One April morning, I found myself poking into a row of hedges with a tree branch at the most fragile creature in my home. “Get out! Get out!” I hissed at my clueless, deaf cat, Kiki. She was softly marching toward a cardinal’s nest which was under construction. I was alarmed at my hostile act towards an elderly cat who treated me like her personal armchair Buddha each time she nestled in my lap when I meditated. Was I like one of those temporarily insane people who, in an act of whiskey rage or lost love, made CNN headlines by tossing a Fifi or a Fido onto a busy freeway? Probably not, but there were reasons behind my furor towards Kiki.
I feared that she would screw up something that gave me hope and made my heart sing; a backyard event that tapped into my own human sorrows and my lifelong need for signs like doves that arrive with olive leaves in their beaks or like burning bushes in the middle of a desert. I may not live in the desert, but sometimes our patch of rubbly Texas soil in a Dallas suburb leaves much to be desired.
It is not eastward enough to yield the roses, pine trees and dogwood blossoms of Tyler. Our suburban lot sits two miles east of a water sewage treatment plant the teenagers call the Dookey Factory, and two miles west from a leg of Lake Ray Hubbard, a man-made lake with dead trees sticking up where jet skis and water-skiers used to roam. This land dries up in July, pulls itself away from the edges of the house and seems to tell the trees and grass, good luck suckers, you’re on your own. By August, the trees begin to sag and the only visitors are the dullest of birds like the shrieky grackle, the slick crow, and the ho-hum, slate grey pedestrian sparrow.
Two Christmases before the cat in the shrubbery incident, a handsome red male cardinal, and his plump grey wife with her orange comb and lipsticked beak came to visit. They often sat at the edge of the yard on the fence while my husband and I watched, enchanted, reading into their visits the most promising of reasons. They were better than the most articulate fortune cookie. Their visits meant problems would be solved, and natural disasters diverted. They left that first year before Valentine’s Day. When they came back the next Christmas we reveled in the good fortune they left behind the year before. One cousin completed drug rehab, another one was accepted into cosmetology school, and best of all, that year nobody died. Bills got paid, the new air conditioner unit worked out well, and we got a good interest rate on our refinance loan. Up in Denver a baby girl was born and over in Phoenix my sister got a new job.
When the cardinals returned, I would swear on a Bible, maybe, to two things. One, it was the same couple, and two, this time they were staying longer to check out the area as if they were tourists in Galveston looking at a timeshare condo. The female sat on the patio table, tilted her head and looked into our glass paned back door. Then she launched into a shrub that sits against the window of my reading room. This time, the lovers stayed past Valentine’s Day. Surely this meant they liked us, I thought.
When spring arrived the patio table became a launching pad for our lady cardinal. During her busy hours she headed straight into the very same shrub she and her lover scoped out during the holidays. She plucked up pieces of grass and twigs one at a time, zipping up and down into the foliage to build her nest. Her protective partner stood watch nearby. I was concerned that he was not pitching in, but too much contemplation of the potential gender inequity in the private lives of cardinals was a bit much.
Butter, a feral cat, Kiki’s distant step-cousin, which I fed and coaxed into affection for five years, often sat across the yard from the nest after dinner licking her paws with one eye watching the busy couple. She is a savvy huntress who outlived all the tomcats who piss on car tires and fight each other and moan at night for love. She is a gift giver who shows her appreciation by leaving dead birds on our porch. I was drunk on the miracle of spring love. I did not entertain any concerns about her presence. After all, there was a reason for the traditional roles the cardinals assumed. The male would protect his busy mama and scare intruders away.
Even my neighbor, Chet, understood. “We can’t mow the lawn,” I told him. “Cardinals are building a nest. Right next to my window!” “Wow,” he said, “wow.” Chet is not easily wowed when I see him at the end of the day, his feet tired and aching from working in his medical equipment business. He sees that in these parts, this is pretty sacred stuff. But I also see the other part of this cardinal’s nest hoopla. My heart, lonely from missing the having babies mark is my own personal spin doctor and can turn things like cardinal nests into events of biblical proportion or, at least, intent.
Everybody needs to be able to spin things, true or not. That’s how we get by. Like many young women in the 70s, I had good reasons to find happiness without the usual domestic pursuits. While I sat in my parent’s’ living room listening to Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark album on their console stereo, I imagined a poet’s life in a SoHo loft frequented by intermittent malcontent lovers. My mind entertained the works of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. But my gut remembered growing up in a home where the songs streaming through the house from my father’s record collection were ones like Ray Charles’ “Take These Chains from My Heart” and Eddy Arnold’s “Make the World Go Away.”
The chains on my father’s heart were the pull of a girlfriend in another city and his bondage to alcohol. The world he wished would go away was the home life he resisted with his Catholic wife and two daughters. A retired Marine with a charming smile and a deep desire to squash his demons with cases of vodka, he struggled to find his way, lugging us in a white Chevy Impala from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to Dallas. Released from the structure of military life and the travel options that enabled him to be apart from us he leapt from one job to the next - selling vacuum cleaners to making deliveries for a clothing store to owning a Jack in the Box restaurant. It was after John Kennedy died and before a man walked on the moon. It was before Prozac and Zoloft and after his decision to bear our family life while waiting to flee one day into the arms of his second wife.
After life in a home where marriage seemed like a federal penitentiary prison sentence without parole, I transitioned into my twenties believing that reaching age thirty might not happen. I was eleven when my father, in a fit of vodka-fueled anger, pinned me in the corner of the kitchen of our rent house on Santa Clara Drive in Dallas. He yanked up my head (filled with a love for kittens, pink ink pens and Nancy Drew books) like a bunch of radishes from dirt, and shook it with rage that was better suited for a rapist or a murderer instead of a girl who left the dishes out after drying them. He left behind a quiet voice in my psyche that warned me that I was marked in some way like a deer in the woods with a red laser light on its forehead.
When I fell head over heels in love with my husband, Laurie (with the same name as the one and only guy in Little Women) the fact that he had two almost grown kids and a vasectomy mattered little. I loved the gifts of married life: the way we ended our work days consoling and complaining, eating and drinking and debating over our political differences. When I did turn thirty, two years after my father divorced his second wife and shot himself in the head in a tiny house near his mother’s nursing home in Bastrop, Louisiana, I felt somehow safe. Raising a child seemed like a good idea.
Laurie endured a vasectomy reversal procedure that made him look as if a bevy of partygoers bearing baseball bats decided his private parts were a piñata. My love for him increased, but his sperm count did not. At the doctor’s office at Medical City in Dallas, I begged him to choose the doctor with the worst bedside manner in the hopes that this would somehow parlay itself into surgical prowess. Unapologetic and brief, a man with thin lips and little eyes, after telling us sperm was present during the surgery, simply said, “There’s no sperm. I thought there was. I saw it.”
We drew even closer to each other in this new grief. It was a private matter not freely discussed at dinners and pool parties. One day, while I worked as a law firm proofreader, the left side of my face froze. Then the vision in my left eye blurred as if I was looking through a rain streaked window. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I found many self-help books but none seemed capable of guiding me through this crisis. I had no idea how MS would play out. Would I be confined to a wheelchair one day like Annette Funicello? How could I keep my immune system from gnashing away at the protective myelin sheaths of my nervous system? Save for a few mildly successful medical suggestions, I could not. So I relied mostly on signs...the day-to-day events that make the immediate steps apparent for a while. I figured having babies was not in the cards.
When the cardinals began to build their nest, people in my school district began to retire from lengthy careers as principals, teachers and bus drivers. I was in the middle of my career in education which was filled with honors I interpreted as signs my path was good: Teacher of the Year of a large urban high school, leadership roles and promotions.
Their retirement parties were announced via emails with attached invitations bearing “end of the road” graphics. Vanilla sheet cakes with pastel icing were de rigeur along with fruity pink punch and video presentations spliced with music and goodbye speeches from tearful colleagues. Also present were younger partygoers who monitored the time on their Smartphones and who might have wished the punch was spiked with Everclear.
Daughters and sons, with their toddlers and teens, would gather around their parents as they gushed their gratitude and love for all who came. In those moments, I saw their children as the great eraser for bitter workplace feuds or angry moments. They were powerful, these fruits of their parents’ loins. And what came through, loud and clear, is that no matter how much of a jerk you’ve been in the throes of daily work, baby, you’ve got people. If your husband or wife dies and you start to wander outside in your underwear and take the neighbor’s mail, you’ve got someone to check you into an assisted living facility. And you will probably get homemade Christmas cards from your grandchildren.
After each party I became sad. Every day. Not in an anti-depressant, quick-fixable way. I felt naked and vulnerable in the face of colleagues who were flanked with children. And what is worse, with each passing day, the nest I defended against the wiles of my aging Kiki sat empty. The cardinals, my own sign of redemption, decided not to raise their family outside my reading room.
I looked for books in the Christian section of Amazon.com to address my sadness. Many were about women who persevered and after long stretches of obedience and prayer received babies sent as their manna from the heavens, their sign of God’s favor. They were also all very pretty. I wondered if this, too, might be important when conjuring up heavenly favors. Maybe not. But it probably helped to secure a book publishing contract.
One night, I resorted to a Google search of “childlessness.” I found a clinical article which discussed the vulnerability of the childless. I could figure out how to get out of the sadness that finally had a root. I decided to go outside to look at the stars. I opened the front door, and stared down the dark street. My feral feline, Butter, whom I neglected when the cardinals came on the scene, trotted down the street in the dark. I called her as I usually did in a soft, chiding way. She turned around and began to gallop toward me. I saw something dangling from her mouth. Dear god, was it a rat? What if it was a cardinal? She was anxious to share her prize as she raced to the light of the porch with the clumsy joy and velocity I have seen in scrawny children racing towards Turner Falls with inner tubes double their size.
Butter made her way to the porch and with a gift giver’s joy she dropped a tiny bunny at my feet with wide open eyes and some of its fur missing. It was too much! A baby taken from its mother? “Laurie, please come here, please, quick, there’s a rabbit on the porch. It’s hurt!” The bunny hopped into the house as I swatted a confused Butter away. I heard its tiny taps on the laminate floor. Laurie rambled down the hallway in his underwear, half asleep.
“Hunh?” he says. “Someone’s in the house?”
“Oh my god,” I tell Laurie, after lifting couches and chairs and piles of books. “What if it dies in the house?”
My world was once more turned upside down by a little creature. The irony of it did not escape me. Was this another sign? The next morning, Laurie left the back door open and watched from the garage. The bunny, unscathed from its capture and release, hopped out the back door alive and well. It found its refuge somewhere in my reading room, leaving its bunny poop behind my bookshelf.
An empty cardinals’ nest and a live bunny remind me that subscribing to the religion of signs does not always mean they will be the ones I want. But if I look deeper, I can find the meaning of my signs in a profession that seems more like a vocation. My work as a school district administrator consists of endless amounts of paperwork reports and the defense of legally based decisions that provide students with disabilities their rights to a free and appropriate public education otherwise known as FAPE.
Often, mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles or legal guardians show up at meetings frustrated and overwhelmed. They are upset, and seek advocacy in high dollar attorneys who agitate the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) team, extend the meeting over several weeks, and cost hundreds of dollars. When parents reach this place, it’s because they feel snubbed, minimized and rejected by teachers and principals, and maybe even God.
I get this. I may shudder at the endless discussions about paperwork, and the treachery of certain accusations. But give me a hurting, grieving mom or dad that feels on the outside, isolated and sometimes crazy; the parent whose child with autism is eight and has no words, whose face remains still and icy in the face of even the best birthday cake; or the father whose little boy may never drive a truck or play football, and I let me sit beside them. This is where my heart that is empty like the cardinals’ vacated nest serves its purpose. My heart has no ideas about how nice or happy or controlled a frustrated parent must be. It places no fences around a parent’s dreams or limits on their pain. More often than not, a contentious meeting is a healing one for the simplest reason: I accept parents where they are, in their daily sorrows which do not end but instead are renewed and aggravated by milestones unmet.
I hear stories daily of mothers and fathers who must fill their children with psychotropic cocktails of antidepressants, anti-seizure medicines, and stimulants so they can navigate through a school day without kicking their first grade teacher or destroying a computer lab. I talk to mothers whose hearts don’t break but softly erode when their children are suspended from school and the behavior plan isn’t working. Sometimes all that is needed is a heart like the cardinal’s nest that receives for a while and then releases. Maybe the cardinals did not leave their eggs to hatch. But their empty nest reminds me of what I do best - keep my own nest, my heart, open to the joys and sorrows of life.
As summer passes and fall begins, I do something I think may be sacrilege. I pull apart the shrubbery and lift out the nest, macaroon in its airiness, perfectly crafted for short stays, its only purpose to temporarily house and then — release. And this, I believe, is a sign. The true lesson of the nest, the heart of the nest, is letting go.