Mercy, compassion, devotion

Charles Cooper

Charles Cooper

By Charles Cooper
Special Contributor

(Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a three-column series. For background on Shakeyhead the Crow, see the Rev. Cooper’s commentaries from the Dec. 4, 2015 and Feb. 5, 2016 issues of the Arkansas United Methodist.)

My mother had Capgras delusions. She lived in a world with impostors. The people close to her might suddenly not be themselves, and she might say so.

I remember the day my father came home from Korea. We had an overstuffed paisley couch, popular in those days, and he was at one end and she was at the other. She said, “You’re not Rod.” And he was not Rod for the next three years.

I suppose she thought he was a benevolent impostor. He would buy the kids toys, tell jokes at the kitchen table and take the family to church. He was good, but tricky, for he had his parents fooled. They called him Rod and let him sleep over with the rest of us at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I am sure it was painful for him, so I understand his incredulity when my mother said, “Charlie has a pet crow. He feeds his crow on the banister of the porch.”

I recall he grumbled something about how she was having one of her spells—he must have thought mental illness was akin to witchery. Their argument continued off and on and intensified until one day while I was feeding Shakeyhead my parents stepped out the front door, and my mother said, “See.”

My father saw and mumbled something and went back inside to reassemble his world; which no sooner had he done than my mother said, “The crow is named Shakeyhead, and he perches on Charlie’s arm,” something which my father said was obviously a spell.

Then one day while I was petting my crow, my parents came out the door. “See.”

My father saw, mumbled to himself again and went back inside. Perhaps, he wondered if this thing my mother had might be contagious, or if maybe she had cast a spell upon him or upon me or upon Shakeyhead, or upon all three.

I remember after a few weeks my father pronounced the word of reason over the apparent sea of chaos: “That crow was someone’s pet that got loose.”

He never found his proof, for not even the humane people with the aviary knew of any escaped crows, but logic does not need facts as any absurd syllogism will illustrate:

  • All flying serpents in Arkansas eat dust bunnies.
  • Curley-Q is a flying serpent in Arkansas.
  • Therefore, Curley-Q eats dust bunnies.

This is unmistakably logic, but not fact. Yet while not fact, it imposes an order on flying serpents and dust bunnies, and order can cast a spell that gives one a sense of security. So, my father, though without the support of fact, could feel secure in a reasonable explanation for the crow that perched on the banister of his porch and the arm of his son. My father could fit himself back into the sensible reality of a home life in which he was an impostor.

I can’t help connecting the dots and being a preacher, so I must go to the resurrection as told in Luke. Mary Magdalene and her friends go to the disciples and tell them what took place at the tomb, how it was empty and a couple of sprightly dressed men announced that Jesus had risen. The disciples say, “Oh, this is just another one of your idle tales.”—or spells, if you will.

The disciples said what my father said, but we should not be too hard on either. We all try to figure things out. So, when my mother would look at my father or at the rest of us, and we were not we, she would conclude: “Impostors!”

Quite reasonably Shakeyhead was a jailbird on the lam, and the women who went to the tomb, under the burden of their enormous grief, were having a spell—never mind that my father always thought he was he; and never mind that I worked for weeks into months inching my way closer to that crow; and never mind that millions upon millions of clear-thinking people have believed what Mary said that long ago Sunday.

My father, on his own terms, came to accept that his son had a pet crow, and he never harmed Shakeyhead. He could have; could have taken the hatbox out to the woods and smashed the crow’s head with a hammer, come home and said, “He’s in a better place,” but he could not, even though it had attacked his daughter and become a public nuisance. He was merciful, so when his three attempts at freeing Shakeyhead failed, he found him a better place above the ground and not in it.

Likewise, my mother had compassion for all people, imaginary or otherwise. So, when we in the family mysteriously vanished, our impostors were cared for and sat at the kitchen table just like us, and when we returned from wherever it was we went, my mother was always happy to see us home again.

And as for the disciples, they ended up under the same spell as Mary and devoted themselves to carrying forth her witness to the Risen Lord.

These things—mercy, compassion, devotion—are not the power of reason over disorder, but of love, an eternal gift in a world in which, as Paul said, “We see as through a glass darkly,” and none of us ever gets all of our crows to fly in a row.

The Rev. Cooper is a retired elder in the Arkansas Conference. Email: