he was also a skilled mimic. He would answer every telephone call – as when a phone rings on TV, for example – by saying “Hello?” He recognized phone ring tones that were unlike any we’d ever had, whether they chirped, chimed or buzzed. Later, he would make those sounds to amuse himself, sometimes mimicking the phone and then answering himself.

He could beep like a microwave timer, shrill like the smoke alarm, bark like the neighbor’s dogs, meow like a cat, rumble like the motorcycle that passed the house every day, ring like a doorbell, whistle to call my dogs, and so much more.

One night, playing on my bed, I was trying to teach Pip to place colored circles on their matching posts on a special toy. He wasn’t interested in learning to do that, which he made clear by flinging the little disks in all directions. So instead, I decided to see if he understood colors. After running through the four colors – red, green, yellow and blue – just once, calling out their names as I showed them to him, I held up a red disk in one hand and a yellow one in the other. “Touch yellow,” I said to Pip, and to my astonishment, he did just that. Over and over – 50 times in total – he correctly touched the color I asked him to touch. He did so without a single mistake.

Every African Grey companion will recognize these stories. Life with Pippin was a lively and interesting experience – noisy, funny, messy and always surprising.

It’s so much harder to convey how profound the bond between us became over those 15 years. We were connected in ways that defy description, but are true nonetheless. I loved him with all my heart, but it was very different from the love I have had for my dogs and my cats. In a real sense, because I knew he was as smart as a six-year-old, he felt like my child in ways that dogs and cats, however loved, can never do. We argued, we joked, we danced, we watched TV or read together, and we sometimes sat in a deeply companionable silence. Whatever I had for dinner, Pippin always got a bite. Because birds, as flock animals, are attuned to the emotions of their flock-mates, he knew when I was sad, when I was happy, and when I was worried. On every occasion, he made sure I knew he was nearby.

I think readers of my book, “The Feast Nearby,” gleaned some understanding of that connection, but even in those pages, I failed to fully express how much my own life centered around Pippin.

The beginning, perhaps, of the end

But in the summer of 2017, while living in Kansas, something happened. Our vet at the time said he thought that Pip had a stroke or a heart attack but that there weren’t any tests to determine which.

Suddenly, Pip could no longer control his feet – which meant that he couldn’t step up onto my hand and didn’t feel safe perching on his play stand. He could no longer shower with me because he couldn’t perch. To shower him under the kitchen sprayer, I had to lift him bodily from his cage and carry him to the sink. He spent most of his time huddled on the bottom of his cage.

Quizzical Pip
“What doin?” Pip asked me this question dozens of times a day throughout his life.

He could no longer speak. Instead, he communicated with me by whistling the tones of the phrases that he’d previously used. I learned anew how to understand him, and I knew that he was cheerful and engaged with life.

About two weeks ago, I took him to his new vet here in Arizona. As always, he gave a couple of tail flips as she trimmed his claws and beak. With my heart in my throat, I asked her the horrible quality-of-life question: Is it time to put him down, considering how diminished his life has become? No, she said. He’s amazing. She said she thought he was happy.

And I hope that he was, right up until the moment that death took him during the night. He was already cold when I found him in the morning. I hope he always knew how much I loved the fierce, loving little imp that he was, and what his absence will mean to me.

The house is so silent without him. Something has ripped in my life, creating a hole where once the fabric was strong.

Yesterday morning, I prepared Pippin’s stiff body for burial. I plucked three of his beautiful crimson tail feathers. One will decorate my favorite hat, so he’ll always be the “feather in my cap.” Another is tucked into the headboard of my bed, so he will always be near my dreams. I stroked the deep, soft feathers on his neck and back, giving him one last good scritch, and kissed him on the top of his dear little head, inhaling for the last time the scent of his feathers. Then I wrapped him in a piece of my own handwoven cloth, tucked him into a shoebox heavily lined with wrapping tissue, and closed the lid on my sweet little guy forever.

My brother took care of the rest. I did not participate. Instead, I went for a long walk along the paved trail near my home. Along the walk, I came across three bright crimson things – a piece of plastic, a bit of construction paper, a bit of foil – their color so rare in the desert landscape, and nothing like anything I’ve seen on that path before. When I arrived home, there was a small feather in my pocket that wasn’t there when I checked the pockets before I left.

His empty cage needs to be cleaned and disinfected before I donate it to a local parrot rescue, along with his remaining food, play stand and whatever toys they want to take. They will be welcome to it all, and I’m glad someone can get the use of it all. The sight of it, its door still ajar, is heart-breaking. I have thought a lot over the last two days about whether there’s room in my life for another Grey, and I have concluded that there is not. Comparisons, it is said, are odious, and any newcomer would always stand in comparison to Pippin.

Quite simply, nobody will ever match him.