Commitment on the wing

The Snowy Egret is always one of our favorite sights while kayaking along the coastal areas in Pinellas County. With their striking white plumage and yellow feet, they are one of the most elegant of the herons.


It was several years ago that Kocho swooped into my life, literally. Relaxing in a lawn chair in the back patio of my parents’ house, I was passing the time before Sunday dinner by reading and puffing on a Macanudo when this thin white projectile came flapping fiercely from the sky, seemingly right at my face.

I may or may not have unleashed a shriek, but I know I singed a few forearm hairs when my cigar tumbled out of my mouth. It startled the bejesus out of me to see something that, at a corner-eyed glance, looked like a feathered missile.

It was a giant, goofy egret that fluttered and descended only a few feet away from me, then looked at me with cock-eyed expectancy.

In those days, my father would spend time each day tending to his garden, and one day while he was doing green thumb stuff, this intrepid egret had apparently flown right into our yard. By tossing him a scrap or two of meat, my dad earned this creature’s loyalty, and this rendezvous soon became almost a ritual, as my dad used to call to him, “kocho-kocho-kocho” to get the bird’s attention before throwing the odd bit of fish or chicken at him during his visits.

This made the bird a cannibal, I suppose, but the egret himself seemed to have no moral qualms. Naturally, the name Kocho stuck. And I came to realize this bold bird was the closest thing we would have to a pet.

When I was growing up, we weren’t exactly a pet family. My dad loved dogs growing up in the old country, but my mom wouldn’t have them in her house, so that was that. Maybe a cat? No dice, my mom had said.

But when I was a kid, we did own two parakeets at different times. The first one we kept in a cage in the garage of all places, and one morning we went to feed it and discovered it was stiff as a popsicle. There was no autopsy.

The other one parted ways with our family in a less mysterious way. I was trying to coax it to talk one day (again, in the garage) and thought how cool it would be to open its cage door so it could jump out, sit on my finger and possibly brighten my day with a song, like in a scene from some Walt Disney cartoon.

Being 7 years old, I had no doubt Mr. Parakeet was on board with this plan as well. That day I learned that birds had agendas of their own when it shot out of his cage the millisecond its door was open, streaked through the open garage portal and out of our lives. As I stood there, young mouth agape, I slowly took in that this backstabbing bird had screwed up my syrupy scene with his selfish dream of an incarceration-free existence.

Who knows, maybe I had carried around some residual resentment after this incident and decided I didn’t really care for animals all that much. Not that I outright disliked them, per se; it’s just that I thought they only got in the way.

Case in point: Once I had brought a girl back to my apartment on a first date, and as it was at the point of the date where she had felt comfortable enough removing her shoes, I offered to rub her feet, to put her at ease, you see. I put her so much at ease, in fact, that the massage had put her to sleep.

So I sat there politely in the dark, wondering if I should poke her in the shoulder to wake her (and stop her unattractive snoring) or awkwardly wait her out. Several minutes later, her head shot up with a snort, and she looked around, taking in her surroundings.

She felt embarrassed, of course, and said she’d “love to hang out some more,” but she had to get back because of her dog Chumley or Chumbles or some cute name like that. I told her I understood but instantly felt animosity toward this idiotic beast that had possibly cut the party short with that luscious brunette before it had really begun.

After that night, however self-sufficient, I vowed to avoid girls with dogs, cats, gerbils, cockatoos, sea monkeys, or any other critters. What if I’d wanted to rush off on a daring adventure at a moment’s notice and hop on the next train to New York City? Or boat to St. Croix? Or a plane to Venice? An animal would only foul things up, I sagely decided.

Plus, pets demanded one thing I was notoriously short on — commitment. I’d always strived to lead a life with as little responsibility as humanly possible. Even a Chia pet would surely meet an undignified end in my hands — trust me, I’d find a way. I could barely run my own life, much less be responsible for another life form. (Except maybe a pet rock, but this wasn’t 1975, and that ridiculous fad had long since faded from the pop culture landscape, thank God.)

I was a renter at heart, not a buyer. Besides, my insides hurt whenever I heard my friends refer to themselves as their poodle’s “daddy” or their Persian cat’s “mommy” when speaking about their, uh, “babies,” complete with dippy smiles. Don’t get me started on the tiny sweaters and ridiculous strollers. I vowed I’d never, ever commit such cringe-inducing acts.

Yet while Kocho was an annoyance to me initially, his hovering presence became something I came to tolerate, like the perpetually-smiling guy who sits too close to you on the bus. In time, however, I even started talking to him as I sat on the patio with my book, making comments about a paragraph I’d just read or a particularly sparkling turn of phrase.

Most times, he’d just give me this cock-eyed look while I read as if to communicate: “You’re reading Shakespeare? For fun? Really?” (I should note here that I wasn’t crazy — I mean, I realize he couldn’t understand me, but he did have ears, somewhere.)

And since I had always come to expect him to show up, I even started to feed him myself in time. He’d stand only a few feet from me and just watch and wait for any forthcoming grub to be chucked his way. He seemed without fear as he came right up to our sliding glass door and tried to claw his way in the house more than once.

But although that screwy bird could fool you into thinking he was rather tame, he was still plenty wild at heart, boy. Once I made the mistake of setting my dinner, a plate of meatloaf, on the patio table while Kocho hovered nearby. Naturally, Kocho figured he’d cut out the middle man, so he came charging and flapping at me like one of those terrifying pterodactyls from Jurassic Park and landed right on the table, trying to stab at the goods. As I yanked the plate away with dexterity, I narrowly escaped having my hand impaled by his long beak.

As my dad had welcomed this sort of surrogate pet into our home (well, our patio), he looked forward to Kocho’s social calls. Retired and pushing 80, my old man had made his way over from a small Greek village to America to work in hot restaurant kitchens, eventually running his own successful produce business until being forced to retire due to the onset of an auto-immune disease that affected his skin and psyche.

Slowed down even more by a catalog of old age infirmities, he now shuffled around with a walker or cane and pretty much abandoned his garden. So that left cable television and his feathered chum Kocho to pass the time when he was alone in the house.

One day Kocho appeared while my father happened to be outside with me, and right away, it was apparent that the poor bird was limping tragically. Kocho shuffle-skipped along, suddenly looking like an old, doddering version of a formerly agile creature who had once zipped 50- feet across the yard to pick off a hapless lizard.

He stooped as he moved, and I swore his snow-white feathers looked a bit duskier, almost gray. He picked at the bits of meat I tossed at him a little more deliberately, and I surprisingly felt a heavy lump growing in my stomach at this pathetic sight.

Shortly after this, my mom flew to Europe to visit family, and though she’d only be gone two and a half weeks, my father said goodbye to her, his constant companion of 44 years, with wet eyes. I checked in every day with my dad and assumed the duties of Mr. Mom, doing the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, sometimes donning her pink apron (don’t judge).

In the evening, we’d wind up watching whatever baseball game was on. And in this entire time, I didn’t once see Kocho; it usually took something just short of a category 5 hurricane to prevent him from making his daily rounds.

“Kocho?” my dad would ask simply every afternoon. Not today, Pop. And so on, every day. There was no hiding my father’s sadness, however subtle. The departure of any kind only gets more challenging the older you get.

The day before I was to pick up my mom from the airport, I stayed the night over at my parents’. So the following day, I was frying a few eggs with oregano for my dad and me, thinking random thoughts you think when you fry eggs with oregano.

Just how often had I jumped on a train or boat or plane and shot off anywhere on a complete whim? Well…never. Sure, a life of minimal commitment and low responsibility could be nifty, but I was beginning to get why people grabbed onto things when they had the chance, however big or small.

My random thoughts blended into the background noise of the sizzling eggs while I absently looked out the kitchen window. And who do I see come flapping and fluttering into our yard as if prompted by a stage cue? I’d never been happier to see that stupid bird — or any animal, come to think of it — in my life. And yes, it dawned on me that I actually loved this pile of feathers on two stick legs.

I quickly noticed that either Kocho’s limp was gone or very slight. Was this the same egret after all? I smiled at the fact that I still couldn’t tell for sure after seeing him at close range so many times. Had there been more than one of them all along? Or another generation of these things looking to mooch an easy meal?

It didn’t matter, I decided, as I excitedly yanked open the fridge door and grabbed the week-old ham I’d been saving for him. As I started to cut the meat into small, bite-sized chunks, I also realized that I couldn’t turn my dippy smile down, much less off.

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