A few weeks ago, we found a bird’s nest in the rafters of our porch, tucked in and hidden from the local elements: wind, rain, and a toddler. We only discovered the nest after one of the baby birds fell out and into our yard. Its tiny, crumpled body lay resting on my two-year-old’s inflatable pool, bathed in the warm late-afternoon summer sun, a eulogy to the temporality of life.
The other baby birds chirped softly in the nest, attended to by an earnest mother. This little bird made me think, more so than usual, about the baby we had so hoped we would have by this time. When we moved into this house last fall, I had dreamed of the summer to come, cradling a newborn on my shoulder while tending to the fickle and fantastical needs of a toddler. We found the house a little over a year ago, and breathless and excited, we put an offer down immediately. We waited anxiously for word of its acceptance, and walked around the empty rooms after closing, daydreaming about the potential for our family held between the walls.
Two months after our move into this house, two months after trying unsuccessfully for a second baby, I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. I was 32 years old. My son’s second birthday was three days prior, and my husband and I had celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary the previous week. Immediately, I was put into chemical menopause, dashing our hopes of ever conceiving another child. My prognosis was, and is, unknown. I live with hope, but I know that the average life expectancy for women with my disease is around three years.
The would-be nursery is now my office. It serves as a war room, of sorts, littered with medical bills, pill bottles, and cards from friends. Much of our baby furniture is gone, sold or donated. It was as traumatic to get rid of it as it was to see it piled in the basement, unused. Our son will never have a sibling, we will never watch his eyes widen with wonder at a new life entering the world to be bonded by blood to him and him alone. Recently, my son has asked when he will get a little brother or sister, and I struggle to answer him honestly. I think now of the mother bird, about how no amount of care or diligence could prevent the loss of her baby. Life, in all its tenacity, is unimaginably fragile.
On the day we found the baby bird, my son began asking questions as we looked at its fragile, broken body. “What’s wrong with it, mama?” I explained to him that it had fallen out of its nest, and had died. He looked at me solemnly, his brow furrowed and his deep blue eyes trying to make sense of this tiny life that now was no more. “What does “died” mean?” He knelt down next to the unmoving bird. “Why can’t it get up? Can we help it?”
How does one go about trying to explain the concept of death to a two-year-old? I have often tried to take the direct route when talking to my son about these issues. While I underwent diagnostic tests, and later, treatment, my husband and I were, and continue to be, forthright with him about mama’s illness. I honor his questions, and sit with him in this space of discomfort as he tries to grasp the meaning of death, at once a concept so direct and yet, so obscure.
“We should take the bird to the doctor, and the doctor will make it all better.” He presses on, still not fully comprehending. I explain that the bird will never be all better, that the things that make him alive are not there anymore. I place his hand over my heart, and show him the thump-thump of its rhythm. I take a deep breath and let him hear my exhale, feel the warm air moving into the space in between us, and see my chest rising and falling. These are the things that make us alive, I tell him. When something dies, it can no longer do these things. Its body cannot keep moving. He is quiet, and curls up into my lap. We sit in silence for a while, thinking, meditating, memorializing the tiny bird in front of us and all that it represents. I feel my son’s warm body folded into mine, as he does when he is scared, tired, or in need of comfort. I gather him into my arms; I too am in need of comfort.
After some time, I suggested that we bury the baby bird, so we placed it in a tiny cardboard container and dug a hole in the back of our yard. We placed the little box in the hole, and my son covered it up with soil. We sang a song to it, and placed small stones over the dirt. Not fully satisfied with the ritual, my son asked what would happen to the bird and the box. I explained to him that all of the living things in the ground would help break them down, and they would become part of the earth. He gave me a puzzled look, so I explained further that all things have a cycle of life and death. I pointed up to the trees, and we watched leaves flutter to the ground. Those leaves, I explained, were once little, tiny leaves, then grew big, and are now falling onto the ground. They will rest there with the little bird and the cardboard box, and everything else in the soil, and become a part of the ground, and by being in the ground, they help new things grow.
I had hoped that this would be the end of his questions, but my son was not finished. “Are you going to die, mama?” At that point, it took everything I had to keep my composure. My eyes welled up, and I hugged my little boy as tight as I could. How could I answer him in a way that he would not equate his mother’s existence with the tiny, lifeless bird in the ground? And yet, I could not lie to him. My illness is as much his story as mine, and I have always promised myself that I will not hide things from him. Motherhood gives us the most precious heart we can imagine and then, in the next instant, provides the tools with which to break that heart with the often cruel realities of existence and life itself.
“Yes,” I answered him. “At some point, mama is going to die.” He looked at me, stricken and comprehending. I tapped his forehead. “Are you thinking about that little bird?” He nodded, his lip quivering. I took his small hands in mine. “Buddy, do you remember how we talked about all of those things that make us alive?” I placed his hands over my heart. “As long as you can feel my heart beating, mama is still alive.” Then I placed his hands over his heart. “And can you feel your heart beating?” He nodded. “As long as you can feel your heart beating, mama will always be with you, too.”
Later that evening, after we had finished our bedtime ritual, I lay in my son’s bed with him while he began to fall asleep. He often likes to hold my hand for a few minutes as he winds down, and this evening was no different. This time often becomes the space for his hard questions, when his brain finally has a chance to catch up with his constant physical energy. At last, he said to me, “I’m sad about the baby bird.”
“Me too, buddy.”
We sat in the stillness together, and I thought about the little bird’s body: what was gone, and what was left behind. The fragility of these moments caught my breath. In the dark room, my son’s rhythmic breathing matched the cadence of my pulse, as it so often would when he was a newborn. His little hand drifted up to rest over my heart as his eyelids fluttered closed into sleep.
Guest post written by Emily Garnett. Emily is a mother, wife, and elder law attorney in New York. She was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer in November 2017, the same week as her fifth wedding anniversary and her son’s second birthday. She now utilizes her legal and case management expertise to write the blog, “Beyond the Pink Ribbon,” a near-real time account of her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, as well as a place for advocacy, education, and support. In addition, she is the host of the podcast “The Intersection of Cancer and Life,” a conversational look at what happens when cancer puts you on the road you never expected to travel. Her writing has been featured in Cure Magazine, Wildfire Magazine, The Underbelly, The Mighty, and Women’s Media Center. You can connect with her on her blog or Instagram.