What is the meaning of all this?
Last week a robin flew into my kitchen window. It hovered and scratched and beat its wings against the glass.
I stood and watched as it stared at me through the window, its head turned to the side, its red belly pumping with its effort to get through, into my world. Then it flew away.
I was seven days into quarantine, making the best of the COVID-19 lockdown. Being at home in Connecticut means it’s still cold in March, the trees are bare, the grass is brown. It’s damp and rainy most days and the sun hasn’t been out for more than a few hours.
I wondered if the bird sensed the warmth in my house, if it saw the houseplants on my counters, and if it was as sick of the winter as I was.
The next day, the bird came back. It smacked itself into the window, over and over, and repeating this strange, self-destructive behavior, all day long. It paused only for a moment at a time, catching its breath on the railing of my deck, resting, and then tried again.
Sometimes birds see their own reflection in glass and they try to mate with their own mirrored image. They see themselves, thinking they see a perfect other, and they go for it, over and over, determined to mate, to get to the other bird, thinking it’s the love of their life. They don’t learn the first time, or the second time, or even the fiftieth, that it's only their own reflection. Instead, they keep banging their head against the glass, over and over.
Instead, they keep banging their head against the glass, over and over.
I taped a miniature groop, a small rubber figurine, to the window. The bird just smashed himself into the glass around the figure, into a different window pane. I taped a photo of Kali, the goddess of the earth, the goddess who embodies feminine energy and creativity into the other window pane. Kali also has a lot of arms. I figured the waving arms would scare the bird away.
It worked for about an hour and then the bird was back.
I printed out a big smiley face. Taped that to the window. The robin kept flying into the glass. I taped a headshot of my son from his third-grade class photo. The day grew darker, the sun set, and finally, the bird flew away.
The next day the bird was back. I figure the bird was a he because I couldn’t imagine a female bird repeating the same thing over and over expecting different results.
I stood at the window drinking my coffee, watching. My son came down and we stood together, watching. My son is twenty-three now, no longer in third grade. We are in lockdown together, in quarantine. He only goes out to go fishing or take walks, to do some work in a neighbor’s yard. He putters in the garage. We have spent more time together lately, since the virus.
The bird has brought us together. We talk about him a lot. We watch him and wonder.
On the fourth day, the bird is still there, flying into the glass, his feathers scattered on the ground beneath the window.
Being at home is starting to get to me. I don’t mind working from home, I am used to working on the computer, seeing people by zoom. But I feel guilty. I should get more done.
Being at home is starting to get to me.
I convince my son to clean his room. It’s been years since he cleaned out his closets or rearranged his desk. He moves things around to vacuum and dust. Outside his window, there is another bird, dead, on the roof on the second floor of the house. A small, black bird. It must have flown into his window and died.
The next morning I wake up to a repeated banging. I pull the pillow over my head. It’s been another night of not sleeping, of strange dreams, apocalyptic and dark. I am running through the bank accounts in my head, counting out the months we have left to live in the house before we go bankrupt. I lie staring at the ceiling and think about what I can bake today, the comfort food I can cook. I decide on a meatloaf.
I hear a lamp crash to the floor.
I get up and in the hallway Luna the cat is hanging onto the window, suspended, her claws digging into the narrow sill. The bird is outside beating its wings against the window pane. They are both hanging there suspended, Luna on one side and the bird on the other. The three of us are upstairs on the second floor, on the opposite side of the house from Tyler's bedroom and the kitchen. Is this the same bird?
I stand and watch their dance, fascinated. The bird’s wings beat loud and rhythmic. His beak clicks against the glass, and my cat squeals low and growls. They are talking to each other. I pull my phone from my pocket but the bird flies away. Luna lets go and leaps to the ground. She looks at me with wonder and I shake my head. I don’t get it.
It’s two days later and I am awake again. There’s a loud pounding sound outside my room. At first, I think it’s a wood pecker, the knocking sound is loud, hard against wood, it’s close. I sit up. Out of the corner of my eye, there is movement. The bathroom door is open, I see it, and outside the window, over the bathtub, is the bird. It is flapping its wings, slapping against the glass. This window is smaller and more narrow than the windows on the other side of the house, or the windows downstairs.
In this room, the bathroom, there are no plants. There is no sun out today for the bird to see its reflection. I am not even sure this is the same bird. I pull out my phone to take a picture but it moves to the next window, away from my view, but I can still hear it. It pounds its body against the frame. I call my son's phone number.
“Where are you?” I ask.
He says, “I’m in the kitchen, downstairs.”
“You’ll never believe where this bird is.“
“I can hear it from down here, Mom. It’s banging against the house”
“I feel like it’s trying to get into my room,” I say. I throw on a sweater and the same yoga pants I’ve worn for days and go out into the hall. The bird is there again, against the hallway window, and Luna sits and watches from her perch on the bookcase.
Tyler comes upstairs. We watch together as the bird divebombs the window, flying away and coming back, flying away and coming back.
“I bet if I left the door open it would fly right into the house,” I say.
“Weird,” he answers.
He leaves to go work in the neighbor’s yard. I sit and wait for the bird to come back. In front of me on the bookshelf are photo albums, stored there for years, since my kids were little. While I wait for the bird, Luna the cat sits quietly next to me. I pull an album out and turn the pages, softly, so I don’t disturb the bird’s dance at the window.
The photos are of my children. My son, three months premature, was born at only 2 pounds. He was smaller than the cat, as tiny and fragile as the bird. There are photos are of us, me holding him in my hands, warm in his incubator. He is fighting for his life. I turn the pages. He is surviving. Growing. Thriving. I think of him now, at 23, all grown-up, healthy, alive.
What is the message here? What is the meaning of this bird, of this moment? What is the purpose of this whole experience, of the virus, of the quarantine? What am I supposed to understand, from this perpetual visitation, from this shift on the planet? Is it a spiritual message, something about surviving, about paying attention? About thriving?
The bird smashes into the window again and I jump.
“What the HELL do you want from me?!” I say to the window.
I don’t understand. I don’t understand any of it. I put the photo album back into the shelf. I pet the cat. I yell at the bird again as he flutters outside the glass.
I don’t understand why this is happening, why we’re all quarantined and I won’t pretend to understand the meaning of this virus or what it will mean for the planet when it lifts. Will we survive? Will we grow from this? Will it make us stronger? Will we thrive?
I go down to the kitchen to make coffee and start my day.
There he is. The robin bangs itself into the kitchen window and flaps its wings. I jump. It flits and flies away, perched on the railing of my back porch. It watches me and I stare back at it.
“I don’t understand why you are here or what you want,” I say, “but whatever.”
I drink my coffee and think about meatloaf.
Post script: As I write this piece, from the couch in my living room, the bird flies into the window above me. This is a room where I have never seen him before.
Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. is a relationship therapist and a TEDx speaker. She is the host of the podcast The Trouble with Sex. She is an expert at online relationship coaching and can help you and your partner during these disruptive times. Find her at www.drtammynelson.com