Outside my screened porch is a row of rhododendron shrubs as old as my 60-year-old house. Originally planted when our home was the newest on the block, they were once plump, covered from bottom to top in thick, dark green leaves.
Outside my screened porch is a row of rhododendron shrubs as old as my 60-year-old house. Originally planted when our home was the newest on the block, they were once plump, covered from the bottom to top in thick, dark green leaves.
Now that my house is surrounded by other houses, the deer that graze in our yard have shaped the eight-foot-high rhododendron into trees. They eat as high as they can, rising onto hind legs in winter when green is hard to find, leaving only the tops of the plants with enough leaves and buds to make them worthwhile. It is in those upper areas of these once glorious shrubs that a family of robins makes its home every year, as inevitably as spring itself.
The ﬁrst sign of this ritual is exciting for my young sons, though it invariably leaves me melancholy. Each year, I know that blue eggs will appear, that they will crack and tiny, featherless creatures will appear. The mother will do her best, dodging the neighbor’s cat to retrieve worms, only to discover that one of her young has disappeared.
In the seven years we’ve lived here, out of four birds, two usually survive. My sons have no idea why this upsets me because for them this unfolding scene is like a real-life version of a nature program. For them, death is something unfortunate that happens to some baby birds, to one of the chicks they hatched in kindergarten, to the chipmunk we once saw carried away by a white-tailed hawk, the flattened garter snake on their walk home from the bus, or the deer that got caught in the headlights and ended up a jumbled mass of limbs and fur on the shoulder of the winding road.
I remember thinking the way they do. Where I grew up, houses were surrounded by more concrete than grass, and sparrows were forced to make their homes within the confines of the man-made environment. They, too, had a favorite nesting spot and it was over an electrical box on the side of my house.
Come spring, my elder sister and I would scoop up the bald bodies that fell onto the concrete, looking closely at their triangular beaks, heavy heads, closed eyes, and translucent skin over pink-and-blue insides. The birds were given a proper burial under the bushes on the side of our house, complete with a twig cross so that their graveyards would go undisturbed.
We were sad, on a certain level, but also intrigued to have such a close-up view. Children are small adults, and, I think, even more attracted to the morbid nature of death because they have not yet developed a real conception of mortality. Calling your sister to see a dead bird, a squished worm, or a squirrel that got hit by a car may sound heartless, but this was how we learned about nature and were introduced to the equalizing power of death, though we were unaware of both at the time.
No matter how beautiful that squirrel man have been, with its long fluffy tail, no matter how acrobatic, as it leapt bravely from telephone wire to oak tree, death made it all unimportant. Dead, he was just another squirrel.
With the birth of each son, I remember listening to their breathing, after a long drink of breast milk would send them into a torpor. As toddlers, I worried about them choking, and once expressed my fear to a seasoned mother and grandmother. “All you have to do,” she said nonchalantly, “is reach down in their throats and pull it out.” I took comfort in such simple wisdom. (Well of course, why didn’t I think of that?)
But unfortunately that advice didn’t apply to so many other apprehensions that would await me. Now I understand why my mother could never really sleep when I would come home at 4 in the morning. Even though I often find myself imagining the worst, I’m always slightly surprised. I’ve considered myself a positive person, but have become paranoid, imagining worst-case scenarios, even if I don’t express them. It is the blessing and the curse called mother’s intuition.
My husband does not have this trait. Sometimes I shudder to hear that he and my sons have just climbed a huge outcropping (without helmets) or that he let them ride their bikes alone to the end of our dead-end street (there are blind curves and our neighbors’ I8-year-old children at the wheel). I can’t imagine giving my sons, who love the adrenaline rush of speed and danger, the keys to a car, or putting them, alone, on a plane to Europe or Asia. Yet I also know that that, too, will be inevitable.
Last spring my husband’s best friend and his wife visited, just in time for a ringside seat at the nest. They had just lost a baby after eight months in the womb and were recovering psychologically. She was recovering physically, as well. The doctors had induced her to deliver a child they already knew was dead.
As if on cue, we watched as the mother robin returned with a worm and dropped it into opened beaks. One of the four babies appeared listless, and, after his mother’s repeated visits to the nest, began to be pushed aside. Eventually, its wing hung over the edge, its limp body shoved by the movements of its hungry siblings. “Look, that one’s dead,” my younger son blurted out.
I was embarrassed by the bluntness of his observation, but he was ignorant of their loss, and even if he was old enough to understand it, the comment was made innocently enough. I choked back a tear, but her reaction strengthened me. “Oh yes,” she said, “He is dead isn’t he,” and watched with my sons as the bird fell out of the nest and onto the dirt.
A former reporter at The Star, Joanne Furio spends part of each summer in Sag Harbor