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Notes on Gratitude

The much anticipated day has come and gone. 

The ceremony went off without a hitch and it was perfect. The weather was cool. The students were behaved. The families were ecstatic. The speeches were meaningful. And the faculty members were proud. Two and a half hours spent sitting on cold, hard metal bleachers and an aching back didn’t bother me one bit. Six hundred plus names sure take a long time to announce!

After the bagpipes, pomp and circumstance, song singing, name reciting, and picture taking, in the car on the way home, amidst our joyful banter, Olivia said, “I feel weird.” 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

She clarified: “I can’t believe I graduated, that four years have gone by already.” I knew exactly how she felt. 

My little girl, who is no longer little, is about to fly into her future. She’s thrilled and nervous, and so am I. Her future and what she wants to make of herself and her life rests in the palm of her hand, as tentative as a wisp of spider web caught in the branch of a tree.


Every year for the last five years a hummingbird has nested in the ficus tree directly outside our back door. Catching the occasional glimpse of her nest-building enterprise is awe-inspiring, and I await each return with gleeful anticipation, confused and humbled by our proximity to this bit of nature’s bounty. 

Through the open window behind the couch I hear her comings and goings, the chirp of her call and the hum of her wings. Once in a while, out of the corner of my eye, I see the sway of a thin nubby branch or the streak of her bullet fast body. Most days her speed makes her an enigma. But now and then, if I cast my gaze at the perfect moment, I see her amidst the branches, wings spread phoenix-like, hovering in the suspended animation of constant motion, before she darts away into the bottle brush or honeysuckle.    

When she is out foraging for the wares of the trade—bits of twig, pieces of leaf, and tendrils of cat hair—I sometimes tip-toe outside to look at her progress. The fruit of her labor is imperceptible to the naked eye until her masterpiece is complete. The place where her babies will hatch and grow—their home—amounts in mass to the size of a quarter and in weight to a piece of paper. Mini-scale housekeeping completed, she settles in to tend her eggs. That’s when the real work begins, for her and for me. 

She sits. I worry. She vigils. I fear. She waits. I hope. I avoid the back yard so as not to disturb her. Keep the curtain pulled and the window shut to drown out excess light and noise. Do everything within my power to take care of her and her soon-to-be babies, trying to keep them safe. If curiosity prevails, I creep quietly into Olivia’s bedroom to lower the blinds and peer out the window so birdie mama isn’t disturbed by my wonder. I’ve also been spotted in the backyard screeching my voice like a banshee and wheeling my arms like a windmill to chase away bully jays and nosey squirrels. No act too outrageous to protect my avian family.   

Seasons worth of babies have hatched. I’ve been privileged to watch mama, perched on the edge of the nest, gliding her beak into her babies’ beaks to feed them and I always think the same thing—regardless of species moms work hard to take care of our fledglings. 

This year was no different, until. . .

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Two weeks before Olivia’s graduation the babies had already hatched. Mama alternately sat on her nest or flew, taking excellent care of them and leaving only to sustain her family with nectar from nearby flowers and bushes. We were preparing to say good-bye to high school and to fly from one end-of-year event to the next to celebrate all that our girl had achieved during these complicated years in both athletics and academics. I was anxious and distracted by a finish line within our reach. 

One morning, I shuffled into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Tom rushed towards me and without preamble blurted out, “I’m so sad.” I raised an eyebrow. “The babies,” he continued, “they’re gone.”

It was too soon. They were not yet ready to fly. That can’t be right, I thought, rushing past him. I’d worked too hard to keep those babies safe for something to happen to them now. 

I burst through the back door, and there, where the nest should have been, was nothing. No mama, no babies, no nest. It was as if a hand had reached in and scooped everything away. I took a closer look, hoping against hope. Nothing remained but specks of black poop dotting the surrounding leaves and wisps of grey spider webs floating in the early morning breeze. 

Nest gone 2017

Tears welled. I wanted my babies back. I wanted the mama. I wanted what I couldn't have, some semblance of control over whatever had happened. Nature’s lesson was not lost on me: You’re holding on too tight.

It took time to figure out how the juxtaposition of graduation and disappearing babies meshed together beyond the surface of my girl preparing to disappear from her nest and head to college. Then it hit me. This was the universe reminding me again of hard-won wisdom. Slow down. It knows what I need even before I do. After everything my daughter and I have been through, she is ready to fly. Breathe. Like mama hummingbird, I’ve done my best to protect and nurture her and the rest is beyond my control.  Focus. Letting go is the best way to hold on. And like the spider web that anchors nest to branch, gratitude is what will bind us together as she soars.


  1. The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement, all writings with his fame, and bringing eternal glory to the nest whence he sprang.

    Leonardo da Vinci

  2. Wow, what a beautifully written post! You are a wordsmith, Tracey. Congratulations on Olivia's graduation. She's such a lucky young woman to have you for a mom.

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