Opinion

In my Kansas backyard, a parable for Texas school shooting 

June 10, 2022 3:33 am

Community member Amanda Welch brings flowers to lay at Robb Elementary School on May 25, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. During the mass shooting, 19 students and 2 adults were killed, with the gunman fatally shot by law enforcement. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

My daughter came in from our backyard to tell me something was wrong.

Our family dog, she said, had something. A baby bird.

That morning, like many other mornings recently, I struggled to pry myself away from reading news, listening to podcasts and weighing policy responses to gun violence in America. Most of my time on the topic has been scrolling through social media, reading posts of anguish and frustration responding to the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers.

Opening the back door onto our deck, I walked out into the slanting sunlight of a quiet Kansas summer morning. In the grass below me, our dog stood over a small tuft of feathers nestled into the grass.

“Come here, girl,” I asked gently at first. “Leave it.”

She looked up at me and froze, her front feet remained astride the brown baby bird. She didn’t move. 

“Mae. Come here!” I ordered. She looked down at the bird and then back to me, never budging. 

As I walked down the staircase to the yard, I remembered. A month before, I had been trimming the bushes just a few yards away from where my dog now stood. As I clipped stray limbs, I heard loud squawks and tweets directly above my head. I looked up to see a nest, just a foot away.

“Don’t worry,” I told the unseen birds, as I moved away from the bush after clipping the last branch. “We’re not going to hurt anybody. Everything’s all right.”

The scene became more than simply an everyday anecdote about our dog catching a small animal. This small tragedy of nature in our backyard became a parable: a story echoing the grief and powerlessness of parents across the country as they arrive at schools to find carnage and despair.

– Eric Thomas

Now, standing next to our dog and its prey, I saw the cardinal parents watching us. I saw the father first, his bright red coloring perched on a snaking tree trunk on our back fence line. He darted to a fence post, then back to the tree trunk, and then to a tree branch. As he did, he voiced an urgent, staccato call. The mother, with her muted red plumage, was flitting between different perches and squawking as well.

The scene became more than simply an everyday anecdote about our dog catching a small animal. This small tragedy of nature in our backyard became a parable: a story echoing the grief and powerlessness of parents across the country as they arrive at schools to find carnage and despair.

The stillness at my feet — my dog and the baby bird — contrasted the frantic movement and voices of the cardinals. 

I assumed the bird was dead. I grasped my dog’s collar, pulling her back into the house. She craned her neck back to the baby bird, drawn to her prey by forces she couldn’t control or understand. 

Inside, I found a plastic bag to remove the bird’s body. My kids, bereft at the prospect of death in our backyard, looked through the slats in the blinds. 

Outside again, I bent down over the lifeless baby bird, the mother and father still circling the scene. I looked toward them and then glanced back toward the bush with the nest. I imagined the scene that had happened there this morning. The baby bird likely had stepped to the edge of the nest for one of its first attempts at flight.

I imagined the parents watching those first flaps. After weeks of tending their egg in the nest, after weeks of feeding their hatchling, after shielding it from spring thunderstorms, their baby bird grew bold enough to fly — if only briefly.

All of that nurturing, I realized, had ended with this scene. My dog thought that another life was a squeaky toy, a game. The parents were propelled to act but frozen from helping. And I was powerless to help until it was too late.

My fingers scooped under the tufted wings and impossibly small bones of the baby bird, lifting it from the grass. The final few chirps from the bird answered its parents a few yards away. I couldn’t look twice after I caught my first glimpse of the bird’s eyes, shrouded now by its eyelids. I carried the small body to the trash bin.

Returning to the back door, I saw the parents again, crossing paths in flight as they searched the empty backyard. They still called out, unanswered.

For hours, they remained there, two cardinal parents in a backyard vigil that has haunted my week as it runs parallel to our national human tragedies of young lives shattered.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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