It’s July, 2018, and here in western Massachusetts we’re in the middle of a heatwave—98 degrees every day this week and the humidity is traumatic. Everyone is pasted with a gluey sweat. In my house, we have only one air conditioner, in the living room; the rest of the house is purgatory—you just have to sit there and wait it out while hot, dead air fills your lungs. It’s also the week the kids and I move out of the house we’ve lived in for the last 13 years, so we are weighed down, too, by impending loss. Boxes line most of the walls, we sit at makeshift chairs, the dining room table is gone, the couch, and I’ve packed all but four plates and four mugs for us to use in the coming days. Not to mention all the objects we’ve connected ourselves to over the years are sold or thrown away now: the stuffed animals, picture frames, blankets, trophies. Last week, we had a big party; friends and family came to say goodbye to the house and reminisced with us in ritual fashion—here is where we had the crib, here is where the hamster is buried. It was good, but over now. The kids and I are mostly quiet, as I imagine most souls are in purgatory, as we pad through these final days waiting for whatever comes.
Just 40 miles south is my brother’s house, a huge Victorian with plenty of room to share with me and the kids. While this is technically a lateral move, a part of me feels I failed. That dream I once had about cultivating a traditional kind of home and family seems to have been just a dream, the model itself misguided and nearly impossible to maintain. Their father is gone after the divorce, I can’t afford the house, or any house, on my own, and though there is no reason to feel ashamed—we have accomplished a lot in the last 13 years—we leave with our heads slightly bowed.
During this time, I find myself stopped in the heavy heat thinking about my father, specifically how I inherited his fascination with birds. Besides being a brilliant mathematician—one of those who hunches over a notebook scribbling equations far into the night—he was an avid bird lover, not the kind who knows all the names of all the species and subsets of birds or mimics their calls or travels any distance to spy them with binoculars. My dad appreciated birds as fellow beings, creatures who flew, sang, mated for life, and built nests. They’re not so different from us, he would say with his eyes towards the branches. Forever inquisitive, he’d ask What do you think they are thinking?
My father, for all his brains and accomplishments, was a gentle person, and as such, admired the tiny-ness of birds, their frailty, as if in frailty was tenderness and inside tenderness, a whole universe.
Growing up, there were several bird feeders nestled in the trees of our yard and one hanging in front of the large picture window in our living room so that all year long we had a bird-viewing station 24/7. I would lie on the couch and watch them feed for hours in the lazy eternity of my youth, no kids to play with in the neighborhood, done reading my books for the day. In winter, my dad, even when he was fully whited-out by dementia, would put on his moccasins and, without a coat or hat, go outside to fill all the feeders and scatter seed on the snow, in case the squirrels or the larger blackbirds needed some. That is my clearest image of him now, his silhouette against the gray sky ankle-deep in snow, throwing what seemed to me to be tiny care packages—like those thrown from planes during famine. As a scientist, he understood his membership in the great web that connects everything, and he knew this small act of feeding the birds could have rippling effects.
When he was about 53, my dad lost his job as an aerospace engineer. He came into my room when I was a distracted fifteen years old and told me the news. I think there had been a number of terminations for budget purposes, but I also knew my father was generally misunderstood. He was brilliant but lacked social acumen, which kept him an outsider in office politics and probably made him an easy target for a lay-off. Normally gregarious and proud of his work, that day, seated on my red beanbag chair, he was introspective and asked what I thought he should do. I told him this was an opportunity to do something new or to go back to teaching, a job he loved when he was younger. I remember my hopeful earnestness that day, how, from the perspective of youth, I believed the future was his if he wanted it. He agreed, but with less enthusiasm. After some time, he did manage to land a teaching job at the University of Connecticut, and I think he enjoyed it. But it didn’t last long, and within five years, he retired.
The loss of his job didn’t cause us to move, and my life didn’t change, really, other than I watched my father slump into a depression in retirement. Seated in the driveway of our wooded property for hours watching the birds, he openly lamented his lack of usefulness in the world. It was hard to witness. He was a man who had worked on space stations, studied acid rain, worked on the first computers. I’m going to die soon, he’d say, I can feel it. And when I die, I want to come back as a small bird.
Despite such predictions, my father lived there in that house, feeding the birds and reading books till he was 80. He wasn’t always depressed either. Over time, he became resigned to what he thought of as the most important time of his life being behind him, and he found happiness in small things: the birds, of course, but also nature of all kinds, the tiniest blade of grass to the awesomeness of the planets. Then came the slow onset of dementia, which he suffered with for nearly ten years.
I’m five years younger than my dad was when he lost his job, with much fewer achievements. And here I am in the backyard of my soon-to-be ex-home writing in my blog, which I aptly named “Why Are the Birds Here?” That question looms today. While birds begged scientific and wondrous musings from my father, for me, they arrive as various metaphors or as messengers with the sole purpose of guiding me, my father somewhere deep inside each and every one.
The ability to fly, clearly, is their most compelling feature. As humans, we try to imagine the sheer freedom flight brings and how that kind of freedom would change how we feel about the world and ourselves. We’ve created facsimiles, yes, but we all know it’s not the same. Yet birds, who need not be bound by anything because of flight, temper their freedom with nesting, mating for life, and traveling in community. These two ideas: the desire for freedom and the importance of home and family are what I am toggling between today. Am I creating more freedom in my life by letting go of old notions and by pulling myself away from relationships that don’t serve? Am I building a good nest and tying myself to community in a way that benefits my children and me as we grow older and change? I think I am. I hope I am.
The other question I have is did my dad do these things? And if he didn’t, did they lead to his depression and dementia? One can never know if one predetermined the other, of course, but if a bird stops flying, what happens to it? If a bird is alone, how does it change?
Studies of island birds show that once a bird is no longer in danger from predators or from lack of food, it slowly and naturally loses the ability to fly. Danger, it seems, encourages flight. Lack of danger brings birds to the ground, and the ground has enormous pull. The science also shows that take-off is the part of flying requiring the most energy and muscle, and when birds are not scared or in need, the intensity of take-off diminishes, therefore reducing muscle mass. Diminished wings and elongated legs follow.
I think it’s true that my situation is different from my dad’s. As a divorced mother who spent much of her married life earning less than a living wage so she could care for children while her partner earned their keep, the danger of poverty and homelessness is very real. I need to leave this house, I need to get to the next, better place or else something bad will happen. Mating for life didn’t work out in my case. But, my father had my mother who still worked and kept the home running, so his basic needs were always met, and he did not need to flap furiously to find alternate accommodations to keep us all well. Could this lack of danger have been the thing that stopped his forward motion? Could mating for life have hindered him instead of let him grow?
I’m sure the answer is not that reductive. Mating for life, in humans, has its positives and negatives. And one certainly can be in more danger inside a marriage that out of it. So, what are the birds telling me about marriage? It’s not clear.
But birds also require their flock. Being in a flock reduces threats of danger and provides community. In turn, community provides well-being. Many studies show that when birds are kept as pets alone in a cage, for example, they develop all sorts of mental disorders. Experts say the squawking and pecking intrinsic to pet birds are symptoms of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
When I was married, my husband slowly alienated himself from our friends, blaming his work, which took up a significant amount of his time and energy. When we divorced, after a brief stint with his sister, he lived alone in a small apartment, opting only to see the kids for a few hours a week. Soon he complained of intense loneliness and became extremely agitated and angry. It’s clear now, three years later, that his mental capacity has severely diminished. He often doesn’t make cohesive sense when he speaks and his logic is crooked and turned around. This has caused him to make financially bad decisions, and he has taken up residence in a romantic relationship that is volatile and draining.
Although my father was not left alone by the loss of his job by any means, he did, like my ex, become detached from community when he became a family man. And with his work and colleagues gone, his world became a lot smaller. A scientist and intellectual, he spent most of his free time in his head, which I am sure was a brilliant, amazing place, but he was largely alone there. I hate to admit it now, but when he attempted to share that world with his family, pointing out the intricacies of the clouds or the potential of harnessing the speed of light, we were not fully able to appreciate it, having our own lives to lead. Not being as brilliant and creative as he was, we were also entrenched in a kind of linear thinking that mocked the wondrous notions he shared.
He didn’t become angry. My dad was not hard-wired for anger, but perhaps we could label it disappointment, and eventually, he lived as if on his own island alone. In this way, it’s easy to connect the dots from loss of job to an aloneness that brought on the depression and, ultimately, the dementia. It’s easy, too, to understand why he wanted to come back as a bird when he died.
Luckily, perhaps because he did have a loving family, my father never lost his desire to be a part of the connected universe. He fed the birds for as long as he could, and he died sitting outside underneath the trees.
For a while, a single cardinal called my backyard home. I’d watch it stand on the lawn a few feet away from a squirrel and think how lovely it was the two lived so harmoniously, the ratty, squabbly squirrel and the brilliant bird, and how lucky I was just to witness them. I’d watch the cardinal during winter too, its red feathers blazing against the snow, and think about the beauty in that juxtaposition and of how my father’s beautiful mind was blanketed with white in dementia but for the birds. Of course, I’d think maybe it was my dad come to watch over me, his wish come true, but I never stayed there long. In fact, it probably wasn’t a single bird at all but a family of birds all a part of a meaningful infrastructure dependent on all of us to survive.
Now, here at the edge of my own newly imagined future, I am so grateful to have been in danger and to be experiencing lift-off, as it were. I am grateful, too, for my brother and his fiancé who instinctually opened their nest because they too understand that inside tenderness is the whole universe, like a great net that holds everything together, and how one small act of tenderness has rippling effects.