Flight Of The Sparrow
Updated: Apr 1
It was a brief and unconventional courtship conducted almost entirely through correspondence. She had quickly fallen in love with the shy American and he with her. As she carefully walked up the stairs to the church, her gait was unsteady, as much from anxiety as from a paralyzing bout of polio that had attacked her as a child and left her with a pronounced limp. This next step she was taking was momentous for her – she was marrying this handsome stranger and moving to a new country within days, and she couldn’t speak the language. No one she knew had ever done anything like this before. But then, no one she knew had her unflinching positive attitude and thirst for life. The bride-to-be swallowed her fear, said a brief prayer to the Virgin and walked down the aisle with as much grace as she could muster.
I look at the black and white photo I have of them that day, and I see a beautiful young woman kissing the great love of her life, ready to step out into the world. She had survived a crippling disease, and against all odds, would soon be boarding a train to the United States where dreams, of course, always came true.
A year after their honeymoon at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, I was born. And a year and a day after that my brother Richard. My youngest brother, John, completed our little family a whopping 13 years later. An unexpected blessing!
My mom’s physique was as fragile as that of the sparrow that hops around my patio looking for snacks. Her petite stature led many to underestimate her fierce, resilient spirit. I remember the time I was sulking around the house after a breakup with my boyfriend thinking my life was over. She looked up from the shirt she was ironing, her piercing blue eyes flashing and said, “It’s over. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and move on.” My mom didn’t sulk. She shook off her disappointments like a sparrow vibrating its wet feathers after a bath. I learned over time that this ability to move on would be one of the keys to a happy, fulfilling life. Her lack of pity for my situation stung, but it had the desired effect – I moved on.
Sparrows are fragile little birds with attitude. They’re cute but feisty when they need to be. That was Mom - small but mighty. She learned English by watching soap operas on television. We had no computers back then, no online language programs, no internet and black and white television was state-of-the art. Learning a new language was just another hill for her to conquer, and she found a way to do it with what she had at hand.
Realizing that household income wasn’t matching expenses despite my dad’s hard work as a carpenter, Mom applied for and was hired as a seamstress in a clothing factory. Called sweatshops because they packed young women (and the seamstresses were all women) into brick factories that were unbearably hot in the summer, my mom put in long days of sewing to help make ends meet. She never complained. Not content with the situation in the dress factory, she started to look for other opportunities. By that time, she had attained her GED and was ready for a new challenge. Her determination and can-do spirit paid off. She applied to and was hired by a defense company to solder tiny electronic parts for the military. Over the years she would apply for increasingly challenging work assignments, always anxious to learn more and move ahead. She retired from that company in her late 60s and they were sorry to see her go. For a fragile little bird, she exhibited an eagle’s stamina and courage.
As strong and resilient as my mom was there were a few times in her life, when her near bottomless optimism was severely tested. The first crisis I can remember concerned a real estate transaction. Mom had always dreamed of heading back to Canada when she retired, and Dad had agreed. After all, she had a large family there - 8 brothers and sisters who were anxious to have them become a part of their tight knit community. So Mom and Dad purchased land to build their dream home. However, when push came to shove my dad just could not make such a drastic change. His inability to go on this adventure devastated her and nearly destroyed their marriage. I think this was the first time I had ever seen her cry. Weeks went by in silent anguish. And then, like the day after a terrible storm, the clouds parted, and it was over. My mom had conceded to my dad and the property in Canada was sold. Of course, she could have made the decision to go back to her hometown where her family lived, that would have been what she truly desired, but she chose the more difficult path at her husband’s side because, well, she loved him. Coincidently, sparrows also mate for life. I’m sure she continued to mourn this lost opportunity for the rest of her days, but she never let on.
The second time my mother’s resolve was shaken was on a cool and rainy afternoon. I had decided to pick up a few things at the supermarket on my way home. As depressing as the weather was, nothing could have prepared me for the news I was soon to hear. Preoccupied with revisiting all the issues I was facing at work and at home, I stood in the aisle and just stared at the almost unlimited selection of bread, unsure as to what I should get, if anything. The buzz from my cell phone startled me out of my carb coma. It was mom and the only words I heard were “I have cancer.” All I remember after that was the thundering sound of my heart breaking into a million pieces. I dropped everything and drove over to see her. I needed details.
I learned that she had ignored a pestering 'blister' on the back of her ankle for months. She covered it with a Band-Aid to hide it and make wearing her shoes more comfortable. When she finally had it looked at by a doctor, she was quickly diagnosed with melanoma. It was large and had spread or metastasized to some lymph nodes. While her doctors surgically removed the cancer, they couldn't be sure it hadn't spread elsewhere in her body, and it would likely come back.
We had appointments with doctors, oncologists, therapists, and many other health professionals. We finally met with a cancer specialist who evaluated her disease and told her very compassionately that there was no cure. He could, however, sign her up for a clinical trial to test out a new drug. She thought about that for a minute, and replied, “No thank you. I’ll take my chances. With my luck I’ll go through all that and end up being given the placebo.” She always believed she could win this battle on her own, and she almost did. She fought the good fight and just as the specialist had predicted, the cancer eventually spread to her brain two years later.
This was someone who loved life with every fiber of her being. She was one of the joyous people. She was kind and loved everyone. Even during her darkest days, she found a way to smile. I remember those days near the end when she spent 3 weeks in the hospital with terrifying headaches. Even then, she was a force to be reckoned with.
On a bright sunny day looking out at the garden that surrounded her room in hospice, I noticed that I could no longer hear the song of the sparrow. Our little bird was silent and flew away almost undetected. I was holding her hand. It was one of the darkest, most painful moments of my life.
Her parting gift to all of us was to believe. Believe in yourself, in your gifts, and in your ability to overcome even the most difficult of situations. Learn to be resilient, to go with the flow, to laugh and to appreciate life. Have the courage and compassion to do the right thing.
In a world plagued by pandemics, homelessness, global warming, and now even a terrible, heart-wrenching war in Ukraine, remember the fragile sparrow. It might be perceived as small and to some insignificant, but it can teach us a lot about how to live in the moment and fly confidently through the storms of life.