How selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.
Cecil Day-Lewis, Walking Away

We have been observing the progress of a family of swallows in our barn for the last few weeks. Yesterday, the three young ones fledged. After spending many days squeezed into a small nest perched in the high ridge of the barn, today they are, well, as free as birds.

There are few things in the world like the flight of a swallow. Graceful, swift, effortless. The sky is like a canvas on which they were born to paint with silk-smooth strokes. I imagine that other birds—positively earth-bound by comparison—look on in amazement.

What a day for the parent swallows. That which has taken their every effort and constant attention has come to fruition. They are done. I wonder what they do for the remaining days of summer.

There are striking parallels between the nest and a home. The relentless daily work. The division of labor, when at all possible, between two parents. The seemingly endless needs and ever present dangers. Even the buildup of excrement, which at times the parents must simply haul away. And then the time of fledging, and the emptiness left behind, an enduring testament to the labor that was.

But the very strikingness of the parallels gives occasion to notice the difference even in the sameness. There is work, and then there is work—the human labor of love: a labor itself one of the highest exercises of life. Here is something astounding in its nobility; something that cannot and will not be forgotten; something that endures in profound and mysterious ways in that which it has wrought—in the laborers and those labored for.

An empty-nest home is never just an empty nest. The life that was shared here continues, even if directly and daily participated by fewer now. Indeed, even if only by one. God grant that in some way the fledged will return often, maybe to stay, or just to pass through, and perhaps rest awhile and be together. Again.

A home might be empty of young children. But it can always be full, for the labors and shared life are part of us, and of those who have gone on. Even now, and always. This was a work that in its inner core is never finished.

This morning after gazing on that empty nest and pondering, all of a sudden I heard something in the sky. Looking up, I spied five swallows flying together like there is no tomorrow. My eyes fill with tears. Enjoy this time dear swallows. We know not what tomorrow brings for you. But in our home we will try to live in hope, in the presence of shared things still yet to come.

Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) was an Anglo-Irish poet laureate of Great Britain. ‘Walking Away’ is a poem about dropping off his son at school.

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