She was magnificent to look at, surreal. Her coloring: so vibrant. Shades of life seeped from her like water from a sea. As water is simply a subset of the larger body, so color seemed to originate from her. She even seemed to glow, like a halo around an angel, the earth around the sun. She was lovely, beyond imagination. Until you heard her voice.
"Why do you keep her?" I used to ask my grandmother. "She says the most horrible things."
"She does," my grandma would agree, "but she is simply repeating what she was once taught... let's teach her something new, shall we?"
So we did. We quoted poetry over and over and over, always within her ear shot. Instead of changing, though, she simply stuck her beak in the air and repeated the same ugly words that she always said. I used to cover my ears and hum silly songs to block out the terrible sound. I once sang "Row Row Row Your Boat" for a whole hour while she squawked out curses and swears and everything offensive.
"Why didn't you just leave the room?" my grandmother asked when she found me in her living room, singing with tears of frustration leaking out of my eyes. I was caught off guard by her question. I didn't know why I had never considered simply walking away.
"I guess I didn't want to leave her." I finally realized with surprise.
When poetry proved unsuccessful, we tried reading stories. From Jane Eyre to Nancy Drew, "Hamlet" to To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harry Potter to Utopia, she was educated in every genre and style. She didn't seem to like any of them, however, for hour after hour, day after day, month after month, and year after year, she repeated her same string of ugly words.
We played her all kinds of music: rock and pop and country and even Southern Gospel. Still, she never changed her tune.
"It's hopeless!" Once again, salt and water spilled down my cheeks after I had endured one of her rants with covered ears. I never could fully block out the sound.
"Ah! Never say that someone is hopeless, girl of mine. Never."
My grandmother had aged. She now walked with a carved cane, and she hunched over as if a heavy bag was permanently secured to her back. Her skin was more crinkly, her hair more white. Her voice a touch weaker, her movements more pained. It was worse when it rained and when it snowed, but even then, when her body screamed for her to surrender, she never let go of her cause, her noble mission.
"Repeat after me," she would order. Then she would sing a song or recite a poem or a verse she remembered from her old Sunday School. Newton's Laws, John 3:16, or maybe the chorus from "Joy to the World." Towards the end, it made me mad. Once, after Grandma had been admitted to the ER, I shouted at her, the bird.
"Grandma puts SO MUCH into changing you, fixing you, but YOU DON'T CARE, do you?" I remember screaming. "After everything she's done, EVERYTHING, you don't even try! WHY? You are so beautiful, so lovely... but underneath all your stunning feathers? YOU ARE UGLY!!! And nothing, no one, can change that, can they?"
I don't know why I took my anger and fear out on a silly parrot, but she was such a big part of my relationship to my grandma; I think that, on some level, I was scared that my grandma would die without having accomplished what she and I had poured so much love and energy into. I was terrified that she would leave this world without ever hearing her parrot repeat something good. That fear did not excuse my behavior, though.
I remember how, after my outburst that day, her small, black eyes somehow seemed to grow sad, hurt, hopeless. She watched me for a moment, understanding my words; then, she ducked her feathered head in despair. I remember the guilt that joined my fear in a sticky ball in my throat. I couldn't find it in me to take back my words, though.
Grandma came back from that hospital visit, and also from the second. She never returned from the third, though. During her visits, I would care for the parrot. We avoided looking at each other, the bird and I. We never said anything, either. Perhaps we had already said too much. Then, on the twelfth day of the third visit, the rain would not stop falling. The world now held a gaping hole where my grandmother used to sing and read and recite and never give up. When I walked into the dark living room that used glow with warmth, the bird looked up at me and instantly seemed to know. We were alone, now. The world was a hopeless. The world was ugly. Why not say so?
Then I did something that would have made my grandmother cry. I repeated. I repeated every swear and curse and offensive word that I had ever heard from her adopted parrot. The whole long string of nasty thoughts and sayings flowed from me like a downhill stream. I screamed them out at the top of my lungs, never even pausing for breath. But then I heard a noise.
"Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream- merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream..."
The bird closed her eyes as if she was wincing and sang that silly song, trying to block out my words. I froze. My screaming stopped. My heart may have even missed a beat. We had switched roles, the bird and I. Both, of us, though, were simply repeating. Repeating things we had heard and been taught. Both of us had changed our song, had chosen which lesson to heed. And both of us could still change more. When she saw me there, staring at her, she said the most marvelous thing:
"Repeat after me."
Then, we sang together.