The day after I was informed that my mother’s cancer was in fact not remitting I spotted the largest robin I have ever seen. “Girthy” is actually the descriptor that comes to mind, though this is a term I would imagine not typically employed within the lexicon of ornithological parlance. Birdwatching is a pastime I have enjoyed only once or twice under unofficial pretenses, and, admittedly, my understanding of general taxonomy is limited, but I can affirm that this was a robin of unusual proportion. Perhaps unnatural, even: its bulk easily constituted the size of a small crow.
This robin had staked its momentary claim in a sunny little patch of my backyard beneath our raised garden beds along an especially weather-beaten section of the fence. In birdlike fashion, it appeared to be scouring the ground for sustenance: intermittent snowfall had persisted over the course of the past several weeks, and now in late February, through the mud and the slush, the first worms were wiggling their way up from the subterrane.
After what seemed like an unseasonably long winter even here in the Mid-Atlantic, this robin’s presence in my yard was a welcome sight. By virtue of some timeworn symbolic significance, the robin of course has always indicated the approach of spring, and though the association is apparently more folksy than scientific, I would venture to suggest its appearance proves more reliable than a groundhog in Pennsylvania failing to observe its own shadow. Perhaps the association owes to the robin’s crest—russet and vivid—starkly contrasted against the relative colorlessness of late winter; perhaps it owes to the bird’s seemingly sudden ubiquity after three months of cold stasis. For both its metaphorical and practical implications, I was pleased to see it: despite the difficult conversation the night prior, the robin’s emergence somehow constituted a slight glimmer of relief, albeit from those circumstances only ancillary to my mother’s illness.
Every few months, my parents would meet with the team of oncologists overseeing her case, and my siblings and I and our spouses would collectively hold our breath in anticipation of the news to follow. Such updates would come in dramatic little episodes, often delivered via that mode my parents deemed apropos to whatever development her most recent scans indicated: text messages blotted with exclamation points conveyed progress; news of regression was reserved for hushed, in-person conversations after the grandchildren were in bed. When I texted my dad for an update the previous afternoon and he responded, “I will talk to you late tonight if that’s alright,” we knew that this latest prognosis was discouraging.
Although the American robin is a migratory bird, the website of the National Audubon Society tells me that it does not typically winter outside of this region. As such, I can only assume that this particular specimen in my backyard has more or less endured the inclement weather of the last several weeks, and, perhaps in its own way, anticipated its eventual recession with the thaw of spring. This, among the website’s other informative tidbits, I find particularly noteworthy: per some bone-deep and unfathomable sensibility endowed by nature, this bird understands its capacity for tolerance.
Whether the robin itself is aware of this to any metacognitive degree—if it internalizes its ability to adjust to or withstand perceptible changes in its environment—I do not know. But just as some biological mechanism serves to inform other birds that they should indeed begin flying south—even some who during the warmer months occupy this same region—certain birds around here, including the robin, innately comprehend that such behavior is not requisite to their survival. Of course, science has furnished the terminology for articulating this dynamic, but there is something poetic about it as well, as if these little, commonplace creatures perceive, even for the stark brunt of the season, winter’s impermanence.
Indeed, only a few days after I spotted this robin of considerable girth, as we awaited news of my parents’ follow-up consultations and the general course of action her doctors would be pursuing, the first emerald nubs of some perennials began budging their way through my brown, bristly lawn. Not long after, the azaleas my grandmother gifted us the previous fall assumed a noticeable vitality. Then, the earliest bursts of rejuvenation punched their way up and down the branches of the maple tree in our front yard. And as the sharp nip of late winter gradually subsided, we saw from our front porch more and more birds swarming the copse of trees beyond the railroad tracks just across the street.
This flurry of motion, of course, is only nature itself: a collective regrouping, one sequence within a cycle, the essence of spring. But after the prolonged lethargy of the previous season, wherein all of these forces now churning with a sudden energy had heretofore laid dormant, it is hard not to ascribe to this momentum a pervasive and unwavering persistence. Each of these—the unfurling buds, the deepening of my azaleas, the proliferation of the birds—are only the measurable succession of some preceding process: germination, photosynthesis, the patterns of animal behavior. But even beyond the observability of such processes, beyond the Darwinian mechanics of self-preservation, all of this motion is directed or informed by some underlying quality, as if nature is in itself a perpetual exercise in endurance.
Following her initial diagnosis, my parents immediately commenced upon and then, over time, periodically found themselves reinitiating a regimen of sorts: primarily, the frantic attendance to certain practicalities (scheduling appointments, scouring available research), then the apprehensive tenterhooks of waiting, and, finally, a slow resignation to an uncharted and burdensome reality.
Because her cancer was particularly rare and detected already at stage four, the expertise of one of the nation’s only specialists was enlisted alongside the services of my mother’s physicians: this was of course a development for which we were grateful, but the semi-regular visits to his practice were taxing on my parents. Because her cancer, as the disease is wont, did not remain confined, she underwent a series of different treatments. Because a range of side effects—varying in consequence, each debilitating to some extent—followed, she found herself limited in her interactions. And, as one might expect amidst a prolonged deviation from that to which we refer as “normalcy,” day-to-day obligations sometimes fell by the wayside.
Statistically, the odds were against her from the moment she was diagnosed; as such, it was difficult not to perceive each turn of events in light of the lurking reality that almost certainly awaited her. Complication followed complication, and, in their efforts to curtail the progression of her disease or simply ameliorate her discomfort, my parents found themselves engaged in what must have felt like a prolonged exercise in damage control, like a veritable, high-stakes round of Whac-A-Mole. From this standpoint, then, their efforts over the years constituted a counteraction of sorts—a counteraction against that which, short of some medical anomaly, seemed inevitable; a defensive against the course that nature had seemingly laid out for her; a rebuff of entropy itself.
For all of those imperceptible dynamics—rebirth, rejuvenation, resurgence, re-etc.—that we ascribe to springtime, there is alternately another perspective by which we might consider this time of year. In keeping with the robin’s holdout through the preceding season, understanding spring as nature’s effort to resist as much as its effort to regenerate is helpful. If we contextualize our experience by that ultimate, eventual state toward which we are unavoidably deteriorating, even the sudden blooming and buzzing of spring comprises an act of resistance; that is, as much as nature by its very character deteriorates, it also persists.
I am reminded of Christ imploring his followers to regard what must have been for them, as with us, some of the more commonplace elements of their natural surroundings, the “birds of the air.” As recorded by the apostle Matthew, though they feed and shelter daily, the birds “do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns.” Similarly, though the “lilies of the field” do not toil, they are sustained. And while biology has over the past two millennia advanced to delineate the proactivity by which these creatures survive, Christ observes the ultimate source of their perpetuation: “your heavenly Father,” he tells them. He concludes this thought with the following remark: “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
At some point during those first precarious months, amidst the compulsory scramble for some recourse and suddenly inundated with a laundry list of hypotheticals, I recall my mother expressing frustration with the marketing to which she had recently and unwillingly been subjected. As with those who suffer from plaque psoriasis, say, or rheumatoid arthritis, in its appeal to cancer patients the healthcare industry evidently relies on a particularly unambiguous MO: the individuals depicted, while typically indulging some pastime or other, declare with admirable self-assurance something to the effect of “I won’t be defined by my cancer.” Slanting its advertising with this distinctly mind-over-matter rhetoric makes sense: that self-actualization is attainable even amidst the throes of something so devastatingly transformative makes for a palatable narrative. But the hard-and-fast reality of cancer—I recall my mother scoffing at the time with unsentimental pragmatism (“When I don’t feel good, I don’t want to do those things”)—renders such pathos sanguine and impractical. I can only assume that her discomfort is, at present, today’s iteration of that trouble to which Christ referred.
Even for these periodic sparks of renewal, and, more significantly, the hope afforded in Christ’s analogies, those troubles we observe and experience on an immediate basis substantiate nature’s general arc toward disorder. A robin emerging to pluck nourishment from the recently defrosted earth is as much a signifier of this as my mother’s persistence toward preserving her very life: after all, the birds will be anticipating another winter soon enough.
Cover image by David George.