Looking back, Sam always was for the underdog. In Middle School, his teachers reported Sam asked to volunteer and help one of the special needs children get from class to class. If anyone tried to tease him, Sam would step forward and intervene to protect him. He loved animals and often talked about becoming a veterinarian.
Near the Karate studio where Sam took lessons was a pet store that specialized in exotic birds. After Karate, Sam enjoyed hanging out in the shop. Most of the birds were larger breeds like Parrots, McCaw’s and Cockatoos. The manager showed Sam how to properly hold the bird on his hand. If you saw him, you’d see in his eyes light up while interacting with the birds. Sam started asking if he could get a pet bird. He decided he wanted a Cockatiel but it had to be a baby so he could train it.
We stopped by several pet shops. All the birds available for sale were mature. Sam went online and found a lady in Rochester, MN who had young Cockatiel chicks for sale. After a brief phone call, we agreed on a time and place to meet. It was a cold Minnesota winter day. It took us almost two hours to get to Rochester, where we met in a McDonald’s parking lot. The bird was just what Sam wanted. The lady told Sam how to care for his new pet. I paid her and we drove back home with the baby bird.
Looking back, my best times with Sam were always in the car. It was a place where we could be alone. He would just open up and talk as the world whizzed by. All of life’s distractions that kept us apart, outside of the car, vanished when we were together in the car.
When we got home, Sam, in a very happy mood, took his bird out of the box and put him in the cage we had bought. His colors were a beautiful yellow with intricate markings of red and orange. Sam decided to call him “Flames” because he looked like a fire flame. Flames stayed upstairs with Sam in his room. Sam enjoyed petting him and taking care of him. Being an avid reader, he went to our library and checked out books about Cockatiels. He just loved this bird. He was gentle and Sam really took ownership over taking care of him. One winter night, we had a party in our home. Wanting to share our new bird with our friends, I moved Flames downstairs so everyone could see him. There was some cooking going on and candles burning. Flames’ was chirping away and seemed to enjoy all the commotion.
The next morning Channa took Sam to Hebrew school. He was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. I had been out running some errands. When I got home and checked on Flames, he was at the bottom of his cage; not a good sign for birds. I tried to play with him but he wouldn't move. He didn’t look good. Being a Sunday, our vet was closed but her answering machine message gave a number in case of emergency. I jotted it down and called. I spoke with a woman there who said when birds get sick, they stay down low. She said there wasn't anyone there to see Flames but to bring him to our vet on Monday. Between picking up the phone and hanging it up, Flames had died. Not wanting to be the bearer of bad news to Sam, I desperately tried to revive Flames but the Angel of death had stepped forward and taken him. There was nothing I could do.
A few hours later, when Sam returned from Hebrew school, happy as ever, I broke the news to him. It did not go well. He started crying and ran into the woods behind our house. When Sam calmed down, he decided to bury him. Sam got a shovel and dug a small hole in the ground, in the woods, behind our house. We gently laid Flames to rest. It was a sad day in our household.
Knowing how painful it is to lose something close, I felt sympathetic of Sam’s loss. I wanted to erase his pain. A few weeks later, Sam had a piano recital in Excelsior. While waiting for Sam to play his piece, I walked over the pet store and discovered they had a fresh crop of baby Cockatiels. One of the baby birds looked just like Flames and I asked Sam to come take a look. When I asked Sam if he'd like me to buy him another bird he said no.
Feeling my own pain about our loss, I took it upon myself to go back to the store and buy the bird. When Sam saw the new bird he was angry. He was mad because he told me not to get it. I figured that sooner or later the bird would grow on Sam. Where Flames was docile and easy to pet; Neon was feisty and would fuss and fight when trying to pet him. Flames liked having his head stroked but Neon did not. He would try and bite your fingers if you got too close.
I really believe losing Flames was a bigger loss for Sam than it would have been for most. I also believe his loss connected to his being adopted. Not being adopted, I can’t get inside his head. But from the different books I’ve read on adoption, one of the common threads that run through adopted children’s minds is the nagging question of “why did my mom and dad give me away?” For whatever reasons that I’ll probably never understand, the loss of Flames was a pivotal turning point in Sam’s change in behavior.