Updated: Nov 27
“Let’s get married,” said Tom.
I had a choice to make: Marry Tom, or kill myself.
Tom was a carpenter and a heavy metal singer who had a pentagram on the wall of his living room and wore a wild wig of heavy metal hair. I found out about the wig the first time we were rolling around on the couch. He suddenly sat up, ripped it off, and threw it in the corner where it lay like a small wounded animal. Then he started beating his chest like a gorilla, yelling, “HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?”
Not enough to marry him. Lately I’d been thinking I might be better off dead.
Tom made things easy. He didn’t mind my drinking, because he liked to drink too. For the past few weeks, I had been staying at his house, where I would drink all day while he worked. I was on welfare. Before we met, I played my guitar on the street for spare change. But lately I didn’t feel like playing music, and anyway, Tom came home with a case of beer and a bottle of tequila every night. My guitar sat in the corner of his bedroom, collecting dust.
“I can’t marry you,” I said. “I don’t love you.” It was true.
“If you don’t love me,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
“Drinking,” I said, surprised at my own honesty. And I knew I couldn’t stop. No matter what kind of trouble I got myself into, to matter how many promises I made to myself, I always wound up back at the liquor store. At Tom's place, I could just wait for the liquor to come to me.
For months, a sense of dread had been hanging over me like a dark shadow. Booze used to help; but now, even when I was drunk, I had the sense that something bad, very bad, was going to happen, and soon. To counter it I had become superstitious. Black cats and ladders made me change direction. I even avoided cracks on the sidewalk; I didn’t want to be the cause of my mother’s death, even if I was hastening my own.
“You know what?” said Tom. “You’re like a bird in the house. You’re flying around banging against the windows and walls and someday you’re just going to knock yourself out.”
My guts turned to ice. When a bird flies into the house, it means someone is going to die. That person was me. I ran into the bedroom and locked the door, shaking. I thought about how I’d come to Vancouver, seeking fame and fortune. My dream had faded, but worse was the loss of the joy of making music. When I was writing a song, I felt alive.
I reached for my guitar as if it was a life preserver. Suddenly, for the first time in months, a song was coming. “There’s a bird in the house,” I sang. “Open up a window, open up a door, I don’t think that I can keep it in my mind anymore.”
Usually, writing a song is like archaeology – it takes time to uncover it. But this one was falling out like a radio transmission. It almost seemed as if someone else was writing it.
“Hey!” Tom was banging on the door. “Are you going to stay in there all night?”
I wasn’t. “Take me home,” I said.
All the way back to my studio, we argued. I told him I was going to stop drinking, and he scoffed. “We’re alcoholics,” he said. “That’s what we do. We drink.” I knew he was right, and I didn’t really think I could stop, but I had to get away from Tom. He had just handed down my death sentence. Maybe my song could save me.
I climbed three flights of stairs to my windowless, one-room studio as if in a trance. Inside was concrete evidence of the mess my life had become. A single skylight illuminated surfaces covered in bottles. Clothes, books and trash were strewn everywhere. All I could do was fall on the filthy carpet and pray.
“I can’t do this myself,” I whispered. “You have to do it for me, or I’ll die. Help me.” I didn’t really believe in God, but I prayed anyway.
An uncanny feeling crept over me: a certain sense that I was not alone. I looked up. Nothing in the room had changed, but it seemed like everything I saw was glowing. How can a mess be beautiful? But it was. I had an unaccountable conviction that everything was going to be all right. I felt loved, truly loved, though there was nobody there but me.
I fell asleep right there on the carpet, and when I awoke, I was amazed to discover that I had no desire to drink. I slowly began the task of putting my studio to rights, thinking of that strange, beautiful assurance I’d felt the night before. Where did it come from? What was it? I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter as long as I could stay sober.
Over the next two weeks, I didn’t drink. I played my song for courage. But money was running out, and Welfare Wednesday was days away. I knew I could play for spare change, but I couldn’t do it without booze. I had just enough to buy a mickey of vodka; the idea of using it to fuel a weekend playing the street lodged in my head. I remembered what Tom had said. “We’re alcoholics – we drink.” It was true. I grabbed my purse and opened my studio door.
Suddenly, the phone rang. It was Tom.
“I have tequila,” he said. “Aren’t you ready for a drink?”
I was. If I went to Tom’s, I wouldn’t have to busk. Of course, then I would be right back where I started; marry Tom, or commit suicide. But I was tired of arguing with myself. It was a war I knew I could never win. I opened my mouth to say yes, staring at the carpet in front of me.
And then, to my amazement, a little grey sparrow walked across it. For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. It had somehow gotten in from the street to appear before my eyes just as I was about to give up.
“There’s a bird in my house,” I said to Tom, and hung up.
The first thing I thought of was the skylight. There was no way to open it from the inside, and I pictured the bird banging around up there injuring itself. I had to find a way to get it back outside safely.
But I wasn’t even sure it could fly. It scrambled underneath a table full of neglected recording equipment. I went over to investigate, and it flew across the room to land on the shoulder of my lucky jacket – the one I’d worn when I won a songwriting contest. There was nothing wrong with its wings.
I approached slowly, singing my song softly. The sparrow didn’t seem afraid; I picked the jacket up by the hanger and was allowed to carry it to my door with the bird still clinging. When I got there, it flew off and landed on the floor in front of the recording equipment again.
I got a broom and began prodding the bird towards the stairs. A little nudge, and it would flutter a few inches. Finally we were through the door and down the hall. Three flights below, there was an open door to the world outside. But the bird just sat there, looking up at me. I gave it one last poke with my finger.
It flew down and landed at the foot of the stairs. Then it turned around and began to hop back up, one step at a time.
Goosebumps broke out all over me. I knew then that I would never take another drink.
A door opened on the first landing as the bird reached it. Startled, the sparrow flew into an arial pirouette that took out it up, down, and out into the street. I was both glad and sorry to see it go, knowing it had brought me the greatest gift a person can receive: hope.
Two years later, I was living on the other side of town, looking out my window and counting my blessings. I was waiting for the courier to drop off a shipment of my first CD; a demo of the title track, “Bird in the House,” had won a grant that enabled us to make the recordings. The producer, who later became my husband, phoned to tell me he was going to be late for our celebratory dinner, and asked if I’d wait until he arrived before opening the boxes. A last minute recording job had come along. It was with a heavy metal artist, who appeared to be wearing a wig.
His name was Tom.