Apodaca: Empty-nester feels special kinship with Momma Duck

"Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody's mother."

I haven't been able to get that old ditty, sung to the melody of "Stars and Stripes Forever," out of my head.

I've been stuck on ducks since driving home along Jamboree Road one day last week and glimpsing a family of them, one adult accompanied by several tiny ducklings, waddling heedlessly along the sidewalk as cars whizzed by on the busy thoroughfare.

After I got home I continued to worry about the ducks' dangerous excursion. (Is this where the term "bird-brained" comes from?) So I went back out on foot, accompanied by my dog, to look for the wayward brood. What I'd do if I found them, I had no idea.

I wasn't the only one concerned about the ducks' welfare. The guard at the front gate of my community told me that several other residents had also inquired about them. By then the ducks were gone from sight, but the guard told me they had actually crossed to the other side of Jamboree a short time earlier.

Crossed Jamboree? Were they crazy? What were they thinking? Do ducks think?

I wanted to know why the ducks crossed the road, and getting to the other side wasn't enough of an answer.

"Ducks aren't really that bright," said Valerie Schomburg, senior animal control officer with the Newport Beach Police Department. "Every once in a while they go out onto a busy street."

This time of year is the busiest for duck traffic because it's hatching season, she said. The ducklings I saw were probably no more than a few days old, too young to fly so they were being led on foot by Momma Duck in search of food.

This being Newport Beach, these ducks apparently thought the best place to find such sustenance was Fashion Island.

Schomburg often receives duck calls from local residents, but the options are limited. Animal control workers can try to reunite a lost duckling with its mother, but it's illegal to move a whole family or an adult duck. "Nature has to take its course," she said.

When the ducks traverse busy roadways, motorists will often slow and attempt to maneuver around them. But the sad reality is that the vast majority of ducklings fall victim to any number of hazards, from storm drains to hungry predators. Out of an entire brood, just one baby might survive to adulthood, Schomburg said.

Some people aren't charmed by ducks. They're annoyed by the birds' shenanigans, and consider the creatures a nuisance when they make themselves at home in yards and pools.

But I see them as a symbol of a mother's devotion, the savage beauty of nature and the fragility of life.

Or perhaps it's merely displaced concern, a diversion from the onslaught of feelings I'm experiencing over a very significant, completely unrelated event.

On Thursday evening, my younger son — my baby, my precious little man, my duckling — walked the stage at Corona del Mar High School in cap and gown, thus ending a major chapter in both our lives. He will soon embark on a great journey to attend college in another state, and I couldn't be happier for him.

At the same time, I mourn my life as it was. My chicks will have flown the coop, and I'll be reduced to that dreaded cliche, an empty nester. I've come to loathe that term, a far too literal reminder of the hollowness that awaits.

My dear husband, who has endured my mood swings through 27 years of marriage, is steeling himself for stormy weather ahead. While dining with another couple recently, whose two sons have also moved out, one of our friends suggested we start planning weekend getaways.

Yes, I responded, I had already booked parents' weekend at my son's school. He blinked a few times, smiled and told me that what he meant was that my husband and I now had the opportunity to enjoy some quality time, just the two of us.

Oh. Oops.

I realize that it will take time for me to adjust to this new phase. I've engaged in a lot of reminiscing in the past several months, reliving the family vacations, lemonade stands and piano recitals and returning to the first days of school, summer afternoons at the beach and bike rides by the bay.

I remembered the elementary school unit in which the kids were taught some rudimentary economics by bringing small items from home to trade in a "marketplace." My son left with some of his Hot Wheels toy cars and returned home with a few used pencils, one of which was broken, happily declaring, "This was the best day of my life."

This, I'd sometimes think, this is a perfect moment. And then it would be gone, like a feather in the wind.

But now I must turn my gaze forward and trust that this next stage will bring its own rewards and even a few more perfect moments. I can't promise to handle the transition with grace and dignity at all times, but I intend to do my best to keep moving, stay busy and avoid self-indulgent moping in my empty nest.

Perhaps I'll take up bird watching.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World