When I married my husband, I knew he’d been interested in reptiles from an early age. He was a bold kid, adept both at evading adult supervision and, thankfully, keeping himself just barely on the right side of the dirt when he did. That’s how he came to handle his first venomous snake – a copperhead – at the tender age of 9, while adventuring in a marshy area behind his childhood home in Houston that the kids called “The Bayou.” His parents had forbidden him from playing in The Bayou, probably because of the very thing that attracted him the most – the varied and occasionally hazardous reptile life that lived there.
Somehow, he made it to adulthood. Along the way, he owned several snakes, turtles, and lizards along the way. One summer, he worked with researchers who were bagging timber rattlesnakes for venom research. His job was to carry the bagged snakes down the mountain and back to the waiting vehicles. Fortunately, he’d learned safer ways of handling venomous snakes since his escapades with the copperheads.
It never occurred to me that my son might come to share his stepdad’s interest in reptiles, if only because the genetics didn’t seem to be there – his father has a straight-up phobia of anything with scales, and though I love animals of all kinds, snakes never really resonated with me. But he did develop an interest in reptiles. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. My son is obsessed with snakes, particularly venomous snakes, but any snake will do. One day three or four years ago, he asked Travis to teach him to handle our Rosy Boa, and from there he was off. Sean has studied snakes obsessively – their habits, identification, habitats, and venom. Sometime last year, Travis announced that Sean was now his superior at snake identification.
If there is any ideal I hold as a parent – and I hope there are several – it is “feed the obsession.” (Unless it’s video games, in which case my mantra is “tolerate and manage the obsession.”) Accordingly, when I discovered Snake Road, I quickly began organizing a family trip there. If you’ve read my writing about the Silver River monkeys, you know I’m a fan of idiosyncratic nature travel. This was a destination to please everyone.
Snake Road is a narrow gravel forest service road in southern Illinois, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, sandwiched between limestone bluffs on one side and spring-fed marshes on the other. In the fall, the reptiles and amphibians that have spent all summer plying the marshes leave the water, cross the road, and head up into the bluffs to find cozy dens for winter hibernation. In the spring, they come back down again. Because some 59% of Illinois’ reptiles — and even more of the state’s amphibians — live here, the forest service closes the road to vehicle traffic for two months in the spring, and two months in the fall, to allow the animals to migrate safely.
This, as you can imagine, creates a kind of herpetological paradise. Scores of people in spring and fall descend upon Snake Road to walk its 2.5 mile length, down and back, looking for migrating snakes and other critters. We went for the first time last spring, and again just this past weekend for the fall migration. On a Saturday in the middle of migration season, the small parking lot at the beginning of the road will be full, and 4 or 5 cars will be parked along the side of the road. An informational sign and the closed gate mark the start of the road.
There is a communitarian aspect to the Snake Road experience; when you meet someone, there is always discussion of the species each party has seen, exclamations over each party’s sightings, or commiseration if no one has seen anything at all. If a snake is in a particularly interesting situation and is not moving, the news travels along this informational highway like electricity along a wire. Everyone helps everyone else out – as long as a given person seems trustworthy and snake-friendly.
This is how we found out about a young cottonmouth that had spent the night in a tree snag last spring, and was coiled up in the morning chill. And this weekend, it was how we found out about a timber rattlesnake that was basking in a tree just off the road. A man and his daughter had stepped into the woods to look for something else entirely, and the young girl had noticed the viper in a nearby tree. News of the rattler made its way quickly along the road, and before long, everyone was talking about it.
We made it to the tree at the same time several other folks did, and we all spent a long time admiring the snake, photographing it, not getting too close, but just close enough. Everyone there knew the signs of agitation that would demand we quickly retreat, but the animal gave no indication of being upset. It seemed to regard the people standing around it as no different from the other trees surrounding it. Timber rattlers are fairly placid snakes, which explains why our friend remained calm amid the clicking shutters and whispered exclamations of admiration.
Sometimes, though, you can walk endlessly along the road seeing nothing at all – or at least, you don’t think you do. Halfway down the road Saturday, I was walking along, looking for snakes along the expanse of the road, when my son cried out “Mom! Stop!” And there, right in front of me, was a Cottonmouth, head perked up with interest, that had blended so well into the gravel that my gaze had passed over him. I now have the distinction of almost stepping on a venomous snake because I was too occupied with…looking for snakes.
I was wearing heavy, high hiking boots, so the danger was probably mostly on the cottonmouth’s side. After staring at me resentfully for several seconds, the snake scurried across the road, back from where it had come, perhaps to try the crossing later. I spent the rest of the day looking exactly in front of my next step. I began to wonder how many snakes our eyes simply passed over without seeing.
Last spring, we saw eight snakes in one day and four during the next half-day. This weekend, the weather was cooler, and we saw only four on Saturday and two on Sunday (the latter being a baby DeKay’s Brown Snake, a species we’ve never seen before). That’s nothing like the estimates I’ve heard along the road of people seeing up to forty snakes a day, but it’s more than we would see walking along any other road. That, along with the cave salamanders a couple of teenage boys showed us, and innumerable frogs, made for a great weekend. It’s difficult to plan a trip to coincide with the best time for maximum snake-spotting; I suspect it’s too much a matter of immediate weather patterns to plan ahead. Perhaps next spring we’ll have more data.
It’s June of 2008. I’m standing at my mother’s kitchen counter, chopping onions to put in hamburgers. My husband has just left me, and I don’t yet know what a blessing that is. But on that day, every move I make is still marred by heart pain.
I’ve been staying in my mom’s guest room with my 5-year-old for weeks now, as I try to figure out whether to go back to Idaho or rent a house here, or even if I can just stay upright for more than five minutes at a time.
I’m cooking for the first time since the split. I don’t want to eat much lately – I’ve already lost 25 pounds in five weeks – but I’m feeling hungry this evening. I take stock of ingredients: a pound of grass-fed beef, onions, garlic, and bread. I figure I’ll sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil since the meat is grass-fed, and a bit leaner. I get to work. My mother has good knives.
She’s also into Andre Rieu right now, which is fine. It’s music without words, which is the only kind I can listen to. Her favorite comes on: Rieu’s version of the song from the film Zorba the Greek, which as we all know, starts out slowly and builds into a feverish, captivating whirlwind. And as the tempo escalates, I’m still chopping, and I look out over the living room to the painting my mother has placed on the far wall. It’s sort of a Mediterranean scene, full of reds and yellows and a bit of green and blue here and there. And then I’m gone, out of the room, and I have no idea where I am, unless it’s possible to be inside a piece of music. There’s no pain, no sadness, just music, which is somehow now where I am. I’ve never done hallucinogens, so this experience is surprising, but not enough to shock me out of it.
Zorba isn’t a long piece – maybe three minutes, tops – and the room is silent again, and I’m back at the counter. The entire onion has been chopped, but miraculously, my fingers are still intact. I stretch each one out, marveling at their wholeness, thankful that some part of me stayed behind to work the knife.
The burgers are the best I’ve ever made. The olive oil worked. I write the recipe down under the name “Heartbreak Hamburgers.”
A little more than ten years later, mom and I are in a room together. She’s bed-bound now, thanks to spinal arthritis and a surgical injury in June from which she can’t seem to recover, and she’s been admitted into hospice. She’s eating even less than I was ten years ago, when she was constantly eyeing my wasting form and trying to get me to eat. The roles have been reversed now.
Out of the blue, she says, “I just want to chop vegetables.” I don’t really know what she means, but then again, she says a lot of things these days that don’t seem to cohere.
“You what?” I ask.
“I just want to be able to stand at my counter, and chop vegetables for a salad,” she says. “It’s such an essential part of being a woman.”
I open my feminist mouth to say it’s not about being a woman, it’s about being a human, a human who loves food and the preparation of it, but the words come out in a jumble. I’m grateful for that, because I don’t need to be arguing with her about this. Every guide I’ve read about interacting with people with dementia or cognitive impairment says to respond to the emotions underlying what they say, not necessarily their precise words.
“It’s an essential part of being a woman,” she repeats.
I realize what she means is that it’s been an essential part of being her.
I remember my own trip chopping vegetables at her counter, and and how my experience was transcendent, and hers were deeply ordinary. My chopping took me out of myself, while hers grounded her in herself, and both were indispensible to us. I think then about loss, and the things that quietly lend meaning to our lives but remain just below our awareness until they’re gone.
Even if I got up from the table where I’m typing this, walked into my kitchen and began chopping vegetables — if I breathed in, and breathed out, and thought intentionally about how fortunate I am to do it, I don’t think I would be able to summon the degree of appreciation that’s truly justified. It would be a quiet appreciation, a fleeting one that felt a little forced. It took a transcendent experience to make me remember a specific instance of chopping an onion. That’s okay; that’s the human condition. I don’t believe that anyone could, or should, deeply appreciate the ordinary all the time, because to do so would make it no longer ordinary. The genuinely ordinary is only fully appreciated against the stark relief of loss.
The ordinary is part of us. So to lose it is to lose some part of ourselves.
That’s what she was telling me. That she is losing herself, and she knows it. There is nothing I can do to bring herself back her, to return her to the ordinary. That is beyond her now.
Depression in the face of this truth isn’t just her right, it’s inevitable. It is a difficult and sad thing to lose oneself and one’s life. It will happen to all of us, in varying ways and under a range of circumstances. Her circumstances, however those arose and whether or not they were inevitable, involve living with the slow drain of loss for an extended period of time. All I can do is be with her as it happens. That has to be enough for us all, even though we know it never can be.
It’s not enough, but to be without it would be far worse. Like the ordinary things.
It’s starting to sink in that I’ll have as much influence on the end of my mother’s life as she had on the beginning of mine.
The things I have to learn along the way — figuring out our Kafkaesque medical system, learning what health professionals will say outright and what you have to read from their tone, trying to determine whether she is “trending toward end-of-life,” as the current jargon goes, or whether she could regain some quality of life – all of that is vaguely reminiscent of the learning curve of parenting an infant, with its “Oh shit, I have no idea what I’m doing” overtones.
But it’s harder. The learning curve is quicker and steeper, and the inevitable loss more compressed and far more complete than the 18-year pull cord on raising a kid.
And it turns out that I am undone by my own humanity during my project as much as she was during hers. Sometimes it seems that an imperfect human can’t possibly be up to the task of making the last period of an elder’s life as positive and meaningful as it can be. Yet I look around, and I see only my sister and me. There is no one older, wiser, less susceptible to things like emotion, grief, and physical and mental exhaustion.
Example: My emotional expression is unreliable. Sometimes I can access feelings, and sometimes I can’t. Then at other times, it’s not so much that I’m accessing emotions as being mugged by them after turning a blind corner. This means that when someone else is breaking down, crying and emotional, I’m often stone-faced and locked down. I feel somehow that I should be emotional too, but it isn’t there. I’m in intellectual mode, as I sometimes must be to make judgments and ask questions. But it feels odd, and can’t switch out to be in the same emotional space as the person who is in their feelings at that moment.
But then, the first time the social worker asks my mother who is sitting next to her, and she doesn’t recognize me or my sister, I will have to abruptly leave the room to handle my tears, and my mother feels bad because she knows she got it wrong.
That one was a mugging.
And sometimes it means that when the surgical consult is next to her, and he leans in to hear her hoarse whispers, and what she’s saying is “Get out of my face,” I will burst into uncontrollable laughter, and then the surgeon will crack up, and so will the medical student, and even the nurse might crack a grin. My laughter, though, goes on too long and dissolves into sadness, because it all emotional roads lead to the same destination here.
I also have to sleep after every visit. It’s usually only a 15 or 20 minute nap, but it’s an overwhelming need. I have no idea what that’s about; I’ve never been much of a napper.
And then there are the judgment calls. What if, in my fear, I make a decision that drains her spirit and blunts any remaining meaning in her life? What if, in my desire to avoid that, I give up too quickly? All these decisions are like balancing on the edge of a knife.
Remember that scene in the movie Parenthood where Keanu Reeves’ character says, “You need a license to buy a dog, or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”
You mean I don’t need a license to make decisions that influence how my mother spends the rest of the time she has left? Am I qualified to do this?
It could be the perfectionism that lurks everywhere else in my life, but I’m tempted to find this woefully inadequate, much in the same way Tod in Parenthood was so dismayed at the lax requirements for fatherhood. So I’m doing what I did the last time I felt this way, in order to promote myself from “any butt-reaming asshole” status. Before my son was born, I read everything I could about parenting. These days I have Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal on audio. I consult nurse friends. I ask doctors questions in different ways until I get the information I want.
But jeez. In the end, my sister and I have decisions to make that are every bit as grave as the ones Mom made for us were, and they will be made in an imperfect environment, by imperfect people. As in parenting, the only thing we do is the best we can do, given the circumstances constraining us.
There is only what she wants and would have wanted. There is no objectively correct answer, and therefore perfection and security that we “did the right thing” will always be elusive. As it happens, I am the only “butt-reaming asshole,” along with my siblings, who knows my mother well enough to approximate her wishes. And she trusted my sister and me to do it. Her signature is right there on the document, executed four years ago. She told me about it at the time – at lunch, I think. I nodded then, completely confident in my own competence.
Her confidence, and the symmetry between the things she did for us and the things we do for her, is all we have to go on. It’ll have to be enough. It was enough for her.
My mother was the one who would always remind me when I hadn’t written anything in awhile. She would always notice when I had nothing to say, and she would wonder about it.
But I haven’t had anything to say recently because I’ve been holding my breath for several weeks. Mom hasn’t noticed, because I’ve been holding my breath for her.
Mom underwent surgery in June; it was to be the final phase of a very successful cancer treatment. The particular procedure she had was common, even routine, among women. But somehow, she suffered a serious surgical injury, and after many weeks of confusion, uncertainty, and learning to navigate our healthcare system, we learned she also had a stroke along the way. She isn’t doing well, and there seems to be little we can do about it.
It’s almost as if her decline has paralleled the summer. In June we had hope. It was early days yet, and we could see the possibility of recovery ahead. And then July came, with its heat and its vigor, and my stamina and optimism started to wane. August is here now, and the sunflowers are dying, and my cucumber plants have dried up. The trees are showing just the barest patches of the color to come. Summer is passing, and it seems to be trying to drag my mom along with it.
Through it all, I’ve begun to notice the familiar signs of upheaval whispering in my ear: loss is coming. It’s here. You didn’t expect it, but it’s knocking.
There are other, complicating factors. Last spring I began to make a career transition, and in the gap between then and now, my mother’s illness happened. The ground beneath me, which the Buddhists assure me never existed to begin with, is now most definitively absent. (I don’t know why that’s supposed to matter. While it may not be technically possible to grieve something that was never really there, I am certainly missing the perception of it.)
Things like this happen to people all the time. In fact, if things work as nature intended, we will inevitably see our parents’ decline and death. It’s just this: I think I know a Big Hairy Transformational Process when I see one these days, and I’m pretty sure I’m seeing one now, both for her and for me. The writer Elizabeth Lesser promises that if we stay awake during these times, we can learn and grow. That means very different things for my mom and me. I’m pretty sure there will be some nub of me left to regenerate, to lead somewhere new. We don’t know the contours of that frontier for her.
My customary way of dealing with the thicket of hard times is to treat it as I do all kinds of things in nature: examine it, analyze it, and close my eyes and pat it like the blind men and the elephant, as I try to figure out its essential qualities.
So here I go, forging ahead into the storm clouds. Let’s see what’s out there. I’ll report back.
I started writing A Robin’s Tale, the short story I posted last week, when I found a nest tucked under my back deck and I started to wonder about their lives. I discovered that nest the same way “she” found her nesting spot in the story: I was standing by the maple tree looking toward my deck at a completely new angle, and there it was. The nest was still in process, so when I ran to the deck to peer at it through the crack between the boards, there were no eggs. Three days later, there were two. Two days after that, there were four. I timed my furtive spying for the brief periods she was off the nest – usually just after five in the afternoon, for about fifteen minutes. I made it snappy every time, so I wouldn’t stress her out.
One fine and exciting day, a naked and yawping hatchling appeared when I took my quick and sly peek between the deck boards. The next day there were two. I waited, and waited, and waited, but the other two eggs never hatched. After a week or so, one of the two duds disappeared – probably pushed out of the nest by mom – but I could never find it beneath. The other dud stayed in the nest.
Once the babies hatched, mom was flying everywhere all the time, constantly bringing back food for those yawning mouths. Nature created robin hatchlings perfectly; I mean, they’re just huge, blindingly yellow mouths attached to a lump of undifferentiated flesh. Even the dimmest bird parent couldn’t fail to miss that target.
I did engage in a tiny bit of maternal anthropomorphism during this process. One night, when a serious storm was gathering, I gently placed the lid of a large plastic tub over the boards, so no water would drip through the cracks and onto the nestlings. (Mom was spending nights off the nest now to deter predators.) My husband noted, apropos of nothing of course, that robin babies have successfully weathered storms on the nest for millennia. Not under my deck, they haven’t, I replied, perhaps a little crisply. The nestlings were dry the next morning. Ahem.
As the babies’ feathers came in, I started to make plans based on my reading, just in case one of them fell out of the nest prematurely. The parents will still attend to fallen hatchlings that can’t quite fly yet, but it’s still dangerous for the baby. I kept close watch on my dog, Thomas, to make sure he didn’t venture toward the area on his morning sojourns, and mentally began planning how to fence in a fallen baby in a way that would protect it from predators, but still allow the parents to care for it. My husband bit his tongue this time, wisely saying nothing about the course of nature or centuries of fallen nestlings.
In the end, none of that came to pass. I checked on the babies one morning, and they had gotten so large they looked like they were about to bust the nest to pieces. And that was with just two of them. I can only imagine how cramped it would have been had the third and fourth eggs hatched. (That there were only two of them may explain why neither ever fell from the nest.)
A couple of hours after I checked on them, I went outside to do something and the nest was eerily quiet. I peered in one last time. The nest was empty, as abruptly as it was filled. No parents, no babies. Just the one dud egg, looking a bit rotten and worn.
And I admit it; I was pouty and sad for about half a day. (My son is almost sixteen, and it did occur to me that the universe was providing me with a trial run for dealing with my own rapidly emptying nest.) There was no sign of them for about two days, and I was wondering where they had gone. Then one day in late afternoon I saw them, hanging out with their dad. (After fledging, dad takes over kid care while mom goes and starts a second, or even a third, nest.) It appears that they moved to a huge bush that straddles my property line that birds seem to love.
Only about 25% of robin babies make it through their first year. I still see groups of at least three robins hunting worms in the yard, so I can’t be sure if both of them made it, but I’m reasonably certain at least one of them did. I have no idea if mom has made another nest, or where.
I hope they both survive and learn the ways of robins this summer, before joining the great flocks of their kind come winter. And I hope that maybe one of them will return to make another nest. We do have rain protection here, after all.
She flew into the yard for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, drawn by a clear, crisp song. The stiff coldness of the air had broken, leaving the world feeling like a refrigerator that had been left open. The ever-lengthening days were pleasant enough, but nights on her favorite branch still required her to puff her belly feathers to warm her feet.
She landed on a rock to listen and look. The territory was appealing. A stream bisected a long expanse of grassland that must be filled with worms; beyond it were trees of many varying sizes, and a large brush pile of useful material. There was a wooden platform north of the creek, on which other birds would light from time to time – a pair of doves, two blue jays, four or five cardinals, and a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. Though there were several dogs in the area, she saw no cats. There were no doubt hawks lurking about, but bluejays would usually chase them off if they flew too close. Blue jays could be miserable tormentors, known for plucking baby robins from the nest for no reason other than reducing the competition. But as long as the jays left her alone and focused exclusively on the hawks, their presence could be a benefit.
This was a gamble, of course. But her life thus far had taught her that every proposition involved at least one big risk, one giant leap of faith. The trick was deciding which leap to make.
The gentleman who’d claimed the territory was sufficiently attractive as well. A competent musician, his was the song that had called her from the sky as she made her persistent way north. He was perched on the grayish-white bark of a broad sycamore branch, thoroughly involved in his song. She evaluated him carefully. His head was an even, dark charcoal grey, and his perfectly rounded chest was a rich auburn. She listened for a few more moments, and considered the whole.
This would do nicely.
She could hear the worms.
She stood with the gentleman in a large square of leaf litter, listening to them move in the new soil. One golden day the previous autumn, the gentleman had watched from a maple branch as two humans dumped dead leaves inside a perfectly bounded thirty-by-thirty foot patch of earth. Humans were always doing such things, moving about here and there, tailed by a big oaf of a dog, and he hadn’t bothered to wonder what they were doing. But when the ground began to thaw the following spring, more worms than he’d ever heard in one place began to move under the decomposed leaf litter.
He showed her the spot soon after she arrived. They both stood, mesmerized, listening to the worms chewing their way through the soil: a birdly dinner bell. To them, it sounded like what a person might hear when human feet were crunching on gravel. Unable to restrain herself, she ran to a spot where the sound was loudest, brushed aside the leaf litter with her beak, and yanked an earthworm from the ground.
And so they began to run, each in the direction of a sound, to stop, listen, and strike: run, freeze, listen, strike, pull, gobble.
Down the hatch. Repeat.
Brunch that day was delicious.
As the days gathered, she began to feel restless, the way one feels when it’s past time to accomplish a task, but the resources to do it aren’t available. There was plenty of food; that wasn’t the problem. There was just something missing. She occupied her time flying from branch to branch, landing on shed roofs and under piles of brush, on the rock bridge over the stream, and in the Y of the sycamore tree. Over the course of the days, she began to know the place. There was a small pile of dead ornamental grass on the slope north of the stream, and more twigs than could ever be exhausted in the brush pile. But nothing to bind it all together, which somehow she knew it needed to be.
Some assembly was required, it seemed. But with what?
She was perched on a sugar maple branch one gloomy late morning, preening her feathers, when she heard it – the terrifying, shrill call of a hawk. She looked around for somewhere, anywhere, to go. In the space of a single second, her eye was drawn from the maple at a new angle toward a railing underneath the big wooden platform. Instinct lifted her wings before she even knew where she was going. No sooner had she landed safely on the railing than an unholy scream charged the air. Two blue blurs zoomed past her like compact avian superheroes, zipping toward the sycamore where the Cooper’s hawk had landed. She peered out from her newfound alcove to watch the scene unfold.
At first, the hawk pretended to ignore the jays as they fluttered and swooped at the much larger bird, beating their wings furiously and disturbing its peace, like a cloud of stable flies might harass a horse. At first, the hawk hopped in place a little, hoping to dislodge them. When that failed, the bird stretched out its beautifully mottled, almost striped wings, as if to remind the jays who was the bigger, stronger character. But the jays were relentless, and not intimidated. At length the hawk, wearing an expression of the utmost weary annoyance, lifted its massive wings and flew north from the sycamore, leaving an audible woosh, woosh, woosh in its wake. Unsatisfied with this concession, the jays took off and tailed the hawk until it was safely out of the territory, before zooming back triumphantly.
When not alarmed, blue jays are slow fliers, and hawks can easily pluck them from mid-air. These birds were simply unwilling to tolerate that particular threat in the yard. On that day, no matter the jays’ otherwise antisocial tendencies, the enemy of her enemy had been her friend.
Today, there had been a net under her leap of faith.
After the hawk was gone, she took a moment to survey her surroundings. She had landed on a broad wood beam with plenty of space. Filtered sunlight shone through the narrow space between the boards above her head. The space was so well sheltered that she could feel none of the breeze that whistled through the trees across the stream. But most importantly, she had never noticed this space before. And if she hadn’t noticed it before, it was unlikely the jays had either. And no hawk would fit into this small area.
She had a place.
In the middle of the night, her favorite sleeping branch began to sway alarmingly, first a little bit, then constantly and more dramatically. This branch, ordinarily well protected from the elements, was now moving back and forth and up and down in a hard, constant wind. With a brief flap of her wings, she moved closer to the trunk, hoping to find a more stable perch. Raindrops began to pelt the leaf cover above; one, then two, then ten, then a hundred all at once. A loud crack of thunder sounded in the distance. She snuggled closer to the trunk and fell back asleep to the steady sound of the rain.
Morning arrived to reveal that she now had everything required to build her nursery. Flying out from the sugar maple in the pre-dawn gray, she saw the creek running vigorously, perhaps even too much for the big oaf dog to jump over. On the walls of the creek she found her last ingredient: a coating of thick, brown mud. Meanwhile, earthworms were everywhere, having chosen the rainy morning to make the trip to new territory, unburdened by worries of death from dehydration. She plucked a couple of them from the grass for breakfast, and was on her way.
The gentleman brought her twigs and grasses – in the end, exactly 354 pieces of dried grass and twigs, and one large tuft of tail fur from the big oaf dog – while she patiently and diligently carried beakful after beakful of mud back to the nook where she’d hidden from the hawk. After applying each pat of mud to the carefully arranged grasses, she hopped into the bowl of the nest and tamped it all down with her feet and breast. In between mud collecting trips, she added a piece of plastic bag floating down the swollen creek, and later on the afternoon of the second day, several of the long ornamental grasses from the north slope. These dangled two feet from the base of the completed nest, giving it a Rapunzel-like quality. On the morning of the third day, she and the gentleman perched on the railing, considering their work. It was finished.
Though she didn’t know it, a story had been brewing deep in the center of herself as she’d gone about her nest-building. Underneath her reddish feathers and beyond her skin, under layers of muscle and fat, lay an organ with the graceful and improbable shape of a cluster of grapes. One of the grape-like objects had become much larger than the others, and that oddball grape grew bigger and bigger, until one day, after a long breakfast in the earthworm field, it popped off the bunch. Then, like an errant child in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it fell down a chute. As the yolk worked its way through her oviduct, her body released a shower of substances on it – first watery albumens, and then, further down, some calcium compounds to wrap it all up in a neat, self-contained package. These shell-forming substances were tinged with a lovely blue pigment called biliverdin – the same stuff that would give a human a queasily greenish bruise, but in her case, formed the color known as robin’s egg blue.
Thus formed, the egg continued its travels until, immediately before emergence, it turned 180 degrees on its horizontal axis, and presented itself blunt end first.
And so she found herself, one mid-morning, perched on the edge of her long-awaited nest, staring down at a single, perfect blue egg. She had done this. She felt a curious sort of avian satisfaction; this was good.
And yet, even as she beheld the egg, another of the grapes was growing inside her.
She was going to need more worms.
All in all, she created four blue eggs. As she developed her daily routine –a pre-dawn breakfast in the worm field, then back to the nest for a day of egg-laying – she began to shed the downy feathers on her chest, just under her tummy feathers. By the time she had produced those four perfect eggs – and not a moment before – she settled into the nest and pressed her nearly bare belly against them, transferring just enough of her one-hundred-and-four degrees of body heat to her brood-to-be to spur them to grow within their shells. Thus warmed, the contents of the eggs began to alchemize into chicks.
She had no memory of her own hatching the year before, but she had required a full day to emerge from her shell. Her escape commenced when the oxygen supply in her egg became a bit too scarce. For many days, oxygen had been flowing from the pores of her shell into the narrow blood vessels lining its inner surface, and from there into her body. But near the end of her development, as she came to resemble less a white spot on a yolk and more a lumpy mass of incipient robin, that arrangement became insufficient to sustain her. So, like all other robins before her, she set in motion an elegantly choreographed race against time.
First, she began the process of shutting down the blood vessels that had been her lifeline from the beginning, and sucking the blood from those vessels into her body. Then, she used a small but sharp protuberance on the tip of her mandible to puncture the air sac at the blunt end of her egg, where her head lay. That accomplished, she took her real draught of air, inaugurating her young lungs and bathing her cells in energy-giving oxygen. From there, she drew the remainder of the yolk into her body from the stalk connecting it to her intestines – another energy source for the transition at hand.
After that, she had a few hours of air left in the now-punctured air sac. Time to get busy. Enabled by a newly developed muscle in her neck, she began to thrust her beak and egg tooth against the inside of the shell, repeatedly and persistently, until she met success. Once she had pecked out a hole in the shell, she took a first breath of sweet, out-of-the-egg air, eagerly sucking in an energizing oxygen rush. This was her only sensory experience of the unknown outside world to which she was steadily, faithfully hurtling herself; she would have no vision for another five days, when her eyes would pop open at last.
She continued pecking, but now she could bring her shoulders to bear against the egg as well as her feet, which were tucked into the pointed end of the shell and offered leverage. From time to time she would rest, tired from her first real exertion. But eventually, thanks to oxygen, the gifts of physiology, and her own efforts, she won her freedom at last. Her first act as a hatchling was to open wide her enormous, swaying beak and beg an unknowable someone for food. Blind, instinctive faith was rewarded when her mother landed on the edge of the nest and transferred a meal from her own narrower, adult beak to her bright yellow mouth that nature had designed to be unmistakable.
Comfortably full and exhausted, she settled into the nest next to a sibling and fell immediately asleep.
It was a good time to retreat under the wood boards. The mild spring temperatures had been fleeting, and heat had arrived. The light near the nest was dim all day, except for thin slivers of sun slipping through the cracks in the afternoon. Light was entirely absent at night, as the nook was entirely out of reach of the moon.
Every afternoon at 5, when the sunshine had reached such a golden intensity she could no longer resist its lure, she flew out from under the platform and joined the gentleman in the grass to hunt worms or forage for berries. She stayed out no longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. That was plenty of time to fill her belly before flying back to the nest, where she would carefully turn each egg to prevent the chick from sticking to the shell.
Every now and then during the day, the gentleman would fly into the nook to bring her a particularly tasty worm or a fat berry. This was a quiet time for both of them; in another week, if their efforts were successful, they would be flying endlessly to and fro, filling large, demanding mouths with food. After a time, the gentleman would take over caring for their fledglings, and she would start the entire process all over again. She may even complete a third brood before winter came.
She was a long way from winter now, suspended exactly between her first and second. There was enough to appreciate in a winter’s life; the security and warmth of a large flock, the trip south to find fruit, and the end of it, when, tired of berries, everyone dispersed and moved north to find worms and start new families. But she was here, now, participating in the anticipation of the season at hand, including her four blue eggs. It was a timeless rhythm, a robin’s rhythm, circular and complete.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, she took leave of the nest during the golden hour, as she did every day. When she arrived back on the railing, the egg in the northwest corner of the nest bore a nearly imperceptible crack. She nestled back onto the eggs, unaware of the events unfolding beneath her. An hour later, though she couldn’t see it, just the barest tip of an egg tooth protruded from the split shell.
As she sat there on the cusp of success, the golden light dimmed and the clouds gathered. And the crack in the shell grew wider still.
The sky darkened, and the distant call of a hawk intermingled with a low rumble of thunder. Wind began stir the grass on the worm fields.
Beneath her, a piece of shell split suddenly and irretrievably from its larger whole, leaving a tiny, wet head in its place.
It was going to be a long night.
In the course of coming up with this story I read the articles here, here, and here. I also read this amazing book excerpt here. For the principle that robins use their hearing to hunt instead of just their vision, I read this study. (I understand this is one study, but it sure is an interesting one.)
Robins are cool.
My young neighbor is fond of playing in the narrow seasonal creek that bisects my property and his parents’. At any given time of day I might look out from my writing perch in my sunroom and see him crouched over, examining a dead fish, fistful of mud, or any number of objects from the creek that make the mother in me want to insist that he wash his hands immediately.
However, my inner kid is apparently as strong as my inner mom, because I can do nothing but approve of this behavior — so much that last week I found myself by the creek with him, along with my husband and son, after he’d found two baby snapping turtle hatchlings.
I have to admit I was very impressed with this find. I went to work on documenting it immediately, before encouraging him to release his new friends back into the wild to enjoy their natural lives. And as I edited the photos, I realized that the creek sessions that have been unfolding beyond my writing perch are live-action ecstatic experiences of childhood.
Ecstatic childhood memory is a concept I’ve been fixated on since I first encountered it several years ago in a piece by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. The idea is this: children lose themselves in particular places in the natural world, either places their families literally own or the children can feel some kind of ownership of, such as public lands. And as they play, fondling dead fish and whatnot, their child’s sense of wonder starts to wire memories into their brains — ecstatic memories. Chawla characterizes these ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels” that continue to fuel creativity for the rest of their lives.
It’s lovely to get to watch it happening just beyond my window.
“We never know what someone is going through.”
I’ve heard this a lot in the wake of Kate Spade’s – and now Anthony Bourdain’s – suicides. It’s a good, empathetic thing to remember. But it also strikes me as a symptom of a problem, in part. The collective “we” in this country make it far too easy to never know what someone is going through, particularly if that something is mental illness. It’s no secret that our country – and others – were built on a narrative of resilience, strength, and invulnerability. We don’t have time for the weak. This narrative fuels so many of our problems as a people, not the least of which is waking up and finding our beloved geniuses — or our own loved ones — dead by their own hands.
In the days after her death at 55, Kate Spade’s sister said that Spade had been struggling with mental illness for several years. She said that she had tried to get her sister into treatment, but Spade feared it would damage her brand, which was known for its bright, sunny quality. It’s worth noting that Spade’s other family members have fervently disputed this account. But who knows? No one could have known what she was going through.
And now Bourdain, whose suicide is sending shock waves through the world. Brilliant, successful, and brash, Bourdain doesn’t seem like “the type,” does he? Thing is, I’m starting to think that the only “type” for suicide is someone who doesn’t seem like the type. After all, we never know what someone is going through.
A couple of years ago, my husband, Travis, a marriage and family therapist, attended a seminar given by a man who had struggled with mental illness before – and during – his own career as a mental health professional. During his talk, he pointed out the grim reality that even mental health practitioners are reluctant to speak out about their own experiences with mental illness. Feeling the conviction of this argument, Trav set out to correct his part of the problem.
Two weeks later, his kids and I sat with him as he joined the semicolon project and had the punctuation mark tattooed on his arm, in an unmistakably visible place. The semicolon is used by people who have been suicidal to symbolize a continuation of the sentence of an individual’s life, instead of the period, which terminates it. It’s an affirmative expression of the desire to live, as well as an open acknowledgment of a struggle with mental illness. Since then he has talked with his own clients about the tattoo, his parents, his friends, and sometimes random strangers. Among is own acquaintances, there is sometimes surprise. Because — and you get this by now, I’m sure — there was no way to know what he was going through.
Although we’ve come a long way in both the treatment and destigmatization of mental health issues, we still have a very long way to go. Mental illness can be terrifying, and a lot of us are profoundly emotionally triggered to hear about the struggles of someone else, because hearing about that sort of thing can stoke our own fears about ourselves. And in the case of a loved one, the prospect of losing them – and whether it’s our fault – can become so terrifying we slip into denial.
There is also a sense that someone dealing with mental illness might be somehow unreliable, which makes people justifiably reluctant to speak publicly about it, particularly if they work in a high pressure field in which people are supposed to be “on” all the time. My own profession is among the worst. Rates of mental illness, depression, and substance abuse are very high among lawyers. But the disincentives to speak out about it are legion. Lawyers are to be strong, invulnerable, and competitive at all times. To admit a weakness is to give an opponent an opening. And what would the clients think? My father once told me that as a lawyer, you had to be competent at all times; if you’d just gotten a terminal diagnosis at the doctor’s office and had a court appearance afterward, you had to be able to go right to court and perform flawlessly.
To me, though, that’s an insistence that we deny our humanity. And far too many sectors of our society demand that we deny our humanity. The fear that we might at any moment let the reality of our own humanity slip can become debilitating and self-reinforcing, leading to an endless spiral of fear and separation from self. And the cost of that is incalculable – we don’t just lose the Bourdains and the Spades; we lose innumerable others and their contributions to the world. And we add the devastating pain of their loved ones to our collective universe.
Speaking out about our own experiences is a good first step, especially if we are considered “not the type.” We desperately need to know that people who seem to struggle with nothing often struggle with everything. We need to know that the things that eat us alive are individual and unique. The same success that one person craves may be the undoing of another, because it seals them into a box where their humanity is not welcomed.
So we need those people to be able to speak out; we need everyone to feel able to speak out. But before we can ask that, we need to lower the cost of doing so. That responsibility lies with everyone. Consider how you feel about the depressed; consider your fears about losing control of yourself, of not being “on” when you need to be. Consider how those things might affect your reaction to someone who is bluntly open about their illness. Would Kate Spade’s bags have seemed as happy to you if you’d known she was dealing with depression? Would you have been disappointed, as she may have feared people would be?
There is no reason to expect anyone not to be disgusted by their own vulnerabilities as long as we agree with them.
We can all do this. And if we don’t, there will continue to be “no way to know what someone is going through.” The cost of that is astronomical.
The ducklings have things to say.