by Andrea Lani

You arrive home with the babies in late May, the world outside all gray skies, glistening new leaves, sodden lilac blossoms. Inside, you are confined to your bedroom, unable to manage the stairs, forbidden from lifting anything heavier than your baby—one of your babies. Lift them is all you do—from co-sleeper to changing table to nursing pillow to co-sleeper.

The last feeding of the night—or first of the morning, depending on how you look at it—finds you propped in bed, an enormous foam horseshoe strapped around your waist, weighed down by both babies. As they feed, light creeps into the sky and birdsong creeps into the air. First the white-throated sparrow sings its clear, sweet, melancholy song, Oh, Sam Pea-bod-eee! The sky grows brighter and more birds join the chorus—the black-capped chickadee’s hey sweetie, the veery’s ethereal flute, the squeaky wheel of the black-and-white warbler. You and the babies fall back to sleep to the choir of birds.

White-throated sparrows migrate to your Northern New England home in late April. The male attracts a mate with his song and the female builds a nest on the ground, lining it with soft grasses, rootlets, and deer hair.

Spring unfolds into summer. The babies learn to hold up their heads, which means you can carry them both at the same time. You buy a double stroller and get out of the house now and then. Your older son teaches himself to write by calling from other room, “What makes a nnn sound?” One morning in August, during that latest—or earliest—feeding, you realize the white-throated sparrow’s song has been replaced by the sound of crickets, like a thousand tiny keys, winding a thousand tiny clocks, ticking toward winter.

Once satisfied with her nest, the female white-throat lays about four pale-blue, speckled eggs and broods them for two weeks until the chicks hatch.

By the next May, the babies have learned to sit up and clap and shuffle on their knees. Your older son has graduated preschool and learned to read. You have returned to work. Instead of falling asleep after that late night/early morning feeding, you crawl out of bed and pour cereal, pack diaper bags, and hustle three children to day care. Still the birds keep you company, the white-throated sparrow waking with the first flush of light. When you hear the sparrow no more, you feel the pang of another summer gone, another winter coming.

Your older son starts kindergarten. The twins climb on the counters and the kitchen table. They pull the TV off its cabinet. They scramble in and out of their crib and one of them falls onto his head. You replace the crib with a mattress on the floor and your older son moves back into your room to sleep with his brothers. You shut kitchen chairs in another room. You put wing nuts on cabinets and a slide lock on the basement door. You call poison control three times.

Spring comes again and the twins turn two. You had breastfed your older son for twenty-six months and you are determined to do the same for his brothers. They missed out on so much that he experienced—massages and baby yoga, outings, a mother with enough energy to interact with him—this is the least you can do. You wean the babies from one feeding at a time until all that remains is that last-of-the night session. For the third summer in a row, you wake before the sun, nursing your babies to a soundtrack of birdsong.

The baby sparrows leave the nest eight or nine days after they hatch. The parents continue to care for their young for two to three more weeks before leaving them to their own devices.

By next summer you will no longer wake with the dawn, will no longer hear that first bird of the day. Your babies will no longer be babies, but little boys. Though you long to sleep through the night without waking to meet anyone else’s needs, you also don’t want anything to change. Time has been a wheel rotating though repeating cycles winter, spring, summer, fall—but now you sense its forward momentum as it rolls downhill, year after year after year.

Years later, you wake one summer night to the sound of green frogs, dozens of their twanging calls. As darkness fades, birdsong replaces frog song. Oh, Sam Pea-bod-ee is there, mixed in with the others. But it was not the first, and this calls into question all of your memories of those early years with the babies. Did you really hear the white-throated sparrow sing up the sun, morning after morning, summer after summer? Or did your sleep-deprived mind turn a single incident into a pattern? What other memories did you embellish, exaggerate, or invent?

Nothing in your field guide indicates that white-throated sparrows sing earlier in the morning than other birds, rather they sing any time of day throughout the season, and the young learn the tune from their parents.

A mist of exhaustion shrouds those early years. You could no more bring up a clear memory than you could mold your babies from clay. Meanwhile, the wheel of time rolls downhill. Baby and little boy, have been left behind. Teenager and young man lie ahead. Each season brings losses and compensations.

In October, the white-throated sparrows take wing and head south to their winter territory. They will return next April to build nests on the ground, lay a clutch of eggs, and sing up the sun.