Yesterday in the early morning when I looked at my bedside clock for the millionth time since my husband was away and it wakes me to reach out to his side and find it empty, and it was 4 a.m. and that morning bird began its early song and I remember thinking that the birdsong would keep me awake longer but really that was the last conscious thought I had before my alarm went off at 6:30 and the day began in earnest.
It is still dark at 4 a.m. but not like winter dark. In the summer it is much more gradual, the light spread thin, a quiet refusal to retreat entirely. The bird begins its call.
It is a robin. An American robin, different from the European robin since it is related rather to a thrush than the little robins over the pond. Lang Elliott, an authority on birds (what would that be like - to be an authority on birds?), qualifies the dawn call of a robin as a "more animated, excited territorial declaration."
Some 5-ish years ago I worked a graveyard shift at a women's care facility while I was in between jobs. It was summer and I kept the wide windows on the west side of the front office thrown open all night since they were high enough to be inaccessible from the outside. The robin's song became my touchstone. It signaled the shift from one side to the other, the ramping upside to the quiet slide down into dawn. The pitch and timbre translated into a desperate stand against the vestiges of night. And a call to the sun.
It speaks to another time, years ago, a time of desperation and my last failed stand. I had lost everything. I couldn't sleep for the terrors that waited for me in my dreams and the weight of my grief and shame and of a nameless, bottomless, demoralizing despair. I paced. Tried to read. Listened to Eric Clapton, Bob Segar, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana—Cobain newly dead. In the dark, pre-dawn, I would give up and stand outside with my back against the peeling red paint of the door to the sleeping quarters and smoke, lighting each new cigarette off the last, until the black shape of the Wasatch Front deepened, its topmost edge backlit gold to fire-white, the sky fading purple, violet, lilac to the spread of peach and pink and then, at last, the sun would break over the peak to another day. And then, at last, I would sleep.
I did not hear the robin before. But there were many sacred gifts I missed back then, back in those old bad days of old bad ways of ignorance and self-will and despair.
A restless night might lay on me still. And it is a comfort to hear the robin call up the sun.