It was like a Windex commercial, except without the laughing crows. The small sparrow on its morning trek was blissfully unaware that the scene ahead was framed by brick and encased in glass. The legal assistant inside the office building turned in her swivel chair when she heard the thud, just in time to see the frail bird fall to the ground.
She had dozens of phone messages to return, and a pile of papers stacking up at the fax machine, all of which would result in hours of paperwork to prepare for her anxious attorney. But for Shirley, the last moments of that bird’s life were more important.
Dressed to the nines and sporting her new five-inch red stilettos, Shirley dashed outdoors and knelt down next to the window. The bird was gasping for air, and seemingly crying out for comfort.
Shirley scooped it up in her hands and wept over it. “No one should die alone,” she whispered, “I’m here for you.”
Hers was a heart that was wrenched daily by clients suing neighbors, doctors, family members; criminals avoiding due punishment for heinous acts; couples ending marriage in nasty court battles. She read and filed and recorded countless stories of child abuse and saw failed cases where justice was not found. A thankless job like this would harden the softest soul. But for Shirley, it made her that much more tender and resilient and compassionate.
The bird witnessed this truth. As did many a scorned teenager. And plaintiffs wrongly accused. Even her ex-husband.
As the bird closed its eyes and took its last breath in the comfort of Shirley’s hands, she was transported back in time to her youth, when she and her sister would feed the squirrels and birds, rabbits and geese that wandered freely through their Pennsylvania property. Inevitably, the two girls could charm a feathered or furry guest to come and be stroked or even held. In those moments, nothing else in the world mattered. At those times, being so deeply trusted by another was as fulfilling as life could be.
Shirley dug a small hole in the ground by the window, clumps of earth collecting beneath her manicured nails. She laid the bird in his final resting place, wiped the dirt from her hands and the tears from her cheeks and returned to court documents awaiting her attention.
If justice couldn’t be guaranteed for each client who came through her office, at least there was grace for the sparrow in its time of need.
*Editor’s Note: This photo was among hundreds in a box at an antiques store in Philadelphia’s historic district. It was begging for a story, so I bought it, for $1 and gave it “Grace for the Sparrow.” I have no idea who these girls really are—and if some soul out there recognizes them as part of a lost family history, then please reach out. While their identity is unknown, “Shirley,” is indeed based on the life of a real woman, a real legal assistant with a real heart for those who suffer. — kv