My brother Kevin had imaginary birds when he was three years old. There were three of them, which he called his birdies, and he could see them very clearly. They were blue and red and evidently thin, because he carried all three in one small clenched fist held out in front of him. Thirty years later, he could still describe them. "I really think I must have been able to see them," he said. "I can remember them so well."
The rest of the family remembers the birdies clearly, too; they were a very present reality for all of us. Kevin, a blue-eyed, towheaded, busy little person, was always becoming absorbed with one project or another and wandering off and forgetting the birdies until, with an anguished wail, he remembered them.
"Where my birdies?" was the signal for the person nearest Kevin to point to a corner of the room, "There they are, Kev, sitting on that shelf." Or sitting on a chair, or on a table, somewhere within a three-year-old's reach.
Although the birdies had feathers, they had to be dressed every morning, and there was a strict routine to adhere to while dressing them. First, you had to sit down, and Kevin would hand them to you, one at a time. He was concerned that we not drop them, and we did our best not to.
Next, you had to perform some kind of hand motion as you dressed each birdie. We developed a fast finger-twiddling action that satisfied Kevin that his birdies were being dressed correctly while freeing us from having to put six imaginary wings into six invisible coat sleeves and tie six pairs of tiny unseen shoelaces.
Kevin watched us carefully while we dressed the birdies, sometimes pointing out that we had missed a bird or forgotten a hat or coat.
One morning, my father sat down on the corner of his bed to put on his shoes, and Kevin instantly burst into tears. He was crying so hard that he couldn't tell anyone what the problem was for several minutes.
My father reached over and pulled him into a hug. "What's wrong, Kev?"
Kevin sobbed a little louder, and several brothers and sisters came in to see what the problem was.
"Did you bite your tongue, Kev?" someone asked.
"Are your shoes tied too tightly?" asked someone else.
Kevin shook his head, and his cries subsided slightly into hiccups. Taking a deep shuddering breath he looked at his father accusingly and wailed, "You sat on my birdies!!!"
"No, no, Kev," said my father, stricken but thinking quickly. "They saw me coming and scooted out of the way. Look, they're sitting right here beside me."
Kev was doubtful, but everyone chimed in, "Yes, he's right Kevin. The birdies are right there; they're just fine." And he finally agreed. Someone quickly dressed the birdies, and Kevin took them off to his room, talking quietly into his clenched fist.
The rest of us sighed a deep, collective, crisis-averted sigh.
No one in the family, not even Kevin, can remember what finally happened to the birdies. Perhaps they just faded away as Kevin grew older and became involved with play school and friends. But maybe they flew off one day, a little red and blue flock of skinny invisible birds, to play with another three-year-old for a while.