With fists, with words, with kindness
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They come during the first week of quarantine, flitting from fence post to fence post, hovering around a decorative hollow gourd my wife hung with no thought that birds might make it a home. It’s a gift someone gave her in a time before we met, in a prior life Deedra calls a “fifteen-year mistake.” She’s never cared for the gourd’s pear-like shape or the sunflower drawn on its surface, but it made its way across the country, the way lots of useless things did, to our new home in a new state.
My wife at the kitchen window says in a shrill voice, “There’s something blue, something blue!” I am playing stuffed-animal hospital with Bodhi, our three-year-old son, who has brought an injured giraffe to me, the doctor, to heal. Hearing his mother’s excitement, Bodhi runs to her legs — “Where? Where?” — and bounces up and down until she picks him up and points out the window.
I think they’re probably blue jays: loud, obnoxious, and common in Ohio. “Probably blue jays,” I say. “They’re loud, obnoxious, and common in Ohio.”
But they aren’t.
Bluebirds. Two of them. A male and a female. Each on its own perch, surveying the small gourd like newlyweds who’ve found the perfect home.
Our house is in a subdivision absent of trees. No leaves to rake, we said when we bought it. Low-maintenance living, we said. To the south of us is the industrial part of town: concrete and rust and trains and trucks. It’s an area that shouldn’t attract birds, let alone bluebirds, but as a housewarming present I bought Deedra a bird feeder. Within a few weeks she bought three more.
My wife is new to the world of birds and asks me every so often, “What type of bird is that?” I am a former birder and keep a bird-guide app on my phone. My fancy binoculars sit on the kitchen-window ledge, where my wife will occasionally pick them up and scan the feeders.
Eight months ago everything was new. Our home was new. My job was new. Bodhi’s preschool was new. We built a new deck on the new house. Even winter was new to us, after living so long in Florida.
The virus, too, is new, and hard to understand.
“Why can’t I go to school?” Bodhi asks.
“Why can’t I play with the neighbors?”
“Why do people wear masks?”
“Why do I have to wash my hands all the time?”
I explain as best I can, but I can’t make sense of it either. If I spend too long thinking about it, fear lifts the lid of my brain and climbs in to stay. To distract myself, I spend my days on the deck watching the birds.
The house sparrows have taken over our neighbor’s blue spruce, about twenty feet from the feeders. They fly in and out of the shadowed branches. House sparrows are the birds that follow you at zoos or amusement parks and are bold enough to take a french fry straight from a child’s fingers. You never see just one, but many. In the morning they sound like a massive choir. They take turns at the feeders, but if one lingers too long, the others — usually males — will jabber insults until the offender leaves. I have a secret nickname for the house sparrows: Little A-holes.
The house finches are black-oil-sunflower-seed addicts. Deedra fills a two-foot feeder in the morning, and by the end of the day it’s depleted, the ground littered with hulls. None of the other food matters to them — not the songbird mix, the suet, the peanuts. They are like my son, who eats nothing but microwavable mac and cheese. Unlike my son, the house finches sing between bites. At first only a few arrived. Then more came. And more. The news had gotten out: There’s a house with black-oil sunflower seeds, always fresh and filled, and a bath to clean up afterward. Look for the place with the big Asian guy watching from the deck. He’s always there.
There are other birds. The mourning doves and robins peck at the ground. The lone red-winged blackbird likes the bits of corn on the platform feeder. The grackles are an invading motorcycle gang, noisy and looking for trouble. They do not scatter when I water the garden, but rather stare me down, as if to say, What do you want?
And, of course, there are the bluebirds, who begin building a nest in the gourd, the female entering the hole and disappearing for long minutes, the male ever watchful.
Seven years ago, before I married Deedra, I took a two-month road trip from Florida to Wyoming, where I planned to spend a month in a small cabin. Each day I drove without destination. Along the way I slept on friends’ couches or in my car at rest stops. I stopped at state parks for walks and meditation. Sometimes I stayed a few extra days in places I found comforting and that had good food: Chattanooga, Kansas City, Boulder. I loved that I could go anywhere without responsibility or financial worry. It was a privilege to be on the road, to reconnect with myself, to find some solace in solitude.
There is no solitude when you are stuck in a house with a toddler 24-7, especially if the toddler has entered the “why” stage. The “why” stage is a maddening time often reenacted in movies for comedic effect. I used to think these scenes were exaggerated. Now I think they do not do it justice. My son will ask me about ten “whys,” and after I’ve answered all of them, he’ll say, “Daddy, you are wrong about everything.”
I miss movement. I miss travel and new places. I canceled our annual trip to Thailand to visit my mother in June, and a planned drive to Niagara Falls later in the summer. Now the U.S.-Canada border is closed for an indeterminate length of time.
The Internet is all I have. While Bodhi lies in bed between Deedra and me and endlessly watches Pokémon, I obsess over YouTube travel vlogs. I imagine walking the grounds of Angkor Wat, or visiting cathedrals in the Alps, or bathing in a hot spring in Japan. I create an itinerary for a two-week trip to New Zealand: I’ll drive the family from Auckland to Wellington, and on the way, we’ll see where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed.
Bodhi is finally asleep. Because there is no structure to his day, he goes to bed too late for a three-year-old. He spreads his arms out so he can touch both me and Deedra, who plays a game on her tablet — her bedtime routine.
Checking out car-rental prices in Europe, I ask Deedra if she thinks driving on the opposite side of the road would be hard.
She rolls her eyes. “What are you planning?”
“A trip to Scotland.”
“You don’t know your left from your right,” Deedra says.
Conversations like this happen often. My wife knows she married a man who spends as much time in his head as he does in the real world; a man who says, a few times a day, OK, I have an idea. Hear me out. Her usual response: Oh, no.
I suggest Hawaii: cheap vacation packages, whale watching. Bodhi would love it.
Deedra makes a noise — of agreement or annoyance, I can’t tell. I go on about Jamaica and Colorado, Korea and Ireland, asking questions that she eventually stops answering because she’s out. I’m in my own world of imaginary travel. The night deepens, but where I am, off the coast of Bali, the sun is bright and warm.
Our male bluebird is ever watchful over the nest. The female brings dry grass into the gourd and emerges many minutes later to gather more materials. The bluebirds are tireless in their effort to make a home.
The inside of our home looks like a tornado has swept through — a toddler tornado. Stuffed animals and toy cars and crayons and markers and blankets and pillows litter the floor. Deedra and I can’t keep up. Whenever we put toys away, within seconds they are out again, as if they are spirit-possessed: a haunted stuffed elephant in the middle of the kitchen, a ghost-inhabited Transformer at the foot of the stairs, poltergeist Pokémon strewn all over the living room.
I’m not the cleanest person either. Deedra picks up an empty yogurt container a foot from the trash can. “Freaking throw it away,” she says. “The trash is right there.”
“Freaking, freaking, freaking,” Bodhi repeats. He has entered the repeating stage.
The only place I keep clean is the outside. The deck is swept. I water the plants two or three times a day. Deedra keeps the feeders filled. I am often outside watching the birds, even when it rains.
“Daddy,” Bodhi says from behind the screen door, “it’s raining.”
It isn’t technically raining. More like misting. Tiny pearls of water coat my hoodie like shimmering diamonds. The house sparrows — Little A-holes — fly to the empty feeder and then back into the blue spruce. Back and forth, back and forth in hopes of new food.
“Restaurant’s closed,” I say.
“What did you say?” Bodhi asks.
“The birds are noisy, aren’t they, buddy?”
“It’s raining, Daddy. Come in.”
Another visitor flies in. It’s larger than the sparrows and finches. The sparrows go silent. I don’t recognize the new bird at first.
“Oh, shit,” I say.
The brown-headed cowbird goes to the suet cake, closest to the gourd. It’s a male, easy to identify by its dark-brown head and black body. The female, light brown all over, follows close behind.
“Don’t do it,” I say under my breath.
“There are bad birds, buddy.” I wave my arms up and down to chase the cowbirds away.
“What are you doing, Daddy?”
“Getting rid of the bad birds.”
A cowbird will go into a bluebird nest and lay an egg and make the bluebird take care of the baby cowbird, which is much bigger than the baby bluebirds and will eat all the food, and the baby bluebirds will die. I wave my hands harder and make hissing noises. The bluebirds are nowhere to be found. I haven’t seen them today. I usually don’t see them on gray, rainy days like this one. I imagine them hiding under a leafy tree, waiting out the weather. In their absence I must be the male bluebird and protect the nest from invaders. Hiss. Hiss.
“Daddy!” Bodhi’s voice rises. “Play with me.”
The cowbird hovers over the opening of the nest. Then it perches on the pole from which the gourd hangs.
“That’s it,” I say. I find a rock Bodhi gathered and throw it. My aim is good. The rock hits the pole. The cowbirds scatter.
“You see that, buddy?” I turn around for the first time and look for my son behind the screen door.
Bodhi’s not there.
After I learned I would become a father, I stopped believing in coincidence. Too many things were happening in my life that fit a pattern: I was having a son at exactly the same age that my mother had had me. His due date was my birthday (though we ended up having him a week early by scheduled induction). He arrived with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck; I, too, had come into the world that way.
Before Bodhi’s birth, as Deedra and I drove to work together every day in Florida, we would see a family of sandhill cranes in the median of the busy highway: the fuzzy chick pecking at the marshy grass; the parents making sure their offspring didn’t stray into the road. We would be parents like them, we decided — protecting our child, buffering him from danger.
Two and a half years later, in 2019, I was offered a job that would require a move to Ohio. While I debated whether or not to take it, a red-tailed hawk landed on the window ledge of my office. The ledge was barely six inches wide, and the hawk had to stand with his wings pressed against the glass to fit. This looked uncomfortable. I was just inches away, separated from him only by a pane of glass. I could see clearly the sheen of his feathers, the predatorial curve of his gray beak. The bird was calm, not scared. He turned toward me, registered I was there, and stared for a long moment before taking flight.
I’m not saying I made the decision to take the job because of the hawk. I’m also not saying I didn’t. What I did do was go to the computer to look up the spiritual meaning of a hawk visitation. It “signals a time in your life when you need to focus on what’s ahead and prepare for a leadership role.” What was ahead of me was a new job in Ohio.
Until then I hadn’t been the type of person who subscribes to omens. This change in me had been brought about by a world that lately seemed filled with anger and hate and greed and selfishness. A world my son had been born into. A world I couldn’t protect him from. I couldn’t rely on logic and rationality anymore, because everything was illogical and irrational. Omens, no matter how ridiculous, made more sense than what was happening in our country. When we are desperate, we look for hope in anything, even, as Emily Dickinson wrote, a “thing with feathers.”
I spend most of my time outside these days. I eat outside. I work outside. I read outside. For the last couple of weeks Bodhi hasn’t wanted to be outside. He doesn’t say why. I think it’s because he sees other kids playing outdoors with their siblings, and he wants to play, too, but he can’t. This makes him lonely. Watching him breaks my heart, so I watch the birds instead. I watch the birds instead of being a good dad and playing with my son. I watch the birds because I’m lonely, too.
A female house finch flies into a hanging flower basket above my head. She looks down at me. I look up at her. The finch’s beak is wide, almost too wide for its small body: necessary for breaking the hull of sunflower seeds. She stays in the basket among purple and white pansies. The basket sways in a slight breeze. The pansies nod.
“Good morning,” I say. “How are you?”
I’m fine, the finch says. You’re up early today.
“Didn’t sleep well. Can I ask for some advice?”
“What do you do when you feel down? Because I feel down a lot. I feel helpless. And hopeless. Like I’m failing at everything. I’m a horrendous father, and instead of being better, I let everything make me tired and impatient and irrational. You guys are all I’ve got. I watch you and imagine your world, because my world, this world, is falling apart.”
Look, she says, I’m not a therapist; I’m just a bird.
“I want to be a bird,” I say. “My son wants to be a bird.”
I get it. It’s because we fly.
Remember when you were teaching Bodhi how to spell cat?
I close my eyes. “I was such an asshole.”
He kept confusing the c for a g, and you were like, “How many times do I have to tell you? You know this. You’re not trying hard enough. If you can’t spell cat, then maybe you’re not bright.” The finch deepens her voice in mockery of me.
“I don’t sound like that.”
Don’t you, though? She tilts her head. I watched you. I see a lot from up here. I saw your son pull away. I saw him recoil. I saw how much he wanted to impress you, but you were too busy complaining about the difference between a c and a g. He’s three. Who cares?
I sigh. I feel like crying. I always feel like crying. “I know when I’m being terrible. It’s like I come out of myself and watch myself being . . .”
“Right,” I say. “In my head, I think, Stop. That’s enough. But I don’t. I keep going.”
That’s worse, the house finch says. Seeing and knowing and still not changing.
“It’s hard.” I dig my hands into my eyes.
Who said it isn’t? Bodhi needs you so much, and you don’t think you are someone worth needing. How can you raise a boy to be a good person, a confident person, when you don’t think you are one yourself?
The house finch flies to the feeder and pecks a seed. I watch her. I watch all the birds.
“Daddy.” Bodhi is at the screen door. His nose is pressed hard against it.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
I open my arms to him. He slides the door open and runs to me. I squeeze him, say, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” into his neck until he giggles.
He looks up at me and says, “I had a weird dream, Daddy. I was flying, and you were so small below me.”
Something unusual is happening. The Little A-holes zoom back and forth between the evergreen and the feeders, chattering noisily. One of the sparrows flies to the gourd, hovers at the opening, and then flies back to a feeder. The sparrow is a male with a dark-brown mask, like a burglar. The bluebirds are nowhere to be seen. They stay close to the nest for long periods of time and then vanish for equally as long.
The house sparrow is now the only bird out. He zooms into the gourd.
“Fuck that,” I say.
“Language,” Deedra says.
We are on the deck, enjoying the evening. The setting sun casts the sky in multicolors. Deedra crochets a stuffed animal for Bodhi, her fifth one this week. Bodhi sits on my lap, watching a Russian cartoon on his tablet. He often finds these shows in other languages — Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi. Sometimes he laughs out loud, and when we ask him what is funny, he says, “Nothing.”
“A Little A-hole just went into the bluebird nest,” I say.
Deedra looks up, crochet hook in hand. “They’ve been fighting all day.”
The word fighting pulls Bodhi from the virtual world. “Fighting? Who’s fighting?” He looks around the yard.
“The bluebird and a sparrow,” Deedra says.
“Buddy,” I say, “go run around the garden. Make a lot of noise.”
“Why?” Bodhi asks.
“Because I want to see how fast you are.”
“Because running is good exercise.”
“Makes you strong.”
I try another tactic. “I don’t believe you’re fast.”
“I’m fast,” Bodhi says.
“I’m faster than you, Daddy.” Bodhi leaps off my lap and sprints as hard as his little body allows. “I’m fassssssssst!” The house sparrow flies out of the gourd and perches on the fence one house over. He watches Bodhi run madly in circles, screaming.
My son comes back to the deck, panting. “You.” Pant. “See?”
“You were so fast I couldn’t see,” I say.
Bodhi asks his mother if she saw. Deedra nods and smiles, her fingers busy.
The Little A-hole is not deterred for long. He flies toward the gourd again. This time, however, in a flash of blue, the male bluebird appears, like Superman with a beak. The two fight in midair, legs kicking, beaks pecking, turning, swirling, landing on the ground and then immediately leaping back up for another whirl. When the fight ends, they rest on separate perches and stare at each other. The bluebird puffs himself up. The sparrow chirps insults.
“All day,” Deedra says, her eyes never leaving her project.
I ask Bodhi if I can borrow his tablet. He says yes and puts his head on his mother’s lap. I search “bluebird, sparrow” and find what I’m looking for: “House Sparrows are an overly aggressive, alien species of bird that prefers similar habitats and nesting locations as bluebirds.” From another site: “This highly aggressive species [house sparrows], which was imported from Europe in 1850, is responsible for the death of thousands of bluebirds every year.” And another: “You might think they’re cute (some bluebirders refer to them as ‘rats with wings’), but they attack and kill adult bluebirds . . . , sometimes trapping and decapitating them in the nest box and building their own nest on top of their victim’s corpse.” And from W.L. Dawson, author of The Birds of Ohio, published in 1903: “Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow.”
I tell Deedra what I’ve found. I show her pictures of dead bluebirds.
Bodhi goes to the deck railing and puts his face in between the metal bars. “Bad bird, go away!” he screams. For weeks he has been observing the bluebirds, too, often telling me where the male is perched or running after the cowbird, who no longer visits the feeders. “Daddy, the bad bird is small,” Bodhi says.
“Small and evil,” I say.
Bodhi contemplates this: that small things can be evil. Then he says, “I’ll chase the bad bird away.” And he’s off again, screaming, “Go away! Go away!” The sparrow watches. The bluebird watches. Bodhi is the entertainment between rounds of the fight.
Deedra asks what we should do.
Most sites suggest poisoning the house sparrows, I tell her. Their rationale: they are an invasive species not native to the U.S. They don’t belong. It’s like reading anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Deedra wrinkles her brow and shakes her head.
I show her diagrams of “sparrow spookers,” contraptions attached to bluebird houses with streamers that dangle around the opening. Some are made with strips of foil and microwavable-popcorn bags and coffee stirrers. The theory is that sparrows will be scared away by the spookers, but the bluebirds do not care.
This we can do. Deedra puts down her crochet hook and heads inside.
I call to Bodhi, who pauses in midrun.
“Let’s go make a monster,” I say.
“Yay, a monster!”
While Bodhi and I sit at the kitchen island, drawing a monster face on a paper plate, Deedra makes a sparrow spooker in the basement. Five minutes later she comes up with two bamboo garden sticks bound into an X by wire. Ribbons we used to wrap Christmas presents dangle from the sticks, pennies glued to the ends to keep the ribbons from curling up.
“Perfect,” I say.
Bodhi shows his mother the “bird monster” he drew. It’s green with fangs and horns and a nose shaped like an amoeba. I have poked out the eyes and attached some leftover ribbon so it can be worn as a mask.
“Perfect,” Deedra says.
By now the sun has set. There are no signs of the sparrow or bluebird. Bodhi stalks the yard, wearing the mask.
“Rawr. Rawr. Rawr.”
Deedra and I duct-tape the spooker onto the gourd. I feel good. I haven’t felt this good in a long time, so long I’d almost forgotten what it feels like. I’d almost forgotten that I am allowed to feel good, even as the pandemic death toll rises and simpleminded protesters with semi-automatics storm legislative buildings demanding their freedoms back and holding signs that read: HOAX.
Bodhi is learning how cruel the world can be. Viruses are cruel. People are cruel. Even parents are cruel. Even a father, who snaps with impatience; who takes a mental vacation; who sometimes wishes to have his solitary, single life back, when decisions were his and his alone, when he could get in a car and drive and drive and drive.
“Rawr,” Bodhi says. “I’m the bird monster. Rawr.”
One look at Bodhi, mask askew, and I know this is where I need to be.
The spooker worked. Or, at least, we think it worked. The sparrows didn’t take over the gourd. For a couple of weeks the bluebirds built their nest undisrupted. The weather turned consistently warm, and Bodhi and I found ourselves playing catch and kicking a ball in the yard and screaming and laughing and running and chasing. Our constant presence may have scared the sparrows off.
My son and I wrestle in the grass. He giggles until he is breathless. Then we lie on our backs, staring at the sky.
“What’s that?” He points to two parallel white lines.
“That’s called a contrail. It’s the path of planes.”
Bodhi repeats the word over and over. “Contrail. Contrail. Contrail.”
I ask what the clouds look like to him.
“Clouds,” he says.
I point to one. “That one looks like an elephant’s ear.”
“That one right there. And that one is a boat.”
“I see it,” he says.
We keep pointing to clouds and naming them. When we sit up, a goldfinch is eating from the feeder, about five feet away, oblivious to our presence. He boasts his bright-yellow color. To most of the birds, Bodhi and I have become a familiar presence. We no longer present any danger, as if we are part of the flock.
I quiz my son. “What bird is that?”
Bodhi whispers, “Goldfinch.” He knows the names of all the birds. His new favorite is the robin, because it likes to follow us on our walks.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” I say.
“If we stay still and quiet, maybe more will come.”
“I like birds, Daddy.”
He sits on my lap, his body fitting perfectly against mine. The heat of him always surprises me. I hold him tighter. Around us, birds come and go.
“Whose boy are you?” I ask. Another quiz.
“Who loves you?”
“My boy,” I say.
Bodhi notices one of the feeders is low on food. “The birds are hungry, Daddy. We need to feed them.”
We will. But they can wait. I need to hold my son a little longer.