I was seven months pregnant when I found an injured baby bird hopping around the middle of the road in front of our house.

He was lethargic and in a daze. I didn’t know if he had a broken wing or had just been tousled by a passing car. Either way, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him scared and alone to starve or fall prey to a scavenging animal.

I had no clue how to care for a baby bird. There were stacks of baby books in my house but none were going to help me with this. Still, my pregnancy emotions had hijacked all logic and convinced me I had to nurse him back to health. I was going to be a mother soon—I should be able to do something.

I placed the bird in a basket full of grass and twigs with a tiny bowl of water and took to Google . . . 

Grey and white speckled bird
New York state bird species
bird grey beak
how to feed baby bird
give baby bird water
heal broken wing

It said I should place some bird seed in a shallow bowl nearby. It said I should keep the bird near a window where he could get sunlight. It said I could concoct a sling out of a torn piece of sock to support the weight of an injured wing. It said to try giving him water from a small dropper. It said the bird I had found was a baby mourning dove, just around the age where they start learning to fly, and so they often fall from the nest and are unable to return.

And then it said that if you find one, you should leave it where it is because its parents will be watching over it to chase away danger and bring it food until it learns to fly.

My heart sank.

In trying to protect him I had probably done the worst possible thing. There was no returning him to his habitat now. Dusk was setting in and I knew a predator would snatch him up before his family found him again.

I set the basket with the bird and seed and water under the window in my daughter’s soon-to-be nursery—the safe space I had created for protection and warmth. I went to bed and prayed, but deep down, I knew I had sealed his fate.

I woke before sunrise and ran in to check. All of the seed and water was still there and he was lying on his side slowly opening and closing his beak as if struggling to call out to me for help. My eyes flooded with tears as I scooped up the basket and rushed outside to where I found him thinking maybe if I placed him on the ground his mother would swoop down with food and save him.

She didn’t.

I ran back and forth from the house to the basket, sobbing, desperately hoping for some revelation that would help me save this tiny, helpless creature I’d doomed. I grabbed the water dropper and cupped him in my hand in a last-ditch effort to get him to drink, but he closed his beak one last time, and I watched the light fade from his eyes.

I fell to my knees, head in hands, and wept, crying out “I’m so sorry!”over and over and over again—to the baby bird, to God, and to my unborn daughter who was destined to be raised by this obviously unfit mother.

Why? It was just a bird.

But it wasn’t just a bird. Not to me. Not at that time. In just 12 short hours he had become a symbol of new life, of nature and nurturing and maternal instinct and the embodiment of everything I was about to embark on in my new journey; and then suddenly became the manifestation of all of my fears of inadequacy and failure.

I sat and cried, one hand on the baby bird and one around my belly, until the neon coral sun breached the horizon wrapping me in a warm, peach haze.

For a brief moment, I felt comforted.

Nearly four weeks later, my daughter entered this world, but not without a struggle. Not that childbirth is ever without struggle, but it was a much different struggle than I’d envisioned.

There were oxygen masks and a dropping heart rate and a vacuum extractor and a cord around her neck. There was the panic in my husband’s face as he watched our daughter emerge, silent, still and blue. There were abnormally low APGAR scores and a diagnosis of neonatal encephalopathy and an ambulance ride through a snowstorm to the NICU. There were 72 hours of watching her shiver on a cooling blanket from induced hypothermia to prevent brain injury, wishing I could comfort her, already feeling like I was failing her.

That first night after her birth as I lay next to my rock of a husband, the deluge of emotions consumed me. I curled myself up into the tiniest ball, and

I.
Broke.
Down.

It was the primal kind of cry that pushes out from within, expelling all the blight that’s twisted up and knotted inside—the physical agony, the emotional exhaustion, the fears, the guilt, the shattered expectations.

It was cold, but as my tears subsided I felt a familiar warmth, and in that reprieve my mind flashed back to the baby dove and that summer sunrise. I remembered the anguish I felt, and I knew in a way that that heart-wrenching morning was preparing me for this.

Because baby books and Google searches don’t prepare us for the unexpected, for the uncontrollable. They don’t tell us how to grieve the loss of something intangible, like an experience or a hope. They don’t tell us how to not blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault or how to forgive ourselves for things that are. They don’t teach us how reach down and pull our strengths up and out of our weaknesses.

Nothing can prepare us for life except for living.

And when we live out our nightmares—the aches that shake us so deep to the core that they almost break us—those are the cracks that make us whole.

You may also like:

The Best People Are the Broken Ones

If God is Truly Good, He is Still Good When Life is Not

Clinging to Faith When You Feel Broken

Vanessa Colangelo

Vanessa Colangelo is a full-time Graphic Designer for a small liberal arts college, and an eclectic soul with a love for all things creative. She lives in upstate NY with her Superman of a husband and is currently navigating the world of new-motherhood with her hilarious and energetic 14-month-old daughter. She's passionate about real-life stories, reading them and telling them, and you can keep up with her writing at Saturday Morning Cofee.