The big project on the home front last weekend was burying Katrina.
She was one of the family parakeets. We discovered she had left us when we came down to breakfast Sunday morning and found her stretched out on the bottom of the bird cage. The cause of death was uncertain. And Blue Bird, her companion in the cage, wasn't talking.
Lately the kids had been keenly interested in death. They had steadily queried me about when I was going to die and where I wanted to be buried. I told them I'd get back to them.
And so I organized a pet funeral. It was a chance to teach the kids about the transitory nature of life, and to get them off my case.
First I carried the deceased out to the backyard table and put her on a towel. Once she was laid out, I encouraged friends to call.
The kids ventured toward the bird, hunting for obvious signs of injury or disease. They seemed afraid to touch anything dead, so they used a small stick to examine the bird. They didn't find a cause of death. But the 6-year-old poked the feathers between the bird's legs and gleefully reported he had found body parts that he didn't know birds had.
With that, I decided it was time to enclose the bird in her see-though "coffin." It was actually two plastic glasses held together with tape. The effect was quite dramatic. The parakeet looked at peace.
As the kids gazed down at the bird, they talked about the suddenness of her death. About how she had been singing just that morning. About how she had always eaten her meals, and yet she died anyway.
The 10-year-old recalled that when the bird first came home from the dime store she had opened the cage door and escaped. That prompted the 6-year-old to wonder if, now that bird had died, it was possible to get a refund. I told him it was unlikely.
We then discussed where the bird should be buried. I lobbied for the back yard.
The kids weren't sure. They feared that "the cat" would dig the bird up. We don't have a cat. Our neighbors don't have a cat. I haven't seen a cat in the backyard for two years. Besides, since when did cats dig for food? Cats expect food to be delivered to them.
But rather than challenge the existence of this mysterious creature, I told the kids we could outsmart the cat. We would dig a deep, deep hole.
Once we put the bird in the ground, I told the kids, nothing would disturb her.
As I spoke these words I knew they were not true.
I still have vivid memories of the day some 40 years ago that my brother and I accidentally dug up a dead bird.
It happened when we were digging in a park behind our house. There was not any purpose to our digging, it was one of things boys did for fun in Fort Dodge, Kan. As we were shoveling away, a spade hit something metal. We immediately decided it was buried treasure and shoveled all the harder.
The metal object turned out to be an old pipe tobacco can, with a resealable lid. My brother lurched for the "treasure" and, as he picked it up, the can exploded.
The lid shot into the air and struck my brother on his forehead. The air smelled awful. My brother began to wail "I'm dying, I'm dying," and ran toward our house.
I was about 5 years old at the time and not very experienced in matters of mortality. But from the way my brother was screaming, and the ways things smelled, I figured he was right. He was dying and death smelled bad.
It turned out the only thing that was dead was the bird inside the can. What happened, we were told, was that someone had buried a bird in the can. When our treasure-hunting party had jostled the can, gas from the bird's decomposing body had propelled the lid into my brother's forehead.
All this came back to me other day as I got the spade out and dug the parakeet's grave.
I dug this grave exceptionally deep. No recreational diggers or cats could get to it without a lot of effort. When I finished, the boys set their pet to rest under several feet of backyard soil.
One of the kids had been making paper airplanes. As a tribute to our bird, who when she escaped from the cage had proven herself to be one heck of a flier, we had a "fly-over." Four paper airplanes flew over her grave.
After the burial the kids were somewhat subdued as we walked back to the house. I thought that they were drawing deep lessons from the experience.
But if they were shaken, they recovered very quickly. As soon as we got to the house, the oldest turned to me and resumed a long-standing campaign.
"Dad," he said with a smile on his face, "now can we get a dog?"