He had us at “Ello!”
George wasn’t good at “H,” but that’s asking a bit much. This was a parrot speaking English after all. He didn’t say much else — a whistle here and there, some chatty noises. But “Ello!” was plenty. We knew what he was getting at.
He was getting at us.
Technically, he was mimicking us, but his human visitors mimicked him right back. I always returned his “Ello!” using my best parrot dialect. So did my son, and eventually my grandsons. That’s how long he was around.
Our conversations consisted largely of “Ello!” Back and forth. It could go on a while. We never tired of hearing him say it. “Ello!” was enough. We were, after all, breaking through the conversational wall between species.
George wasn’t stingy with his time and attention. He was always game for some back-and-forth. Kids couldn’t get enough of it. But maybe his former owner did. A policeman walked in one day in the early 1990s with George in tow and asked John Seaton, the longtime Oak Park Conservatory director, if he wanted a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot. John, who is brilliant when it comes to plants, is apparently also an excellent judge of character in parrots. He had a brilliant reply to the police officer’s query.
He said “Yes.”
The policeman said George was 40-some years old. He didn’t come with a birth certificate. But he lasted another 30-some years, exceeding the already lengthy life expectancy of this particular breed of parrot, which is 70 years.
Long enough to get acquainted with several generations of Oak Parkers.
George always reminded me of Dr. Dolittle’s pet parrot Polynesia (aka Poly), who taught the good doctor to speak to animals, was ancient beyond even George, and vastly more erudite.
Polynesia was an uber-connector, and so was George, who didn’t talk as much, but who did what any self-respecting parrot would as he lived out the rest of his life in an institutional setting (albeit an institutionally re-created tropical forest): He became an institution himself. I don’t know if I could have talked my son, and then my grandsons, into regular visits to a greenhouse full of interesting plants. But I usually got a positive response to, “Hey, let’s go visit George!”
My grandsons liked him so much, they adopted him. They wanted to donate some of the proceeds from a particularly lucrative lemonade stand earlier this summer to a good cause, so they opted to adopt.
And then he died. Not immediately — two months later. Still, the timing was bad. Tears flowed. “I kind of wish you didn’t tell us,” said Tyler. Later he added, “He felt more like a pet.” But of course I had to tell them. George was a friend. You couldn’t wait till the next visit and when they asked where he was, just shrug it off or make a bad joke about parrot heaven. No, this was a situation that needed to be squarely faced. This was a loss, and with loss, grief is unavoidable. With George, there was no way around the sadness, and shedding tears was entirely appropriate. When they asked how he died, I explained that George had lived a long full life because lots of people loved him, and when you get to be really, really old, eventually your heart just gives out.
Their mom said their donation might have kept him alive a little longer. Long enough for one more visit after the adoption. He looked really sleepy, but he revived enough to exchange a few “ellos.” It didn’t even occur to us to say “goodbye.” I suggested they do a painting of George to remember him by, which they did.
The Conservatory has two other parrots, but there will never be another George. In what other town in America would the death of a parrot make the front page of the local newspaper?
George was special.
He was a rock star who learned how to say “Ello!”
And the rest of us learned, the hard way, how to say “goodbye.”