It is the first truly warm day of spring and New York’s migratory birds are returning by the thousands — ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, herons, catbirds, chipping and song sparrows, and so many more.
For me, the birds are a sign that no matter what else is going on in the small and volatile lives of humans, there are some things we can count on. Each yellowing goldfinch reminds me that, though life can be hard, winter eventually gives way to spring.
It wasn’t always this way. Before my daughter died in March 2017, I took the seasons — and the birds — for granted. It’s not that I didn’t notice them. I did, of course, but it was in the context of all the other things going on my life.
Sure, it was nice to pause and admire the emerging blossoms in early May and spot that first American robin hopping around on my lawn, but there was always so much to do — Easters, birthdays, and Mother’s Days, spring concerts, spring cleaning, and spring play dates outdoors. I was distracted with doing, with looking forward, and getting everything done so that I could move onto the next everything.
I acknowledged the changing seasons (briefly) before allowing them to fall into the background of my life because now wasn’t nearly as important as two weeks from now. This was my normal . I planned, then congratulated myself for my amazing ability to plan (or beat myself up for poor planning), then planned some more.
All of that changed when my 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.
She spent an entire September watching summer end and autumn begin from her hospital bed. We didn’t know when she’d be discharged — the early days of her illness were precarious as the doctors focused on keeping her alive and figuring out a treatment plan.
It literally happened overnight. First, we were hurrying through life, planning for the new school year to begin, then we fell off the edge of the world.
My family lived in a kind of timeless purgatory, where things we’d once taken for granted were no longer certain. But we could still watch the leaves begin to turn gold from the hospital’s many windows. We could still see the birds coming and going, preparing for their long journey south.
That was the year I began to change my expectations for normal.
Many years from now…
If you had told me back then, in the midst of that first six week hospital stay, that I would survive the awfulness of my daughter’s early diagnosis and treatment with my sanity intact, I would not have believed you.
If you told me, three years ago, that I would be here now, thinking about my daughter’s life with joy and looking forward to taking a nature walk with my husband and younger daughter, then I would have cut you out of my life.
I was not equipped to imagine the life of after. I could not picture myself living beyond the crippling grief and trauma of losing my child.
And yet, here I am.
When you are in the midst of the trauma — when you are, in fact, up to your neck in the salty muck of it — you are desperate to escape. The idea of getting back to normal is incredibly compelling, even when there is no logical path to the kind of normal you’re used to.
I think that’s where we are now in America.
The intoxicating temptation of the old normal
The life I had before Ana was diagnosed with cancer was based on a worldview that, for me, is completely gone. I moved forward — looked forward — with what I interpreted as intention. I filled every available scrap of time with tasks and plans and expectations. It was exhausting, but also familiar and even exhilarating.
I couldn’t imagine getting off that crazy train, even though I wasn’t always happy. The lens of memory has a way of blurring the bad parts of your life and bringing the good parts into full clarity.
Maybe I wasn’t happy. Maybe I even felt a little trapped, running on a treadmill I couldn’t escape because I had bills to pay and obligations to meet. But, I had both my kids, and my little family, and the certainty of my future. I thought I was free and that my freedom was a given. I thought I was the architect of my own destiny.
When cancer proved these assumptions wrong, it became the ultimate enemy. I personified cancer. I hated it with a venom typically reserved for war criminals and politicians.
All those battle metaphors suddenly made sense — we would beat this. She would win the fight. She would be a survivor. I would remain strong even though I felt like a prisoner at the mercy of her disease, a prisoner of the invisible war raging inside my daughter’s body.
The armed militia protesting the COVID-19 lockdowns in Michigan yesterday remind me of that kind of desperation — of the fear that someone or something was trying to take away my freedom.
Waiting isn’t that hard once you get used to it
Waiting sucks. Sometimes, waiting feels impossible, particularly if you’re used to doing what you want when you want. Waiting forces you to slow down and think about things that are hard — like what life actually looks like now, and what the impact of a deadly virus might mean in six, twelve, or eighteen months.
We are not birds. We have certain deep rooted expectations about the future that extend far beyond building the current season’s nest. But what if something happens that is so universally bad that there is literally no modern equivalent that we can use as a guide? It rips the rug out from under us, and there is simply no way to grasp what the future might look like if we actually survive to see it.
Waiting in the midst of uncertainty isn’t just hard, it’s agonizing. It strips us of any authority we had (or presumed to have) over our lives and our future. It can feel like a violation of freedom — the waiting at home, the wearing of masks, the inability to hold a loved one’s hand while they’re dying. It’s hard to see past the terrible things happening in this moment. That’s why it’s tempting to look back on what we want so much — normalcy, agency, control.
The desperate need to return to the way things were before a life-changing catastrophe is like a fog, obscuring our ability to move through this time with deliberation.
We want freedom. We want things to be the way they were. But we’re misleading ourselves when we assume that if we want it hard enough — if we deny, and scream, and raise our guns in protest — we can return to normal. We can’t return to normal, not after this.
What we can learn from birds and cancer
I got through the first forty days of my daughter’s cancer diagnosis by letting go of any misguided notion that I had control over the situation. I got through the next four years of cancer treatment — of hope and lost hope — by accepting that I could not change her reality and this includes the roughly eight months that she was officially considered terminal.
When she died, any possibility of my old normal disappeared. Just like when she’d been diagnosed, I found myself in a place where there were no roadmaps. I did not want to live because I missed her so much. It was impossible for me to look forward.
In the early days of after, it was the birds that saved me. The first spring without her is a haze of grief. I drifted through those days, taking note of the new spring growth with a kind of dull hatred. How could things come back to life with such vibrance when my daughter’s life had ended?
I noticed the birds as I sat in my yard throughout April and May. I listened to their chatter. I watched them build nests. I hung my first feeder up in July — a hummingbird feeder — and a family of hummingbirds settled in, content to sip on nectar as I sat outside and examined the pieces of my new life without trying to put them back together again.
The birds were busy raising fledglings, then molting, then flying south or preparing to hunker down for winter. The birds had purpose without expectation. They kept on living in spite of constant danger and hardship and loss. The birds were the first thing I looked forward to after my daughter died. The birds are why I don’t hate spring anymore.
After the first few seasons of watching them, I began to slowly rebuild my life. The life I have now is not the one I anticipated before my daughter got sick. It is a patchwork life, a shattered and reassembled life, and a life based on a completely different worldview. And you know what? That’s okay.
What’s happening now with the virus feels a lot like the early days of Ana’s diagnosis. The waiting feels impossible for so many people who are scared about what life will look like once we’re able to get back to the business of living. But, this will eventually be over. The new normal might look a lot different from the old normal, and that’s a reality we can’t control.
Right now, there are a dozen goldfinches in my nectarine tree. They’re as oblivious to this virus as they are to their own future. They’re busily pairing off, building nests, and raising young. I hope you, like me, can take some comfort in the fact that this is a dance they’ve been doing for centuries. Certainty was never a given, not for us or for the birds.
These tiny creatures have a lot to teach us, and now is a great time to sit back and learn from them.