The Best Gift Might Arrive A Little “Out of the Box”Dec 11, 2015 03:33PM ● By Juliette Jones
Once upon a time, on a past Christmas Eve, I was late getting home from work and realized my African Grey Parrot named Admiral Bird was almost out of seed mix. His eating habits were particular, so I made a mad dash to the local pet store for his preferred food, as I knew they would be closing early.
Wending my way through a crowded flurry of other last-minute holiday shoppers, I managed to squeak through the front door just as the lone clerk stepped up to lock it behind me. Hastening to the bird supply section, I grabbed what I needed and hurried to the checkout counter, only to find myself stalled at the end of a long line. With party plans pending and much to do, I took a deep breath, deciding to welcome a few moments of relaxation. After all, “Peace on Earth” is the mantra of Christmas.
By observing the store’s layout, it appeared that owner, like most successful pet store marketing types, had mastered the art of “Pet-Placement Feng Shui.” Octagonal enclosures with clear plexiglass siding were positioned in full view of the stalled patrons—all captives of the checkout experience. Surely, my intense devotional practice of enlightened detachment, cultivated from past animal liberation excesses, would suffice to protect me from entanglement in this obvious ploy.
Before my wandering eyes appeared wood-shaving bedded runs with bunnies hopping to and fro, and just beyond this, a gang of playful adolescent ferrets wrestled mightily. Closer to the bird section, numerous parakeets, arrayed in all the colors of a pastel rainbow, wound down from their daylight antics.
Watching them drew my focus to thoughts of Christmas’ past. Memories of my dad and younger brother Owen stringing multi-colored lights on a fragrant blue spruce tree, the image of a much-desired chartreuse baby parakeet in a gleaming chrome cage, and remembrances of my mother reading “The Night Before Christmas” quietly stirred my heart. “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even…” Suddenly, the spell of the reverie ended abruptly as my eye fell upon something disturbing.
Perched alone at the center of a large pen, huddled a small green bird. Even from across the room, I sensed this little bird was mourning. What situation had caused this—of all creatures—lovebird to be housed alone without a companion? I thought lovebirds were supposed to be kept in pairs. I tried to withdraw my attention and invoke some sense of inner peace with words of the Buddha: “What is, is best.” This didn’t work at all, however, and I began to feel anxious to discuss this bird’s plight with the clerk.
The young man had large, vaguely sad eyes. “Look over here.” I pointed across the room to the lovebird. “Aren’t lovebirds supposed to be in pairs?” The sadness of his face became more pronounced as he tried to repeal my directness.
“Please, Miss, I don’t want to think about that anymore. I’ve been thinking about it all day.” I could see he was upset and sensitive to animal welfare, so I wondered how someone with his sensitivities could work in a pet store. I pressed forward, softening my approach. “Please, won’t you tell me what happened?”
“A man came in today who wanted to buy a lovebird, and he did—the companion of that bird you see over there. I tried to get him to take them both, but he didn’t. So, that’s it—that’s the whole story.”
So much for enlightened detachment. I could feel wheels turning in my head as I attempted to grasp my next move. Taking the bird home was not the solution. Such action would create other problems without solving the essential difficulty. What seemed best might be to bring the birds back together again. Yet, the man had purchased only the one bird. Who would do that, and why?
As he let the second to last customer out of the store and locked the door behind him, only the animals remained as witnesses. I asked the young man, “Did the customer who bought the bird pay with a credit card?” In his eyes, I sensed that the same glimmer of hope inching forward in my own mind.
“Did you write his phone number on the sales slip?” (This was the practice back then.)
“I think so.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
He looked at me analytically for a moment. “That bird is going to cost forty dollars.”
“So, then it does. It’s Christmas, isn’t it? Let’s try to change the story.”
“Yes it is Christmas!” he exclaimed, while reaching underneath the counter and retrieving a stack of credit card receipts. Any ideas about consumer privacy flew out the window in favor of what we deemed a more important consideration. Then, he lifted the phone from behind the counter and placed it in front of me.
As the first ring signal droned in my ear, I looked over again at the little bird and hoped someone would answer. On the second ring, I wondered why anyone would be unfeeling enough to separate these two lovebirds. Insensitivity—not a good sign. At that moment, a female voice interrupted my thoughts with an almost imperceptible, “Hello.” I could tell this lady hailed from the islands, probably Jamaica.
“Yes, hello—you don’t know me, but did someone in your family buy a bird at the pet store today?” There was a long pause, followed by a reluctant yet affirmative reply.
“Well good…good! You see, I’m up here at the pet store—you know on Federal Highway. And the bird you bought—a lovebird—well, they’re supposed to stay in pairs. The mate of your bird is still here, and he looks sad, so if you would be willing to adopt him, I’d be happy to give this bird to your family as a holiday gift…if that’s all right with you?”
Again, a long silence.
I pressed on. “You know, as a celebration of the holiday season.” I assumed Island Lady practiced the Christian faith, but I couldn’t be sure. There are many different religious affiliations in South Florida.
The silence felt like forever until, finally a response, “Are you for real?”
“Yes, I mean exactly and truly what I say.”
After another long pause, I heard what sounded like a tearful reply, “You are for real, aren’t you?”
As the clerk captured the bird and gently placed him in a cardboard travel container, I happily noted this little feathered creature had roused enough to hop around and make bright peeping noises. I chose to believe he sensed the situation was about to change for the better. I reached for my credit card, only then noticing it was getting dark and remembering I needed to start getting ready for my evening. The young man walked me to the door with bright, smiling eyes and wished me a happy holiday.
The lady on the phone had given clear directions, and I recognized her neighborhood was in close proximity. I also knew it was not—generally speaking—a place of peace and prosperity. As I drew closer to my destination, I saw depression etched in the decay of tenements, and the darkness of the evening seemed to fall more deeply. I had visited this neighborhood many times in the course of my hospice work as a chaplain, but on this night, my mission seemed less certain. Still, the beauty of the night covered everything below, and the stars beckoned remembrance of the cosmos as a beautiful place. I wondered if those stars were guiding me like the Christmas star guided the Magi. I only knew I was guided by a light of inner desire.
Then, my surroundings began to appear surreal. The narrow street with rows of cars parked tightly on either side closed in on me. An oversized apartment building loomed large in the foreground like a giant pop-tart. I decided this “Alice-in-Wonderland” feeling was not going to deter me. I struggled to spot an address.
Suddenly, a little house came into view set back in the center of a large, manicured lot. Light streamed from the windows and gave the place an impression of being aglow. On the porch, stood two little girls in holiday dresses with neatly braided hair. When they saw me, their vigilance exploded into excitement, and they rushed inside to alert their mother of my arrival. Miraculously, a parking space appeared, and as I reached over to collect my tiny passenger in the cardboard box, I whispered, “I think you’re welcome in your new home.”
We greeted each other on the front porch with shy introductions, overwhelmed by the unconventionality of what had just occurred. The little girls gazed at me with big brown eyes, and I suggested we should put this little bird in the cage with his friend. Everyone responded enthusiastically, and we went inside where the warmth and cheerfulness of the hearth felt like an embrace. The furniture looked comfortable and thoughtfully arranged, and there was a large birdcage placed on a hutch at the back of the dining room.
Inside, the other lovebird sat quietly to the side of one perch. When we opened the cage door and released the new arrival, both birds began hopping up and down. “Well, now they’re back together!” I exclaimed, and little girls who smiled. One of them looked about five and the other seven or eight. The pleasure in their eyes made this adventure worthwhile.
I glanced at their mother and noticed there were tears in her eyes. “I can’t believe this is happening. You don’t know what you’ve done,” she confided. “You’ve brought an answer to a prayer. If only my husband were here now.” She lowered her voice, “You see, we wanted to get each of the girls a lovebird for Christmas, but things have been hard since my husband’s accident. Last year, he fell off a roof and broke his back. They say it’s a miracle he can walk. But God has been good to us.”
With clasped hands, she closed her eyes and murmured a short prayer of gratitude. “My husband wanted so much to get both of the girls a lovebird, but we can’t afford it right now. He told me he felt so bad about taking one bird and leaving the other behind. He felt bad about it all day. We didn’t know what to do.”
Island Lady dissolved into tears while the two little girls jumped up and down, laughing and mimicking the joy of these reunited lovebirds. I stood still, not knowing exactly what to do. When Island Lady’s husband walked through the door and onto the scene, I couldn’t imagine what impression might be running through his mind. Everyone started talking at once, and somehow, the three of them managed to explain the whole story in about thirty seconds. As he turned to shake my hand, I saw the true meaning of Christmas on his shining face.
I knew in that moment I was living in the holiday spirit. My childhood memories rushed back for the second time and filled me with the fragrance of spruce, my own dear family, and mystical lights which once adorned our tree. All of this was achieved in a single instant, simply by looking into the eyes of a perfect stranger.
“Could you sit with us for awhile?” he asked. By this time, I was off-schedule with my planned agenda, but one must always make time for perceived miracles. We all enjoyed a cup of tea. He told me about his accident and how he was finding ways to support his family. I told him about my life and work as a hospice chaplain. We talked about the “little miracle” that had brought us together.
Feeling comfortable and relaxed, he decided to reveal something deeper. “I wouldn’t tell this to just anyone, except someone like you who will understand.” He cleared his throat, as his voice had grown husky. “While I lay on the ground after falling from the roof, I saw light, then an angel came to me and said, “You don’t have to worry now because everything is going to be all right.” The five of us sat quietly, suspended in the grace of the moment. “Yes,” I shared with him, “I do understand. I’ve seen angels, too.”
When it was time to leave and we said our good-byes, I realized—in a certain way—this was the best Christmas present I’d ever received. I only had to let myself step outside the box to experience this present. After all, the best gifts don’t always come in packages—they might arrive a little “out of the box!”