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Challenge in song

By Alma Barkman


I first saw them from our kitchen window, although I had heard them in the back yard for several days, where their lilting song began as early as 4:30 in the morning and lasted until dusk. And now the robins were going to honour us by building in full view of our kitchen window — but not just yet. They would wait until the leaves formed a camouflage before starting their project, a cozy nest situated up under the eave on the elbow of the downspout. Surely the crows that roamed the neighbourhood would not see it there.

Within the space of a few days the female laid her blue-green eggs, with both parents taking turns on the nest during the incubation period. When a flurry of activity around the nest indicated that the young had hatched, we watched both robins making countless trips to the garden for earthworms. Approaching the nest always initiated the same response — three little nestlings popping up like jacks-in-the-box, their marble-sized heads supported on skinny necks that wobbled like weak springs, their beaks wide open hoping for juicy morsels. They were babies only a mother, and bird watchers, could love.

The little robin family almost become an extension of our own, with friends actually inquiring how things were doing “on the maternity ward.” The baby birds were a constant source of delight each time we ate our meals at the kitchen table, or worked in the garden, or sat on our back steps.

And then one morning I awoke to an eerie silence — no birds singing in the backyard, no rustle of wings through the carport, no mother robin on the nest. I reached up to touch it, but there was no response, just a nasty crow high in the dead branches of a nearby tree, peering down at me as if to gloat over his victory. “Haw! Haw! Haw!”

I was devastated.

The yard suddenly seemed so quiet, so empty of life. Every time I looked through the kitchen window that day, and for days to come, my eyes came to rest on the vacant nest. It seemed to epitomize the end of all that I had anticipated — future songs, the companionship of God’s creatures in our yard, a cycle of life successfully completed.

Even the adult robins had seemingly vanished, no doubt frightened off when their home was so viciously violated. All that remained were the taunting calls of the crow, waking me from sleep each morning, reminding me anew of the loss. The crow’s “haw, haw, haw” made me feel alone and angry and helpless.

And then one morning, at first competing with the raucous cries of the crow, and then filtering victoriously through the early hours of the dawn, I heard it — the rich, full song of a robin, and I thought of the old patriarch Job. God had allowed Satan to rob him of everything meaningful in his life and yet he could still declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15 KJ). It was as if Job could sing even in the midst of his losses.

Would I be able to do the same? God was even now conveying that question through the notes of a robin’s song. I could only pray that if struck by tragedy, loneliness, or suffering, my faith would be strong enough to meet, and overcome, the challenge.

I had not long to wait.

My husband passed away.

After 58 years of marriage, there was an eerie silence in the house, an emptiness epitomized by his vacant place at the table, his easy chair, the sacred music he so enjoyed. I missed his interest in my hobbies, the trips we took together, our discussions on current events, our love and companionship. Within a few months I had to undergo two major surgeries, one of them for cancer. I thought again of Job, that despite the loss of his family and health, he clung steadfastly to God.

I chose to do the same, and although the past year was difficult, I was undergirded by the prayers and support of family and friends. Yes, there were those black moments when doubts taunted me, but only briefly, because filtering through the early hours of each new day are the promises of God, and I can sing again.

Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg (