A parrot lives in my neighborhood. I often hear it from where I lie in bed, resting and staring idly at the shadows outside my window. Its whistle is loud and clear: three notes ascend up the scale, then a fourth and final note falls somewhere in between them. It’s distinctly sharp compared to the pianist warming up his fingers with ragtime riffs in the apartment below mine, and it’s more robust than the hissing catcalls from the men down below on the streets of Washington Heights.
I’ve seen the parrot, too. It lives around the corner on the second story, as I do, in a fourteen-inch-wide cage with thin, white metal bars. Its plumage is stunning—bright green with under feathers of blue and yellow—but will never feel the thrill of flight. When the sun comes out and the temperature warms, I make eyes with the parrot, nestled in its open window, looking out at the trees and the traffic of 157th Street.
A January New York Times Magazine piece titled “What Does a Parrot Know About PTSD?” follows a sanctuary of abused and abandoned parrots at Serenity Park in northern California. There, war veterans struggling with anxiety and depression bond with the birds.
There’s a tiny caique parrot, Cashew, whose owner over-clipped her wings and who needs some some gentle prodding to get her to fly again. Bobbi, a Goffin’s cockatoo, was kept in a kitchen drawer and pulled out most of her own feathers under the stress. Julius, a Moluccan cockatoo, paces madly back and forth across his shaded "room," mumbling in Korean like the widow who had owned and discarded him used to.
Most fully-grown parrots have the mental capacity of a four- or five-year-old human child, and they yearn to connect. Early on, they mimic the unique sounds of the adults in their flocks as part of learning to fly, feed, identify danger, and play with their families. They try to do the same with their human captors, copying what they hear and attempting to communicate.
At Serenity, they bond with veterans who might have similarly lost limbs and who have definitely seen horror. Both the parrots and the veterans have a hard time speaking about it with other humans, and they find each other in their shared pain and loneliness, preening and talking or just sitting, silent, together.
I don’t live in a cage, but I often spend time in my bedroom with a chronic illness. Over the course of 23 years, I’ve had several severe bouts of Lyme disease, and this is the fallout: a daily rotating cast of joint stiffness, muscle aches, headaches, neurological issues, and digestive restrictions. If I want to spend my time as a functioning adult—I’m a writer and radio host, a friend and lover, a daughter and sister—I need to spend a lot of time resting in quiet, darkness, and solitude to relax the stress on my immune system.
For the most part, I don’t feel lonely during this time: In my room I work, read, meditate, stretch, watch movies, and play with my dog. But when I’m experiencing a flare of pain so sharp and persistent that I almost can’t stand the emotional weight of it, loneliness hits. There’s nothing I can do but wait out the pain, and, while I try to, the walls of my room seem to close in on me. It’s a helpless kind of loneliness, being stuck in a body you work so hard to protect but decides to fight you anyway. One that needs so much of your attention that it becomes the relationship you’re forced to prioritize over all others. One that couples emotional hurt with physical.
Last night, I could barely breathe from the pain and its subsequent desperate panic. The muscles in my back were knotted tight, relentlessly on fire. I wanted to crush my bones to relieve their pulsing pressure. Fatigue was a suffocating steam.
I called my mother, and she didn't pick up. I texted my brother, and he didn't respond. It was late at night, the world slept, and I was as awake and as isolated as I’d ever been. I don’t need anyone to do anything for me in times like this, I just want someone to be with me, to bear witness, to connect with me, to be part of my flock. My roommate came home but something—embarrassment or vulnerability or bashfulness or fear of being misunderstood—stopped me from confiding in her. Or maybe it was just a lack of words, as I was lost in a neurological fog that I couldn't articulate even to myself.
This morning, my body is breathing again. I slowly guide my dog around the corner, and, standing on the empty sidewalk, I gaze up at the parrot. It whistles down at me. I whistle up at it. Then it’s silent, and so am I, both of us just watching each other. We stare for five seconds, then ten more, then almost a minute, and when I finally turn to go, it calls again. I turn back, and it stops. This is the game we play, me and the parrot. Finally, the insistent pull of the leash moves me away.
I can’t look back. I don’t want to see the parrot craning its neck, its dark eyes seeking beyond its cage for a longer look. I hear it behind me, trying out one tune after another in desperation.