I think the most mysterious thing about the idea of an afterlife is that, even if there is one, the person we once knew isn’t just hanging around somewhere else, wearing her favorite Christmas sweater and reading Robert Benchley essays and growing lupines. In the afterlife, one assumes, the soul might be intact somewhere but, disembodied, becomes something we can’t imagine – no longer a part of us, no longer a concrete, identifiable something with shared memories and an interest in what we’re having for Sunday dinner.
So when the bird started to build her nest, twig by twig, on the interior molding of our front porch on June 26th or so, I must admit that she stirred in me a ridiculous hope: that this small, identifiable being – gray with a white breast, tiny, and extremely busy – was my mother, come just two days after her death to bid us farewell.
My husband spent several exasperated days trying to chase the bird away. He had already knocked down one partially built nest, and when another was attempted he got rid of it and saturated the bird’s chosen spot with cleaning fluid as a final deterrent. On the 1st of July, when he left for a week out of town, he said in no uncertain terms that I was not to let the bird build its nest there – he didn’t want it making a mess. I agreed, but with absolutely no intention of doing anything about it. My mother had just died; I had bigger fish to fry.
My old friend Martha – who had lost both of her parents in the past five years – arrived and while I was working she spent the days with my kids, then aged 7 and 9, playing games and reading books. In the evenings, Martha and I sat on the front porch drinking wine and watching our industrious bird friend build her nest. While she worked, we often talked to her, asking her how it was going but also giving her a lot of space and respect; she had a mission. And she was clever. She built her nest across from the one living room window through which she could see the goings-on inside the house. One window to the right, she would have seen only the back of the head of whoever might be watching television. One window to the left, she would have looked into a room that wasn’t much used. But through the window she chose she could see the open space on our living room floor where the kids and I played Parcheesi or did puzzles – and we could see her. When we looked out, it seemed she was looking in on us.
Martha left and my husband returned to find the nest completed. I convinced him that the bird must have laid eggs by then so it would be heartless to remove it. He relented. Summer wore on, she remained. My two siblings and I were planning a mid-August memorial service for my mother, having waited until friends and relatives from far-flung parts of the globe could all be there. The bird grew more and more protective of her nest but one day, when she wasn’t about, I stood on a stool and peeked in. There were three pale eggs. Not long after, the babies arrived. I often sat on the porch in the evenings as she fluttered and fussed over them. She didn’t seem to mind me much at all, as long as I sat very still. I could see their three heads; see her tending carefully to them as they grew. The kids and I continued our game nights on the floor in the living room – I found myself wanting to be there for her just in case she was trying to see us. Just in case she was my mother (and parenthetically, in case the three babies were my brother, my sister, and me, but that created a little bit of a space-time continuum issue for me, so I quickly dismissed it).
The weekend of the memorial service arrived and a cookout was planned at our house on Friday evening. On Friday morning when I left for work, the bird family was still there. When I came home, they were gone. An hour later, our first guests arrived, cousins from South Carolina who hadn’t seen my mother in years but had remained eternally grateful to her for tending to them when their own parents did not. Friends and relatives touched down in a steady stream as we commiserated and celebrated in equal measure. When the weekend was over, with guests, mother bird and her children gone, it felt like the end of a chapter, like a completely full emptiness.
The bird family may have lived in our yard that year, and years following, but they never came back to the nest. Never before that June, and never since, has a bird tried to build a nest on our porch. It was only that summer, the summer of loss, the summer of Parcheesi on the cool, hardwood floor, of Martha’s comforting company and of finding hope in the sweet, bodily presence of my growing children that the bird alit and in some small way watched over us as we soldiered through those days together. This bird, who, like my scrappy mother – the fourth of five children growing up in a rag-tag coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, who at nine almost died of rheumatic fever, who was first-generation college, and an adventurer who taught herself both to drive and to surf - was determined to build her nest, create her family, and then let them go.
Three years later, I removed the nest from the porch and put it in a plastic bag. It lives upstairs, in my father’s old desk, in one of the many tiny drawers that fascinated me as a child. When I take it out and look at it, I am reminded of the importance of hard work, of building something from nothing, protecting it from outside forces, and holding fast to it. It also makes me smile; no one would have laughed harder at me than my mother over this outlandish but nevertheless unavoidable suspicion that she had somehow been recast as a bird and spent the summer spying on us. Finally, it brings to mind all of the houses that our mothers and fathers have built – that we as mothers and fathers continue to build – weaving them together out of twigs and twine, hope and sadness; loving this life, and passing it on.
Director of Outreach