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by Joni E. Johnston, Ph.D.

When someone hands you a gift out of the blue, you shut your mouth and accept it. If you're smart, that is. I got a big one last Wednesday afternoon. And, so far, I've shut my mouth. It's my heart I can't turn off.

It started out like any other therapy session with Madeline. She hauled out her meticulous list of goals and points to cover and proceeded to do cartwheels around them until she finally landed. Today, Madeline begins our session by telling me about last Friday night. She tells it like she's still there, experiencing every moment. Judging by the intensity of her distress and the details of her story, I guess she is.

As she begins, she slumps in her chair. Her eyes offer up a plea for understanding. Suddenly, I feel like a judge who is about to hear a plea for mercy from a guilty man. I wonder what crime she is guilty of. She begins to tell me.

She's just finished getting her hair cut at the mall. On her way to her car, she says, she hears a faint chirp. Investigating, she soon spies a baby pigeon flapping its wings, vainly trying to fly before its time. She spots his home a few feet away, filled with hungry siblings. Momma bird is close by, overseeing nest activities. The baby pigeon is grounded and Madeline is determined to save him.

Returning to the mall, she immediately seizes the nearest security guard and recruits him as her deputy in her rescue mission. Hurrying him along, she explains her goal. Together, they are to put baby pigeon back where he belonged. "Lady, you can't do that," says the security guard. "The momma bird will just kick him out."

Madeline, never one to mince words, responds. "You're just being lazy. You could help me if you really wanted to." Not exactly a rapport builder. Angry, the security guard walks away, leaving her alone with her dilemma. She wants so desperately to help this bird and she doesn't know how. As she's telling me the story, I see her pain so clearly.

I'm captured by Madeline's words as she tells her story. I see such strong parallels between Madeline's life and the plight of this unfortunate young bird. She, herself, has fallen out of the nest so many times. At 32, she keeps trying to climb back in. Her mother keeps pushing her back out. She's had too many mouths to feed and not enough food.

For most of her childhood, Madeline felt invisible even though both of her parents were there. There, but not there, so Madeline says. Madeline continues to see an ugly duckling no matter how far into the mirror she looks. She cannot yet find the swan, yet she lights in my office every time I see her. She is beautiful to me, a fascinating mixture of toughness and tenderness. I do not tell Madeline this yet; I know she would not believe me.

I find myself reflecting on Madeline's willingness to invest so much energy in a single bird. As she tells her story, I am surprised by my reaction. I feel ashamed. Madeline is devastated by guilt and anguished over her helplessness. My shame is different. I feel the shame of an impostor, someone who is trying to understand an action that I would not be doing were I in her shoes, Inside, I hear my own judge and jury.

"Don't fool yourself," a part of me whispers. "You would never have tried to rescue that bird even if you'd noticed it. And you would have had a million good reasons why. You used to be a bird saver too. Where has she gone?" I hadn't even missed her until Madeline tells me her story.

Suddenly, I am five years old again. I am dancing in circles around my dad as he gets ready for our mission. I am embarking on my first (and, as it turns out, my last), hunting trip with my dad. I feel so grown up, wearing my light blue shorts and swinging my light brown pony tail. I feel tall in the front seat of our worn out station wagon. After all, he picked me to take along.

We are going on a big adventure, and I am the chosen one. How I love being with my dad, especially when he takes me on trips that I, a grownup five year old, know are really meant for boys. I am going to be on my best behavior so dad will be glad that he brought me along.

We get to the field and my dad and I climb out of the car. Dad says we have to be quiet so the quail won't hear us. I don't really understand it but it sure is fun. It's like playing the game I play with Nana, the one where whoever is the quietest gets a dime. I am good at this game.

It is fun tip-toeing in the tall Southern grass on a late October afternoon. We're walking quietly so we won't wake up the birds, I think. Suddenly, I hear a rustle in the bushes and my dad raises his shotgun. At age five, my first burst of pure insight appears. We are hear to kill the birds, I realize. Not to play games with them. I am horrified. I am frantic.

"Daddy, don't kill them," I cry, throwing my arms around his knees and knocking him off balance. The birds have gotten away. We silently traipse back to the car, tears sliding down my cheeks as I realize I have let my dad down. I am ashamed.

But I am also glad. There is a part of me that I meet for the first time on this trip. This part of me secretly rejoices that I saved the birds. This part of me even thinks that saving the birds was more important than earning my dad's approval. At five years old, this is a novel idea. I think for the first time that I am a hero. That is worth a lot.

My dad, I know, pretends to be much more exasperated than he is. He is proud of my compassion and sensitivity although he worries that, later on, it will cause me much pain. He should know. I inherited it from him.

This is only the beginning of my bird saving crusade. A short time later, I discover the story of Robin Redbreast and plead my case before my dad. How can we kill a bird carrying the message of spring? After being bombarded with tears and recriminations, my dad finally gives up. My brother is eventually banned from shooting robins with his BB gun. I bring home many birds with broken wings, and grieve horribly as each one inevitably dies.

Continued in Part 2

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Del Mar, California specializing in women's issues. She is the author of Appearance Obsession: Learning to Love the Way You Look (Health Communications; 1994) and the upcoming Lessons From the Other Side of the Couch. She is a weekly relationship columnist for Woman's World Magazine (Dear Joni) and is a corporate consultant in sexual harassment and sex discrimination.


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