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Of death and love

The whole world is singing


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About six years ago, we rented a house in Montefrio, a tiny town in the mountains of Spain, near Granada. One afternoon, we took a walk through the town's hilly streets. It was winter but the sun was blazing. The streets, empty of cars, were so quiet we almost whispered as we walked.

Then, suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by the trilling of a canary. The sound -- alternately beautiful and comic -- bounced off the white stucco buildings, amplifying itself, surrounding us. With each burst of song, the canary seemed to gather more energy. It was one of those moments you don't want to forget.

So, when I returned to Atlanta, I decided to buy a canary, Jacques (Lacanary). He was yellow and gray and a nonstop singer. I had never owned a canary before, though I had many parrots in the past. Parrots are gregarious animals. One, a blue-headed parrot named Jade, used to wake me in the middle of the night nibbling on my toes.

Canaries, on the other hand, are not the least bit sociable. Their singing is entertaining but they aren't the sort of bird that hops on your finger. I put Jacques' cage in my office from the start and clients quickly sorted themselves into those who found him distracting and those who enjoyed him. The little clump of feathers and song became the object of their projections. One client, a woman who felt helpless, always pressed her face against Jacques' cage, saying repeatedly with great delight: "I'm scaring him. Me! I'm really scaring him."

Jacques' first molt was prolonged and, as sometimes happens, he rarely sang after it. Not hearing him, clients who didn't enjoy him invariably asked if he was dead. Others insisted he was depressed from hearing people's problems. His silence certainly depressed me. Last year, I decided to get him a companion. I didn't want to get a female because I didn't want any hanky-panky going on in my office while clients complained about their own sex lives. I decided to get a male when someone at a pet store told me it was a myth that two males will render one another silent. So, Georges joined Jacques in his cage and -- contrary to the seller's claim -- both birds went instantly mute unless they were fighting over a particular seed or whatever causes tension among canaries.

Last week, to my great surprise, the birds began singing softly during a grieving client's session. The client's father had died a few days earlier. I heard the canaries' song, as I always do, as a reminder of the longing for love. They sing for a mate, creating something beautiful out of their unmet desire. So I heard the canaries' singing as emblematic of my client's heartache, her desire for her lost father and the lost fantasy of love she'd never really experienced inside her family.

I have learned that animals often express synchronicity. When my client left, I thought about how long Jacques had been with me -- six years now -- and he was probably three or four when I bought him. I remembered Jade, the parrot who had given me so much pleasure for more than 10 years. And I remembered my cat Chester, whose 14 years with me outlasted most of my human relationships. And I thought about how Jade and Chester still enter my dreams. In a recurring one, Chester, outraged, tells me there is a cockroach named Godzilla living under the toilet and I had better do something about it.

You can imagine how I felt when, the night of this same day, I looked into the cage and saw Jacques sitting on the floor listlessly. I put my hand in the cage and he did not move. "Jacques is sick," I told my partner, who instantly began proposing remedies that I knew would do no good. "He will be dead by morning," I said.

I covered the cage and slept fitfully. Several times, when I awoke, I thought to go into my office to check on Jacques. But I could not bear to see him die. After losing dozens and dozens of friends to the suffering death of AIDS, I cannot see a moth die without feeling emotional. I awoke at 6 a.m. and uncovered the cage. Jacques was dead, lying on his side. I hated the wave of grief that came over me. It seemed so silly to feel so much for an unsociable bird. But when I went to the garden with a shovel to bury him, all those ghosts of my dead friends descended and I could not see clearly through my tears to dig the ground, so my partner did it for me.

When I came back into the house, I could hear Georges. He was singing louder than he had since the day I brought him home, singing for what we'd lost. He is singing as I write this. I think: The whole world is singing -- at every moment -- for love.

Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at


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