I stepped out of the Seaside Donut shop on Oceanfront Boulevard with my daughter, Sophia. She held her chocolate sprinkle donut like a trophy while our reflections skipped across the boutique windows on our way to Newport Pier.
“I wish Nana Nancy was here,” she said.
My mother had often visited from Reno, and she loved Newport Beach. She pranced through the frothy waves in her cuffed denim shorts and leather belt with “Nancy” engraved in pink. She was a youthful 78. Nothing had prepared me for her death from lung cancer two weeks prior.
In the last month of her life, we shared a meal of See’s chocolate and red wine and talked about her childhood. She was influenced by Native American beliefs, and as a child, she prayed toward the east. It represented peace, light, and a new life rising each day. She feared not being worthy of compassion because she was a smoker. I understood. I worried my bad habits would catch up with me one day, too.
As I admired the surfboards that floated like birds on the rolling waves, Sophia’s 8-year-old hand slipped from mine and she dashed toward the beach parking lot.
“Look!” she yelled. A pigeon stumbled over himself when he flapped his wings.
I lowered my arm in front of her like the safety bar of a roller coaster.
“Careful! He could have a disease.” My neighbor called pigeons “rats of the sky.”
“We have to save him,” Sophia said.
We’d delivered injured birds to safety several times over the years, but I lacked the energy to rescue the pigeon.
I tried to convince myself it was OK to leave him. “Look how active he is. He’ll make it.” But as soon as I spoke those words, I felt ashamed.
Rescuing the bird was daunting. But not helping him was worse. The least we could do was find a rescue center.
I glanced around for an empty box. “We need something to put him in.”
An elderly man overheard us and offered Sophia an extra-large See’s candy bag with handles, a sign we were doing the right thing.
Sophia circled the car and I squatted with the bag in my hand like a catcher on the baseball field, waiting for him to run out from under the car.
“Look how nice some people are,” said a mother to her children as they watched us. “Did you hear that?” Sophia said with pride.
I nodded, grateful that our act of kindness was noted.
The bird darted out. I swooped him up and placed him in the bag for our short drive home to Newport Heights. Once there, I put on gardening gloves and placed him in a cardboard box with a towel and a capful of water, which he immediately drank.
His iridescent feathers were beautiful. He stared at me with eyes the color of sunsets.
“Is he hurt?” Sophia asked.
“He looks OK except for the bald spot where his tail was.”
“Will he fly again?”
“Don’t know.” I searched online for pigeon rescue, and the only name that came up was Susan Doggett, the “bird lady” of Orange who has saved thousands of birds. If anyone would take a pigeon, it would be her.
She asked if he had a band on his leg. He didn’t, but the idea that he could be someone’s pet surprised me. I questioned my assumptions about the bird.
“A hawk or cat must’ve got him,” she said. “Pigeons protect themselves by dropping their tails like lizards do.”
This was a good science lesson for Sophia, who listened intently.
“His tail will grow back in about six weeks, as long as the quill wasn’t pulled out,” Doggett said. “It’s like a fingernail. I’d take him, but I’m full and I don’t know anyone who takes pigeons. If you could keep him, I’d appreciate it.”
I’d never cared for a bird and wondered if I could pull this off.
I remembered my mother’s words, a week before she died. She pointed at two doves nesting outside her window, “Look at the doves. We all have a purpose.”
What was this pigeon’s purpose?
“Are we going to keep him?” Sophia asked.
“Yep,” I said, “until he can fly.”
Sophia’s excitement was a welcome change from her anxiety about her nana’s illness and death.
We learned he was a rock pigeon. They were trained to be homing pigeons in the 1800s. In both World Wars, they carried important messages to troops. Maybe he had a message for us.
“Let’s name him Homer,” Sophia said.
“Homing … Homer. Suits him perfectly.”
The more I learned about Homer, the more I admired him. That pigeons could find their way home using Earth’s magnetic field and the position of the sun was impressive—far better than my navigation skills on Orange County freeways.
We got a cage with a small mirror, and I placed him in our busy dining room.
We greeted him every morning and talked to him in the evening. I grumbled over cleaning his messy cage, but it was worth the joy he brought us.
One evening, Sophia observed Homer appraising himself in the mirror like a gentleman admiring the fit of a new suit.
“Would you like a tie with that, sir?” Sophia asked.
After a few weeks, little bumps pushed up from beneath the skin where the bald spot was. It was exciting to see the emerging quills, but as Homer grew stronger, he became snarky.
When we approached his cage, he fluffed out his feathers, opened his beak, and hissed as his pupils dilated. One day when I reached into his cage, he slapped my hand with his wing.
By the fifth week, the bumps grew into tubular-shaped cartilage about an inch long. Little feathers emerged from the tips, like young corn stalks.
One morning, I walked into a flurry of feathers and seed husks flying all over the dining room. Homer flapped his wings up and down, blowing everything out of his cage with the intensity of a strong fan. He was preparing to fly.
By the end of the sixth week, the tubes were five inches long and split like bursting seed pods, revealing full-grown, misty gray tail feathers.
Time to set him free.
We carried his cage to the backyard.
“Will he come back to visit?” Sophia asked.
“Hope so. I’m sure he’ll always remember us.”
Sophia lifted his door. Homer lingered inside, looking at us for a bit longer.
Then he stepped out of his cage like a prince. His glorious tail flowed behind him like a royal cape.
He flew to the edge of the single-story roof above us. Then he faced the east.
As Homer took off and turned, gliding toward the ocean, a sense of peace overcame me, as if my mother’s spirit lifted with him. I thanked him for reminding me we all have a purpose and deserve compassion.