Discover more from Slack Tide by Matt Labash
Kind of Blue
God and man and bluebirds
Sometimes change happens to us so imperceptibly, that we become our new selves before ever registering that the old us is long gone. But I remember the precise date I became Tony Soprano. It was May 21, 2018. By this, I don’t mean that I started speaking with a New Jersey accent, or interviewing strippers at the Bada Bing, or garroting guys for turning rat on Paulie Walnuts. Rather, it was all about the birds.
Sopranos fans will recall that the title character, played by the now sadly-departed James Gandolfini, who could kill a man in cold blood easier than you hang up on a telemarketer, became enamored – actually, downright obsessed – with a family of ducks that moved into his suburban Jersey back yard. He fed them and cooed at them. He swam with them in his pool. He talked about the significance of “the fuckin’ ducks” with his shrink.
Something similar happened to me a few years back. Except my ducks were eastern bluebirds. I’ve never been much of a bird nerd. Walking the woods with a Sibley Guide and three-thousand-dollar Swarovski binoculars makes me feel too………Jonathan Franzen. But I like them a lot. Most obsessive fly fishermen I know - a membership card I carry – eventually come around to birds. Maybe because after spending so much time puzzling over what lies beneath us in the watery deep, you start looking up, and wondering what’s overhead.
It started casually enough. I put feeders around the yard: an old-timey glass hummingbird feeder, a suet cage for the woodpeckers, a black-meshed Nyjer-seed tube to attract the finches. I put up a general feeder stocked with cheap Walmart seed, with too much millet and not enough sunflower kernels (the birds didn’t seem to mind), which pulls all the regulars – the black-capped chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, and tufted titmice. If I’m lucky, maybe a scarlet tanager or indigo bunting will make a guest appearance. A steady procession of blue jays and mourning doves vacuum up whatever falls to the ground.
But bluebirds are what I really wanted to attract. I’ve always loved bluebirds. Maybe because they’re pretty. Maybe because I like the color blue. Or maybe it goes back to the childhood song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” first sung by James Baskett as Uncle Remus in the Disney film, Song of the South. He made it sound so inviting, like the ultimate good-luck charm, declaring that “Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder.” Even if I didn’t know at the time that it was racist for a bluebird, or any bird for that matter, to culturally appropriate a person of color’s shoulder. (Blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds might get a pass.)
But bluebirds don’t typically eat from general-seed feeders. They’re the prima donnas of backyard birds. Like J. Lo, they have strict dietary requirements before the show. They’re also cavity nesters. So in order to attract them, I bought a handsome Audubon Society cedar-wood bluebird box, complete with copper-top roof. I screwed it to a fence near our woods line. A fishing/birder friend of mine warned to beware of snakes with that arrangement, but I sprinkled plenty of Snake Away repellent on the ground beneath it.
I then started baiting the birdhouse by putting dried blueberries and mealworms on the roof. Within a few days, a nice bluebird couple moved in. I was thrilled. A few days more, and they began constructing a perfect cup-nest out of dried pine needles. A real feat of engineering. Shortly thereafter, Mama Bird laid eggs. Five beautiful light-blue life capsules, the color of Tiffany boxes.
The bluebird sites, which I read religiously, instructed you to monitor the box, but not to overdo it. I didn’t listen. These were my equivalent of Tony’s ducks. I’d sometimes peep into the black hole of the bird box, spying Mama sitting there on her future children. I’d open the box and gently stroke her head, which she’d let me do, without flying away. (Which, by the way, I’ve never been able to manage since.) Shortly thereafter, her chicks broke free of their casings, and I had the equivalent of five new puppies with wings, all beaks and grey-blue downiness.
I checked on them all the time. Daily. Several times a day. You’re not supposed to do this. But I talked to them, I stroked them. I was in love.
Around this time, my sister’s fiancée fell ill. He wasn’t feeling well, and ended up hospitalized with what turned out to be double pneumonia. I didn’t think much of it at first. It was a scary thing to happen, but he was a strong guy – an elevator contractor and part-time crabber – only in his forties. He’d bounce back. Even as he went septic, in the podunk Eastern Shore hospital in Maryland where he was being tended to, I wasn’t terribly concerned.
But as the weeks dragged on, and he wasn’t bouncing back, things started to feel more serious. I still dismissed the possibility of the ultimate bad end for one simple reason - The Unofficial Two Plane Crashes Rule. A rule that is, to my knowledge, not statistically verified. But with the general assumption going: if you survive a plane crash, the next plane you get on is much less likely to crash. Two in a row is like winning the Pick 6 at Pimlico - it can happen, but isn’t at all likely.
And my sister, Tamara, was all booked up on the equivalent of plane crashes. About a decade earlier, my brother-in-law, her husband and the father of her three children, decided life had become too much for him. As his brother was driving him over the four-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge expanse to a medical appointment in Annapolis that I’d helped arrange, Jon decided to hop out of the car, hurdle a fence, and to put out the fire that was raging within him. The water that killed him was semi-holy to us both. We each spent a lot of time around it, alone, with family, and even together back in our twenties, before I started fly fishing. We’d head out with each other to Bloody Point on his boat, with a chum bag and blood worms like a couple of savages, drinking cheap beer and pulling stripers until our arms hurt.
It took a long time for Tamara to rebound from that. But she was easing back slowly into normalcy. She met Rick, the fiancée, who coached her son’s soccer team. He and Jon were completely different people, temperamentally, but Rick bore a striking physical resemblance to her late husband. Tamara and Rick fell in love, and had a child they named Gianna. My niece. It’s an Italian name (we are half – our maternal great grandfather hails from Corleone – Tony would be proud) that translates as “God is gracious.”
But sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if he is. A few weeks after illness struck, Rick was medevaced to a better hospital in Baltimore, where he lay comatose. After much medical intervention and desperate prayer, he finally succumbed, making my sister the unlikely Pick Six winner.
The night before his funeral, I sat on my porch in the dark, having a long talk with God. Though “talking” to God might be a polite way of stating it. Cursing him would be more like it. I threw my whiskey glass across the yard, so you know I was angry. I don’t waste bourbon lightly. I said things to God that night I won’t repeat here. There was a lot of mature language. Things I wouldn’t even say to those Redneck Reverse guys in the Safeway parking lot – the gents who pull past an open spot while you’re tailing them, then throw their truck into reverse to back into it, the parking lot-equivalent of a head fake.
In the book of Job, after Job is covered in sores, has been indicted by his friends, and has been plagued by everything from family deaths to financial ruin, his wife makes a helpful suggestion: “Curse God and die!” Job didn’t take the bait. As in all the best books of the Bible, what I call the “wrasslin’ books” (Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Habakkuk), Job wrestles with God without renouncing him. And God wrestles back, which speaks well of him. After all, what kind of insecure God would forbid his creation to question the creator? Even if he did ultimately play the God-card, asking Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? …..Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding……”
The next morning was the morning of the funeral, May 21, 2018. Before we departed for it, I was feeling sheepish and conciliatory, like Ike after having an abusive fight with Tina. (“Sorry baby, I didn’t mean to hurt you.”) Job’s wife was wrong. I’d cursed God, but wasn’t struck dead. If I had been, I wouldn’t be writing this. (Though please don’t try it at home.) Though my sister’s life was falling apart again, I’d even managed to muster an unexpected buoyancy. After all, my bluebirds were still in that box, all grown up, and nearly ready to fledge. You’re not supposed to check on them at that late date, for fear they’ll jump out and hurt themselves. But I’m a bluebird outlaw, I don’t go by the book.
When I approached the box on the fence, I tried to peep into the black cavity, the void that lies beyond the predator guard. But instead of empty space, it looked full. Still blackness, but with scales on it. My stomach started to hurt. I opened the hatch, and saw a huge black snake. He’d probably been in there all night. My bluebird nestlings had been consumed.
For whatever reason, my entire family happened to be in the yard that day. It was a perfect, cloudless morning. My wife sat on the porch steps, and when she watched what was unfolding, she started to cry. Maybe for the birds, maybe for me. My sons watched in uncomfortable silence as I doubled over, the wind knocked out of me. I stood upright, and asked my youngest son to go grab a shovel out of the garage. He did so, and handed it to me.
I stuck the handle-end into the box, balancing the snake as I dislodged it. The bluebird nest was completely matted from its weight. The snake reared and hissed at me, seemingly knowing what was coming. I dropped it to the ground, then turned the shovel around, and raised it over my head like a sledge. I hit that snake again and again, as hard as I’ve ever hit anything. I cursed him as I did so. I have never hated one of God’s creatures so much. I hit the snake twenty or thirty times, long after it was dead. I couldn’t stop hitting it. Its belly split open, and the half-digested chicks came out. I threw the snake in the woods with the shovel, then dug a shallow grave, and buried the nestlings. Later, when relating what happened to a birder friend, he disapprovingly asked, “Why kill the snake? It was just being a snake.” Indeed, it was. But I was just being human, so I guess we’re even.
Later that day, after we returned to my sister’s house from the funeral, I unloaded multiple feeders from my car to plant them around her front yard. They were for Gianna, to take the edge off of losing something she wouldn’t get back. Only six-years-old at the time, Gianna loved, and still loves, birds. She and her father used to sit outside and watch them, him helping her identify what they were seeing.
Once, when we were at the beach, we spotted a baby robin on a bike trail, hopping around, clueless and lost. We tucked it under a bush and left it there overnight, in case Mama came back to claim it. But no such luck. So we took it in, fed it, and even gave it a name. I suggested “Roberto.” Gianna wanted to go with “Star.” So we compromised, and he became Roberto Star. We found a bird-rescue volunteer up the road, who knew what to do better than we did. But while driving there, Roberto Star died in my hands just minutes before we pulled into the Good Samaritan’s driveway. He took the dead-bird handoff like a champ, play-acting for the child, making her think the relocation was a success. She still doesn’t know to this day. I’ve told my sister not to let her read this. I don’t want to be responsible for any more disappointment in her life.
But back at Gianna’s house, a shock-red cardinal had taken a liking to her. He’d perch on her roof, and when she walked to the bus stop, he’d follow her all the way there, then would fly away as soon as she boarded. This went on for weeks. I have read that in some Native American traditions, a cardinal represents the spirit of someone we’ve lost who is looking after us. Who knows?
All I knew is that after the funeral, I was headed to the wild-bird store. Still in my funeral suit, with my family in tow, I bought a mounting pole with anchor, and predator baffles – both of the wraparound and stove-pipe variety. I was doubling down. If any snake tried to take my bluebirds, it would have to be a pretty serious contortionist, a snake circus-freak. I pulled the cedar box off the fence, where it should have never been in the first place, and planted it out in the open, on top of the pole and double baffles. Eventually, I’d even buy a sparrow spooker to place atop it, a v-shaped rack with red and silver streamers, to keep menacing sparrows from trying to block the entry hole, and decapitate the bluebirds, as they don’t mind doing. This made my box look less like a bluebird house, more like a children’s birthday party or bad European disco. Maybe it was overkill. But we control what we can, when we realize we don’t control much.
The day after the funeral, I talked to God again. This time, less angry, but still acutely disappointed. If we believe in God, and I do, we all tend to find him in different places. My wife, a purer soul than me, seems to hear from him more directly and with greater frequency. She hears The Voice. I can’t, not always. Not in the same way. (I have asked her if she wouldn’t mind asking God to speak up.) But for me, I hear The Voice in nature, which is not something I say to get out of going to church, though I have frequently used that as a handy excuse. In rivers and woods, I tend to find order and symmetry, wonder and beauty. Something larger. Enough so to make me think this thing we’re living through couldn’t just be the million happy accidents of Richard Dawkins’s dark imaginings.
While some might turn to the great apologists – Aquinas or Chesterton or Pascal – I’ve always thought the best argument for God’s existence came from Paul Reiser. An unlikely theological authority. But who, when playing Modell in Barry Levinson’s best film of all-time, Diner, asks a fundamental question. How could we all just be random amoebas climbing out of the primordial ooze, and “from one lousy amoeba millions of years ago, that today there’s some guy with a winter coat on a corner yelling ‘taxi’?”
But whatever. I talk to God, you might talk to Oprah. To each their own. I’m not here to convince you. The day after the funeral, as I was pacing my house, still in Job mode, I said a simple prayer, which in my experience, tends to be the most effective kind: “If you’re any good at all, show me.”
I know this will sound like I’m making it up. But I’m not. I’d swear on a stack of Bibles, or even on my old atheist friend Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, if that is your sacred text. At the precise moment my prayer ended, literally the very same second, a nice bluebird couple landed on the copper roof of my newly mounted house – probably the same pair, though I didn’t check ID’s. They had returned just a day after the snake massacre, which had sent them flying for the hills. Within days, a new nest was built. Shortly thereafter, five eggs were laid. Weeks later, five more baby bluebirds flew off to the wild blue yonder.
I am not trying to wrap this tale up with a pretty bow, like one of those Tiffany boxes. My sister still misses her mate. Gianna still doesn’t have her father. Neither do Tamara’s other three children. It sucks. And they are not alone. We will all experience loss of one sort or another. No one here gets out alive. But Tamara is one of the most resilient people I know, like those bluebirds who came back the day after the massacre. She’s a believer, herself. And in difficult times, she has learned a trick that I’m only still able to pull off on occasion, since I often fear God more than love him, and love him more than trust him. That trick is this: she has learned to sit with pain and uncertainty, while not losing faith.
Since that summer of 2018, I’ve graduated ten broods of bluebirds. Word of my homicidal outburst must’ve gotten around the snake community, and no more have made the scene. Roughly fifty more bluebirds now exist in this world - enough to make me and Uncle Remus and Tony Soprano clink glasses if they were still here.
Late this summer, when my last brood left, I was already feeling the full weight of middle-aged maudlin-hood. My youngest son, Dean, had just graduated high school, and was shoving off to college. The bluebirds weren’t the only ones whose nest had been emptied. It seemed like about five minutes ago that me and my wife, her pregnant with Dean and feeling every lick of the discomfort that entails, were driving past some outdoor bar, with carefree 22-year-olds in heat drinking and laughing and carrying on like they had no obligations in this world. Alana, who is not prone to using foul language, unlike some people in our family, said to all of them and none in particular, “Enjoy it while it lasts, motherfuckers.”
After we actually dropped Dean off at college, on the silent ride home, we drove past the yard of one of our neighbors, where a military father and his two young sons frequently play catch, like I used to do with mine. “Enjoy it while it lasts, motherfuckers,” I said, wistfully. Between those two “mf’ers,” our kids became adults, or something close to them. While time crept up behind us, and hit us with a tire iron.
At summer’s end, my oldest son Luke and I were watching my last bluebird brood of the season fledge from our dining room windows. Since he was about eleven, Luke has been plagued by a heavy dose of OCD. It seized his mind, and sometimes, his thoughts don’t seem his own. In early days, he could barely get out coherent sentences. Now, he asks me to take my audio-book-earbuds out while I’m cooking so we can have deep metaphysical conversations. He’s not all the way there, but he’s coming out of it now. He’s improved exponentially. Total deliverance is what he wants, but it hasn’t arrived yet. Yet he’s in college, studying to join the ministry. I’m not sure how remunerative that’ll be, but I’m proud of him. He wants to be a professional hope merchant, divining meaning in the seemingly meaningless, helping people locate answers that have often eluded him.
It’s always a great thrill to watch the bluebirds fledge. And after number five took off down the runway this year, we thought we were all done. Except we’d miscounted, and number five was actually number four. One more baby bluebird straggler had yet to achieve liftoff. For a half hour or so, he perched in the hole of what had been the only home he’d ever known. He leaned out further than any bird I’ve ever seen, who didn’t commit to flight. It looked like gravity would take him down, if self-doubt didn’t. He seemed to be clocking his odds of survival, taking in the big wide world which must have looked every bit as daunting as promising, with my huge, white Great Pyrenees lazing 30 yards away, looking like an Abominable Snow Bear. I should’ve brought him inside the house, but Solomon likes to watch birds, too.
As Luke watched the baby bluebird struggle with indecision, he started cheering him on from the dining room window: “C’mon, buddy! You’ve got wings. Believe in them! Flap them!” I wasn’t sure if he was still talking to the bird.
When the bluebird finally took his flying leap, he flew off to the weeping willow across the way. That’s always the first place they land. We planted the tree when Luke was born. It wasn’t even as tall as me. Now it’s taller than our house. An ice storm nearly took it out a few years ago, but though it bent, it did not break.
This was the last flight of the season. I won’t see new bluebirds again until next spring. I dread the coming winter without them. Why do they have such a hold on me? I’m not exactly sure. My quasi-spiritual advisor, the late great Jim Harrison, used to like to say that “birds are holes in heaven through which a man may pass.” He claimed he took that off a Spanish poet. Maybe he did. Or maybe he just got it off a Starbucks cup. I don’t know. But one thing I do know is that, as Tony would say, “I really love those fuckin’ birds.”