why we do: part one

It’s my last full day in North Carolina.  I was awakened at just past 8:00AM to the sound of my nephew crying.  I heard chatter downstairs, indicating that he may need to go to the ER for a severe earache, so I got out of bed despite the clear need for more sleep.  It turned out that over-the-counter remedies were working.  No hospital run would be necessary.  After a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, I excused myself and headed back to bed for what I hoped might be a couple more hours.

The rest decided to hit a flea market while I slept.  I didn’t wake until after 1:00PM when the phone rang.  It was my niece.  They were calling to ask me to take the dog out for a walk.  Still in a bit of a fog, I slid into some shorts and slipped my sandals on.  The dog was whining, eager to get outdoors.  Opening the front door was like opening the door to an oven.  It had to be 100 degrees.

Once outside, my mom’s schnauzer made fast work of the perimeter of the house and its bushes, then headed for the large central pin oak.  As he clawed the grass, pulling against his leash, I stumbled, having nearly stepped on something.  A toy?  A mushroom?  Whatever it was, something told me it shouldn’t be trampled.

Upon closer inspection, I noticed three of these yet unidentified clumps, spread out over about a square foot of lawn.  Quickly, I realized what they were.  Baby birds.  Frail and new.  Feathers had only begun to form, and the pinkish, goosebumped skin was clearly visible.  The eyes were bulbous and closed in narrow slits.  Were they alive?

I placed a finger gently under the beak of the nearest one.  Immediately, its tiny neck stretched upward like a jack-in-the-box, its tiny yellow mouth opening instinctively.  It’s head wobbled precariously, as if it were a marionette on a string instead of a living thing.  I touched the other two, and each responded in kind.  They had survived the fall.  But they would not survive much longer unaided.

I quickly let the dog finish his business and then brought him inside, returning to the tree to assess the situation.  I looked up.  About fifteen feet overhead, I saw the nest.  It was out quite far, hanging at an angle – further along the branch than would bear my full weight, even if I could manage to climb the tree.  Even the closest limbs were more than eight feet up the trunk.

You’ll recall from my post entitled “wonder” that my mom had always known what to do when it came to baby animals when we were growing up.  I gave her a ring.  She was still out at the flea market, and it didn’t seem they would be home soon enough.  I had to do something myself.  And I had to do it now.

I found some gloves in my brother’s garage, unsure of whether it were truth or urban myth that you can’t touch baby birds or the mother will disown them.  I’d rather not take chances.  Still, gloves were great, but what was the plan here?

I decided that trying to return the birds to the nest was the best bet.  My brother did not appear to have a ladder.  But I gathered a few more things I might be able to use.  I emptied plastic Easter eggs out of a canvas bag I’d found in my nephew’s closet.  I attached two long dog leashes to one another, thinking I may be able to use it as a hoist with the bag.  Into the bag, I placed a shallow bowl.

Across the street, I saw a woman enter her house.  Her garage door was open.  I ran up to the house and rang the bell.  She and her teenage daughter came to the door, looking skeptical.

“Hi, I’m staying with my brother across the street there,” I began, “and some baby birds have fallen from the tree in front of his yard.  I’m hoping to get them back into the nest, and I was wondering if you had a ladder I could borrow.”

The mom paused, appraising.  “Is this a joke?” she asked.

I smiled as disarmingly as I could.  “No, no joke.  You can come and see them if you like.”  I gestured toward the tree.

“This seems like one of those scary reality shows.  You look like a nice guy, but you could be a murderer,”  she replied.

I was at a loss.  “I’m … not a murderer,” I said still smiling.  “I promise.  It’s that yard right over there with the red jeep.”

“Oh!  The Boston fan!” she replied, seeming more at ease.  “Yes, we have a ladder.  It’s only six feet.  Will that be tall enough?”

“I think it just might!” I said. “Thank you so much.”

In a few moments, she produced a red ladder and off I went.

I set the ladder up under the tree.  It was immediately doubtful that it would, in fact, reach.  But maybe it would get me close enough.

The first task would be to right the nest.  I climbed up the ladder, gloves tucked into the back of my shorts.  Even on the top rung of the ladder, I could just barely reach the nest.  It would have to do.  It certainly was near 100 degrees.  I was sweating profusely.

Bits of bark rained down into my eyes, sticking to my skin, as I grasped branches for stability.  I had to squeeze between other branches to reach the one on which the damaged nest rested, pushing them out of the way using my back.  It became painfully clear to me why this tree was called a pin oak.  I knew I’d have scratches to deal with after this was done.

Stretching upward caused the ladder to wobble underneath.  As it was, I’d had to place the base of the ladder so that it straddled where the birds dotted the lawn.  If the ladder or I fell, some of them would certainly be crushed.  I regained my footing and stretched again.  I donned one of the gloves and then did my best to level and reform the nest, then pushed it deeper into the crook of the branch.  Once it seemed it would hold, I backed down the ladder.

I tilted my head up to assess my work, shielding my eyes from the glaring sun.  Looked solid.  But that ladder was not going to be tall enough nor stable enough to complete the rest of the task before me.

Just then, I saw another neighbor boy come out of his door with some recyclables.  I asked if his dad was home, and he said that, yes, he was.  I knocked.  The man extracted an eight-foot ladder from his garage and handed it to me over boxes and around vehicles.  This one should just do the trick.

I collapsed the red ladder and set up the new yellow one.  Then I knelt on the ground and, using the gloves, I pulled grass from the lawn and placed it into the bowl.  I figured this might make for an easier time scooping them up without hurting them, once I’d gotten the birds into the bowl.  Finally, I picked up each bird with great care, placing them into the bowl.  Of course, each touch, bump or move caused the jack-in-the-box reflex to kick in, punctuating the urgency to get them back into that nest where they might finally be fed again.

Climbing the ladder wearing gloves and carrying a bowl of birds was no easy task.  The mother bird was back, hopping furiously from branch to branch, squawking stridently at me.  I considered it a good sign.  She wanted them.

Slowly, I made my way back to the top of the ladder, one hand holding the bowl of birds and one grasping overhead branches.  This wouldn’t work.  I needed both hands to get the birds back into the nest.  I couldn’t just dump them in.  I had to stand on the very top rung of the ladder to get high enough.  This alone was daunting, and I was beyond hot by this time, as well.  Sweat stung my eyes.  I stooped down slowly, carefully, and set the bowl of birds on the ladder top next to my foot.  So many things could go awry with this scene.

Still grasping the branch overhead, I managed to get one of the birds into my gloved fingers and then pulled myself upward, at the same time pulling the branch down a bit.  I realized I was holding my breath.  With painstaking care, I placed the first of the birds back into the nest.

Hope filled me, pushing me onward with renewed energy.

I stooped again, repeating the process for each of the remaining birds.  The mother bird continued to watch with growing interest and mounting eagerness.  At last, they were all back to safety.  I’d done it!

As I stepped off the top of the ladder and made my way back down, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Just as I got back to the ground, a car appeared around the bend, pulling into the driveway.  They were home.

I returned the ladders and then told everyone about the ordeal.  My nephew and niece thought I was quite the hero.  And I felt just a little like one, too.

Hours passed and I rechecked the lawn.  As I opened the door, the mother bird flew off.  I hoped it was for food.  Perhaps more food.  All of the birds remained in the nest.  She hadn’t discarded them.

At the same time, I realized that she very well could abandon them still.  They might make it.  But they might not.  If they did, then my hard work and ingenuity would not have been in vain.  But if they didn’t?

This got me thinking about other things.  Other sacrifices we make.  Expectations.  Calculations.  Why we do what we do.

How many things in life do we engage in, only to feel disappointed or cheated — that we’d “wasted our time” — if they don’t turn out as we had hoped?  In fact, is our time and effort wasted if the desired outcome isn’t achieved?

Part two tomorrow …

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