Discovering the Beauty of the Journey
Mother Nature reminded me to slow down and appreciate the middles, not the ends.
There in the yard lay a neon yellow blur. The dogs rushed towards it, anxious to rediscover whatever bright discarded toy they had left behind. My husband, knowing we had no such toy, was hot on their heels. The blur of yellow and black was in fact a tiny goldfinch, likely fallen from the branches of the tall oak tree overhead.
My husband moved it gingerly to the edge of the dry creek bed on the other side of the fence to keep it safe from our four curious pups. I soon joined him beneath the tree to watch the bird and ponder what we should do with our newfound friend. The goldfinch sat there stoically, its head tracking our every move but its feet and wings statue-still. As we stood there trying to decide if we should leave the songbird to its own devices, I watched a stream of ants moving towards and around it, one solitary ant creeping up its bright breast as it heaved great gasps. I knew I couldn’t stand by and watch any creature suffer the gruesome fate ahead, so I returned inside quickly for a cardboard box.
In the shade and safety of our front porch, its box filled with grass, a cotton cloth, and a small dish of water, I left the bird alone in hopes it was only momentarily stunned and would regain its function. However, those hopes were quickly dashed when a half hour passed and nothing changed. Another half hour came and went, and I eased the front door open to find the tiny bird had moved a good five or six inches to rest in the grass and cotton nest I’d fashioned.
I stooped down carefully to study it closer for signs of injury. The fragile little bird lifted its gaze to me but didn’t seem afraid. After a long moment, it heaved a great sigh and the scrawny neck began to shake, struggling to hold up the weight of its thumb-sized head. It teetered there for a few seconds before the eyes closed and the beak swung down to rest solidly against the floor of the box. The two tiny wings shuddered once and then twice, and the frenzied breathing ceased. I watched for a few more seconds to be sure, then shut the door.
My husband stood on the steps, halfway down. “How’s our bird?”
I shook my head sadly.
“Damn,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I could only nod as a tear slipped loose. I gasped softly, realizing I’d just witnessed the bird die, somehow making it much worse than if I’d just gone out and found it dead. I felt stupid, crying over something inevitable, something that really shouldn’t have affected me so deeply. I knew the odds when I went to get the box. I knew the odds when I put it on the porch. I knew the odds when after 30 minutes, the bird had not moved. And yet, the inevitability of it didn’t take the sting out of watching it die.
I thought about the bird as my husband took it out to the woods.
“It is probably going to die, sweetheart,” he’d said gently, as if warning me when I first returned with the box.
“But we don’t have to let it die like that,” I replied, pointing down at the lines of ants forming around the defenseless creature.
He had followed my gaze and nodded solemnly, understanding my concern. Using a spade and stick to gently move the bird for the second time that day, he managed to get it inside the box.
When he’d told me the bird would die, I had known the truth in his statement, and also that if we had not been there, it would have died on the ground anyway. Yet something inside me told me I had to try against all odds. It is in our nature as emotional beings to cling to the tiniest kernel of hope in the face of inevitability. It is that thing that keeps us moving forward even when we know we are at the end. I suppose we are just built this way, we have to be.
Several years ago, our beloved wiener dog, Lucy, died unexpectedly. For months after her death, I listened for her signature footfalls in the hallway. When they didn’t come, I felt the tears threaten again. I told my husband over and over that I’d never get another dog. EVER. Eventually, while I still missed Lucy every single day, I was ready to share my love with a new dog. We adopted May first, and later Ziggy, rounding out our pack at four. While I really believed at first that I was never going to love another dog again so I’d never have to feel the pain of losing them, I realized that also meant I was never going to receive the kind of love and joy Lucy gave us either. She wouldn’t have wanted that. I’ve always known the hardest part of having pets is that they just don’t live as long as we’d like, but nothing ever quite prepares me for the heartache of their profound loss. Yet, in the end, I know those hard goodbyes are a painful but small price to pay for their lifetime of loyalty and love.
It isn’t just pets. When my youngest child left for college and I was suddenly free of motherhood duties for the first time in my adult life, I was crestfallen. There were no lunches to pack or papers to sign or clothes to pick up off the floor. I mean, I knew the moment the doctor laid my first child in my arms that one day he would grow up and leave me. Yet, nothing prepared me for the void left behind after the last little birdie flies the nest. After I rearranged the furniture and called to check on her, begged her to have lunch with me, tried to bribe her with shopping — I found myself on her bedroom floor crying in despair. While it was inevitable that my children would leave to find their own way in the world, their empty rooms never felt any less empty just because it was the natural order of things or because I was proud of where they were headed. A decade later, I still listen for footsteps coming in after curfew and buy snacks for kids who live thousands of miles away and are approaching 30. Nothing in motherhood ever prepares you for the fact that all your sleepless nights and terrible twos and awful school projects will one day be sorely missed. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t hold onto them forever.
Despite the inevitability that these outcomes were always going to happen, I wouldn’t change the loves of my life. From the wiggly puppies that grew into loyal companions, to the bundles of joy that grew into amazing adults, they all left and I cried. It hurt like hell and I thought I’d never be okay again. But I survived. Today, I am facing things in my life that will cause me pain. Some of these things will inevitably come to pass despite anything I do. I could waste my time grieving them now, not knowing when or how the details will play out, or I could try to enjoy each new day as it comes and worry about tomorrow — well, tomorrow. I’d hate to think I could have wasted my children’s youth or my dog’s lives planning for the painful days that were ahead if I’d known they were coming. Instead, I lived each day with them unaware that time would only move faster as the years went on.
Mother Nature is good at reminding us to slow down and to live in the moment. Such is my current goal — to live each day as if it were my first, or maybe my last. To treat each person and creature with kindness, regardless of if it is returned or if it seems hopeless. I knew the little yellow bird was going to die, but I don’t regret my attempts to help. Just because I couldn’t stop the inevitable doesn’t mean my efforts were in vain. The beauty is in the journey, not the destination.