It was the Eldest who summoned me, in his most excited whisper, over to a corner of the backyard near a privet shrub. For the past two weeks, there’d been a pair of cardinals- one haughty red male and a soft brown female- flitting to and from the shrub. I didn’t think much of it, but the Eldest kept an eye (and pen) on them, frequently referring to their actions in his nature journal. He also noted the day when the brown mother bird flew over to the shrub with a small twig in her beak. “She’s building a nest,” he declared.
An urgency in his whisper- perhaps even his ability to sustain a whisper against excitement’s uncontrolled volubility- grabbed my attention.
Pointing within the shrub, the Eldest grinned. Inside a nest, three tiny little eggs, carefully laid and tended by our cardinal friends. “How did you know?” I marveled.
“Because, I told you, she was building a nest,” he said happily. “And because I found the nest last week with dad but I was worried because it was empty.” The expression on his face charmed me- a look of simple contentment and gratification.
The eggs imprinted themselves in our hearts and minds. Soon, a ritual developed. After watering the garden each morning- Gnome with her orange tin can and Prophet with ther yellow one- we crept over to cardinal nest to check on the eggs. Expectation and delight coalesced into a wonder-filled tenderness for the mystery and beauty of the three lives preparing to hatch in the midst of our unspectacular yard.
While conducting his daily nature study, the Eldest approached me on tiptoe, again, the discordant combination of excitement and whispering. I thought I detected a tinge of dismay as well. He tried to speak- “the eggs have hatched”- but then silenced himself (“Revererence?” I wondered) and, shaking his head, led me by hand to the privet shrub.
The nest was lying on its side, barely holding a mass of pink flesh within it. Something had happened to dislodge the cardinals’ painstaking creation. I drew nearer, heart heavy, burdened by a sinking foreboding.
A pink mass of flesh nestled within the tipped nest. Only one- where there should have been three. My eyes met those of the Eldest. I understood his silence. There are few words to describe that sense when all is not well with the world.
Yet, I drew closer. The little one’s head quivered as he brought it up and away from the mass of pink skin and gray fuzz.
Atop a slender, delicate neck, I could see two large black saucers that would eventually develop into eyes. But for the moment, the little chick remained sightless- blind to the fact of the two faces missing from the handwoven home.
What happened to the other two chicks? Did a hawk steal them? If so, would the hawk return to claim this one as well? Did raccoons climb trees to steal bird eggs? Had the cardinals chosen a dangerous location for their nest? The questions spun through my head. Those familiar, chest-warming maternal instincts drove my heart into a faster rhythmn, the beat of empathy for those more vulnerable and defenseless than our egotastic adult selves.
The Eldest looked on quietly. That’s when I said it- “Oh no, little bird, you’re all alone now….”
It must have been the sound of my voice, or maybe even the soft feather-like texture of the whisper, that drew the chick upwards, suddenly raising its blind head and opening its mouth in the hope of a worm.
I felt the lump rise in my throat, and the pressure of tears forming in my eyes.
As the Eldest delicately explained why we should leave the chick alone so its mother would return and feed it, I fought the tears, pushed them deep inside, saving them for a later time and place, a time without a blind baby bird all alone in a precarious nest.
The King walked over to investigate; I turned to address Gnome and Prophet, whose worried faces mirrored my own. Pouring a glass of water for a red-cheeked Gnome put distance between myself and the solitary chick.
But the distance was quickly bridged by the King’s announcement of the a broken egg on the ground near the nest- and a large colony of ants eating something next to the empty egg shell.
At this point, I simply started crying.
Because that’s what I do when things in the world defy my hopes of a fair and just outcome. Because doing anything else would be a lie or a subterfuge- a sentiment created for the consumption of others rather than a sentiment reflecting my earnest reckoning with my own feelings and fears.
The King shook his head, tried to find the right words, wrapping a warm, familiar arm around my shoulders. “It’s not fair,” I muttered, allowing the tears to garble the useless words.
The Eldest crept up alongside us, his expression contorted and unsure. “Dad,” he said, in a certain voice, “I can feel how much it hurts mom to think about the chicks”.
Bringing his face so close I could smell the lemonade on his breath, the Eldest continued, “Mom, it hurts me too. It’s…. it’s….. not what I thought would ever happen….” I leaned into the sweetness of his empathy. We stood, silent, cheek to cheek, for a moment, before he found words again.
“Even though it hurts, mom, it’s just how Mother Nature works…. And the mother bird won’t abandon her baby- that’s not what’s going to happen.” I felt the balm of his words before I recognized them for the comfort they aimed to offer. My high-functioning ten-year-old son, the one who defies every expectation and limitation, soothed my soul and comforted me better than any neurotypical adult.
It was hard to keep mourning the broken eggs in light of the Eldest’s courage and love. Even harder to keep from beaming at the King, who knows how much these moments mean to me- and who isn’t too faux-manly to share them.
So two fragile and lovely chicks did not survive their hatching. But two adults and one boy discovered the comfort of each other between the broken shells. There is so much beauty to be found in all life’s breakings.