Even in the weak winter light seeping into the room, his colors astonish me. Russet brown and tan, silver, black, white and gray. … His are the shades of subtle intimation, the perfection of understated tones.
One day, a baby sparrow plummeted 25 feet from a nest tucked in the eaves of a Southeast Portland home and landed in a clump of dying irises.
This would have been an entirely unremarkable event had the home’s owner, a man named Chris Chester, not discovered the baby bird in his flower beds, naked-winged and helpless – a limp, clammy thing not much bigger than Chris’ thumb.
At first he was hesitant to pick it up, his “compassion having been hobbled by childhood memories of failed bird rescues. … I remembered shoeboxes with plucked-up grass as padding, inappropriate offerings of bread and worms. The tiny, inevitable corpse come morning.”
But eventually, he took it in his hands and carried it into his home.
Maybe, in the end, we are drawn to vulnerable things because we recognize in them our own frailty – that deep down we are all somehow broken, flightless, naked in a heap. When he found this particular vulnerable thing, Chris was 41, and in his own words, as depressed as he had ever been, living “below sea level,” struggling to get things done.
Chris had always dreamed of writing a book. He would say that he just knew it was what he was meant to do, and he would try in fits and starts – he’d written poetry for years, even frequented open-mike nights around town many years ago – but he could never get far. “He just couldn’t focus,” his ex-wife, Rebecca Lester, says. He doubted. He fretted. He silenced himself with terrible writer’s block.
And then, down tumbled the sparrow.
When it became clear the bird would survive, Chris named him B. Just B. Just Be. One of Chris’ favorite things to do was to cradle B in his cupped hand, feel his warmth.
In the days following Chris’ death everyone agreed that this was one of the happiest times in Chris’ life. It was as if he had finally found the words for everything he ever wanted to say.
I offer B my right shoulder after I walk inside. He puffs and stretches, glances at the papers in my hand before hopping down. We’ve gone through this routine innumerable times, yet I ponder each repetition as the steps unfold, knowing that I’ll one day be desperate to recall all B-related things. Every day I vow and every day fail to take nothing for granted regarding those tricks time plays on complacency.
B pulled Chris outside of himself, and in doing so, he gave him something to write about: this crazy life he was living – living – with a bird flying around in the background, seed husks crunching underfoot.
But that was just the starting point.
Really, what B gave Chris was the chance to write about finding meaning and wonder in the smallest things. About the joy of finding something, anything, that can keep you focused on the moment and away from your more destructive forces: the doubts and worries and fears that keep us from being present in our own lives, that keep us from risking our feelings, even if that means experiencing the ache of loss.
One night, you accompany Rebecca as she goes to fetch Chris’ birds, and move them to her house.
Rebecca is pale and shaky, and she keeps repeating, alternately “I can’t believe he’s gone,” and “It’s so hard to be here.”
It’s clear by the state of his house that Chris had suffered both physically and existentially in his last year. That, as his nephew put it, it had become more and more like a birdhouse Chris was simply visiting. The pain of his last few years is almost palpable.
And yet, while Rebecca is upstairs preparing the birds, and you are wandering through the rooms downstairs, studying his collection of books and marveling at the mind they reflect, you spot a small rectangle of paper lying on one of the bookshelves.
Just a few minutes before, you had ventured upstairs to be introduced to the birds, and as the rest of the flock careened and spun around the room, one brave sparrow landed briefly on your open palm. And you imagined you could feel the weight of every tiny bone, every feather.
You are reminded of that moment as you pick up the piece of paper and realize that it is Chris’ name tag from the Oregon Book Awards, the dark fibers of his jacket still stuck to the back – and you know you are holding something incredibly fragile in your hands.