On Death and Empathy

Twice, I’ve found dead birds on campus.  The first, a brown sparrow, cupped in my palm, was cold and still when I found it.  The groundsmen provided a shovel and muscle, and we buried it beneath a young tree under fresh mulch.  The second, a robin, I found warm on the sidewalk. I picked it up, cradled it in both hands, and imagined that he had experienced a great shock and might, if I kept it warm and snug, twitch, extend his spindly legs and fly.  I held to this image as I moved through campus, an eye out for the grounds crew.

A day both cool and sunny, I found steps leading to the basement of an old bricked building, and sat to read about empathy.  Our text explored concepts of listening and asking, of eye contact and tone.  As I read, I held the robin in my lap, still open to the possibility of movement.  The chapter ended, the medical student practiced empathy with a practicing patient, the robin shrank.  His black eyes sunk more deeply into their sockets.  My level of empathy would not make a difference, at least, not on a physical level.

I closed the book and placed him on the cover. The clouds opened space for the sun and the robin glowed.  I would not bury this bird, as I had done months ago with the sparrow.

My weeping beech tree was a cold cavern.  It would not cradle the robin.  At the tips of the branches, outside the canopy, the sun shone.  I snapped a photo on the empathy text, then left my tree to wander.

I am familiar with campus, and know a patch of Russian Sage.  Here, among the silvery boughs, the robin could rest, the sun warming his breast until night fell.  If he rose and flew, his wings would not be packed with earth.

I could try here to make a connection between the death of a fictional character and the experience with this robin.  But I will not.  I will leave the robin under the sage and let it be.  I will practice empathy in my stillness, with my fingers stroking the soft breast feathers.

I will practice empathy in the way I place the robin among the leaves, and part the branches so that sun and a drift of purple surround him.

I will imagine him flying from the sage.


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