As newly discovered best friends, my daughter Audra and a ponytailed third-grade classmate were enjoying the instant intimacy of those who share the same aspirations—to possess a horse, pierced ears, and the ability to do a split.
It was the first time Audra had been invited to visit, and as we were leaving, Linda and her mother invited us to admire a pair of mourning doves, which in the confines of a homemade coop in Linda’s backyard, had produced two perfect ivory eggs. The nesting birds seemed to be juveniles, so they were somewhat small, their gray and white feathers as soft as mink, their fragile bodies sleek and without substance.
Built on a high shelf attached to the back of their house, the nest had been enclosed with three walls and a roof of chicken wire. The girls stood on cinderblocks to see into it. “Is it really all right for the two of them to be inside the enclosure?” I asked Linda’s mother. She was a science teacher, which made me feel devoid of practical skills and undereducated, but I hoped we might become friends.
“Oh, sure,” Mrs. Hall replied, distracted. Her two-year-old son Jaimie was using a blue-flowered fistful of her skirt as a tether, weaving around her knees. He crashed into her legs periodically to entertain himself, then swung away again on an elliptical orbit.
“Linda goes in there all the time. She’s so excited about having baby birds,” our hostess explained.
As we continued to watch the girls through the honeycomb of chicken wire, the doves became increasingly active, fluttering, and repositioning themselves. Linda jumped down from the cinderblocks with a soft thud and joined her mother outside the enclosure, doing a little dance in the spring grass, chatting away about what she planned to name the fledglings. Still in the enclosure, Audra continued to gaze into the nest, her forearms anchoring her precariously to the wooden shelf. Though she would never ask, I imagined she wished to adopt one of the birds when they hatched. I’d once had a similar longing.
When I was five, searching for arrowheads along the pasture fence, I glimpsed a flash of Bermuda blue in the grass. I knelt, parting sticks and leaves to get a better look. A robin’s egg—as blue as a jay’s wing, as blue as the April sky.
With one finger, I touched the smooth turquoise surface. Warm. With mounting excitement, I nudged the delicate treasure to one side. Unbroken—still protecting the tiniest and most fragile of hearts. I picked it up and struck out for home, the rhythmic thrumming of my corduroy overalls resonating like someone blowing through paper pressed to a comb.
Slipping in the backdoor, I ran upstairs and laid the egg in a bed of Kleenex which I then placed on a Thom McCann shoebox directly under the hall nightlight. The bulb emitted just enough heat to keep the egg warm, and I went in search of my overworked mother to assure her I’d be responsible for my impending offspring. That night I went to bed unable to stop talking (girl-joy, admit it, you still do that), imagining how great it would be when I taught my bird to ride on my shoulder and to speak.
At daybreak, I hopped out of bed and padded down the hall on bare feet to check on the egg. To my horror, the nightlight had been turned off sometime after I’d gone to sleep. The egg was stone cold. That afternoon I buried my charge at the base of the play yard swing set, the only witness to my inability to protect a life for which I’d taken responsibility.
I thanked Linda’s mom one last time and told Audra we had to go. Her little brother was waiting at home; I’d left a lasagna in the oven. As she retreated reluctantly from the nest, her worn tennis shoes slipped from the cinderblocks, and she was thrown off balance, grasping instinctively for the shelf as she fell. In slow motion, the entire arrangement broke away from the wall. The air was filled with beating wings; there was a crash, a child cried out.
As the chaos settled, I scanned the wreckage. A yellow yolk was sliding down the side of the house, and Audra, frozen in remorse and embarrassment, was staring in horror at the toe of her shoe. The remaining egg lay broken in the canvas creases.
Linda’s eyes met no one else’s as she reeled in closer to her mother. I tried to touch Audra through the wire wall separating us as apologies and absolutions were offered on the breeze.
“Look, Linda,” said Mrs. Hall after a few excruciating moments.
“These eggs were never fertilized!” She was examining Audra’s shoe with a clinical eye. “They would never have hatched. Maybe next time.”
We’d be friends, all right. I already loved her.
Apologizing again, unable to do anything but carry our remorse with us, Audra and I walked to the sanctuary of our second-hand Volvo. She moved with deliberate dignity as if she could do penance for this disaster by never making another spontaneous movement. She was uncharacteristically polite and arranged herself with formality on the front seat.
I was afraid to touch the fragile shell of her composure on the ride home. We spoke of practical matters, and finally, I told her about the lost robin’s egg that was as blue as her eyes and over which I had spun dreams. I wanted to take some of her disappointment from her by demonstrating I already had a place for it.
We pulled into our gravel driveway. Getting carefully out of the car, my daughter informed me that she had some things she’d like to do in her room and climbed the stairs with the self-conscious posture of an 8-year-old penitent.
Later that night, I checked on her on my way to bed. She was asleep, silky brown hair against her pillow, the white down comforter a rumpled heap that had fallen to the floor.
I stood there imagining that love is a force field. That the ferocious, abiding love we feel for our children, and sometimes extend to each other, could ward off every hurt. But that’s not how it works, of course. Hurt is the heart’s tenderizer. And it’s necessary. How can you be moved to assuage someone else’s pain if you’ve never experienced your own?
I lifted the comforter from the floor and covered her then, still intent on nurturing something breathtakingly fragile that might one day take flight.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.