It was the worst aviation disaster I've ever witnessed.
(That's a literal statement. When are you ever looking right at one? As fast as crashes happen, the noise usually draws you a second after the fact.)
Only moments after it happened, the thought flashed through me that I did not even want to contemplate what kind of animal symbolism would have to be reversed. What kind of spiritual message could be delivered by something so horrible occurring right before my eyes.
"This is my favorite place in the world," Mama said, meaning the screen porch where we were sitting, that she'd had added onto the house about eight years ago. "It was worth every penny. I love to sit out here and read, and watch the birds."
She looked over her shoulder at the bright red feeder dangling from the porch's corner eave, in among the baskets of colorful trumpet flowers hung there on Mother's Day. "I wonder when the little hummingbirds are going to show up. I haven't seen them yet this year."
As soon as she said it, we heard that recognizable chirping chatter the hummingbirds make when they chase each other in play. There were two of them. Like tiny dark dolphins racing through the air above the backyard. They buzzed by twice, the sound like toy planes in a cartoon.
On the second flyby, there was a horrible fwap.
The hummingbird in the lead had banked at the last minute to narrowly miss the corner of the porch. The bird in pursuit had flown into the screen.
I cried out in horror. Mama said "What?!" and looked behind her.
Birds fly into windows all the time. They break their necks and die in a merciful instant.
This creature's hatpin beak had pierced the screen. He was hanging by his beak with his face and feet against the screen. Hummingbirds can fly backwards, but when he tried, he could not pull away, his long beak had gone through too far. One single square hole of the minuscule wire mesh trapped him.
I was on my feet and standing before him in one of those moments of time stretched by adrenaline and danger, studying his position and trying to make an instant calculation of action.
His body was too small and fragile for me to grasp and pull from the outside of the screen, and I didn't have time to go around, back through the house, and the garage, and out onto the deck. As he struggled again and again to fly, I could feel the currents of air on my face and the strain on his neck.
I placed the tip of my finger on the point of his beak, trying to perfectly mirror the angle. I could see that if I drove it slightly off to any side other than straight on, I would break his beak and make the whole situation horribly, horribly worse.
It was like pushing on the point of a large hypodermic needle. I would only lose a drop of my own blood.
I waited for him to try to fly again, and then, slowly, but purposefully, I pushed. It hurt.
He fell away from the screen, but quickly disappeared into the air. He had flown on his own, but I didn't know what shape he could have been in.
I was shaken and upset. It took me back to so many situations from my childhood, my little brother breaking bones and losing blood during our play, with the closest parent inside a nearby house or an adult just over a hill.
I knew the bird had to have been badly hurt, and the worst thing for me is that I would never know for sure how far he made it. Mama kept trying to console me: "Maybe it was just stunned."
But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something hovering along the boxwood shrubs near the deck railing. It moved like a bumble- or a carver-bee, but it was too large.
I'd never seen a hummingbird fly that close to the ground. It couldn't be good.
I saw him land in a small shrub, far too low considering the cats hanging around nearby.
I ran out to find him, and there he was, slumped in the crook of a branch. His eyes blinked so slowly, like someone about to lose consciousness. His breath was labored. One of his wings looked untidy, slightly fanned against his iridescent side. His beak looked scraped and possibly splintered.
I kept checking on him, wondering if there was anything more I could do besides keeping the cats away. Would he sit there and suffer and die slowly over the course of hours? I was tortured by the possibilities of what could play out.
"Maybe he just needs to rest for a bit and recover," Mama was calling from the screened porch.
I ran inside the house to grab her iPad and look up the number for the nature center. Didn't people take wounded animals there in shoeboxes?
It was Sunday. The nature center was closed.
But when I came back, the hummingbird was gone. I searched the lower branches of the shrub, and the ground beneath it. He hadn't fallen. He had flown away again, under his own power.
And that's when the message came through for me:
I was living with the presumption of failure.
Are you kidding me? I breathe all this advice and mindfulness and gratitude and hopefulness, and there I was failing at such a basic level of experience processing.
I threw everything right into the box marked "This Sucks about the World," and continued to think, and make my decisions, and have all subsequent emotional reactions, from that broke-down set of components.
I really ought to excel at this point. I really should not have to repeat basic lessons or start from scratch.
The Universe is an inventive teacher... and I got schooled. I got held back and forced to repeat a grade.
But luckily there are loved ones among my friends and family with the ability to break through my self-imposed veils and state the obvious when I can't see it for myself.
My Mama comes quick with the questions that pin everything down to the floor where we can see it up close and still for a second.
"How do you know you didn't save its life?"
And I needed her to point it out.
...Wow. Thank you.
Maybe I saved a life. Maybe I was a given a small miracle to perform that day, that kind of chance to intervene that we all complain we long for.
There it was, just like that, right under my nose -- and I was the person I longed to be in such a moment -- that exact person -- compassionate, quick-thinking, with an impulse to protect and nurture any living thing in my sphere of influence.
I had "done my best." It was possibly a life-altering success. But I had still failed to acknowledge the best part of myself.
So, yeah, I know, there were a few more flowers in this post. And certainly much heart.
A real heart (just like anybody's). One that has a shadow.
Image credit Lud Wing via Creative Commons on Flickr