Our last chick left the nest four days ago. He was more than ready. He had outgrown it long ago, his wings so strong and wide he would regularly knock into things. He had become frustrated with the lack of space long before the time had come to let him stand, teetering on the edge, ready for his first flutter into the big wide world. He had been given everything he needed, and more, to help him navigate this next stage. It was time to let him leap.
I had waved his sister off three years before, and that had been hard: leaving her in an empty student flat in a strange city, trying to avoid the look of panic in her eyes as she realised she was on her own for the first time in her life. I had coped by rushing home to her brother and his routine of school and drama club and pets and homework and late-night pick-ups from party venues. I had thrown myself into writing and taken on a teaching job and tried to stifle the heavy, pressing, empty feeling in my chest whenever I walked past her bedroom.
Now there are two empty bedrooms to walk past. And perhaps because I have spent more time one-to-one with my son, the heaviness in my chest seems harder to ignore. A friend asked me how he was getting on the other day and I embarrassed myself by bursting into snotty tears, as though he had died rather than moved a few hundred miles away.
On the journey to his halls of residence he became quieter even than usual. My mind whirred with things I yearned to say to him, but knew I shouldn’t. Instead I spoke a lot of nonsense to fill the silence. My mouth said, “Would you like a snack?” while my head asked, “How are you feeling? Are you nervous?” My mouth said, “Goodness, how did it get to be lunch time?” as my head asked, “Are you worried about missing friends?” My mouth said, “Will there be supper in halls for you tonight?” My head said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
When I went to university, over thirty years ago, my parents helped me unload the car and then came to my room and hovered, not wanting to leave me, unsure of how to say goodbye. I had no idea what they were feeling, and I didn’t really care. All I knew was that I wanted them to go as soon as possible so that I could get on with this next exciting chapter of my life. My son was spared such awkward unwanted parental attention. The virus has made sure of that. We had to drop and go.
Fledgling birds are sometimes found sitting on their own, looking – to us humans – lost and abandoned. We misinterpret their situation and often make things worse for them by intervening, trying to put them back into the nest they have just flown. In fact, the parents are usually nearby and watching out for their young. They may be attending to four or five young that are scattered in different directions, but they will most likely return to care for the one that seems to have been left to find for itself. Fledglings produce sounds that their parents recognise, so one of them will return and care for it in time. When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return; it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in as it will hop right back out.
So it must be with me and my two chicks. There is no point in trying to put them back into the nest. But I can stay alert to their calls for help and be there for them when they need me. I have given them roots and now I must let them open their wings and soar.