That Chickadee Must Be from Chicago

A dear friend of mine is dying and his wife tells me about their days and nights. It’s like he’s melting, basically, she says. Every day there’s a little less of him than the day before, and as you remember he was a majorly big guy. Now he is not a big guy. Now he’s like a tall pencil. But there’s not much pain. So that’s good. First he lost weight, and then hair, and then eyebrows, and then energy, and now it’s sentences. He has a million words in his head but now they wander out on their own rather than march in wry coherent parades like the last fifty years. You remember how pithy he was. No more. Now he’ll start a story and then it just sort of shuffles off on its own. He starts out talking about mathematics and ends up with parrots. You have to laugh or else you would just cry all day. He laughs, for which you have to give him major credit points. He can still laugh, yes. Thank God for that. I think laughter will be the last thing to go for him because it was the first thing to arrive. You remember his mother said he laughed all the time when he was a baby. Also she said he didn’t say a word for his first two years and she and his dad were worried that he couldn’t talk but he laughed a lot, and I think that’s what happening now, he laughs a lot but he doesn’t really talk anymore. I get in bed and hold him and sometimes he laughs so quiet you can’t hear him laugh but you can feel him laugh if you are holding him in bed. So that’s good. We spend a lot of time in bed laughing. What else can you do? You might as well laugh. Go down laughing, that’s our theory. We started out together laughing and that’s how we will end up. We laughed our asses off when we were courting. Also he sleeps a lot now but even that’s changed, he’ll fall asleep in the middle of a story and then he wakes up in the middle of another whole story altogether and neither of us knows what he’s talking about. It’s like the stories are in charge and he just visits them. We laugh when this happens. You have to laugh. The last sentences he had firm by the scruffs of their necks were mostly about birds. He sure loves birds, especially hawks. I angle him in the bed so he can see out the window and we have all the usual suspects at the feeder plus a resident Cooper’s hawk. If I prop him up right in bed he can see the bird feeder, which is basically comedy and drama all day long, the stupid squirrels trying everything they can think of to get around the protective hood on the feeder and falling off like furry vaudeville clowns all day, it’s hilarious. Rocks are smarter than squirrels, he used to say. And the birds do have a pecking order—the big ones push the little ones around, although we have this one chickadee who we think must carry a switchblade or something, all the bigger birds leave in a hurry when he arrives, he’s a tough little brother. One of the last coherent sentences he said to me was that chickadee must be from Chicago. The hawk strafes the feeder once in a while, and about a week ago we were laying in bed and I was holding him and we both saw the hawk dive for the feeder and he actually sat up in bed and shouted noooo!, which was an amazing burst of energy. God knows where that came from. Then he fell back exhausted and we started laughing hysterically and that was the best time we have had in a month. For days after that whenever he was having a hard time or I was getting bleak one of us would say noooo!, which would send us both into hysterics. So when you think of him, remember that, okay? That will make you laugh, and that’s good. That’s good.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author, most recently, of a novella, Cat’s Foot. Image courtesy of Daniel James.


  1. Why do I EVER start a Doyle piece without a handkerchief? Man must own stock in Kleenex. Damn.

  2. I fell in love with Doyle’s writing upon reading his piece “Slather” (Sept/Oct issue), and continue to be mesmerized. This is a man with the heart and soul so needed in these times.

  3. My mother, Dorothy Eichenwald Rodgers, died on this date in l999. Her love of a sturdy male cat and her parakeet, both lavished with her gentle attention.One of her favorite sayings — I can hear the words from her lips very clearly even today — was THIS TOO SHALL PASS AWAY! Whatever wisdom she imparted to her sons survives in a sturdy manner and facilitates our coping with all manner of challenges to mind and body, sometimes with her sweet chuckle resonating. That tells me that she she still echoes, as she will indefinitely. FGR in Portland, Oregon

  4. Birds and hawks. Laughter and friendship. Living life even when you’re dying. Great writing. Great vibe. Thank you oh so much. Blessings to all.

  5. Wonderful story. I think laughing, appropriately and skillfully prompted, helps dysphoric people struggling in counseling, as if the play with words helps lessen being stuck and constricted, permitting freedom to choose new ways to manage difficult situations.

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