The loud thud against the window of the cabin startled the group. A bird had flown hard into the glass and dropped to the ground outside the window. Sarah rushed outside to check on the bird and the rest of us waited quietly for news.
Ten young adults were gathered in the small rustic log cabin built across a fast-flowing creek, surrounded by a grove of aspens. The theme for the group session that morning was how to deal with fear. Cancer had recurred for some people, and others were frightened of their cancer returning. Alicia knew she was nearing the end of her life. I could see the knowing in her eyes.
Sarah pushed open the heavy wooden door and a rush of cool air blew in with her as she entered. She cradled the yellow warbler in the palm of her hand, its glossy black eyes were half-closed and its breast fluttered with tiny rapid breaths.
“I don’t think she’s going to make it,” Sarah said, tears filling the corners of her eyes.
Death had entered the room and the tension was palpable. People shot sideways glances at Alicia. Did she think the bird was a sign that her death was imminent? Would she panic and try to save its life somehow? Was she frightened? Each person’s fear of death was projected on to the person who lived closest to life’s edge.
The room was quiet as we watched the little bird, her chartreuse breast feathers shimmering with each tiny intake of breath. Outside the wind rustled the branches of the trees, and the aspen bark shone white in the mid-afternoon sun. The bird's last breath went unnoticed. We just knew she was gone.
Alicia stood up slowly and pushed her chair back, her swollen belly seemed to lead the way, compassion compelling her forward. Leaning on the backs of chairs she made her way around the circle to where Sarah stood by the door. She looked Sarah in the eye and smiled, and then bringing her palms together against her chest, she bowed to the bird.
“Thank you little bird for showing us what death looks like,” she said, as she ran her forefinger tenderly over the bird’s motionless breast. “Death isn’t so scary, is it?”
Alicia looked around the circle of her new retreat friends, and I heard deep exhalations of breath and fear release together. Death was present and it was okay. Alicia and the bird had made it that way.