red finch

Last summer, my mom made the decision – on behalf of the entire house – to not put the hanging ferns up on the wraparound porch, home to generations of red finches. She said, “The birds, they’re noisy and poop everywhere, and I can’t water the ferns while they build their nests. And when we leave on vacation, the ferns die anyway.”

This was the first time in my memory that the spots for those delicate ferns, their fronds draping down towards the ground, would be bare. But I understood. Her decision an exasperation or maybe a defiance of what else was unfolding inside the house.

This summer was different though. Between a raging pandemic and Dad going into hospice, plans changed. The week I got to my childhood home, the week I wondered aloud, “what do you pack in a pandemic when you’re going to see your dad die?”, the week I realized what the passage of time means – this was the week three ferns were hung in their rightful place. I don’t know who put them there, come to think of it.

When my dad was resting, and the air was too thick inside the house, the buzz of too many adults in caretaking roles becoming too strong, when I wanted an escape, I would head to the porch. The white wicker furniture, wide ottoman, red brick my Grandpa Pop masoned, old wooden beer crate hiding the gardening gloves and citronella candles. I would stretch out with my computer on my lap, my mind escaping into a compartment. The freight trains would come and go on a schedule that’s as predictable as breath. I’d pause to wonder where that oil and coal and graffiti was headed, maybe north to Chicago or south to New Orleans. When the air was heavy with humidity, the train horn and railroad track jingles were that much louder. The water droplets held and stretched out the sound, bending and extending time. We all wanted more time.

And then I saw them. Finally. All the other signs of spring were on schedule – the jonquils, whirly gigs and helicopters from the Japanese maple and the sugar maple, the sweet gumballs and delicate blue robin’s egg shell parts scattered on the sidewalk. But I had still been waiting for these pairs to mark their arrival. The red finch, also aptly called the house finch. Species name Haemorhous mexicanus. They mate for years and live for years, making those couple of ounces of feathers and bones last many journeys north and many journeys south. Flying on desire, an internal timeline, the angle of the sun, the temperature of the ground. Their long, twittering song, I close my eyes and can hear it in my mind.

And there were three pairs. One for each of the ferns. In between these stretches of caregiving and conference calls, I would sit and watch the birds as they hustled. Flew out of the ferns, dipped to the ground before they picked up air and speed, only to gracefully land in the oak or on the weather vane or the Cleveland pears, maybe looking back at me and sensing the urgency of time we were up against, taking a breath before flying off again. Sometimes it seemed like they were arguing over which nest site was the best. The pairs, the male a bold red and the female mottled. Zipping to and fro with twigs and dried grass, a loose piece of red string, even a strand of creeping jenny. It took them two days to build their nests, tucked away in the ferns. Their nests perfect circles. So perfect I had to look twice. What is this miracle, from the green earth and bird spit, of a 360-degree nest? I couldn’t wait to tell my dad. He grinned widely, eyes closed.

The next day, five eggs appeared in the first fern. Their color a gentle sky blue, almost white, like the sky in the midday sun. And one speckled brown. Maybe it would be a cowbird egg, the brood parasite bird. Sneaking in to lay its egg and have the finch do all the raising and rearing. Time would tell, as it would everything else.

Two weeks went by and I heard them – five fuzzy babies.

I peered in, and the birds blinked at me, suddenly quiet and still. I stepped away, not wanting to interfere further with the nature of things.

The parents came back and forth to the nest like frenetic creatures keeping pace with the extra minutes of sunlight each day. When I’d walk out the back door, they would zip away, even when I tiptoed. And once I settled back in my own perch on the wicker chair, the parents would timidly return. Doing laps around the yard, bringing all the right things to make these five chicks go wild, saying “Feed me! Feed me! Feed me first!”

My co-worker, after hearing the constant birdsong over our many zoom connections said, “I just love those birds.” I did too.

The outside world and these finches continued on their path of birth and growth, while the inside world subtly inched towards an ending.

It was June 13. A temperate spring day in the lower Midwest, the smell of cut grass and damp earth like a cloak, a homecoming. The day my dad took his last breath.

In the ten years of his diagnosis, countless hospital stays and procedures and infusions, we all worked to leave no stone unturned, with his life, with our words. I truly thought that I had said all the things I possibly say could to him, that he knew how I felt and I knew how he felt, and that was enough.

As his last day approached, he spoke his final words to my niece, “I love you.” He had spent a night wanting my mom to hold him, and she did. He squeezed our hands as we gently massaged his. Single tears rolled down his cheeks that we wiped away into our own. Then the struggle and process began, of a soul separating from a body. We do not go easy from this world.

All family around all day at his bedside, working to normalize death, understand that the rattle was a body coming to its end, that comfort and grace were gifts.

And then, it was silent.

There is no preparing, no matter how much we rationalize it. Shock and grief, like looking into a well so deep the bottom isn’t visible. There’s only disappearing darkness. Realizing that when it comes to time, where there is love, it’s never enough.

My mom, brothers, sisters-in-law, husband, nieces, and family friends were in and out of the bedroom. We told stories, we held my dad, we cried, we acted as though this was something that we do everyday. When my nieces hit a saturation point, of the tears and stillness of someone’s body, they would remove themselves and go outside to get air. I followed after one of them suggested that we should go check on the birds.

I gently lowered the fern with the five babies, more feathers than fuzz now.

And they all flew, every single one. One directly up into the study oak, others nearly missing a pillar on the porch and skimming the grass before ascending off and on into the evening.

We waited, still, and the birds never returned to the nest. It was complete.

My first instinct was that I couldn’t wait to tell my dad, that he would be so tickled and warmed at the thought of another red finch brood successfully on their way.

I caught my breath when I realized, in a ball of sadness, that there is more to be said to one another, always.

And that wherever he was, he already knew.

Finches In The Ferns
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