A few weeks after my four-year-old son’s emergency appendectomy, I notice how often he collects feathers. Toby finds dirty white herring gull feathers on the shore of the Saint Lawrence River, red iridescent cardinal feathers in our backyard, and striped brown-and-white turkey feathers on his father’s bookshelf. Feathers are a part of his play. He flaps them in the air and touches the tiny filaments with a finger and observes how they separate like hairs. He tapes a large feather to the handlebars of his bike; he says it will make him go faster.
After he goes to sleep, I empty his pockets of the detritus of the yard—bark, stones, a ring made from a twisted dandelion stem. With him so recently in mortal danger, I wonder if my husband and I have done enough to cultivate his spiritual life.
On the night he got sick, as my husband packed a bag to take to the emergency room, I lay beside Toby in his bed. The nightlight glowed a pinkish orange. Because he asked me to, I gently rubbed his hot, swollen belly; I sang a song about working in the garden. “Inch by inch, row by row, we’re gonna make this garden grow.” My voice rose and fell, turning a song about tilling land into a lullaby. We lay on top of the owl quilt his grandmother had sewn, his familiar room made strange by his pain and my fear.
To settle myself, I looked at the art my husband and I had hung on the walls during Toby’s infancy. Above my head, a photograph of a loon on a lake. When we camp, we hear the loon’s mournful calls but do not often see it. Next to the loon, a sketch of a red-bellied woodpecker on a trunk. We see it in the backyard pecking at the silver maple. On the wall near the foot of the bed, a reproduction of Audubon’s painted finches fluttering on and off a tree branch. Their green-gold, burnt orange, red, and blue plumage is more fantastic than the feathers of the finches who stop at our birdfeeder. Our son’s birds are not the mysterious birds of religion, not the dove aloft a few inches above Jesus’ hand. As my fingers circled his belly, I prayed and I told him angels would protect him. I said I loved him. “You love me even when I’m bad,” he reminded me. “Yes,” I said.