It is Tuesday afternoon, and I am driving to pick up Free from her after-school program. I have called ahead to request that she be waiting in the classroom instead of out on the playground. We are going to be late for her gymnastics class that begins at 4pm; I had a meeting after work that was scheduled to go until 3:30, and the class is half an hour’s drive away, not counting the circuitous loop of one-ways that her school pickup requires.
At 3:25, when the meeting showed no signs of wrapping up, I made my apologies and my exit and sprinted to the parking lot to get on my way. It was a long day; instead of meeting the desired quota of fifteen graded papers squeezed in between my two classes and one duty period, I only managed three papers because of all the email catchup, prep, and student check-ins that found their way onto my agenda. At around 2:15, I had finally surrendered to the low morale that seems to be drowning me and my colleagues lately, and I tuned into this video on Zach Sobiech’s life (2o minutes long and well worth it). I wanted, no needed, some inspiration, especially after hearing the news about the Oklahoma tornado.
I am thinking about Zach’s story as I drive toward Free’s school. Discovering he just died on Monday has brought back the sadness I felt this morning as I listened to the news of the tornado on the radio. The radio is off now, and I am gearing up toward the next leg of the day, watching the clock and silently cursing the slow cars in front of me that are keeping me from my destination and my child.
I pick Free up and whisk her into the car, throwing some snacks her way and heading out to face the traffic that has built up outside the school. It takes us ten minutes to get a half mile down the road, where we see the cars ahead swerving, one by one, so as to avoid hitting something. I lean in to see what it is: a robin, plunked and planted there smack in the middle of the street, perched as if about to take flight but with no movement forthcoming. I swerve and continue on, holding my breath and watching my rear-view window to see what the cars behind me do. One by one, they each follow the lead of the car ahead of them, and we all wind our way forward toward the center of town.
Free perks up, querying me: “Mom, is that bird ok?”
“I don’t know honey.” I pause, knowing where this conversation is heading and thinking I don’t have time for this right now.
“Should we call 911?”
We’re almost to the center, almost to the point where I can turn left, then right, then another right to wind my way towards the main road that will take me where I need to be. I check the clock: class starts in five minutes. I run through the conversation with Free, feeling the inevitability of it all pile up. There’s no 911 for birds. There’s no-one I can call. Maybe someone else will help it. I don’t know what help involves for this bird. What could we do? What should we do? What does she want me to do?
She is gentle but insistent. She knows we are late. She gives me an out, albeit one laden with guilt: “it’s ok if you want to get me to class on time, mom.” I sigh and wonder What should I do? Right then, Free asks me, “Mom, is it worth it, to try to help a bird?”
That’s when I know I have no option but to turn around. It takes me another five minutes to wind my way slowly back, where at least thirty cars since mine have navigated their way around the robin, who is still sitting there stoically. Wow, not a single person has done anything, I think, despite all these cars with drivers who have to turn their wheels and even that man walking by with his dog. I know why, of course, because now that I’m here, I don’t know quite what to do. All I know is that my child is watching me closely and despite the lateness of the hour, my fatigue, my utter lack of know-how for this situation, and my growing embarrassment that any one of these cars could contain a student or colleague of mine, I simply do not have it in me to answer “no” to her question.
I pull up on a side-street, feeling utterly paralyzed. Free is quiet but observant, and I know she is seeing me struggle with myself, trying to overcome the familiar voices in my head that are telling me this is nuts. I park close to the curb, turn on my hazards, and turn off the engine. “I’ll be fast, honey. Just sit tight, ok?” She nods, an eager conspirator. I jump out of the car and jog the few steps to the intersection, stopping to wait for a break in the traffic. The line of cars immediately stops; the lead driver has just seen the bird and knows where I am headed. I nod thanks and move toward the robin. I lean in and gently scoop it up, then cross to the other side. I look down at this tiny creature who has neither resisted nor welcomed my touch. I feel its soft back, explore its wings, note that one leg is tucked tightly in to its chest. I set it down gently in the grass near a bush and turn to cross the street again to jog back to my car.
By the time I start the engine and turn back onto the main road, the bird has disappeared. I take it as a good sign since it is able to move on its own accord, but I have no idea, really, and am just glad to be back on the road and to feel my heartbeat gradually slowing to a normal rate.
I drive on for a while, and now all of the day’s heaviness is sinking in around me. I am thinking about the bird, about Free’s question, about Zach’s life and death, about the victims of the tornado and those still out searching for them. I can still feel the robin’s tiny weight in my hands, my slow-motion dip to pick it up, the graceful pausing of a pulsing line of cars on a busy road to let me answer a sympathetic impulse.
Free is snuggling into her sheepskin in the backseat; I can see her smiling at me in the rear-view mirror.
“I’m sorry it took me so long to help that bird, honey, but next time, I will be faster, now that I’ve had a little practice.”
“Mom, you really made a difference in the world today,” she tells me, and I smile back at her, thinking how lovely it is to let a child be your teacher and how good it feels to do something good–even if it’s small, even if it’s late…and even if you first thought it might not be worth it.
And now I’m hoping that the bird will be ok, and I’m glad I was the one who got to hold it, as it turns out it was the best moment of my day.