Leaving the nest: A personal essay

Illustration depicting birds
Amanda Tsang/Staff

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Within weeks of hatching, baby birds open their eyes, grow feathers, stretch their wings, start to sing, hop around, feed themselves and finally learn to fly. Once a bird is capable of flying on its own, it must assert its independence: It’s time to leave the nest.

Isn’t that what adulthood is? You live in the nest all of your life, and then, one day, when you start college or get your first job, you fly. When I left my nest, I traveled exactly 6,707 miles; that’s the distance between Istanbul and Berkeley.

The people I talked to about adulthood before coming to college always listed the same few “challenges” I would have to face. “You’ll need to cook for yourself!” they all said. “You’ll have your own bank account and need to manage your own money.” Another one I heard a lot was, “Laundry! You’ll be doing your own laundry in college!” I still get asked a lot about these things: whether I’m able to feed myself properly, if I’m spending my money uncontrollably.

I am years into adulthood, and I have never had a problem with laundry, bank accounts or cooking. Instead, the biggest challenge that I have had to face was one I never saw coming, one nobody warned me about.

It was you.

I have always been ready to take care of myself, but little did I know that this leap into adulthood would introduce me to you, that I would have you to take care of, too.

Why doesn’t anyone talk about the dark side of growing up, of leaving the nest? After all that talk about dirty clothes and groceries, why doesn’t anyone mention you? 

Birds that have completed their development but not yet left the nest are called fledglings. These are the birds we sometimes see on sidewalks and feel sorry for. We take their pictures and send them to our friends, asking if we should take them in or try to find their nests. It’s usually best to leave them alone, for most of the time they will survive, but it’s our instinct to help when they look so weak, so vulnerable. It’s almost as if we understand.

When I first moved away for college, you and I were just getting to know each other. We gave each other space and respected one another’s boundaries. Neither of us understood the gravity of the situation or what leaving the nest truly meant for us. Everything was new back then, and it was fun to explore. You used to come to me in waves, when I saw something that reminded me of home, when I heard a familiar tune, or when I sat in my bed looking at old polaroids. You would leave behind a strange, bittersweet feeling — you never hurt me.

But things have changed. Now you’re always there, a constant presence in my life. Some days you’re quiet, letting me enjoy life for a while, but other days you’re merciless, brutal. Like a spoiled child violently demanding attention, you make yourself seen, heard; you crush me the hardest when I least expect it. You use my happiest memories against me, weaponizing every single detail: the smells, the sounds, all of the sensations I never knew I remembered so well. You’re suffocating me. But of course you know all of this, because you feel it, too.

For baby birds, leaving the nest at the right time is essential. Leaving too early can be fatal, for they may not yet be strong enough to survive on their own. But leaving too late also holds many dangers, as predators lurk nearby, searching for vulnerable victims. Though the nest is the safest place a hatchling can be, it is only a training ground, a temporary hiding spot until real life begins. 

Home to me is many things. On a physical level, going home is boarding a 13-hour flight, on which I rewatch all the “Ice Age” movies on the tiny screen in front of my seat and complain about the food until we arrive at the Istanbul airport, the Turkish Airlines signature boarding music playing softly in the background as I disembark. Going home is rushing through the crowd, tripping over my luggage, all the way to the Arrivals terminal where my parents are waiting, wearing their “Mama Bear” and “Berkeley Dad” T-shirts, proud and teary-eyed. Going home is being in the car, leaving the landing planes behind and slowly entering the familiar chaos of the city, feeling an exhaustion so strong it feels like being drunk, but still smiling because I am exactly where I need to be.

Birds don’t learn to fly in one day. It’s a whole process of trial and error, where they repeatedly fall, crash, and make their way up to their nest to start all over again. They don’t find themselves soaring through the blue sky in the blink of an eye.

But it’s not like that with us. Once we attempt to fly, there’s no room for mistakes. On a deeper level, going home is letting go. Sometimes, when I feel alone or scared, I think about how far I am from home and feel sick. I spiral: if something happens to me here, I am alone on the other side of the world, where things work so differently than what I’m used to, where I have to figure it all out by myself. And I’m not even allowed to panic, because I am an “adult.”

I am alone on the other side of the world, where things work so differently than what I’m used to, where I have to figure it all out by myself.

At times like these, I feel your presence the strongest. You consume me, fill me with fear and longing, each mile away from Turkey feeling like a physical burden I carry on my back. Knowing, just knowing, that you could easily get home if you needed to, is the most precious feeling in the world.

After the young fly away, parents usually don’t keep using the nest. In fact, most birds don’t reuse their nests, making new ones every time. So when a young bird leaves the nest and flies away, it knows that it will never return, that there won’t be anything left to return to. 

Last month, I went home. For the five weeks I was there, the number of COVID-19 cases was at an all-time high, the city was struggling with snowstorms, my parents were working from home and classes were online. Once again, as it had during the start of the pandemic, our apartment became our safe space, our nest. We developed a routine, a routine that I still think about every morning when I wake up in my bed at Berkeley. A routine you keep reminding me of. 

But it no longer makes me smile the way old memories used to when I first moved away. I no longer smile when I look at photographs from years past. I no longer talk about Turkey as it is my own. Because as I boarded my plane back to San Francisco after those wonderful five weeks at home, I realized something I had long been denying; my life is here now, in the West, just like the future I have planned for myself. I will always visit my home, but I will never return to it, not fully, not in the way I used to.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee. I pour it into three mugs, red, green and blue. One with milk; two without. Music plays softly in the background. Birds chirp on our balcony where we feed them, waiting for lunchtime. Mom’s sitting on her favorite spot, reading. Dad’s playing the guitar. Flakes of snow stick to the windows and melt into little droplets. The city is covered in white. I feel the warmth of my blue childhood blanket over my legs — the peace of home. 

You’ve been quiet, but at my most content, you emerge to ask me, “Will we ever have this again?” And I know it’s not really a question.

It’s not only my family I miss. It’s everything about home. I miss the places. I miss Istanbul, the city that never sleeps. The constant chaos in the streets that I now know so well to navigate, the vivid soundscape, people rushing through each other back and forth. I like the peace and quiet of Berkeley’s streets, but sometimes it feels too foreign, and I yearn for the familiar chaos of my city, wrapping me up like a massive blanket, making me feel like I belong.

Yet, this city that used to be my home doesn’t feel the same anymore. When I’m there, I feel like a tourist, like an alien, just “passing by.” People complain about the things going on in the city, like the cold weather, issues with stray dogs, expensive restaurants, and I feel myself unable to speak, unable to join the conversation, for who am I to have an opinion anymore? I have left the nest, flown away without ever looking back, and now I only visit when I can. How does this city fit into my future? Where do I even belong?

I feel myself unable to speak, unable to join the conversation, for who am I to have an opinion anymore? I have left the nest, flown away without ever looking back, and now I only visit when I can.

Adult birds don’t have a home. Or rather, home for them is temporary. It can be anywhere they’ll be safe for the night, anywhere they can lay their eggs. People sometimes say they wish they were “as free as a bird.” We think birds are free because their wings take them wherever they want. But if the price for freedom is to never truly belong anywhere, how many of us are actually willing to pay it?

I wanted to write this letter to you because I believe I owe you an apology. I’ve been fighting you ever since we returned from Istanbul. But it’s time I stopped; I should know better. 

I am finally listening. 

Dear Homesickness, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the times I resented you for the way you made me feel. I didn’t understand that you were just trying to figure out how to survive, how to help me survive.

Whoever named you mustn’t have known you well enough. You are not a sickness but a connection to home, which is not only a physical place, a country or a person, but a feeling I constantly yearn for. You are the only remaining piece of my nest that I carry with me as I keep flying, further and further away from home with every passing day.

Sometimes I look up at the sky and watch the birds. Unintentionally, I look for you. I look for traces of you in the birds, in their movements, their sounds, for I am among them.

I am flying.

Sometimes the wind is too strong, and I get tired. But I keep going, knowing you’ll always be with me, a reminder of what I once so lovingly had, what I’m leaving behind, and what I’m leaving for.

And so I go.

Forward, and only forward.

Contact Merve Ozdemir at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ ozdemir_merve_.