More than Sparrows

Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge.   Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows .

(Matt 10:29-31)

Earlier this year a pair of robins built a nest just a few feet from our porch, so low that I didn’t even have to stand on tiptoe to see into it. We watched, enchanted, as the mother bird bravely kept the eggs from rain and cold. We checked each day to see that all three perfect blue eggs were still there. The babies finally hatched on Easter weekend. We never got tired of looking out the French doors to see if we could catch the mama and papa dropping worms into those little yellow beaks. For thirteen days an ordinary miracle happened so close to us that the little birds were practically part of our family. Then one brilliant Saturday morning they were gone. At first I panicked, thinking a neighborhood cat had gotten them. But there were no signs of a struggle, and a quick search on the internet informed me that baby robins leave the nest after a mere 13 days. The papa bird stays close for the first few days, coaching them in flying and finding food and shelter, while the mama bird begins working on a new nest for a new clutch of eggs. And later that day my heart lifted when I caught sight of two of our babies taking little hopping flights across the yard under their father’s watchful eye. The third missed the landing on its first fateful fall from the nest. Its body made a perfect arrow, beak pointing forward, little grey wings stretched out behind, on the ground below.

            Seeing that little body on the ground brought me back to another spring morning on this same porch, when we had just moved into the house over a decade ago. I was nursing my first baby, enjoying the sunshine after a stormy night. The maelstrom of getting sick soon after giving birth, moving into a new house with an infant in tow, and the overwhelming task of simply learning to care for a colicky newborn had left me with little time to dwell on my feelings about her birth. After months of reading, research, and planning for a “natural” birth, and weeks of drinking raspberry leaf tea, doing prenatal yoga, and trying every trick possible to go into labor, I had grudgingly consented to a cesarean when one by one all of my plans and efforts failed. I really wanted to fit my story into one of the two most prevalent narratives about c-sections; either the big bad doctor bullied me into an “unnecesarean,” or else the heroic doctor whisked me to the operating room just in time to save me and my baby’s lives. But the facts just didn’t fit. It wasn’t clear that a cesarean had been my only safe option, but it was equally unclear that it was unjustified, or that I could have safely given birth if I had been granted just a little more time or a little more freedom. The best I could settle on was that it had been a reasonable decision given the available information. That’s not very satisfying, but sometimes that’s the best you can do. You may never know if a decision was the “right” thing to do, because you can’t go back and see what would have happened had you done something else. Sitting on the porch that morning, thinking about the nest full of eggs I had seen on a fallen branch left in the gutter after the previous night’s storm, I started to question whether “natural” should even be synonymous with “good” when it comes to birth. After all, this is nature’s way. Baby birds fall out of nests, whole nests fall out of trees, and the springtime sun shines on heartlessly as the mama and papa birds move on to the next nest, the next set of babies, with hardly a moment’s pause to acknowledge the loss. Nature accepts a certain amount of collateral damage. Only humans resist. Sometimes we overplay our hand. Sometimes our attempts to circumvent death come with their own collateral damage. But when it is your own tiny baby on the line, trusting nature’s course doesn’t always seem wiser or more noble than trusting a stranger with a scalpel.

            My state and much of my country are in the process of loosening quarantine restrictions, even as infections and deaths from a novel virus continue to rise. I am not protesting. I am not arguing with friends who are celebrating the chance to do things they have missed for the past seven exceedingly long weeks. I am not jumping on every chance to criticize the missteps public officials have taken in responding to the pandemic or to publicly pick apart every decision they make. There is so much we don’t know. The consequences of choices we make today will only become clear with slow-unfolding time, while what might have happened had we made other choices will remain forever in the realm of speculation. But I won’t celebrate, either. I check the death toll from the virus every evening, not because I am frightened, or because I want to feel vindicated, but simply to bear witness. Under the noise and the arguments, this is happening. People are dying, often alone and afraid. We may or may not have been able to avoid this. We may or may not be able to mitigate future losses. Nature may have her way with us in the end, and imposing strict stay at home orders is as drastic a cure as cutting open a womb to pull a baby out. I don’t know what we should do, but I won’t look away. I won’t pretend that it is fine, that the loss of so many can be minimized by comparing it to other losses or shrugged off because so many of them were elderly or weak.

            I didn’t tell my children that one of our baby birds didn’t make it. My husband buried it quickly before they came outside for the day. I let their wonder at the empty nest and fluttering fledglings remain unmarred by grief. My kids haven’t been perfectly sheltered. They have seen death, have said goodbye to people we loved and wanted to keep with us longer. I cannot fix the world for them. Even if I had all the answers, I couldn’t force our government to act on them or my fellow citizens to accept them. But I will not, in this moment, give my children a lesson in accepting what they cannot change. Not yet.