On a mid-spring day in early May, I sit in my parents’ backyard and watch two parent starlings perform heroic, round-the-clock service for their untold number of newborn chicks.
The starlings live, poetically, in a hole in the wall of my parents’ house that abuts the room where I grew up. The hole is just under the gutter, so both the mom starling and the dad starling stop first on that gutter, scanning the backyard and making sure all is clear. Whatever insect they’ve captured is trapped in their off-yellow beaks. Then, in what amounts to an aeronautical miracle, they dart into the air and away from the gutter, turn 180 degrees back towards the house, and enter with razor-sharp precision the tiny hole that they call home for their young family. The chicks erupt in rapture. I can hear them from the porch where I sit. The babies fed, the parents quickly fly out of the hole to find the next meal.
This ought to be a sublime moment for me. I am, after all, pleasantly visiting the people who brought me into the world. At the moment, my younger daughter is inside playing Sorry with my mother. My mom has carefully lowered herself onto the living room floor and attempted to assume the contorted and youthful posture that mirrors my daughter. I understand her discomfort. At 50, I find sitting without support on the floor a little bit offensive. Board games that migrate from the kitchen table exist most reasonably in a young person’s realm.
As I said, this ought to be sublime for me, and I admit that it almost is. I grew up in this backyard…
The spring flowers, the bench under the oak tree where I sat with a girlfriend more than 30 years ago and held her hand…all of this to look back on, all of this to enjoy.
But I can’t shake the wistful melancholy that floats on the mid-western breeze. Those starlings never stop working, and neither do my parents. My dad calls regularly to check on me, but he’s tired more often. My mom’s arthritis bothers her.
I live more than a thousand miles away from where I was raised.
This is my parents’ house now; I’m lucky enough to have my own.
All of this is fine, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m happy with where I live. I’m delighted with my own family. My kids and my wife are healthy, and my parents are moving gracefully into dusk.
Time feels so fast, so sudden, so eternally temporary. I was holding that girlfriend’s hand yesterday. I can still feel the warmth of her palm. There’s no way it’s been thirty years. It simply doesn’t make sense.
SORRY,” my younger daughter calls out, having moved one of my mother’s pieces back to it’s starting place in the board game. She laughs at her power, and my mother fake-groans in disappointment.
Like the starlings, my parents never stop. They sit down with me over a cup of coffee in the morning and ask me, honestly, how I am doing. They don’t expect a pat answer. They are still bringing me food.
When I had my first child, I asked my aunt Mary if this new-found terror would get better.
“It will,” she assured me, “But it will never go away for the rest of your life.”
Aunt Mary makes me think of those starlings.
We live in a crazy world. It is unpredictable, uncertain, unnerving.
But the starlings will always feed their young. They’re not going to rest. They don’t want to rest.
I remind myself that I am lucky. My parents are good parents. They weren’t perfect, but thank goodness for that.
If your relationship with your parents is a good one, be grateful and let your own children enjoy their company. Do it often, or as often as you can. If you want some rest from the metaphor of the starling’s never-ending chores, sit in the back yard of the house where you grew up and listen to your daughter and your mother talk. This stuff really matters.
You don't need a child psychiatrist to tell you that.
If you visit your parents with your kids, you can be young and old, all at the same time. That’s the quantum trick of generational connection.
That’s what keeps those starlings going.
Steve Schlozman is a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. He is the associate director the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has written two novels and numerous short stories.