Next to the chapel in the nursing home where my mother died earlier this month stood three large bird cages. Their doors were open, and on a perch beside each sat a cockatiel. The birds fixed us with their round eyes and chattered, furling and unfurling their crests. Periodically, one of them burst into a wheezy, geriatric laugh. A snow-white dove, looking like a soul of the departed, pecked at seed inside one of the cages.
I stood awkwardly before the cockatiels, wondering if I should somehow make conversation with them, when a magnificent cat, a Siamese/Persian blend with long white hair and blue-gray "points" ambled in, his tail held high. Unfazed, the cockatiels kept up their chatter, punctuated by the wheezy laugh. The dove didn't even look up from her seed.
Before disappearing in the direction of the chapel the cat allowed me briefly to scratch its head. He was not, I was told, the only cat in the building. There were also two dogs around somewhere, elderly small poodle mixes, whom I did not meet. And next to the main entrance there was a large aviary where a flock of parakeets flitted among the branches while on the floor beneath them a covey of Chinese button quail scratched for seeds.
Have you ever seen button quail? I am now obsessed with them. They are tiny (four inches long), chicken-like birds with elegant feathers. Watching them I decided that when I get too old to care for my hens I'll switch to button quail, which I will keep in the house. True, their eggs are ten times smaller than a chicken's, but by then I'll be tiny too, and won't need a lot of food.
My mother spent her nursing home years in the critical-care area, where animals were not allowed. But on Sundays she was hefted into a wheelchair and wheeled to the chapel for Mass. I hope that as she went by she caught a glimpse of the cockatiels. Perhaps their raucous shrieks reminded her of the big red macaw that we had during our years in Ecuador. He was head over heels in love with her, would have nothing to do with anyone else, and whenever she appeared in the back yard would fly down from his perch, waddle over to her and, with his eyes half closed, rub his enormous beak against her leg.