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Breeding Habits

By Andrea Vij

Breeding Habits ArtI tried to shoo them away, but they wouldn’t leave.

They arrived on a Saturday morning in early spring. It was cloudy and cool that day, a gray start to what I hoped would be a quiet weekend. Harv had gone out to get coffee, and I was folding laundry on the sofa when I heard a strange noise coming from the bedroom. I stopped to listen, but it went away.

I reached for another towel and folded it. As I set it aside, I heard the noise again, low and throaty, like a pigeon or an owl: “Coo-OOO-ooh. Coo-OOO-ooh.”

Then silence.

After it sounded again, I decided to investigate. I peered into the bedroom and tiptoed cautiously forward. Pausing at the foot of the bed, I listened. Nothing. Then, just as I turned to leave, I heard it again. It seemed to be coming from outside the north window, so I crept over and moved the blinds to one side.

Wings flapped, twigs scattered in every direction, and something about the size of a robin darted away before I could get a good look. I scanned the courtyard, then glanced down to find a haphazard pile of twigs resting on our windowsill. So that’s it, I thought. Some little bird wants to build a nest here in the ivy.

Annoyed, I opened the screen and brushed the twigs away. I knew about birds. They rise at dawn. They warble and fuss when you’re trying to sleep. They shit with abandon. I brushed every trace of nest from the sill, then walked away assuming I was done.

But I had underestimated my adversary, who rebuilt within the hour. A great battle ensued, taking my quiet Saturday morning and turning it into a dramatic, hours-long confrontation between woman and bird. No … make that birds. By noon, I figured out there were two of them. And they were stubborn, too, like those steely people who insist on riding out hurricanes. They built, and I brushed it all away. And they built, and I brushed it all away. And they built, and built, and built, until I finally just gave in.

“Honey,” I said to Harv, “it looks like we’re going to have a bird’s nest on our windowsill.”

His eyes lit up. “That’s great! Nature in action.”

*  *  *

Our fertility doctor was a rock star. I turned on the news one day and saw him there, explaining the latest advances in fertility prediction. I realized that if the same technology had been available fifteen years earlier, I could have walked into a clinic at age twenty-five and requested a blood test to find out how many eggs I had left. The results would have told me how long I could expect to remain fertile. But I’d have had nothing to gain but false hope. I never lacked for eggs. The problem was my chromosomes.

I learned about it from a series of blood tests for an unrelated condition. Shortly after Harv and I decided to get married, I explained. “I have a chromosome abnormality called a reciprocal translocation. It’s harmless for the most part. I’m not sick. But it could make things difficult if we want to have a child.”

He listened, intrigued as both scientist and potential father.

“It’s kind of complicated,” I added. “At conception, genetic information gets passed on through our chromosomes, right? With an abnormality like mine, sometimes the information ends up in the wrong place. Sometimes it’s incomplete. If that happens, the pregnancy terminates on its own.”

He nodded. “Don’t worry. We have access to the best doctors in the world. We’ll figure out what to do.”

He was optimistic, and I loved him for it.

*   *   *

Several hours after the little fiends finished their nest, I found a picture of them on a birding website. Beneath the photo appeared their scientific name, zenaida macroura, and below that, their common name, mourning dove.

My new neighbors had an identity.

According to the article, mourning doves are abundant throughout much of North America, primarily because they breed up to six times a year. They’re known not only for their plaintive coo, but also for their relentless nest-building behavior, and for the unique squeaking sound made by their wings during take-off and landing. While mourning doves will occasionally take over the unused nests of their fellow birds, most pair up and build on their own, sometimes in awkward locations: inside mailboxes, on fence posts, in hanging planters, and yes, on windowsills.

Over the next few days, I gathered information obsessively. I read about mourning doves’ habits (prolific breeding and little else), their diet (primarily seeds), their preferred habitat (cities, rural areas, woods, meadows), and their close relationship to the passenger pigeon. I learned that mourning doves mate monogamously and share equally in the duties of parenting. I couldn’t help admiring them for that.

I also couldn’t help noticing that the birds on our windowsill bore little resemblance to the noisy brats I had first expected. They cooed softly now and then but otherwise kept silent. We hardly even knew they were there. And if they shat, I couldn’t find evidence of it. I joked to Harv that they were the cleanest, quietest neighbors we’d ever had.

“They’re kind of cute,” I admitted one evening as we set out for a walk.

“And just think,” Harv said. “We can watch our own episode of Wild Kingdom without ever leaving the bedroom.”

*   *   *

Crossing one leg over the other, I peered out over my copy of Good Housekeeping. The clinic waiting room featured a cascading water wall, a collection of lush green plants, several kidney-shaped coffee tables stocked with glossy pamphlets (“Stress and Infertility,” “Benefits of Acupuncture,” “Fertility Treatment: A Patient’s Guide”) and seating for at least fifty. A surprising number of seats were occupied this morning, primarily by women.

I considered making myself a cup of tea at the beverage station, but decided against it because I would have to throw it away as soon as my name was called. I had come for my second ovarian ultrasound, a procedure that would tell my doctor just how enthusiastically my reproductive organs were responding to the powerful cocktail of hormones I mixed each night and injected into the soft, fatty skin around my belly button. He would study the grainy, black-and-white photos and, based on the number of follicles he could see developing on each ovary, adjust my treatment accordingly. But what the pictures would not tell him, or me, or anyone else, was how to solve my chromosome problem. For that, medical science had little to offer. All we could do was jolt my ovaries into high gear and hope for the best. More eggs, better odds.

A woman in pink scrubs approached the reception desk and reached for a clipboard. “Jennifer P,” she called out, checking a name off the list. I watched as Jennifer P. rose from her seat and walked toward the desk. With bracelets jangling and thick blond hair tumbling down her back, she looked attractive, vibrant, and healthy. How could someone like her be infertile?

Flipping through the pages of my magazine, I waited.

“Maria T.”

“Constance M.”

“Jason R.”

I tried not to stare, wanting to avoid the temptation to make comparisons between myself and the other patients. But as I sat there in my blue-upholstered chair pretending to read about Thanksgiving centerpieces, I considered all that Maria, Constance, Jason, and I had in common, even if our official diagnoses were quite different. Like everyone else in the waiting room that day, we had come to the clinic to get help from a specialist, not because we were dying or in physical pain, but because we longed for something that most people can have without medical intervention. We wanted kids.

Science tells us that the urge to procreate lies deep in our DNA. Living organisms share a common biological imperative: reproduce or your species will cease to exist. Call it a primal urge, a deep-seated desire, or even an outdated societal expectation. Ignore it altogether if you like. But somewhere within our every cell lies a drive to procreate, to pass our genes to the next generation. Nature provided this urge so we could survive as a species. Unfortunately, for those of us in the waiting room, nature had failed to take the next step.

*   *   *

With an embarrassing lack of originality, we named our new neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Birdie. Both had soft gray-brown wings mottled by a dozen or so darker spots that looked like they might have dripped off a wet paint brush. Their cooing soothed us and made us laugh. And even though we hated to disturb them, we couldn’t resist going to the window to check on them several times a day.

They had been perched on our windowsill for about a week when Harv beat me home from work one day. He caught me as I walked in the door. “Guess what I saw,” he teased.

“What?”

He held up two fingers. “Two eggs!”

“No way!”

“Yep. I went to the window to check on them, and they must have been trading off or something. There was nobody on the nest for about thirty seconds, until Mrs. Birdie flew in and sat down.” Again he held up two fingers. “I saw two eggs, and they were white.”

I thought back to my research, and his story held up. Mourning doves typically incubate two eggs per clutch, and the parents alternate at the nest, with the male on duty by day and the female by night. Harv must have opened the blinds at precisely the right moment to see the eggs exposed.

I went to the window and pushed the blinds aside. From her perch, the mama bird looked up at me with one solid, unmoving black eye. “So that’s it, Mrs. Birdie,” I said gently. “That’s why you’ve been so quiet. You don’t want anyone to find your eggs. Well, don’t worry. We’ll protect you.”

At last I understood. Of all the windowsills in the world, Mr. and Mrs. Birdie had picked ours, and within a week or so, they would be nursing two tiny, down-covered hatchlings right out- side our bedroom. This was no accident. Harv and I had been chosen.

“Those little eggs are going to hatch,” I said to Harv. “And we’re going to be parents.”

*   *   *

I lay on the exam table awaiting a verdict. Mary, the ultrasound technician, finished her maneuverings and snapped off her disposable gloves.

“You’ve got seven follicles on the right ovary,” she said, “and four on the left. I see a few other small ones that will grow over the next couple of days. They’ll probably call you back in tomorrow.”

I thanked Mary and got dressed. Seven plus four, with more on the way. After three cycles of treatment, my best count so far. I walked to the car and called Harv. “Good news, honey. No wonder I feel bloated. I’m cranking out eggs like you wouldn’t believe.”

*   *   *

Figuring something could happen any day now, I began rushing home from work. Every afternoon I would run inside, kick off my shoes, hurry to the window and push the blinds aside. Perhaps I imagined it, but whoever happened to be sitting on the nest would look up at me with an expression of complete trust. I spoke in my most soothing voice. “Hello, little bird. No chickies yet today? Maybe tomorrow.”

This went on for several days, until one afternoon I happened to come home earlier than usual. I went to the window, half expecting to find two squawking baby birds with their harried parents.

Instead I found a bare windowsill. No birds, no nest, no ivy, nothing. For one confused moment I thought that maybe I had dreamed the whole thing, that there had never been any birds. But no, they had been there just this morning. The babies were due to hatch. Something was wrong. They couldn’t have just disappeared.

I flung the window open and leaned outside, looking for any clue as to what had happened. Bizarre explanations darted through my mind: a strong wind had blown them away, a bird of prey had swooped in on them, a cat had somehow climbed two stories and discovered them. But nothing made sense.

I ran to call Harv, who was in the Jeep on his way home.

“The birds are gone,” I blurted out when he picked up.

“What do you mean, the birds are gone?”

“They’re gone!” I was beginning to feel frantic. “I don’t know what happened.”

“Okay. Take it easy and I’ll be home in a few minutes.”

I grabbed my keys and ran downstairs. I went out into the courtyard to find something, anything that would tell me where the birds had gone. I looked from the trees overhead to the ground below, from the brick wall to the neighbor’s fence, from the rose bushes to the hydrangeas, searching every corner. Then I saw it. On the ground below our window sat a pile of tools—shears, hedge cutters, and other fierce-looking things with sharp blades—and next to the tools, a ladder. The ladder was propped up against a bare brick wall, and below it someone had heaped a large pile of freshly cut ivy.

“No,” I thought, horrified. “They did not cut down the ivy, not today of all days.” The condo association had told us they couldn’t afford to have any extra yard work done because we needed a new boiler. But apparently someone had found the money.

I looked up at our window, longing to see one small patch of ivy stuck to the wall, just enough to protect a nest. But there was nothing there but bare bricks and mortar. The birds were gone.

I made my way upstairs and waited for Harv. By the time he walked in, I was in tears. I told him everything, about the bare windowsill, the ivy on the ground, the ladder and the tools, the sharp blades, and the brick wall. He listened, his face grim.

We walked into the bedroom and stood together staring at the window. Had we given it any thought, we would have realized that with the approach of evening the mother bird would come home, expecting to relieve her partner for the night. As it turned out, her arrival took us by surprise, leaving us to stand there helplessly as she landed on the bare windowsill. Her head jerked back and forth from the spot where the nest had been to our figures looming before her in the window. We shook our heads sadly, wanting to tell her that we were sorry, that we didn’t do it. She flew away to land on a tree branch a few yards away, then flew back, as if expecting the nest to materialize if she tried again. We stood by as she repeated this ritual ten, maybe twenty times. When we could no longer bear to watch, we closed the blinds and walked away.

*   *   *

The pile of ivy sat dead on the ground in the courtyard for several weeks before someone finally hauled it away. Harv told me he searched through it one afternoon but didn’t find anything. With no evidence to tell me otherwise, I decided that Mr. and Mrs. Birdie eventually found each other, maybe out in the courtyard later that evening. And since their hatchlings couldn’t possibly have survived, I assumed that, driven by their natural urge to parent, they tried again right away.

As for Harv and me, after battling my chromosomes for over a year, we finally made the tearful decision to stop. The next day, we went online and ordered a copy of Adoption for Dummies. By the time the book arrived on our doorstep, we had already found an agency and set up our first appointment. But things moved more slowly after that, and we waited almost two years for a referral.

Today our beautiful son is almost three, and I find it difficult to remember a time when he wasn’t part of our lives. Even before the courts allowed us to bring him home, we thought about him daily. Before that, we longed for him.

When we first talked about having a child, like so many other prospective parents, I assumed this would mean a child with my chin and my husband’s nose, with my long legs and my husband’s dark hair—a child I could know viscerally from the moment its cells began to divide. This wasn’t meant to be. But now, when I look at the sweet and playful boy we adopted after so many months of heartbreak and uncertainty, I feel a sense of completion I never knew to expect. He is our son in every way that matters.

We moved last spring, into a house surrounded by trees and the many birds that reside in their branches. Every so often when I take my little boy out for a walk, he says, “Mommy, the birds are talking,” or, “Cheep, cheep, cheep,” as he hops through the grass, arms outstretched like imaginary wings.

The first time he heard a mourning dove, he looked at me. “What’s that sound?” he asked, reaching for my hand.

“It’s a mourning dove. Before you were born, some mourning doves built a nest outside our window. They say, coo-OOO-ooh, coo-OOO-ooh.”

“Oh,” he answered. “Like this?” And then, in a high-pitched staccato that sounded nothing at all like a mourning dove, he offered his own rendition. It was as if he had heard something completely different, or perhaps wasn’t interested in meeting my expectation of how a mourning dove should coo. And I knew to let it go.

Author’s Note: When I first began writing scenes for Breeding Habits, I didn’t know where the story would lead, but I knew I had to share it. In the end, it took over four years of writing, rewriting, workshopping, and rethinking before I finally had a cohesive essay that said what I wanted to say.

Life can seem so unfair inside the world of fertility treatment, but it is natural—indeed, it is rooted in nature—to want biological children. In my case, I had to let go of that desire in order to become a parent. Once I did, adopting my son turned out to be the most amazing experience of my life, and being his mother, the most rewarding. That, in part, is why I felt compelled to write Breeding Habits. I wanted to say that yes, infertility is unfair. But sometimes, when things don’t turn out the way you want, they turn out even better.

Andrea Vij lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with her husband and son. Her essays have appeared in Literary Mama, New York Family, Bay State Parent, Adoptive Families, and Babble.com.

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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