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Elissa Ely

We're all just temporary caretakers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Elissa Ely
April 27, 2008

BECAUSE the phone is always ringing, the cats are waiting for food, the frozen vegetables are melting, the dog (that saint) requires the backyard, four lights are blinking on the message machine, and soccer practice is in 10 minutes, we never looked up when rushing through the front door. This made the hanging light fixture on the porch a perfect location for covert activity. It took days to notice a few stray twigs, and pieces of fluff had drifted into it. It took weeks to realize the twigs and fluff were deliberate. It was a nest.

At first, the nest seemed a random construction - just an art project a couple of birds had done in their spare time. Finally, one, two, four tidy oblongs appeared as shadows in the bottom of the light fixture; neatly laid, cheek by jowl, completely vulnerable. The situation, it appeared, was deliberate. Responsibility had been dropped in our laps, even though it actually hung above our heads. Our usual actions became suddenly hazardous: What if we turned on the switch and fried the eggs? What if the wires shorted out during a rainstorm? We walked around in the dark at night, worrying. It was pre-Edisonian.

Feelings followed, as they do with this kind of responsibility. We grew tender, expectant, on alert. Our fixture was heavy with bird. When it started to sag under its own weight, we took turns checking and reporting back. What if the eggs smashed to the floor? Could we save them?

Then one day, raw little sounds floated down. Babies were on board. We couldn't see them, but they grew louder over the next week. The fixture had morphed into bassinette, crib, and high chair, like baby car seats morph into carriers with handles. A few little beaks stretched daringly over the edge. They were in a state of permanent openness.

Their hunger was merciless. The poor parents dived in and out, in and out, uncomplaining but exhausted. Each time they landed, the fixture swayed and shook. It was already rusty, and starting to list off its screws.

These chicks needed to learn to fly, and fast. The more they ate, the heavier they grew. The lower the fixture sank, the greater the danger was. They had no idea it was a matter of time and physics. We did. Their bird futures were racing against gravity.

While we worried, their communication was becoming more individualized and distinctive. One was mezzo-soprano, another tenor, a third completely unmusical. There were jostlings and complaints in the nest, one-upsmanship, and for all we knew, the beginning of Oedipal complexes. If we sat on the porch steps and held our breaths, beady sets of eyes would emerge. They were growing in front of us.

One morning, just like that, they were gone. We stepped onto the porch and into silence. They must have left in the middle of the night, suddenly airborne and competent. There was no note, no thank you gift, not a forwarding address. They didn't even strip the sheets and towels.

We were relieved, of course - but full of questions. Where were they? Were they ever going to phone home? If we repaired the fixture, could we hope for a reunion next year? The suddenness was shocking, and, to be honest, a little miffing, too. They didn't ask permission to come. They didn't ask permission to go. They used the premises, appreciated it in their way, and recognized without being told when it was time to leave. That's how it is in nature, we told ourselves.

But what are birds - children?

Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.

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