VIOLA - The stinging smell of sanitizer permeated our melancholy mood. No hugging–our small group of fewer than 10 people stayed six feet apart as we said our somber goodbyes. It was our last exercise class. It had become too difficult to incorporate the recommended safety precautions.
Adding to my sorrow was the awareness of my sister’s memorial the next day, kept tiny due to the pandemic.
Driving home, I glanced at the pond, where I normally stop. A light-colored lump of garbage sat at the edge of the pond. I kept going. However, a third of a mile up the road I decided to turn around and go back.
With my hands gripping the wheel too hard, my body weary with concern about the virus, and the sadness of both the end of my class and the upcoming final good-bye to Jill making the sunny day seem dreary, I parked at the pond and sat in the car.
The lump I’d seen from the road wasn’t a bag that had been carelessly tossed out a car window. It was a hump of golden brown feathers against a backdrop of bright green blades of grass. Slowly a long slender neck rose from below the waterline, topped by a distinctive red mask and white-gray cap. A Sandhill crane was making a nest.
My next two days were a blur of raw emotions. I didn’t get to the woods or stop at the pond. I was sinking into my sorrow, feeling the loss of never talking to my sister again, still processing the death of my mom a few months earlier, and not knowing when I’d ever see the ladies from the 11 weekly exercise classes I’d been teaching for years.
Finally, forcing myself to shower and dress, I drove to the pond, watched the nesting crane, snapped a few pictures, and whispered I’ll be back. I took the pups to the woods and wore us out with a long hike. After that, I often drove past to see the crane.
One morning, it occurred to me that Mrs. Crane was a lesson in sheltering at home. It had been over a week and still she sat on her nest.
When it rained, I knew she’d be hunkered down, and I’d want to rush out to hold an umbrella over her head. On a cold morning, thinking she’d be shivering, I wanted to toss her a blanket.
One afternoon, with the wind howling, Mrs. Crane’s back feathers were standing straight up, her graceful neck tucked tightly to her side. I feared she’d be dead by morning.
But she wasn’t. She sat on her nest. No complaining. Thunderstorms, gale winds, heat, cold—it didn’t matter. Her eggs came first. But when did she eat?
I’d noticed Daddy Crane off in the distance, but never near her nest. Maybe at night they’d get together and cuddle, or maybe he’d bring her a take-out meal of earthworms and tubers when no one was watching.
After 21 days, Governor Evers extended the stay-at-home order to protect us from either getting or giving COVID-19.* Some people were outraged. Maybe they didn’t understand that the new virus spreadslike butter left out on a hot day, and that we need to protect our children, our elderly, our most vulnerable.
I thought of Mrs. Crane on her nest and went for a visit.
Something wasn’t right. Mrs. Crane was slouched low on her nest, looking thick and unmovable. I snapped a few pictures and watched her for signs of life, but didn’t see any.
Driving home, I wondered, what if she was dead yet still on the nest? Would I be able to wade into the pond and save her eggs? The one time I’d gotten out of the car, I’d startled a sunning northern water snake back into the pond. Would he eat her eggs if she was dead? Would one of the many raccoons? Or how about those beavers, more plentiful now with all their dams than in years past?
Three days later, I made my way back to the pond, parked my car, rolled down the window—and saw Mrs. Crane balancing on her long toothpick legs! Underneath her was a colt, a precious baby crane.
While I’d been sheltering at home, Mrs. Crane had become Mama Crane after almost a month of sitting on her nest day after day, night after night. The colt was fluffy, a darker golden brown, with a funny waddle to his walk.
The next day, Daddy Crane had joined them, Mama Crane was busy eating, and two colts were playing in the nest. One colt was bigger and moved easily, while the other couldn’t stand up. The stronger colt splashed into the water with a surprised expression, as if saying, Look at me, I’m floating!
Lying in bed that evening, reflecting on Mama Crane’s patience in staying home on her nest to protect her eggs, I thought of my daughter and grandchildren, of my clients and their kids, of my neighbors and friends helping their children learn from the safety of their homes. I thought of our community and all the people in it. I couldn’t name a single person I’d never want to see again.
When morning poured in through my skylight, I knew I’d go see Mama Crane and her family. I hoped the weaker colt had survived the night. Feeling recommitted to staying safe for others as well as myself, I vowed to keep turning around, to keep looking for the tiny miracles each day brings.*After this column was written, the State Supreme Court overruled Governor Evers’ extension of the stay-at-home order. Nevertheless, like the cranes, I will continue to shelter at home.