A Short Story
By Julie Fonda
It felt like the dead of night when Mary awakened. The air, still and soundless to the casual listener, divulged none of its secret activity that, like clockwork every morning, ushered in the new day. Mary lay in bed, warm and cocoon-like, in somnambulistic limbo, waiting for the sun to materialize. She snuggled into her soft down comforter, surrendering to the fuzzy warmth of drowsiness and drifted back to sleep.
Later, as the sun began to peek over the horizon, Mary’s overgrown Persian cat went through her morning ritual of tiptoeing back and forth across the bed, softly purring the message, “Feed me! Feed me!” In Mary’s household there was an unspoken understanding between the species -- that the animals would love, entertain and comfort their humans if the humans would reciprocate by meeting their animals’ basic needs and providing for their creature comforts. It was time to get up and feed the cat.
As she shuffled in robe and slippers to the kitchen, Mary shivered involuntarily and flipped the heating switch on the thermostat. She hated to run the heater – propane was so expensive – but when she got out of bed and felt the chill in the air, she decided that today she would have heat. After all, you only lived once.
Mary’s husband had already left for work and Mary had the house all to herself. It was in this house that Mary and her husband had raised their children. But now the children were gone, and the house felt big and rattling and seemed to echo whenever Mary or her husband spoke.
As she leaned against the kitchen counter watching the brewed coffee drip into the coffee carafe, Mary folded her hands and reflected on the life that was hers, now that her children had gone off to build adult lives of their own. She missed the happy chaos of family life with teenagers running up and down the stairs at all hours of the day and night, talking on the phone, laughing and bantering back and forth. She missed having her children within reach to hug and joke with and love. When one of her children got married or went off to school, Mary would detach and isolate, and with each child that grew up and left, she drew into herself a little bit more. Until the last child left and it was just Mary and her aching heart.
Mary’s husband discerned the changes in his wife’s affect and the depression that had descended upon her like a dark cloud when the children had gone. He had expected some of this because his own mother had behaved similarly when he had gone off to college. So he had given his wife room to grow into this new reality and patiently waited for Mary to emerge from her slump. And though he had known that it was normal for a woman to grieve when her children left, still, it had saddened him to see his wife feeling so sad, so much of the time.
Mary poured coffee into her large coffee mug, sat down at the kitchen table and gazed outside distractedly, focusing on nothing. She sipped on her coffee as her thoughts drifted. Then something caught her eye.
Just outside the kitchen window was a pepper nut tree with long sweeping branches laced with a network of smaller and smaller branches and delicate leaves. On the closest branch was the beginning of a bird’s nest. Just as Mary was about to look away, a small, brown sparrow landed on the branch and deposited a tiny twig. Then another sparrow – this one with colors that were darker and more defined – landed on the same branch and dropped another twig into the little pile of sticks and twine. Over and over the two birds – that Mary had, by this time, determined were male and female – landed on the branch and added to the little pile of roughage until a nest began to take shape. Mary sat for a long time watching them, and as she did, her spirits lifted.
The next morning when Mary sat down to her coffee and looked out the kitchen window, there had been a considerable amount of progress on the nest, and the mother and father sparrows chirped and chattered noisily, hopping in and out of the nest with great excitement.
Day after day Mary watched her sparrows and their little drama unfolding outside her kitchen window. Soon there were eggs in the nest, and the mother and father bird took turns sitting on the nest, keeping the eggs warm. When the baby sparrows hatched, they strained their tiny necks with beaks in the air, and cried out for food.
The baby birds grew bigger and bigger. And then one day it was time for a flying lesson. The mother bird nudged her babies – one by one – out of the nest until they sat next to each other in a little row, teetering unsteadily forward and back. But none of them fell. The mother began pushing her babies off of their branch, and as she did, Mary held her breath and bit her lip. “Come on, little birdies. Fly! Fly!” And the little birds flew.
Soon, though, the babies were back in the nest, safe and secure, albeit somewhat cramped, because now the nest was almost too small. Mary knew that soon her little birds would have to leave. She muddled this thought restlessly and didn’t like the all-too-familiar way that it made her feel.
A few days later, when Mary sat down at the table and looked out the window, she noticed a breeze and the limbs of the tree swaying gracefully. Mary hoped that the wind would not knock any of the baby birds out of the nest. But when she checked the nest, all of the baby birds and their parents were gone. They had all flown away.
Mary sat for a moment in silence. Her eyes began to fill with tears that welled up and ran down her cheeks. The baby birds were gone, and so were her own babies. Mary wept long and hard for her losses which at that moment felt huge and profound, and yet – at the same time – strangely appropriate and fitting. Everyone grew up and left home to find their place in the world. To deny someone the chance to expand and grow and discover would be a huge injustice. Everyone must fulfill their instinctual desire to separate, individuate, and become part of the greater whole. Mary began to understand that leaving home was a right of passage common to all species, and that by allowing her children leave, she had given them the freedom to follow their dreams.
To everything there is a season. And on that day, Mary’s season of mourning finally came to an end.