In memory of Janet (1951–2020)
In his online distance learning during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, our youngest child – a newly graduated kindergartner – studied animal life cycles with his class. They took video visits to happy farms and Zoom visits to various teachers’ homes where they peered into jars of metamorphizing caterpillars and, on one special visit, to the reading teacher’s home to see her pet rabbit. Together, shepherded virtually by his teachers, he and I drilled the basic arc of birth, growth into maturation, and reproduction for chickens and frogs as well as butterflies and bunnies. Guiding, coaxing, and at times maternally dragging him through the homework assignments, I too revisited the cycles of life. As the unit began, I didn’t know how much I would come to need it.
At their daily “Morning Meetings” on Zoom, for a few weeks early in that dreadful spring, the children peered together upon several peregrine falcon nests high up in the bell tower of St. Job’s Church in Brussels’s Uccle district, not far from where we live. The nests and the video feeds are kept by a group devoted to peregrine falcon conservation. The live images from cameras installed in church steeples and other towers in the city supplemented beautifully the kindergartners’ life-cycle learning. Together the students pressed their faces up to their respective iPad screens like visitors at an aquarium’s tank. They counted the eggs, watched for signs of hatching, and observed the mother falcons care for their babies.
Often, the mother peregrine was out hunting while her young slept in a twitching pile of skin and down and occasional akimbo flightless wing. Sometimes, one or two would wake to peer out from the tower, mostly sleep-drunk, other times more alertly watchful for their mother to return. When she did, that huntress, she dropped her conquered prey in a fiercely impassive display of her mid-flight skills. “Is that a pigeon?” one attentive student asked as the mother raptor tore strips of flesh from a limp, headless corpse to feed her hungry young. It was beautiful and terrifying.
The miracle of winged life within the urban canopy of Brussels contrasted painfully with another video feed between us and the United States, with my husband’s mother, who – we now know with brutal, irreversible clarity – was dying of cancer. The raging pandemic and all its knowns and unknowns constrained our actions and imaginations, as flight options between her and us diminished by the day and our fears of catching or conveying the virus grew. The Zoom meetings with the kindergartners lifted me by day; it heartened me to know that peregrine falcons were raising their young throughout the city, that their numbers were growing after decades of decimation. The Zoom meetings we had with family and doctors, social workers, and oncologists did not merely drag us down; they seemed to hold us down, leaving us gasping.
We envied the birds their wings, their airy range, even as anxiety threatened our obedient attention to our Lord’s instruction to consider their lives and the divine provision upon which they glide and soar. Anxious weeds grew up within me, tangling into an emotional bramble of paralysis. Most nights, I struggled to fall asleep, woke after a few hours, and then kept the ungodly first watch scrolling news and social media, only to fall back to sleep within an hour or two of the waking day. This maladaptive strategy was anything but soothing, but plunging into infotainment’s panicked, dark jungle somehow deadened me into numbness.
In the early days of the pandemic, we discovered how limited my homesteading skills were, especially with textiles. We managed to make a single mask with an interior layer of repurposed pajama flannel, some spare elastic, and a fat quarter of Christmas fabric on my thirteen-year-old daughter’s cheap sewing machine before the needle bent perpendicular in defeat. That pastel blue cotton was covered in bright candy canes and Christmas trees with distinctive Americana kitsch; the flannel layer inside was covered in neon pink and green peace symbols. That was our one “good mask,” my going-out and grocery shopping mask. My hunting mask.
For all other activities, we folded white handkerchiefs with rubber bands looped around our ears. I found these elementary masks suffocating at the time, but I have since grown more careful in my use of that word. The terrors of the coronavirus prompted me to give daily thanks for the exquisite pleasures of breath; the news of George Floyd’s killing later in the spring cautioned me to recognize that I have never known suffocation. Even when masked, I can breathe. Breath, suffocation – I now more vigilantly guard their meanings and use in our household, like I do with the word “starving” when our children complain of the early rumblings of hunger. These wordy weeds grow fast in any lexical garden if the gardeners are not watchful.
Staying watchful was hard. An amateur glider pilot, a lifelong lover of flight, my father paid attention to birds – quite knowledgeably, although I doubt he’d call himself a birder, out of deference to other birders. As a child, I found his interruptive sightings baffling. Behind the wheel of the car, in the midst of a conversation, he’d still spy a kestrel by a field, or a hawk gaining lift and hunting dominance in a thermal. I could never see any of them from the back seat, even when I did nothing but look. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found myself patterning after my dad, watchful of birds even while completely occupied with other quotidian things.
Jesus was right; they have served my sanity well. They are flashes of wonder that lift me momentarily from the stony, thorny ground. Although there is rarely a day I do not look for them, thrill at their sightings, and drill my children in their existences – Look: Magpie! Robin! Great Tit! Chaffinch! Dunnock! – I follow my father too in not calling myself a birder.
We have survived this season and are presently breathing a little easier, but in grief, we have shed a downy coat of life as heavier feathers have grown in. The same is true for most of the peregrines. My son’s class stopped their daily peering-in, and so did we, but I checked in on the birds a few weeks ago. In late May a new video camera was installed at the clock face of St. Job’s Church, a view that disclosed how the young falcons began, as the “Falcons for Everyone” website put it, “to play the balancing act by venturing out the clock face, even the arrows. This will not fail to frighten them off in case they choose one of the minutes that moves . . . every minute! Then, the great flight, the fledging.” We are all dancing on St. Job’s clock face, defying already borrowed time; fledglings trying to gain strength and skill on precipices, some much higher and more fearful than others.
I return to a memory long before this fledging, when I had awakened yet again to anxiety and moved to the spare bedroom so as not to disturb my exhausted husband. I tapped my phone screen by instinct to call up its diseased glow, hoping that a sleepy equilibrium would swallow and overtake me, again. But on that night, without much thought, I opened to the falcon website and stared groggily at the screen.
There, in the holy darkness outside, a mother peregrine sat on her nest, eggs gathered beneath her. Silently, above the city in the bell tower behind the great clock face of St. Job’s, she was on guard, watchful even in sleep, without entertainment, company, service, or solidarity, except periodic sounds of traffic far below. Her neck was raised, her nearly reptilian eyelids opening and closing over her eyes. My watchful eye upon her utter aloneness made me feel – forgive me, mother peregrine – perverse, like a voyeur. I have known that holy work myself, but never in such dark vigil, never in such total solitude.
At last she gently bowed her neck in relaxation, her beak nearly to the base of the nest. Her faithfulness consoled and comforted me, and I instinctively turned away to dignify her life and labor. I held the phone in my hand as a baby holds a lovey, tucked under my neck, and fell asleep, soothed by her maternal presence.