My sister stands beside me on the pool deck. We aren’t watching our kids play-fight in the water. Our eyes are on the adolescent bird sitting at the base of an oak tree a few feet away. We can hear his mother squawking at him from a bush nearby. He’s fallen from her nest, and she can’t carry him to safety because he’s almost her size. But she can’t leave him alone, either, because she knows better than any of us that the woods are full of raccoons, that her life’s work might end in a half-eaten lump of sorrow if he can’t get to a low branch somehow. There’s nothing for her to do but to wait and to sing.
My sons are young teenagers who need me less than they used to. They and I are developing new ways of relating to one another, but not the ones I saw coming. I hear myself telling them how to do things, how to be, how not to feel. I watch them push and doubt. They fall out of trees, and I sit, huffy and anxious, because I no longer hold their world in my hand. Because I hope for so much.
“Look at that,” my sister whispers. Both of us are frozen.
The teenaged bird is working his tiny nub-wings. They’re untested. They can’t possibly lift him. His frantic mother is warning him, begging him to be alright. My sister and I have forgotten to breathe as we watch him stab his beak and tapered claws, not yet dulled by endless twig-collecting and insect-finding, into the trunk of the tree. He’s beating his wings so hard against the bark I imagine they’ll break.
These days I flip through old scrapbooks more than I used to. I memorize the colors in my frozen moments, images I curated to stoke the future embers of mother feeling that might one day smolder at the base of my heart. I do it because I’m forgetting. I need these pictures to remind of the times my children sat backward on my lap and put their hands on my cheeks. When they stared so close I could count their eyelashes. Now they stand a few feet away from me when we cross a parking lot. True, I can still read them like the favorite books they’ve always been to me, but now, where their words used to lay clean, they clump together, muddied under layers of outsized emotion.
My sister and I lean ourselves against the treated wood of the deck. We’re silent but both of us are willing the bird-teen higher. We can’t believe he hasn’t plummeted to his death by now. We watch him make it halfway up the tree, his little propellers chopping the air. His mother is losing her voice from cheering him, from screaming, it seems.
And then he falls, landing on gnarled roots at the base of the tree. For a second he doesn’t move. I figure he isn’t dead yet, but will be soon, from the impact. I look past the tree, to the hill behind it, because this is too much to witness. My boys are throwing a football in the clearing. The younger one catches it and the older one tackles him, sending him hard into the earth. It’s only a matter of time before someone throws a punch but I’m thankful for the distraction.
Mother bird is quiet. Then I see her son stirring from the corner of my eye. He fluffs his gray feather coat, then stamps his feet and starts beating his wings, turning in a half circle so that he’s once again facing the trunk of the tree. He jumps toward it and clings, and his mother sends forth her everything song one more time. My sister and I can’t believe what we’re seeing, but it’s true; he’s making it, not to the lowest branch, but to one much higher.
I muse about that bird mother long after we’ve all gone back to the house. Did she go to bed early, hoarse and headachy? Did she find herself unable to feel after her son’s escape because it cost her so much? Did she remind her boy to visit once in a while, before he finally flew away, to let her know how things are going?
Maybe. Me, I’m still waiting. My boys are at the tree’s base, where the roots are thick and solid. I feel my stomach muscles pull tight as I watch them move their wings a little now and then. I’d rather gather them close and save all that for another day, but they’ve seen those top branches, and won’t be dissuaded. So I sit on a perch nearby and do what I can.
Hannah Vanderpool is a writer, a former ex-pat, and a home educator of three interesting middle schoolers. You can connect with her on Twitter, @HannahVPool, or at Praying With One Eye Open.