These birds hold a powerful memory for me. They've nested before and I remember watching them intently in the days when Nicholas was struggling hard with illness and pain. At that time, they were my companions and my reminder that life pushes forward outside of my own four walls. Here is what I wrote about my my solitude and my front door visitors in my book, The Four Walls of My Freedom: Lessons I've Learned From a Life of Caregiving:
I remember reading a film review in the newspaper. I never actually saw the film and I cannot even recall its name. But the reviewer’s words are still with me today. The film was about a convent somewhere in Europe. A young nun complained about having to wash dishes and scrub pots. The Mother Superior chastised her, saying, “There is meaning in those dishes, in the act of scrubbing.” As the reviewer said, the film was a testament to the idea that the extraordinary exists within the ordinary; that the entire moral universe can be found in the mundane tasks of everyday life. This sense of wholeness and connectedness is what I found in my garden.
Outside our front door in Ottawa, we had a black wrought-iron openwork light fixture. Each spring, a pair of tiny sparrow-like birds called purple finches came to nest in our lamp. The first year they came, all their bits of straw and string simply fell through the mesh onto the ground. Annoyed by the mess, we swept up and thought nothing more of it until one day, there on the ground lay two tiny, broken bright blue eggs. I wept a little, berating myself for not understanding their simple need to have a safe nest for their offspring.
The next year when we heard their distinctive chirps at the door, Jim cut some bits of cedar and created a floor on the base of the lamp. Nest building began in earnest, and soon there were four tiny eggs tucked up amongst downy roan feathers. That year, I watched as the mum kept her eggs warm and the father worried nearby. The eggs eventually hatched into a noisy quartet of open beaks and soon enough they were ready to fly. I sat an entire day, watching in suspenseful anticipation as every finch in the area arrived on our pine tree to begin “training” with the youngsters. By turns, each bird would fly to the top of the lamp, perch there for a second and fly off to the nearby branch. The young birds had a tricky rite of passage: they had to fly inside the lamp and exit through a narrow passage at the top of the ironwork. By dusk, all the birds had left the nest and we could finally turn on the light and resume our life without our temporary tenants.
These birds living in my midst, nurtured by us and by the rest of the flock, gave me a certain antidote against loneliness. I had genuine curiosity about the life in my garden and most certainly, felt “some minute, divine spark inside me.” By this time I had given up on any idea of justice or natural order in the world. Contained in my garden, I thought, there is transcendence; there is grace. I began to think that peeling potatoes, raking leaves and mixing cakes were all a sort of prayer. I began to understand that to be free, I had to have an antidote to despair.
Theodore Zeldin writes about how some people have acquired immunity to loneliness in his book An Intimate History of Humanity.[i] In fact, one of his themes is actually called “Loneliness as an Obstacle to Freedom,” which of course speaks directly to me, given that I am discussing my family’s “Freedom to Be.” Being the mother of a child with multiple disabilities is, by definition, a very lonely life. Nicholas’ illness, mobility challenges and communication difficulties never made us top of the guest list at friends’ and neighbours’ homes. When his health deteriorated and pain became our constant enemy, we hardly ever spoke to anyone save health professionals. I had wonderful friends and an extraordinarily supportive family, but I found it impossible to share the gut-wrenching worry that seemed so exclusive to our little family. Zeldin talks about the fear of loneliness as being a great barrier to personal freedom. He observes that those who have overcome a fear of loneliness have done so through experiencing a solitary lifestyle, whether by choice or even by incarceration. But he also says, “The final form of immunisation has been achieved by thinking that the world is not just a vast, frightening wilderness, that some kind of order is discernible in it, and that the individual, however insignificant, contains echoes of that coherence. People who believe in some supernatural power have their loneliness mitigated by the sense that, despite all the misfortunes that overwhelm them, there is some minute divine spark inside them.”