I’ve always been a person who liked to browse in pet shops. One day in my mid-twenties, when my first wife Lisa and I had been married about four or five years, I dropped by a store in Houston called “Noah’s Ark” to look around.
As I was perusing through the section with birds and cages, I noticed a very young Umbrella Cockatoo out of its cage, seemingly following me around the store just a few feet behind. As I advanced, the bird would hop along the tops of each cage or display, curiously watching me.
Finally, I stopped, turned around, and began to speak to it positively and gently. It eyed me cautiously and suddenly jumped to the cage next to me. It then put its head crest straight up in the air and leaned forward for me to scratch its bald head underneath—a fantastic display of trust for such an exotic bird. I obliged it with much joy and gratitude.
A few minutes later, the pet shop owner seeing me playing with her “merchandise,” explained that she had hatched the bird (a female) herself from an egg. That afternoon, I brought my wife Lisa back to the store to meet this delightful animal. Long story short, we bought her together as our anniversary present to each other.
We named her Gracie to remind us of the immense grace of the Divine.
It didn’t take long for her to become like our child – especially mine. I kept her with me 24/7, taking her to and from work. At home, the only time her cage door got shut was at night when we covered her for security. Otherwise, she was allowed to roam our house or my office.
Her favorite spot at any given time was inside my shirt sleeve. At work, my office was more than thirty meters from the front door, down a long hallway. If someone entered the front, she would jump out of my sleeve, down onto the floor, and peek around the corner down the long hallway. Based on what she saw, she would make different noises.
If she knew you well, she would walk out into the hall, scream something at you, then fly back to my desk and wait for you to come into the office. If it was a stranger, she’s look back at me over her shoulder and growl. She would fly to them immediately if it were someone she loved. Nonetheless, we could always trust Gracie’s evaluation of any person.
She really enjoyed laying in my arms like a baby on her back and having me rub her stomach. I continued this domestication process for so long that I could finally pass her to people on her back like she was dead. I couldn’t believe she would allow such to happen! However, I did it hundreds of times, and she never bit anyone. If she didn’t want to do it, she would look at me and growl just a bit which meant, “please don’t pass me to them.” I always obeyed her wishes AND heeded her counsel.
Thoughts of her today remind me of a quote from Maharaj-ji Baba Neem Karoli, “Be like a bee, not a fly. A fly lands everywhere with no discrimination. A bee lands only in clean places.”
Lisa and I served in youth ministry at the time, and there was always some event happening with several hundred teenagers. One weekend, I decided to bring Gracie to church and test my “pass to strangers on her back” training which she passed with flying colors! Those kids simply adored her, and she loved them too the whole time, picking out a handful she genuinely preferred.
We had a guest music minister visiting our church that weekend – a man I greatly admired. When I passed Gracie to him, he looked at her with such love, and she melted and cooed right back at him – something I rarely saw happen. Then some tears came into his eyes, and he said, “what an amazing animal.”
As he petted her, he looked up at me with more tears in his eyes and said, “John, you know how when men see each other on Sunday morning at church, they love to insult each other a little? They’ll say things like “nice three-dollar hair-cut” or “keep wearing that tie, and it’ll come back in style” etc. What they really mean to say is “I love you” or “I genuinely like who you are as a person.” Unfortunately, they are just too emotionally weak to say what they mean.”
Then he said, “Promise me that throughout your life, you’ll tell the people you love how you genuinely feel about them.”
I agreed at that moment that I would do it, although I had no clue how. It would take another decade to learn how to put it into practice.
When he said it, I had no idea I would lose my wife and mentor to cancer just a few short years later. Because of what he said, when those two crucial souls left their bodies, they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt how profound my love and respect were for each of them.
When my wife got cancer, her chemotherapy caused her immune system to be fragile. The doctors informed us that the dander in Gracie’s feathers was dangerous for Lisa, and thus we were forced to let Gracie live with my mother. However, due to Gracie’s grief from the separation, she started pulling out her feathers.
Finally, after some painful soul-searching, I let her go live with a retired couple that was spending their golden years doing bird rescues. They reported that a few weeks after Gracie arrived, she had fully recovered and fell in love with the couple, hopefully forgetting Lisa and me in the process.
The photo I included with this essay is the only thing I have to remember Gracie. I keep it in my top desk drawer. This past week her image went and sat with Hanuman while Maharaj-ji related to me what He wanted me to write to you about this subject. I would be lying to say I don’t miss her. Simply a thought about Gracie’s gentle spirit brings tears to my eyes.
I have dozens of great memories with Gracie. However, most often, when I look at her photograph, I reflect on my circle, the people closest to me. I ask myself, “Have I told them how I genuinely feel?” That answer is always “yes” because God granted me the grace to listen in a moment when Gracie identified to me a genuinely loving soul.
Nothing was left unsaid when my wife Lisa died and my mentor Brooks passed. They knew a thousand times over how precious their presences were for my incarnation because I told them how I felt at every opportunity. They were the only two people I ever witnessed die well.
Is there someone in your life who you’ve failed to appreciate with words? Not an email, not a phone call, and for goodness sake, not a text. Is there a soul who you need to sit with face-to-face and say, “I’m so grateful for you brother/sister. Because you (did this specific thing), my incarnation is seriously better. In fact, so is the world. I appreciate you.”
In times past, I’ve organized a special kind of small group event at both churches and companies. It works incredibly well with ten to twenty folks. We have everyone sit in a circle, in chairs or on the floor is ok, and one person sits in the middle of the circle. The single rule is that the person in the center is ONLY allowed to say “thank you” and nothing else.
Then, in turn, each person in the circle tells the person in the center what characteristics they like/enjoy/love about them. Results? Lots of tears, smiles, hugs, healings, and thank yous. Serious team building!
I implore you – if there’s someone you need to tell how you feel (or hug), make a way, see them in person, and speak genuinely from your core. You’ll cherish the experience for the rest of your incarnation.
Permit me to leave you with a quote from Ram Dass that moves my spirit – “Perhaps there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when we will be able to gather and sit in silence, not in expectation, but in fulfillment. We will recognize who we are, that we are beings of the spirit, and we will seek that food which feeds our soul. Our intellects will be available but at rest, and our hearts will be filled with the love of Christ, that flowing, conscious love. We will be done with romanticizing our own journey, examining ourselves self-consciously to see how we’re doing. We won’t have to compare or assess whether we’re getting enough, for we will trust our hearts.”
In Christ together,