By Emily Miller
I both admire and pity the kiwi. How unusual, to find a bird confined to the forest floor. I wonder if they ever look up to see their brothers and sisters soaring through the sky, gliding on the winds that they’ll never get a chance to feel. I wonder if they look down at themselves, their tiny, weak wings, their fur-like feathers, and question whether they were ever really a bird to begin with. Or perhaps a kiwi is simply too busy surviving to entertain such abstract speculations.
When I was young, my health was poor. I missed more school than I attended and was much better acquainted with doctors than classmates. When I was actually able to be with my peers, I wasn’t sure where my place was. It was obvious that I was treated differently from them, and they noticed right away.
While they got to go out for recess, I had to sit under the pavilion. “Stay out of that sun, won’t you?” my mother chastised me regardless of the season. Whenever I came home with the fresh glow of a light sunburn, she could tell right away. She fussed over the scar around my neck that stuck out even more whenever my pale skin was tinted pink.
I’d sit under the pavilion and watch as the kids played tag or hide-and-seek or any of those popular schoolyard games that I was discouraged from. The other kids weren’t monsters, so of course they’d invite me to join, but they weren’t interested in hearing why I couldn’t. Like any kids, they were eager to get back to their friends to play before the teachers blew their whistles and wrangled us all back inside.
I’d often have a book, any book, something that could teleport me away from the moment so that I wasn’t in a world where I was the quiet kid who never came to school. Instead, I was in a world where there were princesses taming dragons, or pirates conquering oceans, or wizards waving wands and magically fixing everyone’s problems. This, I think, is where I learned to treasure good books like good friends. To this day, I feel anxious traveling without one, just in case.
There’s an old Maori legend about the kiwi that has fascinated me forever. Long, long ago, Tāne-Muhata, a god of the forest, noticed that his children, the trees, were dying and being eaten up by bugs. To save his children, he called upon his brother whose children were the birds of the air.
Tāne-Muhata spoke to each of the birds; the tui, the pukeko, the pipiwharauroa, and the kiwi. He told them that his children and their home were in danger, and that he needed one of the birds to give up their life in the sky and live on the forest floor in order to save everyone and everything. He asked them one by one, and one by one they gave excuses as to why they couldn’t. The tui told him that they were afraid of the dark, and couldn’t give up the sunlight that the roof of the forest provided. The pukeko told him that the forest floor was too damp, and that they simply didn’t want to get their feet wet. The pipiwharauroa told him that they were too busy building their nest to help. Finally, he asked the kiwi. The kiwi looked up to the warm sunshine that filled the roof of the forest, then down at the cold and wet ground, before finally looking around at their family. At this, the kiwi told Tāne-Muhata that they would come down to the forest floor.
Tāne-Muhata and his brother were ecstatic that this little bird was willing to save the forest but wanted to warn them about what they’d be sacrificing. If the kiwi committed to this, they’d have to grow big, strong back legs, and they’d lose their colorful wings. This would mean that they’d never be able to return to the roof of the forest. They’d never see the light in the same way ever again. Explaining this, Tāne-Muhata asked the kiwi once again if they were willing to do it. The kiwi took one last look at the other colorful birds that filled the sky and the way the sunlight danced through the treetops and said their silent goodbyes before confirming that they would.
Overjoyed that this small bird would give up so much to save the forest, the Tāne-Muhata decided to punish the other birds that had come up with excuses. For the tui who was too afraid of the dark, he put two white feathers on their chest, the mark of a coward. For the pukeko who didn’t want to get their feet wet, they were sent to live in the swamp. For the pipiwharauroa who were too busy building their nest, they were forbidden from building their own and could only lay eggs in other birds’ nests. The kiwi, on the other hand, for its outstanding bravery, was promised to be the most loved and known bird of them all.
I’ve always thought that the sisters of fate had a twisted sense of humor. It’s the only explanation I could find as to why when my health finally became manageable, my mother’s turned for the worse. I was in middle school when I noticed the switch. I was fresh out of a wheelchair and excited to finally start experiencing all of the things I heard about from my peers. But while the other kids were worrying about band or sports, I found myself rushing to and from school to make sure my mother had taken her medicine and to prepare her meals.
I often wondered if it was payback for being an unhealthy child. I wondered if I had tried a little harder, if I had pushed myself a little more even when I wasn’t feeling well, if I hadn’t made my mother sick with worry at so many turns, if then she would be healthier now.
I wasn’t magically cured, so of course I still had to work hard to manage my own health. There were days that were difficult to handle. But regardless of how much pain I was in myself, my priority had to be her. I’m not an only child, but I am the youngest and was the only one left living at home during this time. I have four older siblings, and they each gave their reasons as to why they couldn’t help. They were too busy with work, or their own families, or they simply didn’t get along well enough with my mother.
I never blamed them, and I was more than willing to take care of my mother by myself. She provided food and shelter, and she’d taken care of me when I was younger and couldn’t take care of myself. I considered taking care of her as a sort of compensation because I was certainly not an easy child to bring up. But sometimes I would look at my siblings living their own lives and wonder if I would ever get the chance. I missed out on a lot of the normal milestones that come in the teen years, many that I still haven’t caught up on. I watched them fly through life from afar.
Sometimes I had negative thoughts about this. I wished that I didn’t have to take care of my mother anymore. I wished that I could worry about learning a new song in time for a concert or practicing a technique in time for a game or who was coming to a sleepover where we’d talk about who liked who in our grade, all things I had to sacrifice unlike my classmates. I never meant to wish my mother away, only to wish her better. I wanted her to see my prom and my graduation and my wedding and my children, all the important life events that mothers should get to see. Sometimes, when I’d get frustrated, I’d use these things against her. When she forgot to take her meds while I was at school or didn’t want to go see the doctors, I’d say, “Don’t you want to see me graduate, Mama?” It always worked. If I had known then that she would never actually get to see those things, I wouldn’t have said it.
When kiwis hatch, they’re basically tiny adults. They already have all their feathers, and their eyes are wide open. Their parents don’t even need to feed them. In a couple of days, it starts to move around the burrow, and after a week it starts to venture out into the world. Because they’re so young and vulnerable, less than 5% of kiwi chicks live to be adults, and the population is rapidly declining.
When I was young, a lot of people told me how mature I was. They’d say I was lucky that I was more mature than my peers, or that I held myself very well for someone with so much responsibility. I used to thank them, but now I’m not so sure how much of a compliment it was. I feel like I missed out on most of the traditional things that kids get to do. My mother’s friends would joke about how I was an old soul and how she was lucky she didn’t have to worry about me. I wonder now if “old soul” was really just another way of saying that I didn’t have the chance to be a kid while I still was one.
Because my reputation was always as the mature and responsible one, I’ve often wondered if I’ll have a tipping point. I’m no longer responsible for anyone but myself, and I don’t have anyone else that I need to impress or make proud. People have told me that my “wild years” will come in my twenties. I’ve just turned twenty, but I don’t feel any wilder than I did when I was nineteen, or fifteen, or twelve, or seven. I wonder if people feel it coming, or if it just springs on them.
I think maybe my teens were wild and chaotic, just not in a way most people my age can understand yet. I spent them trying to survive and taking care of others. Looking back, it’s a miracle that I have actually managed to survive this long. The odds couldn’t have been very high. Navigating the world when I turned seventeen was dangerous and exhausting, and I’m still not sure if I’m doing it right. There isn’t exactly a guide to life. But if I take it one week at a time, one day at a time, one breath at a time, I think I can make it.