Every April for six years, the Bewick's wrens have arrived in our garden. Though John, my partner, barely notices their presence as he heads up the wooden steps leading to the garage. His thoughts probably focusing on the drive to his law office in San Francisco and the possible tortures of the commute ahead.
It’s April again, I’m watching the blossoming white wisteria and pale pink flowers of the weeping cherry. So much beauty. But what I’m really waiting for are those tiny wrens, flicking and waving their long fan-shaped tails. These birds provide a touchstone to my life. Especially during this year, Covid year, the year that John is dying from a progressive lung disease. During John’s last eight months, as his landscape shrinks and he can no longer leave the property, his focus becomes concentrated on the garden and wildlife. So that April of 2020, the seventh year of the bird’s arrival, it is John who first notices their activity in the blue and white bird house. A bird house placed high enough so raccoons and rats can't raid it. Under an overhang, protecting it from the noonday sun. Situated between two live oaks which are the ultimate launching site for the parents to access the birdhouse dollar sized aperture. Always with the precision of a dart hitting the bullseye.
When the birds first arrive, their presence is experienced as a shadow of movement in the garden and John, even from his own perch in his brown leather chair in the kitchen, is uncertain if they have really arrived. But after a day or so, he aligns himself with their patterns. He celebrates the return, raising his glass of vodka and grapefruit juice at the cocktail hour, his hazel eyes expressing more light than I have seen in the two years since his diagnosis. The bird’s arrival offers the promise of new life. And now John notices all the details. The birds’ back and forth to their nest. The around fourteen days of incubation as the male brings food for the female. John is the spotter, counting those back and forths whilst speculating: Are the babies opening their eyes? Developing feathers? Making their first feeble tweets? As the babies demand for food increases, their calls and cries become strident and strong. But if I were to put one foot on the steps to the garage, the squawking stops. No matter how quiet and unobtrusive I am, a cry comes from somewhere in the garden, transmitting a signal of danger to the babies. Each signal is followed by a silence until the approaching danger disappears.
But the danger for John has become part of our daily lives as his lungs weaken and the fibrocystic tissues consuming his alveoli advances. These days bring a greater need for oxygen. He loses weight and interest in food. He sleeps longer and falls a number of times. Eventually, he submerges his pride and agrees to use a walker. But even as his body weakens his joy with the wrens increases. There are other joys that spring and summer. The hummingbirds in the Columbine and salvia. The ballet like grace of the wisteria fronds floating on the breeze. I sit with him in the garden, his face drawn and thin but always expressing a belief that he is part of a greater whole, and as much as his life is receding, he is also assimilating the new life of the wrens, the Oregon juncos, and at the same time, enjoying small tastes of the garden’s blackberries, apples, plums, and grapes. New life that feeds both of us with pleasure and sadness, whilst we are facing the truth of his dying. A place we step into but where we rarely linger. We both know in 2021 that I will be experiencing the next generation of Bewick's wrens alone.
John died on March 20, 2021, on the afternoon of the spring equinox. Leaving not long before the arrival of the wrens in early April. During that painful time, I waited for the dance of new life to begin, feeling the anticipation for both of us. One morning, I saw what could be the flash of a Bewick's wing. Had I imagined the swift shadow of movement? No, in that moment, I felt the energy and spirit of John close to me, reassuring me that no matter how great my pain that the birds were really back and his spirit will be with me in the continuing process of life.