Fear and the Search for Bird Island

Sleeping birds are vulnerable. This is why the lucky ones flock by the tens of thousands to roost for the night on the low, gnarled branches of the mangrove trees that flourish in the back bay waters of Estero Island, Florida, where I once spent a week with my husband Jon and our kids.

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In these quiet, tidal waters, masses of entangled leaves, boughs, and trunks spring out of the sea itself—not a sliver of earth protrudes above the water. On the landless Bird Island, some fifteen thousand birds gather at dusk to nod off in peace. No ground, no predators. These birds are fearless for the night. How I envy those birds on Bird Island. The romance of it makes me shudder: What would my life look like if I erased all fear? 

Fear of failing, fear of wounding, fear of falling short.

Yes, what would it mean to let go of my fear of the many wounds I’ve inflicted on my children? To believe instead that we are all safe, then and now? What if I erased every contraction of fear I ever felt during the years of my son’s melancholy for all things dead and gone: his first house, friends who’ve moved away, his homemade cardboard mailbox that I threw to the floor and broke (it still hurts to recall the snapping sound) in a sleep-deprived fit of rage when he was three years old, and his several deceased pets, including Popsicle the parakeet who dropped dead while he was traveling, adding shock and guilt to his inevitable heartbreak. What if I let each of these fears rise up and float away, until my son was as free as a bird, alight on a mangrove branch on Bird Island,  his blond head tucked under a sturdy wing?

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It’s exhausting, this process of eliminating fear … but also exhilarating. It's like imagining somewhere in your ancient psyche that the light is waning. Then intuitively taking wing to a certain deeply familiar grove of trees far out in the water where you know you will rest easy for the night, suspended nearly weightless against the endless sky.

For now, I throw the mail—assorted bills and senseless advertisements—into the mail basket and climb the stairs to my seventeen-year-old daughter’s bed. I lie down with her for a while. “Rub my back,” she says this time, instead of shooing me away as she does some other nights. Her shoulders are warm and yielding. I picture her face, which is turned away, and the faces of her siblings, their expressions, their unique quirks. I tick off a mental list of who needs what, who’s doing okay, who’s struggling. Eventually, all of us will sleep.

In sleep we are vulnerable. And the only Bird Island is us …  our flawed human hearts, striving to love one another and keep each other safe. I will love fiercely, but not fearfully. Let me rise to it, even if barely. That’s ultimately all I need. That’s my real Bird Island.