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Jonah the Dove

When I was nine months pregnant, a pair of mourning doves showed up in the Oak tree outside our apartment window. The fist-sized olive birds took turns guarding the tree limb three stories above the busy city street while the other sought out materials to build their nest.  

I watched my own wife, flush with anticipation, run out to get supplies we needed for our soon arriving baby while I broke in the rocker chair gifted to us, a space that felt novel and foreign at the time, and which would soon become ground zero for our lives.

“That can’t possibly be finished,” I said to my wife, as I eyed the bird laying on what looked like one fifth of a nest, twigs and wires and bits of New York trash clumsily cobbled together on a narrow branch.

The nest looked precarious, ill-fitted to safely harbor the soon arriving baby doves.

I was overcome by a great bout of anxiety. How would the babies survive in that mangled dangling nest high above a well-trafficked road? How would I survive as a mother?

“That’s what they do, apparently,” my wife relayed matter-of-factly as she folded onesies.

She was right. Mourning doves are notorious for building flimsy nests, often at the peril and ultimate demise of their newborn hatchlings. It takes the birds two to four days to assemble the sloppy baby birthing center and up to two weeks with the mother and father rotating sitting on the eggs for them to hatch. My own due date was two weeks away.

I was superstitious, perhaps in denial. I refused to buy things for the baby until he was here, afraid to touch things in the nursery; as if my mere sentiment would jinx it all and the fetus ever growing larger in my uterus would just disintegrate.

I became obsessed with the birds.

“Maybe there aren’t enough twigs around,” I said worriedly, not at all acknowledging that my fear of unpreparedness for the birds was in reality my own fear of becoming a clueless parent.

I cut up strings of twine and placed them on the windowsill, hoping the birds would use it to beef up their nest. I bought a little bird feeder and hung it out the window. I watched them hawkishly and provided updates to my wife, who, while interested, also had more important things to do.

“Are you going to read up on how to use that breast pump?” the one thing she asked of me as she completed task after task, putting together shelving in the nursery, decorating its walls, reorganizing our entire apartment to make room for the impending new family member.

“I will,” I said, but was frozen, unable to complete any tasks that were baby-related, it seemed. I didn’t know how to explain that to her, especially since I was the one who pushed to have this baby.

I sat reading my magazines and making brunch plans out like the most momentous occasion of my life wasn’t about to happen. I stared down the parenting books as they collected dust on the coffee table, averse to opening them up.

I was wholly undereducated to bring a child into the world. And yet, he was due in just days. Panic was an understatement.

“I don’t understand,” my wife said, “You plan everything. Why not this?”

The stunning part was that I was a pragmatic and assertive Virgo who was always plotting out the next vacation or dinner out or social plans or big work project. I always took the bull by the horns and micromanaged every last detail. I did that with our wedding and even with the six month-long fertility process, marking my hormone levels and running to the doctor three times a week before work, eating pineapple rind and researching every detail that would increase our odds of conception. I mean, we were gay. This wasn’t a tear in the condom accident child.

But now, like a deer in headlights, I felt stuck. I could not bring myself to understand nor prepare for what was about to happen.

Then my water broke.

“I didn’t pack my bag yet,” my wife said, urgency cutting through her usually calm demeanor. If she’s panicking, I’m really screwed, I remember thinking.

We went into full-blown activation mode, tossing last minute items into the overnight bags we hadn’t gotten around to finish packing and rushed to the hospital at the urging of our doctor. One day and sadly only one centimeter dilated later, our son Jonah entered the world with the help of modern medicine. He let his presence be known with a piercing scream and a stream of urine that hit the doctor. I cried with a joy so deeply rooted, my whole body shook.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of Jonah. He was tiny and stunning. I loved my wife with the ferocity one does when finding something precious one is looking for, but meeting my baby was truly love at first sight.

“He looks like you,” my wife said, as she cradled him expertly.

The love was there and the bond. Still, I was terrified. How do I keep this little human alive?

Two days later, we came home, our family expanded by one. This strange and beautiful little creature rapidly redefining what love in our home meant.

“Oh my god!” My wife said as she drew open the curtains in the living room.

There in the nest, beneath one of the mourning doves, sat two tiny little squirming baby birds.

“While we were having our baby, they were having theirs,” I said, breathless at the sheer synchronicity.

Birds and humans are two of a small number of species who give birth to babies who are helpless without mom. From the ant to the giraffe, other animals walk on day one of life and can fend for themselves soon after. Birds, though, like human babies, are considered altricial and require a certain amount of time before they can survive on their own.

We cared for our new baby over the next few days and weeks, my wife strong and adoring, me clumsily but quickly learning.

I was scared that I would hold him incorrectly, feed him at the wrong angle; that I would trip over something while carrying him and his fragile forming head would smash on the floor. Most of all, I was terrified of what he might be thinking of me when I looked into his eyes. His big dark eyes loomed large with the rest of his little human features hidden behind soft blankets and swaddles and miniscule clothes. Could he see my fear?

I wanted to tell him not to put all his trust into someone who wasn’t confident about my ability to care for him as supremely as he deserved. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry but that I was trying, that he was loved.

As days and nights became confused, a dizzying flurry of a newborn’s shrill cry met with an endless cycle of diaper changes, bottles, and rocking, the birds became my compass, my clock, my stabilizing force.

I watched as one parent dove flew out and later returned with food, which was imparted to the hungry, frenetic mouths of the babies. I watched the sun set as the birds settled into the nest, stoic in their earnest to keep their babies warm for the night.

Mourning doves are the most common bird in North America. They’re also the most hunted. They eat seeds they find on the ground, which makes them subject to attacks from cats and car tires. They mate for life. And the fathers stick around to help build the nest and then feed their young.

Late one afternoon, the sky grew dark and the wind started to howl. An ominous storm cloud moved in quickly over the river and towards us.

“Oh my god, the nest,” I shrieked, and my wife and I both watched, white-knuckled, as the wind and rain and lightning whipped at the tree branch that was holding precious lives that paralleled ours.

We held our baby close, wearing all of the angst and uncertainty about whether we were doing a good job of keeping him alive on our sleeve as we painfully observed a horror movie playing out in front of us.

I held my breath as each new gust of wind threatened to rip the new fowl family from its home and send it crashing to a violent death some thirty feet below. I saw both parents sitting perfectly still on top of their babies, protecting them from the violent wind and rain.

I heard the mournful cries that are the dove’s namesake as they screamed to be spared from this wicked happenstance that befell them.

The tears rolled down our cheeks and my wife and I held each other and planted an inappropriate number of kisses on our son’s face. What events would play out in our lifetime with him that would threaten our livelihood?

We had no control in this moment. We had no power to help those little creatures. All we could do was watch and pray.

As soon as the storm had arrived, it was over. The sun came back out and the wind settled into a calm breeze. The birds remained on the branch, their wings sunken from the drenching rain, soaked but survivors.

My wife and I cried tears of relief and hugged one another tight.

Mourning doves generally lay two eggs at a time, anywhere from one to six times a year.

We watched each day as the babies grew bigger and stronger until they were the same size as their parents. They ventured out of the nest and would teeter on the nearby branch, practicing flying.

Then one day, about two weeks later, they were gone.

“I feel true empty nest syndrome,” I said to my wife.

“On the contrary, our nest is quite full,” she replied, nodding towards our baby.

Our son was growing well, gaining weight and height and hitting his developmental milestones. He had perfect little features and a cute little coo, and I was starting to get the hang of understanding what each cry meant and how to meet his needs without feeling like I was failing miserably.

“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch but on its own wings. Always believe in yourself.”

I had spent so much time worrying about falling that I forgot I can fly.

Weeks went by, the doves a fading memory, like a warm dream and something that hadn’t really happened.

“Come and look at this,” my wife said one afternoon after we had just put the baby down for a nap.

She was holding the curtain open. There, on the window ledge stood four mourning doves, the parents with their slightly smaller babies. They were looking in the window, a most peculiar sight.

Coincidentally, we had the name Jonah picked out for our son long before the birds showed up. The name, in its original biblical incarnation in Hebrew, means dove.




Allison Hope is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, Slate, ELLE and more. She is working on two books and is actively seeking representation. @bubballie.


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