Friday, July 29, 2016

The Empty Nest

The deck we built on the back of our house turned two on Memorial Day.  My wife and I waited so long to get one, though it was on our minds from the day we moved in eighteen years ago.  Dan turned two that first summer and Lucy started school that fall.  Obviously there were a lot of expenses with the children and both Kathy and I had just started new careers.  Finally, in 2014, we had the money at a time when no other big-ticket items were breaking down.

Fortunately, we’ve enjoyed it as much as we hoped we would.  After a long day at work, it is the place I want to be in warm weather.  Frequently, my wife will find me there when she gets home at five-thirty. I’ve changed out of my work clothes and enjoyed an adult beverage by then.  Flash, the geriatric guard dog, stands sentry at the back steps, occasionally rising to walk his beat, peering through his cloudy cataracts at threats both real and imagined.

What I had not anticipated was the amount of time we would spend in complete silence, just enjoying the breeze and the sounds of nature.  Our television alternative in those quiet hours is an Art Fair birdhouse, built for the small, picked-on members of the avian community.  Its tiny aperture is ringed by metal decorations, so the larger birds don’t peck away a larger entry and consume the eggs or baby birds.  A pair of wrens moved in and started a family. We watched avidly as a Real Housewife of Washtenaw County brought bedding and sustenance to her young, while Daddy perched nearby, putting the fear of God into any creature that ventured too close (Kathy included).  We waited eagerly for the big day, when we would see the young wrens emerge and leave the nest.

That is not to say this was the only bird family in the yard.  There were many.  One family we had to shoo away, as the piercing sound of blue jays at dawn was more than my wife and I wanted to hear.  When they attempted…several times…to build a nest under the eaves outside our bedroom window, we impeded their progress.  When they didn’t get the hint, we stuck a small mirror in the place they kept returning to.  The reflection of ‘another’ blue jay in their preferred spot finally made them move elsewhere. 

There was also a nest of robins near the porch, the adults robust and industrious.  The cacophony from their family room rivaled a euchre game at my parent’s house.  Because of their size, their sound and fury, you tended not to worry about the robins.  But sometimes appearances are deceiving.

While we were still waiting to see the baby wrens, we saw one of the baby robins laying on the ground, near the trunk of the tree.  It was clearly not fully mature, its feathers still of the fluffy, white variety, though its body was of a fair size.  The adult robins seemed concerned, but not overly so.  They would perch nearby and look at the baby pleading for help before returning to the task of feeding the rest of their young in the nest.

Any of you that know me are aware that I am no ornithologist.  In fact, my idea of ‘outdoorsy’ would be a day game at Comerica Park.  But I didn’t want to sit there and watch the little robin die.  We have always used laundry detergent that is fragrance-free, so I slipped on a pair of latex gloves and found a T-shirt we used as a rag and wrapped it around the errant nestling.  The adult robins watched with interest, but nothing more.  My thinking was, if this bird is just a day or so away from flying, maybe it has a chance, if the adults will feed it.  We beckoned the dog inside and waited, peeking out the window, watching for cats and other predators.  At around dusk, our patience was rewarded.  The robins began bringing food to the bird on the ground.  Our spirits buoyed, we went to bed hopeful.   

Alas, it was not to be.  The temperature sank to fifty-seven degrees that night and there was dew on the ground.  The cold had claimed the baby bird.  Though we’d known there was little chance that we could interfere with the cruelty of nature, we were glad we had tried.  We mused on the corollaries to human parenting.  Though we rarely see emotion from non-domesticated animals, we wondered if they remember the ones they have to leave behind for the safety of the others, while discussing the human parents who’ve had to make tough decisions.   At the moment a child is born, we hope and pray that our baby isn’t taken from us by violence, a random illness, an accident, or an ill-timed, poorly planned escapade.  Yet it happens.  Every day, good parents bury children.  The next day they have to get out of bed and take care of their other children and themselves.  Cruelty of nature, indeed.

A couple of days passed, as well as the mini-funk we were in over the baby robin.  That was when we noticed that the wrens were gone.  Gone!  As in, not a trace.  The birdhouse was intact, with nothing but fluff left inside.  No signs of violence were seen.  The family had decamped, leaving no forwarding address.  While we’d watched and worried over the baby robin, another family had moved on.  Perhaps one morning before I was even out of bed, Mama Wren had announced that ‘today’s the day’ and marched her young charges to the door of their house, imploring them to do what they had been born to do, and they did it.  When everything happens as it is supposed to, we seldom take notice, do we?

A month has gone by since then.  Though it is still mid-summer, the shadows have shifted subtly, suggesting that this year will be like the last.  The leaves will fall, the air will chill and next year the cycle will begin again.  But something will be different in our human nest next year, as our baby bird prepares to take flight, testing his wings, applying knowledge both learned and inherited.  We feed them, we warm them, we teach them to the limit of our abilities and watch them go. It is heartbreaking and heartwarming.  The idea is foreign to us at times, and yet it is what we were born to do.

I found a wren feather on the ground near their old house and stuck it in the brim of my hat.  I suppose you could call it a feather in my cap.  I may watch from the sidelines feigning disinterest or I may chirp my disapproval on the wire.  But I will never forget the precious gifts that came from my wife’s eggs, nor will I forget the wonderful times we had in our nest.  Freebird, fly!

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