When we arrived at the cabin early last summer, Sam and I, I noticed a nest in the tree out back. In it were two little birds--mostly bopping mouths--peep-peep-peeping for maternal attention. They weren't baby birds, really; they looked awkward and crowded in the not-spacious twig nest. They didn't look like they'd be there much longer; their need for the nest was clearly waning. I was charmed, sure, but my heart dropped a little with the irony. I was in the last few weeks of nest tending myself.
A few months earlier Sam had put in his papers to apply to serve a two-year mission for our church; his call letter arrived a few weeks later with his given assignment: Luanda Angola! Luanda Angola?! I was thrilled for and proud of him, of course, but my heart dropped a little with the unknowns. Later, when Sam went in to be immunized in preparation for his departure, our public health doctor in DC gave us both a scare with her sober, urgent warnings about disease and safety and other dangers. She warned Sam to do everything in his power to avoid Angolan hospitals. "That's definitely one of my goals," he deadpanned. Did you ask to go there? she asked, incredulous. (Is this okay with you? her eyes silently asked me.)
So we're there at the cabin and suddenly I'm wholly invested in these fledgling birds. I check on them several times a day, watch them out the window, talk about their progress, and reassure the nervous mama bird who's not too thrilled with my interest. Sam generously pretends he doesn't see through this transparent case of transference--I have now equated this little aging nest with my own future. A little too on the nose, definitely, but undeniably relevant.
Within the week the first fledgling is teetering on the edge of the nest, exercising his wings and practicing his adulthood. Then he's gone. The other one follows a day or two later: first standing, then inching along the branch and flapping, and then she vanishes, too.
It's an old trope, that nest story and the final fledgling flights. It's a metaphor that concentrates on the loss imbedded in change: the vanished but still vulnerable babies, the hollow and empty nest. The emptiness was literal, in this case--they never came back to that nest, not the mama or her babies.
But here's what I noticed next: across the river, there they were, the mama and her newly independent and competent offspring. They were swooping through the air, delighting in their new abilities, calling to each other, gathering on a branch together for a time, taking off and soaring and returning again. Watching this bird saga I realized that for them the nest is like a cocoon, just an instrument for transformation toward something even more wonderful.
A few weeks later Sam left for Africa, the last of my three fledglings. Now he's exploring and stretching and finding out new things about himself and the world, as did my daughters when they launched.
When my mom was nearing the empty nest stage, her wise and wise-cracking friend told her "oh, honey. Cry for 15 minutes and then be happy for the rest of your life." Ultimately, that's our choice, really--how long we cry, how soon we decide to be happy. Sure enough, I was sad for a time--sad mostly for me and the end of that stage of my own development. My bird saga/obsession last summer gave me a new metaphor to embrace, or at least consider: join my kids in the joyful swooping. Why mourn at the shrine of the discarded remnants of their early stages--those paper-thin shedded cocoon skins and nest twigs--when we've got our very own tribe of vital, developing, interesting people to join us in the wide world?
Kids, I'll meet you at the branch across the river.
[This post also appeared on Nest & Launch]