When I was 15, people I admired the most were 25-30. I wanted to hang out with them, to be like them, to learn from them, but more than anything else, I wanted them to think I was cool.
Last weekend, someone I know who is 40 sent me a snapshot of a request to follow they received on Instagram from a 15-year-old we both know. The 40-year-old said, “Aww! I feel like an officially cool person right about now.”
It struck me that I had no idea, when I was 15, that the feeling sometimes worked both ways. Few things on earth feel better than the attention of people we admire.
In the spring, when pandemic wave one was beginning to rage and the fear of the unknown sat upon us all, I saw a robin on my fence. We looked at each other, her red breast shining against the far leaves in the neighbor’s yard, and she flew away.
A few days later I was surprised to see her in the grass, and I knew it was her by the pattern on her wings. She hopped around, stuck her beak in the soil, looked up at me. There was grace in her motion—politeness and gratitude. She seemed kind.
When I started seeing her daily I wondered why she liked our yard so much. Then, one afternoon, she flew up to a high bough on the crabapple tree and landed on a nest I then saw for the first time. A chorus of demand and thanksgiving erupted from the young beaks that drove her labor.
It all made sense now: She was a mother. She spent her day serving. This explained her innate tenderness and the sense that if she could speak she would say something friendly to me. I started talking to her to ease her caution.
The world around us closed to mitigate the spread of the virus; I stayed outside with my family to mitigate our cabin fever. We shared three meals a day at the picnic table, and every meal, we looked on as Mother Robin ran food to her own table. Our boy chattered about dinosaurs; the chicks shouted through the leaves.
One day I watched as a chick chirped and Mother Robin came in response. The chick stuck his tail feathers into the air while she caught his excrement in her beak, flew it away from the nest, and dropped it on the other side of the yard. It was unsettling, but I was impressed by the cleanliness and self-sacrifice.
It struck me: we parents in the house aren’t the only ones constantly feeding, constantly cleaning, constantly being called upon for more and more.
A few more robins appeared in the lawn, smaller and speckle-chested. Wherever they landed, they sat stunned. Flying is intimidating. They let us approach until we could reach out and touch them, but we never did, except for the time I used a glove to get the little one off the fence after he had perched there for more than 6 hours. It wasn’t 2 minutes before Mother Robin landed where the chick had been, food in her beak, throwing glances at me. This was the loudest she ever spoke to me, but still she was gentle. She found him seconds later.
And one day, they were gone.
The young she bore and nurtured and fretted over had flown away to face this world on their own, to escape the feral cats, and to compete with bully grackles for food. Mother Robin apparently had no reason to stay.
Mother Robin, would you believe that an ache came into my heart when you left? And I am a full grown man. It humiliates me to admit that—other men derive pleasure from slaughtering elk and bears for trophies—but it’s true. I miss the peace you brought, which was so out of proportion to your size. For all I know, you thought nothing of me, or maybe you thought I was a threat to avoid.
You don’t know the light and peace you brought to me in this tumultuous year, in a time when I needed it. Your presence showed me we will survive, even if it hurts, and even if we must strain move forward.
You showed me also that we are not alone in the humble toil of caring for offspring. In my duty to bear with the cry for more from those in my nest, I am blessed.
It was not below you to spend your days tending your home while other birds around you lived more adventurously. Hawks chased field mice through the swaying grains, swans drifted across lakes in romance, starlings inked the sky with jet black murmurations—you hopped about our half-dead bermuda, feeding crying babies.
You never complained or showed disdain for your lot. You searched and ran and fed and cleaned, and you looked at me, a menace, with light in your eyes.
I hope you stay warm this coming winter. I’ll be inside doing the same.