Several weeks ago, a mother and father bird made a nest in the camellia bush just outside our back door. I’m no birdwatcher, so I have no idea what sort of birds these are, but that male is gorgeous with a black body, yellow bill and red crest. Who knows what drew the birds to this spot—maybe the comforting sounds of the dryer vent or the thick, protective branches of the decades-old bush. My theory is that the abundance of shedding dog hair made for a plush nest. But they picked a busy spot along our driveway, with dogs, boys, cars and garbage cans constantly going in and out. The nest was a short distance from the demolition and construction happening at our place, too. Still the birds made it their home, singing in the morning on a branch not six feet from where I feed the dog, watching every minute until the babies were born, then guarding more diligently. The tiny chirps grew louder and stronger with every delivery of red berries from mother and father. The parents communicated constantly, as they shared a branch a short distance from their children across the driveway in the guava tree. Our whole family was entranced watching this beautiful drama unfold; even the dog seemed to enjoy the presence of new friends.
Perhaps I grew so attached to the little family because they represented the most basic tenets of being a good parent: providing shelter, food and safety, with such a singular purpose. And because over the last few weeks, I’ve seen the helplessness of friends as they struggle with incredibly difficult situations with their own children. For these human parents, even the simplest tasks are now out of their control. In one case, a couple who tried for years to have children stand guard over their babies born way too soon. As new parents, they’ve stepped into a foreign country, learning the language and rhythm of the NICU. Another family discovered that the many questions they have about their son can now be answered with a single phrase: Asperger’s Syndrome. In the most devastating turn of events, one parent faces the unthinkable, a change of course for his son from hopeful recovery to palliative care after the cancer returned. When I watch the birds, I’m reminded of how unforgiving a parent’s job is. And fragile.
Several days ago, my husband reported that he’d seen the birds take the little ones on a test flight to a maple in our front yard and back again. What a task, I thought, to teach a kid to fly. And yet, how wonderful that they’re literally teaching their babies something we can only speak of metaphorically. Fittingly, on Independence Day, the entire family left their nest in my camellia bush for good. When I discovered their departure, I admit, I broke down. It hadn’t occurred to me that once the babies learn to fly, they would leave. But, of course, that’s what happens in the best of circumstances. If, as a parent, you are lucky, your children grow up and leave.
Then I thought of my friends, their children and their overwhelming challenges, and I realized that teaching our children to fly isn’t a task. It’s a gift.
This morning, I discovered that the mother, father and babies hadn’t left, they’d just relocated to our lush, purple plum tree in the back yard. I spotted the father, gleaming black and red, gathering breakfast in the sage bushes.