My daughter was born during a cold and snowy winter. We lived by the water in a second-floor apartment, and I can still hear the scraping rhythm of her dad shoveling the long driveway while we looked down from our warm perch. Spring came like it always does, as an affront and a relief, crocuses and mud and stark sunshine. Every day I bundled her up and walked the two mile loop over cracked sidewalks that gave way to beautiful homes and smoother sidewalks and onto the boardwalk along Long Island Sound.
The geese and ducks return first. Then osprey swoop and dive, chased by groups of little birds trying to protect their nests. As the air warms, cormorants arrive and perform their hide-and-seek magic, diving deep and popping up again twenty feet away. Summer isn’t promised until the egrets appear in the estuary, long white elegance rising from the mud. Last come the regal great blue herons.
The birds’ arrival mean babies are coming. Not all of them make it. Sick or fallen or pursued by an osprey, casualties are inevitable. There would always be a few dead baby birds on the sidewalk or nearby in the grass next to beach roses waiting to bloom. One of those stark-sun days, pushing my little bundle in the stroller, we came upon a tiny, featherless creature on the sidewalk, so newly fallen its big eyes blinked and its beak mouthed a silent plea. I was tortured. I should have moved the doomed creature to the grass and offered up a hopeful prayer that its mother might rescue it. But I was a fragile new mother who couldn’t accept even the smallest death.
I felt panicky as I carefully scooped the bird into my left hand, transparent skin pulsing in my palm. I imagined my warmth was comforting as I pushed the heavy stroller with my right hand and balanced the bird in my left, still a mile to go, fearful of bird germs near my baby and not having any idea what I’d do when I finally got home. I jerked the stroller one-handed off the curb and back into the neighborhood, over sidewalks cracked from frost heaves and tree roots, my left arm outstretched with my palm up like an offering. The baby bird was still breathing and blindly searching the air the way every baby does.
At home I laid it gently under our holly bush. I needed to wash my hands and get my own baby upstairs before I could figure out what to do. I called my husband and a friend for advice, looked online, still pretending I could save it. When I made it back downstairs an hour later to check under the holly bush, it was being devoured by ants.
New motherhood felt raw and vulnerable. My entire being contracted with fierce protection, a myopic laser vision focused on my daughter. But inside, an expansive empathy spread and extended to every living thing, especially the small and helpless. Most days my world did not go beyond that two mile radius, but my internal landscape stretched out like a western vista, big sky country reaching up into my heart.