The birdhouse fell in a storm. We found it the next morning lying on the ground, roof split, blue eggs cracked and broken. We could make out the bend of a tiny wing, the puckered skin where dark feathers prepared to grow. We had seen the mating pair of Eastern bluebirds as they chose this house and made their nest. Their blue feathers were like jewels flashing in the early morning light.
On this morning, the father bird swooped from a nearby branch and landed on the deck to call out his grief. The mother must have escaped. We didn’t see her body. But the babies were gone, dead before they saw our hill or found their wings and soared up to rest in the maple tree.
We cried, the kids and I, but my son stormed to his room. There was no point in having a world, he said, if there had to be so much suffering. Why not end it all, blow the planet to smithereens, if this is how it has to be? It’s an overreaction, an eleven-year-old response, and it is also a valid question. Sometimes, growing up makes us less honest about how much it hurts to be alive. We lower our expectations and make broad statements about the inevitability of suffering, as though that will mitigate the pain when it comes. But here was my son, feeling every bit of it, and not even for himself. For baby birds.
He struggles with an all-or-nothing mentality, my boy. One mistake on a math test has him berating himself for his failure. “My stupid brain,” he says, insulting a mind that just calculated nineteen of twenty problems correctly. He’s famous at our house for announcing the latest thing that has broken, that isn’t working the way it should. He just wants things to be right and good, and he cannot understand how broken things can be good.
I sat on his bedside and talked about the sadness of the fallen birdhouse and the loss of the baby birds. I talked about his beautiful heart that is full of love for creation. I remembered “Letter to the Editor,” and J Lind singing “It’s not that hard to find a flaw when the earth is red in tooth and claw, but I’d like to learn to love it anyway.” It seemed to me that the song crystallized my son’s struggle, that this would be the journey of his life—to learn to love a world where baby birds die in storms and yet, the mother and father return next spring to try again. I talked and explained and clarified, trying to give my son language for the state of the world and his battle with it, while the realization of my hypocrisy settled over me.
Ninth grade was my first year of public school. I went from a small Christian school with a class of 30 eighth-graders and enough friends to feel content and academic demands I could easily meet to Burns Jr. High School, where my peers were at least a year ahead of me in math and science and my English teacher took me outside for a serious chat after mid-terms and the girls at the lunch table talked about sex with their boyfriends. At the beginning of the year, I wore pleated pants and trouser socks and loafers because they felt like a wild departure from the skirts and pantyhose requirements of my former school. I was once mistaken for a teacher. I was terribly lonely.
Sometimes, growing up makes us less honest about how much it hurts to be alive. Helena Sorensen
That same year, what had been a scratch or possibly a mosquito bite on my right shoulder became a little mound of scar tissue that refused to resolve itself. There was plenty to reject about myself in those days. I was unremarkable and not athletic. Somehow, inevitably, I chose or received the worst haircut anyone could dream up. My eyebrows were too thick. I didn’t wear makeup. I didn’t know that everyone else felt as I did—that they were mostly getting it wrong, that there wasn’t much to love about themselves. I gritted my teeth and endured adolescence, and it wasn’t until the end of my senior year of high school that I thought maybe I was a sort of pretty-ish person.
Some things I outgrew. Some things I accepted. But the scar remained and spread. I visited this doctor and that. I had injections. I once read about a salve that would attack cancer cells (if there were any to be attacked), and I spread it over the scar and sat up all night in pain while the salve burned the skin on my shoulder. The scar was much worse after that, and doctors shook their heads. They took pictures to send to colleagues. “We’re not sure.” “No guarantees.” “Your best bet…”
In the last few years, more scars have developed, and I’ve adjusted my wardrobe accordingly. Nothing sleeveless. No V-necks. Fabrics that don’t cling. I’m trying to avoid recoils and staring. If I had a story to tell—an accident or a brilliant recovery—it might be different. What I have are mystery and unanswered questions. So I get up in the morning and ignore the mirrors and cover every inch of skin I can cover, and I reject myself completely. This is a body that has climbed mountains and raised its voice in song and grown and nourished new human beings. It has created worlds and thrust its hands into the soil to plant seeds and embraced hurting people. And it is broken and scarred and I do not know how to love it.
I thought my son was the perfectionist. Maybe he is just more honest than I am. Honesty would compel me to admit that no part of my life is perfect. There is not one relationship without history and hurt; there is no work I’ve undertaken that paid off as I hoped it might. My house needs attention, my parenting is lacking, and the soil in our yard is heavy clay, full of roots. Scar tissue is overtaking my skin, devouring the little beauty I’ve tried so hard to hold onto. My grief is overwhelming. It is older and deeper than my son’s. I’m just better at hiding it.
I do not know if I have spoken the truth about the bluebirds returning. They may not. Twenty-five years I have prayed for healing, and my body is in worse condition than when I began to pray. Some days I see the appeal of my son’s proposal. If we didn’t have a world, baby birds couldn’t die. If I didn’t have a body, my heart couldn’t ache. All I have are broken things. I don’t know how; I don’t know where to begin. But I’d like to learn to love them anyway.