The Dude abides no more.
Picture a small bird. No, smaller than that. A zebra finch, about the size of your thumb, lively with song, gray with age and deaf as a post.
That was The Dude. Yes, was.
I found him in the cage Wednesday night. Just five hours earlier, he’d been his usual self, hopping and flittering and singing that unique burble that only a finch possesses, somewhere between a running faucet and a squeaky toy.
He wasn’t gone yet. Not quite. But he was clearly on the threshold, his small body curled in the corner, barely moving, barely breathing.
Heather couldn’t stand for him to be alone in the dark. We brought his cage to our bedroom and sat up with him. We promised if he was still lingering in the morning, we’d go to the vet and do the gentle thing.
It wasn’t necessary. In the wee hours, he turned once on the bottom of his case, just enough to notice. And then he made the final flight, the one without wings.
Nine years had come to a quiet end.
If you’ve not kept birds, you may not realize how uncommon that is. Most zebra finches last between five and seven years as pets. There have been older ones, sure, but even if The Dude wasn’t quite George Burns, he was sure as heck Christopher Plummer.
Maybe a bit of Harrison Ford, too. After all, he did get a ride in the mouth of Big Dog Blake and lived to tell the tale.
Amazing, in a lot of ways.
But then, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. If there are two things that our families do well, it’s birds and long-lived pets.
The birds come from Heather’s side. She and her sister Jaimee are the Bird Ladies, embracing anything in feathers. Before The Dude’s passing, our informal aviary comprised three parakeets, two zebra finches, one society finch and a cockatiel whose shrieks could wake Rip Van Winkle. No partridges in pear trees, but I’m sure it’s a matter of time.
The pets that won’t quit, meanwhile, are a hardy Rochat family tradition. Growing up, I had a dog that made it to 13, a cat that made it to 17 — heck, I had a goldfish that lasted around 13 years. It didn’t happen with every pet, every time, but it was strong enough to make a trend.
Put ’em together, and you get a heck of a flock.
And also one where it’s really hard to say goodbye.
It’s human to assume that what has been always will be. That only gets stronger when a gentle soul does indeed keep going day after day and year after year. Maybe they’re a little slower or a touch more careful over time, but they’re still there. Still wonderful. Still loving.
And then, one day, that love leaves.
And so does a little of you.
I wouldn’t trade the time for anything. No way. But deep roots pull harder when they’re finally torn free. Even the smallest of bodies — a finch, a gerbil, a horned toad — can leave a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.
The hole will be filled, with memories and tears. But it never will be what it was before. Neither will you.
And on balance, I think that’s a good thing.
I am a better person than I would have been without Mitzi the dog, Twinkle the cat, and a host of others, right down to the tiniest Dude. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling. There’s a care that only animals can teach, as they magnify the best and worst you choose to show them.
And if it hurts to leave, you probably did it right. It’s a hard comfort. But it’s also an assurance that you touched a heart to a heart and brought both back full.
That’s a treasure beyond words. And as I think on that, I realize that I got the first sentence of this piece wrong.
Down where it counts, The Dude abides.
And he always will.