once the adrenaline died down, more fire-hydrant surge than all-out combat, once i paused my pounding on the window, realized how close i’d come to thrusting my fist right through the glass, shattering and bleeding sure to pre-empt the rescue i’d attempted, once i took a breath, my first impulse was to think maybe i’d jinxed it.
it must be my fault for letting out their secret. maybe i shouldn’t have extolled the wonders of the nest right before my eyes.
here’s what happened: mama and i were, as we’d been for weeks, co-existing peacefully, she on her side of the glass, blanketing her babies in her downy feathers, me tap-tapping away here on the word-churn machine. it was late saturday afternoon, just one short day and a half after i’d spun the tale of how mama cardinal and i were expectantly working toward our deadlines: mine, a book in the making; hers, a clutch of eggs.
she’d been on the nest 15 days and counting. i delighted at the way she punctuated our shared workspace –– seemingly out of the blue –– by belting out an abbreviated string of song, as if she’d suddenly been overcome by the jubilance of nesting. any day now, i would have heard the wee peep-peep-peeps of nestlings, seen the blur of pointy beaks thrusting skyward for an airdrop of worm.
but then, at nearly six o’clock that fateful evening, without so much as a peep of warning, in those final hours of what eliot so rightly termed “the cruellest month,” there suddenly arose from the bushes such squawking as i’ve never heard. i turned and saw furiously flapping wings — mama and papa both, each on separate branches of the ordinary evergreen that for two weeks now had been the nursery for their nest, the closest i had ever come to northern cardinal observation deck, a broodling in the works. while the two of them squawked and flapped, i noticed the third player in this late-breaking drama. it was furry, brown, and little. its stripe down the back gave it away: a chipmunk. a very hungry and extremely nasty chipmunk, if you don’t mind my editorializing. i leapt into life-guard mode, pounded hard as i could pound from my side of the glass. gave a holler to my own mother, ensconced in her armchair in the other room. as if she could help me here in dire land. at first my pounding seemed to confound the furry one, he turned down the branch, as if in exit. but then, he must have had a second thought, for up he turned, and scampered head-first into the nest. oh, dear god, such horror i’ve not witnessed. this was full-tilt assault. this was nature at its cruelest. and i stood witness. after plumbing the hollow of the nest, the hungry varmint turned and ran. i couldn’t swear to what i saw, but it would not be wrong to think i saw him clutching something in his mouth.
poor mama sat there flapping. her squawks slowing but not quieting. she circled the branch a few lonely times and then resumed her post. we both tried to catch our breath. i tried to convince myself that all was not lost, perhaps the casualty count was one and only one. and, besides, mama stood her post straight through to nightfall, never once lifting her belly from what she surely must be guarding with her life. only then, when darkness eclipsed my keeping watch, did i surrender too; turned off my desk lamp, whispered benediction, and tiptoed off, unsure of what the dark would bring.
alas, when dawn came, i threw off my blankets and hurried down the stairs. no mama. i’d thought i heard a muffled squawk not too too long after dark. i now presume the furry thing returned, finished the deed. the dastardly, dastardly deed.
and so, the nest is empty. quite literally as i have just now hauled a step ladder out the door and, clinging for dear life, i climbed and pulled back branches, and indeed there is not a sign of life. just the artistry of their construction, right down to the shiny cellophane they might have thought to employ as something of a rain guard, what with all the rainy weeks of april.
turns out, the cardinals never had more than a one in three chance at making it out of the nest. despite their predilection for deeply tucking away their vernal constructions — remnants of a summer past, a bricolage of bits, dried grasses, thread-thin sticks, that cellophane wrapper perhaps from someone’s pack of cigarettes — the northern cardinal ranks near the sorry cellar of the nesting-survival charts, a long tumble down from the ash-throated flycatcher who scores the highest chance of flying from the nest, with seven of ten baby flycatchers flying. only the lowly house sparrow (11 percent chance) and the european starling (16 percent) fare worse than the red birds, and both sparrow and starling are invaders, anyway, non-native species snuck in as unintended cargo on some north america-bound vessel.
it hurt to sit here the first few days, the silence pounding in my ear. the absence of mama’s brown and red tail feathers protruding from the tuft of evergreen in which she so adeptly hid her nest.
and then i started to consider my own empty nest, a consideration that comes, of course, as mothering day approaches. i think as much now about mothering as i ever have. though it consumes fewer hours of my focus, and fewer drives hither and yon, my fascination only deepens. i think often of how rare — how blessed — it is to know so fluently the whole makings of any life, let alone these two i love so dearly. day by day, it seems, the adventures pick up pace. the twists and turns in their narratives expand my own sense of being alive, being witness to lives unfurling each according to his own storyline. from my perch here at the old homestead, where i am reliably on watch and ever present, i follow two young men carving out paths that couldn’t be more different and yet entwine in ways that make me see the shared origins loud and clear and undeniably. the little boy who once could stare at a tv screen for interminably long times, he is carving out a path to be the very voices, the very storytellers, he once listened to. and the one who once set up an easel in the living room, encircled the room with every stuffed critter from his toy box, donned suspenders and necktie, scooped up a clutch of alphabet letters, and commenced a lecture on the fine points of S-U-M and Q, he looks toward a life in lecture halls filled with legal scholars in the making. let the record show it was snoopy who got first crack at his fledgling professorial skills.
my job here — simply loving through and through — will never ever be done. they might not need me (not so often anyway) to rouse them from their slumbers, to ferry them to the school house door, to shiver on their sidelines, but i’ve come to understand that my unique brand of loving means i’ll never find a way to lay aside aside my worries and my sometimes overly rambunctious fears. the phone calls these days are farther in between, the texts often unanswered, but my contemplations and my prayers deepen by the month. i’ve started worrying in a whole new way about this world we’re leaving to their keeping. i once held out hope that they could right our many, many wrongs. but now i wonder if we’re too far gone, this world so broken in so many places.
i look to mama bird, and her now hollowed nest. there is stunned silence out my window. no flicker of a sighting of mama now at it once again. she makes me think hard about the seasons of mothering, how some are full to bursting, and others pulse with a kind of aching, a sorrow for the hours out of reach, a longing for the more tactile days when every flinch and whimper was within our watch. her empty nest makes me think hard about the one i call my own, at once emptier and fuller than i can sometimes truly comprehend.
no wonder mothering never ever loosens its holy grip on me.
may your motherings be ever blessed, in whatever ways you love and hold those you count as your dearest rarest treasures.