What the Catbird Overheard – Series Final


“Grampy, are we alone?” The question caught the young boy’s grand-father off guard since they were the only ones on the trail this early in the morning.

“I don’t see anyone else around, Harrison? Why do you ask?”

“No, Grampy. I mean in the universe. Are we alone?” the boy asked hurriedly, as if the question had been on his mind for a long time.

“That’s a big question for a six-year-old. I’m not sure anyone can answer it. But what made you ask, and why does it matter to you?” The grand-father brushed away the choke berry bush that otherwise would have captured his attention.

“Is it a big question for a six-year-old, Grampy, or for anyone?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ace. For anyone. Not just boys who are soon to become men,” the grand-father laughed.

“Well, last night I tried to imagine our earth floating in a universe of other planets and stars, and I kept backing away in my mind until I thought I’d come to an end, but I couldn’t see the earth anymore.” The boy began to take deep breaths. “And then I thought eventually I should come to a wall and that behind that wall there might be someone or something. But I couldn’t come to an end.”

“And then what happened, Harrison? What did you see?” A single Cooper’s hawk circled several hundred feet above them.

“I didn’t see anything. Just darkness. I looked in the direction of earth, where I knew there was at least one boy standing with his head up to the sky, but I couldn’t see him. And I thought if there were anyone else out there, he or she couldn’t see me. He wouldn’t know I was looking. And that’s when I started to wonder whether we’re alone.”

Suddenly the grand-father understood that this was not an idle question. In the background the wood ducks’ morning banter reached a crescendo. “Maybe you have to have faith, Harrison. Faith that another little boy is out there wondering the same thing.”

“Faith, Grampy? What is that?”

“It’s a kind of trust or belief. Deep down inside you know something is true even though you have no proof,” the grand-father answered, knowing that words wouldn’t do.

“I think I understand that, Grampy. It’s like knowing that the flowers and the birds will return in the spring… or that mommy and daddy will always love me… or that I’m going to make a difference in the world when really the world is very big and I’m only little.”

“Yes, you are only little,” the grand-father smiled. “But already you’ve made a big difference in my world, and your grand-mother’s and your parents’ and your sister’s and your friends’; I guarantee it.”

“That’s why I wonder, Grampy. If we are alone, I wonder whether anything we do makes a difference.”

Such big questions from so small a boy, the grand-father thought. “I don’t understand, Harrison.”

“Well, if there’s no one else in the universe, then what does it matter what happens here on Earth. No one else is affected. It only matters to us.”

“That might be enough, Harrison. That might be enough,” the sun’s warmth now revealing itself in water vapor steaming off the under-brush and rocky path.

“Still I’d like to know, Grampy. I’d like to have proof.”

“But how would it change anything, Harrison?”

“I guess it would make me feel as though I was part of something very big and special.” How could this boy be only six, his grand-father thought. “Like on a huge stage, with all my classmates, singing in a holiday concert for our parents. Not standing all alone, the lights dimmed, with no one clapping…”

“I don’t know, Harrison. Do you really need an audience and a big stage for something to be special? Isn’t it possible that what really matters is all around you?”

“Oh, I know that, Grampy, but just think. If there were someone else in the universe, they might be so different from us. They’d speak in a whole new language. There’d be so much to talk about, so much to learn. Enough for a lifetime! It would be a miracle if that could happen.” A yellow leaf floated down slowly from the single maple on their right side.

“I think we have enough for a lifetime here, Harrison. We are the miracle. That we exist at all, that anything exists. Look at the trace of last night’s moon floating in the morning sky! Could anything be more miraculous or beautiful!” The grand-father did all he could to restrain his joy at what was taking place between them.

“What do you mean, Grampy?”

“I guess, Harrison, I mean that life is something that either has always been, or somehow appeared out of nothing. In either case, it’s incomprehensible. Even if there were some divine power, the same would be true for him. Or her – I know you’ll correct me, Harrison. Either he’s always been, or somehow appeared out of nothing. Either way, it is beyond explanation and amazing that we are witness to it.”

“No human sense, Grampy. Maybe if there were others for us to talk to, we’d see that it makes perfect sense for something to appear out of nothing. Like a hunch or a new idea or a star. Or an imaginary friend!”

“Have you been talking to Cecilia, Harrison?” A weight began to lift from the conversation.

“You know about her imaginary friend, Grampy?”

“Oh, yes. Cecilia is a lot like her mother.”

“In what way, Grampy? Tell me.”

“We’ll talk about that another time, Harrison. You’ve left me exhausted. I think if there are other creatures in the universe, they better be ready for you!”








What the Catbird Heard – Part III


“Sterling, what are you holding in your hand?!”

“It’s a squirrel, Grampy! I have it by its tail. I found it by Dinosaur Rock.” The young boy stood proudly on the path, having found his very own treasure.

“Sterling, put that down! It’s dead. It’s covered with disease and filth!”

“No, it’s not, Grampy. It looks clean and its fur feels soft. Look, you can hold it by its tail! It must be sleeping.”

“Sterling, it’s not sleeping. It’s dead. Put it down before Grammy sees you and has a fit. I want you to go inside the Nature Center and wash your hands. Right now.”

Sterling was surprised by his grandfather’s quick words, even as a dragonfly distracted him momentarily. “What if it isn’t dead, though, Grampy? I could take it to school or keep it in a box as a pet.”

“Sterling, when animals die, they get stiff like that. It’s called rigor mortis. We have to bury him.”

Rigor mortis? Grampy. What is that? I’ve never heard those words.” Sterling laughed at the silly sound the words made.

“It means ‘stiffness of death,’ I think,” his grandfather replied. “It’s Latin. When someone dies, medical examiners try to determine when rigor mortis sets in so that they know approximately when the person died.”

“People get stiff, too, Grampy? Not just animals? Why would we have to know the time? Isn’t it enough to know that someone died?” Suddenly there were so many questions.

“People are animals, too, Sterling,” his grandfather said simply, wending his way through a flock of geese.

“Gross, Grampy! We can’t be. We don’t live outside and eat berries and worms. We have houses with beds and tvs and microwaves and showers.” The birds chattered noisily now, the summer sun now peeking through the trees.

“Well, animals have houses, too, Sterling, and they may not have the same conveniences as we do, but they bathe and sleep and eat pretty much like people.”

“Grampy, if animals are like people, why don’t they talk like us?”

“I think they do talk to us, Sterling, but their language is different and we don’t always know what they’re saying. Sometimes I think they just talk among themselves. Birds are like that. And chipmunks and squirrels. They almost seem to be laughing at us.”

“Why, Grampy? What’s so funny about us?”

“I’m not saying they really are laughing, Sterling, but if they were it might be because we don’t have our priorities straight, at least in their minds.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Grampy. What are ‘priorities’?” His grandfather used such big words.

“The things we care about the most, Sterling. Animals must think all we care about is running off to work or school, driving to malls and supermarkets, talking into funny looking cell phones or plugging strange boxes into our eyes and ears. They must wonder at the endless line of people who stop off at our homes to cut our lawns or fix our pools or install appliances or even cook for us. They might wonder whose home it is!”

“Well, I think animals are the ones who are silly, Grampy. They don’t do anything but eat or sing or jump from tree to tree. All they seem to do is play.”

“I think that’s why they laugh at us, Sterling. We don’t play, at least enough. We work, just like they do, to eat or to find shelter, but for them it’s play. For us, it’s a job. We complain about having to do it.”

“Do you think animals don’t complain, Grampy?”

“I don’t know, Sterling, but it looks as though they don’t. They seem to have a gift for enjoying the present moment. It’s the one thing that most people seek, but can’t seem to find in their lives.”

Sterling thought about that for a moment and then said, “Do you think I work too much, Grampy.  Mommy tells me I have to stop playing sometimes and to come in to do my work. Can I tell her you said I don’t have to?”

“No, Sterling, sometimes you do have to come in to do your work, but what the animals seem to know is that there’s really no difference. Both are required to live. Both bring us joy and satisfaction. That’s their secret. That’s what they sing to themselves each day.”

“But I complain sometimes, Grampy. I don’t always want to go to school or help with the chores or clean my room.”

“Especially clean your room, from what I can see, Sterling!” His grandfather laughed.

“Does that mean I don’t have the gift of the moment, Grampy? I love presents.”

“I know you do. No, you have the gift. You’re curious. You ask questions. You’ll talk to anyone who wants to listen. You’re never bored. You’ll call me at night to go outside to see the moon. I think the animals could take a lesson from you!” His grandfather’s eyes glistened slightly now. The ducks frolicked wildly, perhaps in response to their early morning spectators.

“I wish I could teach this squirrel how to come back to life, Grampy. His stiffness scares me. It makes me think there’s never enough time for play, or the work we have to do.”

“You haven’t put that animal down yet? Sterling, we need to get a shovel. There should be a proper burial. I think your squirrel friend has taught you an important lesson today. We ought to be thankful for that.”

What the Catbird Heard – Part II


Grampy, did you ever have an imaginary friend?” The geese honked loudly as if laughing at the little girl’s question.

“No, Cecilia, I didn’t. But Grammy’s mother did. She called her Lime Creche.”

“That’s a silly name. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Nor have I, Cecilia. I don’t know where she came up with it. But it was her childhood friend who used to play with her and follow her to school.”

“Sterling says that there’s no such thing as imaginary friends, Grampy, but aren’t there some things that are real that not everyone can see?”

Her grandfather stopped short of the spillway, surprised by the truth of what his grand-daughter was saying. “Well, yes, I think so, Cecilia. People say they see ghosts and spirits and the like.”

The like, Grampy? It tickles me when you talk like that. You sound so serious!”

“You’ve got me there, Cecilia. I can’t help it. But I want to give you the best answers I can… Ideas are real, too, but we can’t see them. We can only see their results. And gases are real, but we can’t see them. Then there are atoms, protons and neutrons and subatomic particles… And other solar systems… And stars! Some even that we see but which don’t exist anymore!  Now you’ve got me started, Cecilia. I’m sorry. That’s probably more than you wanted to know.”

“No, Grampy, I want to know everything. Even if I don’t understand you, I like it when you get so excited. It makes me feel the same.” Two mallards skirted the shore, pushing aside the budding water lilies exploding now into yellow and white.

“Now that I think about it, Cecilia, there are lots of things that are real but which we can’t see. There are even colors that we can’t see but that scientists can with special filters. Or animals with their different eyes.”

“Animals don’t see what we do, Grampy?!”

“No, Cecilia, they don’t hear what we hear either. The more I think about it the more I realize that there are as many worlds as there are ways to look at them.”

“Then Sterling is wrong, Grampy! There are such things as imaginary friends! I told him so!”

“Not ‘wrong,’ Cecilia. Maybe just not as wise as you yet… Do you have an imaginary friend, Cecilia?”

“Yes, I do. She’s called Buddah Baby.”

“Buddah Baby?!” her grandfather laughed. “And you thought Grammy’s Lime Creche was a funny name!”

“That’s what she told me her name was, Grampy. I don’t think she thinks it’s a funny name at all.”

“No, I suppose not.  But tell me about her. When do you see her? What’s she like?”

“She doesn’t come to school with me, Grampy, but she is always here when I come home. She likes to play school and go outdoors. She sends me postcards from places she visits. And she loves birthday parties with cake and candles to blow out!”

“She sounds a lot like you, Cecilia. Full of life!”

“I guess we’re a lot alike, but you can’t hold her like me. And you can’t see her. And she never seems to get mad at me.”

“Why would anyone get mad at you, Cecilia?” her grandfather wondered, overcome by the innocence of her belief.

“Oh, they do, Grampy. Mommy and daddy… and even Sterling. They weren’t happy with me when I dropped my gum and Nugget licked it, then I put it back in my mouth! And they screamed when I picked up a dead bird!”

“Cecilia, they’re not mad at you. They just don’t want you to get sick.”

“Sometimes I say a word wrong or make a mistake when I’m adding my numbers, and mommy loses patience with me. I can’t get sick from that, Grampy.”

“No, Cecilia, you can’t.”

“Well, Buddah tickles me when I make a mistake, and we both laugh.  She wonders what’s behind every door and doesn’t hear when she’s told something can’t be done. That’s why I like her.”

“You know what, Cecilia, I like her, too. Maybe Buddah has an invisible friend for me.”

“Oh, Grampy, you’re silly. Grownups can’t have invisible friends. Besides, you have Grammy.”

“Yes, I do have Grammy, and I’m lucky at that. But maybe adults should be able to have invisible friends, too. I think sometimes adults accept the world as given and forget that we can change it. An invisible friend would remind us of that.”

“Buddah doesn’t want to change the world, Grampy. She just likes to laugh or smile at it.”

Her grandfather smiled and stopped short of the second spillway, swollen now with spring rains. “That’s just it, Cecilia. Adults forget how to laugh. Especially when people die or get hurt.”

“There’s nothing funny about people getting hurt, Grampy.”

“I know, Cecilia, but does Buddah Baby stop smiling? Does she ever not want to play?”

“No, she doesn’t. You’re right.”

“How can that be?”

“I don’t know, Grampy. It’s almost like the pain isn’t real to her. Like she sees the next step… or that everything changes…”

“Or that what we think is real is not?” Her grandfather took a deep breath.

“Isn’t that where we started, Grampy? You did that on purpose!”

“Maybe so, Cecilia. Or maybe I have an invisible friend, too, and didn’t know it.”

“I wasn’t going to tell you, Grampy. But Buddah told me that long ago.” The little girl grabbed her grandfather’s hand and smiled. “She’s funny that way.”











What the Catbird Heard – Part I


Photo courtesy Audubon.org

“Mackenzie, why are you lying on your back with your head up against that tree?” her grandfather wondered, surprised to find his little girl alone just off the trail in the back of the Nature Center.

“I don’t know, Grampy. I sat down, then fell back, and when I opened my eyes and looked up, I couldn’t stop. It’s too beautiful. I feel dizzy, as if I am spinning upward and out of control.”

“Let me see. I’ll lie down beside you and we can both look up!”

“Do you feel the sky pulling you, Grampy? Do you wish you were that tree?”

Her grandfather smiled, warmed by her active imagination and capacity for love. “I think I know what you mean, Kenzie. Down here I can feel the tree soaring, defying gravity. If I were younger, I’d want to climb up its branches and see how high I could go, how long they’d support me.”

“Don’t talk, Grampy. Just listen. We can climb later.”

“Do you love me, Grampy?” his granddaughter suddenly asked, the morning’s stillness broken only by the steady hum of the insects coming to life in the spring.

“Oh, Kenzie, of course I do! Why would you ask?”

“Well, Mommy and Daddy say they love me. And Grammy of course. And I always say I love them back, but it’s hard to know what we mean when we say we love someone.”

The berries along the garden fence suddenly looked a deeper red. “I think we mean that we care deeply about that person,” her grandfather answered. “It’s a way of saying that we want to be with that person, that he or she makes us feel happy or more alive.”

“But, Grampy, how can we be more alive than we are?” Mackenzie wondered. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Her grandfather laughed, realizing how inadequate words can be to explain what really matters. “Well, there’s a difference between being able to walk and talk and eat, and being able to transform someone or something.”

“Transform”? Mackenzie asked, puzzled by a word so unfamiliar to her.

“Change them. Make them better. Help them to feel inspired, able to do anything. It’s how you feel when you look up from the bottom of that tree,” her grandfather replied.

“I like that feeling, Grampy, but I’m not sure I love the tree.”

“In a way, I think you do, Kenzie. I think you are a loving person, which means you give something of yourself to the people, and even things, around you. You give some of your light or energy or trust.” Her grandfather stepped away from the tree, as if to give himself more space.

“I don’t feel as though I’m giving anything, Grampy. I feel people are always giving me something instead.”

“That’s a big part of love, Kenzie. You give, but feel as though you get more in return.”

“What about when you’re bad, Grampy? Sometimes I get really mad at Mommy. Once I even bit her I was so angry. And Mommy sent me to my room when I spit at her one time. Did she stop loving me then?”

“No, Kenzie, believe it or not she didn’t. She may have been hurt or disappointed or angry, but in some ways her love actually grew stronger.”

“Stronger? How can that be?”

“Because the anger isn’t important. It fades away. What stays is the exchange of feeling, the communication, the realization that nothing can break the connection that exists between you.”

“Is it always that way, Grampy? My friend Abby said that her daddy was leaving her mommy and wouldn’t be living with them. Abby didn’t know whether she had been bad and her daddy didn’t love her anymore.”

“Oh, that’s so sad, Mackenzie. I’m sure Abby’s dad still loves her, but sometimes love becomes complicated between adults. Sometimes people change, and the trust is broken. Love can be very painful.”

“Will that ever happen to Daddy and Mommy, Grampy? I don’t ever want to lose them.”

“No, Kenzie, I think they are like me and Grammy. We disagree, and sometimes fight to the point where we won’t talk, but you know the feeling of being pulled up that tree and into the sky? You know the excitement you feel when you look up? That’s what we always come back to. That love doesn’t end.”

“But, Grampy, is all love the same? You’re married and love Grammy. Do you feel the same about her as you do about me? I’m just a little girl. Who will ever want to marry me?”

“It’s different, Kenzie, but equally wonderful. As for who will want to marry you, I think they’ll be lined up for miles!”

“I don’t even like boys, Grampy. They’re dirty and they fight all the time and throw acorns at me.”

“More proof that they like you already! Boys have a funny way of expressing themselves.”

“Grampy, boys are gross! I don’t care how they express themselves; there’s no way I will ever love any of them. I think you should marry me, and we can have our own family. And Grammy can live with us, too!”

“I’m flattered that you would ask me, Kenzie, but wait until you’re a little older and see if you change your mind. I think you may see those boys differently. Love sometimes grows in mysterious places.”

“Grampy, I like mysterious places, but for now I think I want to climb this tree. Will you lift me up?”

“I’ve got ten fingers waiting for you, little girl. Hold on!”