‘What happens when people get old?’ Sean looked up at his grandpa for an answer.
‘Oh, they get creaky knees like me, Sean. Everyone is young for a good long while, and if they’re lucky they get really old, and then sometimes they get sick before they go somewhere else.’
‘Where do they go?’
‘I don’t know, Sean. People have a lot of different answers to that question. What do you think?’
‘Well, I think if I had to go somewhere else, I would go where I could do all the things my mom and dad won’t let me do, like climb the big tree at the end of the block or ride my bike over to Jimmy’s house.’
Grandpa laughed and said, ‘Sounds as good as anything else I’ve heard.’
‘Grandpa, can you ever come back after you die? Like to visit?’ Grandpa chuckled and rubbed Sean’s head. ‘I sure hope so, because I’d absolutely come back to see you, Sean.’
Sean loved his grandpa more than almost anyone. Every Sunday Sean’s dad would go pick Grandpa up and bring him over to spend the day. They would play ball and hide and seek and go for walks to the park, but his grandpa had a hard time walking now, so mostly they just talked when Sean came in from playing.
One day Sean’s dad told him that Grandpa wouldn’t be coming over that weekend because he was sick so instead they went to see him in the hospital. A couple of days later, his father told him Grandpa wouldn’t be coming over ever again. That night, after Sean went to bed, he cried so hard he had to hold the pillow against his face so his brother wouldn’t hear.
Not too long after Grandpa died, Sean’s cat Tommy caught a bird and brought it to Sean. He did that a lot. Sean’s mom thought it was gross, but Tommy brought Sean everything he caught, even the stuff Sean didn’t want. He was a cat.
The bird was still alive, so Sean tricked Tommy into dropping it. His dad made Sean put on mittens before he picked it up, and then they took it to the vet. She said the bird was a very young swift and was just frightened and needed someone to take care of it for a day or so until it could take care of itself again. Then she said we could set it free. Sean said, sure, they would do that, and his dad just gave Sean one of those looks that said he should have asked him first, but Sean felt like he should take care of the bird because it was his cat that hurt the bird.
So they took the bird home, and before they went inside Sean’s dad put Tommy in the basement so he wouldn’t get to the bird again. When he came upstairs he had an old birdcage. They put the bird inside and it just kind of sat there, leaning up against the side of the cage. He didn’t look too happy. They put some water and birdseed in too, and a heating pad under the cage, to help the bird stay warm because he was spending the night on the back porch, even though Sean had begged to keep the bird in his room.
‘No way,’ his mom said, ‘The back porch or we let him go free tonight.’
Sean’s dad wanted him to come and eat dinner, but Sean said he’d rather stay with the bird, so Dad brought him a sandwich and Sean stayed with the bird until his Mom made him go to bed.
Sean couldn’t go to sleep right away and started thinking about when his Grandpa died. He was so sad when that happened because before he died, Grandpa was always where Sean expected him to be. They’d go to Aunt Connie’s and there he was, sitting in his corner of the couch. Sean would wake up on Sundays and Grandpa was already downstairs in his favorite chair, and sometimes he took them all out for pancakes. Sean’s Dad said he was very old and very sick and so he died, but Sean didn’t care if he was old or sick. He missed him a lot and now he didn’t even know where Grandpa was. And he never got a chance to say goodbye.
His father told Sean that only Grandpa’s worn out body had died and that Grandpa’s spirit was now a part of everything that lives. Sean started thinking about whether that meant Grandpa’s spirit was in the bird too.
And then Sean thought, ‘Maybe the bird is Grandpa. Maybe he was flying back to see me when Tommy got him. He said he would if he could.’
Sean got up and ran downstairs to look at the bird again. He was still sitting in the same place, just like Grandpa always did, but he looked up when Sean put his face near the cage. Sean watched him for a long time, trying to figure out how he would know if this bird had his Grandpa’s spirit, and then Sean thought of something.
Speaking very softly so his parents wouldn’t hear, Sean talked to the bird. ‘If you are my Grandpa, hop to this side of the cage, but only if you’re really my Grandpa.’ Sean waited. Nothing happened, so he started to say it again, but then the bird did it! He hopped to Sean’s side of the cage!
‘Yes!’ shouted Sean. ‘Dad! Mom! It’s him, it’s Grandpa!’
Sean’s parents had just gone to bed and weren’t too happy when he ran into their room to tell them. His mom said they would discuss it in the morning, but Sean’s dad came downstairs with him to look at the bird.
‘See Dad, how he looks at me. Like Grandpa.’
Sean’s dad said, ‘Maybe so, but it’s time to get some sleep, and if the bird is Grandpa, he probably needs some rest too.’
The next day the bird was hopping and flapping his wings like he wanted to get out of that cage.
Sean’s Dad said, ‘Let’s take the cage out in the backyard.’
Sean didn’t want to because maybe Grandpa would fly away and leave him again.
And Dad said, ‘Okay, stay in the yard with the bird for a while, but you have to try to be ready to let him go. Even if it hurts, because even if the bird is Grandpa, he’s a bird, and birds are meant to fly, even if they fly away from you.’
Sean still didn’t want to let him go, but then his dad reminded him of how long Grandpa had been sick, and how he couldn’t walk very well. Dad said maybe the reason Grandpa’s spirit found the bird is because it was his turn to be free of his pain, to fly high up in the sky.
So Sean sat in the grass with the bird and in a little while he opened the cage door. The bird didn’t notice right away, and Sean thought maybe he would stay, but just as Sean was feeling better, the bird hopped out of the cage and flew up a tree in the backyard.
‘Don’t go,’ Sean called, ‘Don’t go.’ And Sean’s dad said now that Grandpa’s spirit was released from his tired old body, it was okay to let him go, even if it made us sad. Someday, we would be happy Grandpa was free, even though we would always miss him.
So Sean and his dad watched until the bird spread its wings and took off for the sky. He flew up, up, up, really, really high, and then he stopped, just kind of hung there in the air. And then he swooped down so fast Sean’s eyes could barely keep up with him. Sean knew he did that for him. Grandpa was showing him he wasn’t sick or tired anymore.
They watched, Sean and his dad, until they couldn’t see Grandpa anymore, and they said goodbye.
Sean’s older brother Ryan came outside and said ‘Whatcha doin?’ and Sean said, ‘Just saying goodbye to Grandpa.’