• Cheryl Rae Johnson

Meet Susan White (AKA Susan Byrde)

Good things can happen even in a pandemic. This summer I participated in several online writing workshops that I would not have been able to do were it not for this time locked away inside. I forged new friendships with women who write and encourage and even share similar experiences. During one of these conferences, Susan White and I were placed in a small group together where each week we met up to discuss our writing and this allowed us to get to know each other. We continue to keep in touch, and since she lives in East Texas, I hope to one day meet in person. In this candid post, Susan writes her own story of how God needed to get her attention. I think animals have such an ability to sense our emotions and move us. Thank you Susan, for your candidness, insight, and most of all, for sharing your story with us!

In February of 1994, my husband told me he had a surprise for me. He took me to a home where he’d installed an air conditioning system, told me they had cockatiels, and that I could have one for free if I wanted one. One of my childhood friends had a cockatiel that was a really neat bird, so of course, I said yes.

As we walked into the house, we entered the kitchen, where there was a large birdcage that held several young birds. My husband told me I couldn’t have the white one because it already had a home, but otherwise, I could have my choice of the babies. The most common color for a cockatiel is a grey color, and I know there were probably two babies that were mostly grey. There was, of course, the one that I couldn’t have that was color of buttered popcorn, and there was a speckled one. As our eyes locked (I’m not exaggerating), this little spotted bird chirped and flew across the room to me. On closer inspection, this little bird had feathers with dark grey, light grey, a yellowish-green, and white – all on the same little feather!

We chose each other. I named him Cochise – after John Wayne’s horse in the movie El Dorado. The horse, of course, was named for the Apache war chief, Cochise.

We didn’t know at the time that Cochise was a boy. A few weeks after he came to our home, we were gifted with his sister, the “white one” who was really the buttered popcorn color. She was a little larger than Cochise and held her dead differently when I took pictures, so I decided she was a girl. I named her Dixie because she played on the carpet like a chicken, and at the time there was a song with the lyric, “If you’ll be my Dixie Chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb.”

I became obsessed with my birds and learned so much about them. Fast forward a year or so, and while spoiling my birdies, and living my life, I became very unhappy with my job as a classroom teacher. I was just turning thirty, and several other life factors were piling up and making me very depressed. Like a lot of depressed people, I decided that alcohol made me happy, and started drinking heavily on the weekends. Unfortunately, many of those evenings that started out as fun ended in tears as my depression became fortified by the alcohol. My husband was at a loss as to how to help me, and he didn’t really grasp how troubled I was until the night that we came home from the bar, and I went outside with a gun in my hand. We’d had some argument that was silly and sparked by my emotions. At the time, I had a silver and black German Shepherd named Deacon, and a black and white Springer Spaniel named Bailey. I sat out on my deck in the dark, drunk, crying, and searching for something to give me a reason to live. Deacon wandered over, and while I petted his head, I knew he’d be okay if I were gone. Bailey was really my husband’s dog, so I knew she would be fine, as well. My husband was (and still is) a good man, and he never had any trouble attracting the attention of women, so I decided he would be fine, too.

Then I thought about my birds.

The summer before, we’d gone out of town for a four-day weekend, leaving the birds more than enough food and water to sustain them for a few days. When we came back, Cochise was loving and attentive, and it didn’t occur to me that there might have been a problem with him until he started trying to drink the milk from my cereal bowl. Milk is not good for them, so I took him to water, and he drank like he hadn’t had anything to drink in a month. It occurred to me a short time later that Cochise had thought that we weren’t ever coming back, so he stopped eating and drinking. He’d given up in just that short period of time.

That incident came to me while I sat outside that night. I knew that if I died, my baby bird would die, too. Of all the people and animals that I knew, he was the only one I could easily see as not being able to make it without me. It wasn’t that no one would care for him – I knew that my husband would continue to love my animals in my absence. But Cochise and I had a bond from the first moment that our eyes met, and my life for him was as necessary as food and water. I knew his happy face and cheerful greetings in the morning were too precious to waste, and I couldn’t just leave him like that.

I put the gun down and went in the house to tell my husband that I was too drunk to know how to unload it. He had been in the living room, also crying, and waiting to hear the gun go off.

These days, some twenty-odd years later, I don’t remember all of the things that made my life feel so bleak. I went to a doctor for help with my depression. Every day on the way to work, I looked for something to give me hope. I found God that spring – in the new flowers and the rising of the sun as I drove to the east, and once my eyes were open to Him, I saw God everywhere. I quit teaching after that year because I realized I was making the kids in my class at least as miserable as they were at home, and the job was making me physically and mentally unwell.

Cochise, Dixie, and God were with me as I tried to find the right career, and as I endured the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Many days toward the end of my chemo treatments, I would lie down on the couch for a nap with Dixie sleeping near my chin and Cochise perched on my hip or my shoulder, keeping watch.

Dixiebird left us in January of 2018. She was 24 years old – the high end of the average cockatiel lifespan. Cochise hollered all that day, so much that my husband drove me two hours away for lunch because I couldn’t stand the sound. Cochise got mean. I thought about having him euthanized because I didn’t want him to suffer from loneliness, but I just couldn’t do it. He saved my life. I owed it to him.

Right now, as I write, Cochise is sitting on the back of my chair. He will be 27 in January. I know now that his behavior after Dixie’s passing was only partly because of her. Most of it was because I pulled away from him in my grief. These days, he flirts incessantly with my cellphone, loves to sit on my shoulder or in my lap and get head rubs, and frequently hisses at or bites me when he thinks I need correction. Thanks to Facebook, I know of several people whose cockatiels have lived well into their 30s. My baby bird is older than many of my friends’ children. Our bond is still strong. He still needs me, just as he needs food and water – and I need him just as much.

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