When I asked my mom what kind of music she’d like, she answered, “Chip likes Elvis, but not John Denver.” I asked again for her own preferences. She said, “It’s funny. Chip and I have the same taste in music.” When she played Elvis, Chip moved closer to the music, and bobbed up and down. When she played John Denver, he moved to the far side of the cage, and turned away.
It was love at first sight when we gave Mom the green parakeet with a long blue tail, at the first signs of Alzheimer’s. A widow living alone, transplanted from New York to Boston, Mom showered Chip with love and care. She taught him to do his bobbing dance when she clapped and sang “cha cha cha.” He enjoyed running from one of her shoulders to the other, across her rounded back, and jumping onto her waiting finger to start another lap, again and again.
Once, when Chip greeted us with a strange red mark above his beak, Mom shyly admitted, “It’s lipstick. I kissed him.” She talked to him constantly, and he responded in kind — they sounded like two expressive Italian-American New Yorkers. When she launched him into the air from her finger, they both exclaimed “Wheee!” His laugh was her laugh!
As her disease progressed, Mom became absolutely convinced that Chip was her conversational partner — asking and answering questions and articulating his needs. His speech was so precise that the illusion was compelling. She claimed that Chip was smarter than most people, saying, “I’ll never call anyone a birdbrain again — except as a compliment.”
Other assisted living residents were eager to visit to hear Chip’s clear mysterious voice telling them, “Ahhh, I love you!” “You’re beautiful and you know it, don’t you?” “Chip, Chip, Chippeeee!” “Let’s have something to eat, OK?” Mom would lay out a smorgasbord of delicious snacks, carefully pilfered from her evening meal. She couldn’t be dissuaded from offering Chip her own favorites, such as ice cream and chicken.
Mom considered the furry green toy that Chip liked to rub up against to be his friend. When it fell to the bottom of his cage, she worried that Chip was grieving because his friend had died. I learned, as other caregivers have, not to fight against her reality. So I relieved Mom’s distress by getting Chip a replacement furry friend.
When Mom fell and broke her hip, which ultimately led to her death, she feared that Chip would be blamed for causing her fall because he had flown out of his cage and surprised her. Still in pain from the fall, she pleaded with us to convince “the judge” that Chip was not to blame.
My heart sank the first time Mom asked me, “You seem to know a lot about me. Who are you? Are you my mother?” But she never forgot who Chip was. When she was in hospice care, no longer speaking and only semiconscious, we tentatively asked if she wanted to hear Chip. She immediately looked directly at us, with tears in her eyes, and nodded yes. We were stunned. She listened to our recording of Chip with rapt attention and gentle smiles. She died surrounded by family, and listening to her beloved Chip, speaking only to her.
Chip’s playful companionship was perhaps her greatest joy and comfort in those last years. No other pet could have engaged in verbal “conversations,” or told her “I love you!” with so much love in his voice.
After Mom died, Chip stopped talking for a period. This time, I think he was in fact grieving. Our own grief was eased when we discovered that before Alzheimer’s took its toll, Mom had written a loving personalized letter to each member of our family. Then, when Chip resumed talking, we again heard Mom’s very own words and laughter — preserved in the parakeet voice of her loyal best friend.
Diana Arezzo is a child psychologist in Arlington. Chip lived with her family for the remainder of his life. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.