In this story, I will attempt to weave together a stale Nutrigrain bar, a trip to Bermuda, the loneliness of mothering, two sparrows, and an Anglo-Saxon parable from the Venerable Bede. Hold on to your butts, kids, because THIS is where a liberal arts degree can take you…
Last week, I took the two littles to the beach for a week. And you know how–even on vacation–you’re still The Mom? Butt wiping, breakfast fixing, tantrum abiding, sunscreen applying Mom. I hit a point on Wednesday when the black cloud of sadness that nips at my heels caught up with me, all because of a stale Nutrigrain bar. When I asked Carlos if he wanted Cheeries for breakfast, he said “Yes!”…but he didn’t eat them. So I gave him some grapes, which he stomped into the carpet. So I asked him if he would eat a cereal bar and he said, “YES!” He didn’t. He smeared it into the rented yellow couch and giggled.
It broke me. My motherator locked up.
I retreated to my bedroom where, in the space of two minutes, my frustrating morning escalated into a sobbing fit. “I will die alone. No one gives a shit about me. Why should they? I can’t even feed my kids. I suck at taking care of them. No one takes care of ME. I am so tired and lonely and tired of being lonely and this is just the way life is and you might as well suck it up. This is as good as it gets. You are born alone, you die alone, with some yammering and distraction in between. Oh, and you’re overweight, you haven’t written in a week and that spot on your belly is probably ringworm.”
At that moment, in that despair, I saw my life as this long string of me waiting to be handed whatever was left over, whatever was unwanted, whatever was not quite good enough.
I was still holding the remains of the Nutrigrain bar. Instead of wiping it into the wastebasket, I slid open the glass door and stepped out onto the balcony. I crumbled the apple filling onto the glass-topped cafe table then stepped back inside. I took a deep breath and sank into the rented yellow chair to stare listlessly out the window from the air-conditioned comfort of my room. Because when you’re going to have a snot-slinging fit about how miserable your life is, it’s best to do it while enjoying the view from a beachfront condo while your two healthy kids watch PBSKids in the other room.
Within a few minutes, a sparrow hopped onto the balcony railing then down to the table. She pecked at the crumbs before flitting away. She came back with a companion and the two of them made a feast from my leftovers. The smashed cereal bar that had broken my spirit–to them it was a banquet beyond imagining.
As I watched them reveling in their treasure, I remembered a little sparrow from Bermuda, when Richard and I went there for the first time in about 2002, maybe 2003. We stayed at a fantastic resort called The Reefs in a cliffside room. One morning, a sparrow perched on our balcony. It hopped down to the terra cotta tile floor to search for crumbs. I noticed that one of its legs was misshapen. It stuck out to the side at a painful angle, but it didn’t seem to slow the little bird down. That leg was the leg the bird had been given–what choice did it have? We named the little bird “Gimpy” and we adopted him as our own pet project.
For the rest of the week, I smuggled scones, dinner rolls, breadsticks, tea sandwiches and biscuits back to our room to feed Gimpy. There was a German waitress at the dinner service who saw me wrapping rolls in a linen napkin. When I told her why I was doing it, she brought a basket of rolls from the kitchen and whispered, “For your leetle buhd.”
I was sad to leave Gimpy, but it’s not like we could take him with us. He had to live his life, a life of crumbs, but a life of crumbs in Berumda. We had to leave him to that, to love him as best we could, while we could, then we had to go our way.
Now, you Christians are probably humming, “I sing because I’m happy! I sing because I’m free! His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me!” I love that song. But here’s another thought on sparrows and eternity and whether or not we matter.
The Venerable Bede, a monk from Anglo-Saxon England, wrote this story in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (circa 627, so he’s not on Twitter @VenerableBede):
“When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your lords and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”
All we get is this swift flight through a warm hall, picking up the crumbs from a great feast. It can be enough. We make joy for ourselves by feeding frail birds on stolen bread. We make a life from crumbs. We keep flying.
Imagine the delight Richard and I felt when we returned to The Reefs six months later and found Gimpy alive and kicking on the terrace. That was a good day, a sweet day. We stood there on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a vast ocean, in the last year of our life together, and we laughed into the wind because our little bird lived.
That’s the story that came to me last week. I flew out of that dark place on sparrow’s wings.