Newborn Sparrow by Teri McDowell Ott

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baby sparrow on branch

Heading out the driveway, my finger searched for the START button on my sports watch as I prepared to stretch my body into a long mid-morning run. A cool breeze brushed against my bare shoulders and legs so I paused briefly to inhale the emerging spring scents of ripe soil and green budding trees. Sweeping a clump of loose grass away with my shoe, my toe recoiled when the clump shifted, rolled, and finally unfolded, revealing itself as a newborn sparrow. He stood and cocked his thimble-sized head—a shock of feathers on top like a scruffy cowlick—to get a good look at me looking at him.

Our exchange was not unlike the moment when the hospital nurse placed my firstborn son in my arms. This tiny human baby, still ruddy and wet after being pulled from the womb, was startling. “You’re mine? You came from me?” I asked, searching all his miniature parts—eyes, nose, nostrils, ears, fingers, toes—for the answers to my disbelief. He questioned me as well. My newborn’s eyes gazed at my face, wondering who and what I was in the universe that had suddenly become so large.

The sparrow’s curiosity quickly turned to alarm. He flopped his body back and forth on the blacktop, desperate, it seemed, for control, desperate to master a new body too heavy to follow his mind’s direction, desperate to escape. But his wings were still wet and his feet, each with three long hooked toes, weren’t ready for running. I inhaled sharply at the thrashing of feathers and flesh, the way I do every time I see an animal dead or wounded along the road. Grief left me paralyzed at the end of my driveway, capable only of staring.

Soon after leaving the hospital, our newborn son began crying each evening for an hour or so. We’d do our best to hold him—his oversized head lolling about, his arms and legs flailing—to protect his soft, vulnerable neck. My mother fussed and clucked at me over the phone asking why hadn’t I done this or that. The pediatrician spoke to us about some baby’s need to expel pent up energy, frustration maybe, at the end of the day. But my husband and I were left each night to sing and cuddle, coo and shush, until eventually exhaustion overcame us all.

At the end of my driveway I wondered what I should do about the newborn sparrow. Where is your mother? I asked, scanning the trees full of maniacal chirping. Are you my responsibility or do I leave you for another? (The “another” clearly taking shape in my mind as our neighbor’s unleashed dog who would devour this defenseless chick.) The road called to me. I only had so much time for my run. Yet I stood there, my stopwatch recording every lost second, as I questioned my role in this baby’s life.

One evening, I collapsed on the couch with my infant son, now asleep in my arms. The weight of him—his body limp—was the weight of new responsibility, the weight of freedom lost and dreams slipping away. Panic seized my ability to be rational, logical, reasonable. “My life is over,” I cried to my husband as I pictured this baby strapped to my body, forever. I saw myself jogging with a baby in my arms, writing with a baby in my arms, speaking at work, praying, eating, socializing, shopping, even sexing with a baby in my arms. In that moment, I knew I might never be free.

Then, the sparrow surprised me again, unfolding two tiny, undersized wings from the ball of his body, and he flew.

terri-ottTeri McDowell Ott has written essays for Mamalode and The Christian Century, and she blogs at She is a Presbyterian pastor serving as the chaplain of Monmouth College. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two towheaded children, and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.



STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Miwok

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