Credit: Michael Probst | AP

I think perhaps the most confounding challenge I have faced as a parent to two young sons is finding an effective way to teach compassion. It feels like such an urgent need to me — to cultivate kindness, especially in boys, who will face a culture that continues to be anxiously consumed with questions of what makes a man a man. My husband, my boys’ father, is that rare combination of servant-leader — a warrior with a tender heart, a Marine veteran who tears up watching sappy movies. In him, they could not have a better example of how to be strong and emotional at once. But I am the parent who is with them most.

So during an afternoon stroll along the coast near our home in San Diego, when my 7-year-old noticed a seagull whose wing seemed injured and said, “Mommy, we have to help it,” I jumped at the chance to do some good. The seagull was not a beauty — more a mangy airborne ocean rat than highflying Jonathan Livingston Seagull — but still, it needed help, pacing nervously, its right wing trailing on the sidewalk.

We got off to a great start: While my cranky 3-year-old alternately flopped around angrily in his stroller and lay crosswise in boredom-induced misery across a hot sidewalk bustling with tourists, I waited on hold with our local wildlife rescue organization for approximately 9,000 hours and scrabbled blindly for snacks in my bag. I thought: Never mind, this will be terrific! The animal rescuers will come get this poor bird! My big kid will feel like a hero! The toddler would be screaming anyway!

Basking in feelings of maternal self-actualization, I watched crowds of vaguely concerned people noticing — and passing — the seagull, which very clearly could not fly away. One woman was so busy eating ice cream she basically kicked the bird out of her way. Suddenly, my phone purgatory ended, and I found myself talking to an animal-rescue person who told me — if I could do it safely — to throw a towel over the bird and bring it on in.

“Um. What?”

“We’re open until 5!” she chirped.

I did, in fact, have a towel. We lured the seagull closer with the snacks I had eventually unearthed, and in a very casual, I-am-about-to-throw-a-towel-over-your-head sort of way, I strolled closely behind the seagull and threw a towel over its head. Shockingly, this worked, and before I knew it, I had the bird bundled up and tucked under my arm like a football.

“Back to the car!” I called gaily, the way you do when you are carrying a wild animal as though it were a chic, pop-of-color clutch. I smiled and nodded at the people we passed on the sidewalk, as if we were all in an old-fashioned movie musical, awkwardly pushing the stroller with one arm while the towel thrashed in my other, because I had a freaking seagull in it.

Once we made it back to the car, I confronted the reality that I had to somehow get us all in seat belts and car seats and then drive to the rescue center. I looked at my big kid’s enormous blue eyes. Here we go.

He strapped in, and I nestled the bird bundle on his lap, tucking my boy’s arms around it gently but firmly. I ran laps around my car, loading my toddler into his car seat, flinging our stuff into the passenger seat and finally heaving the stroller into the trunk. Sweat was pouring down my torso in an unceasing sheet, which reminded me of a relaxing water feature at a fancy spa, the kind where seagulls are never allowed.

We had made it about four blocks when I heard a clarion call — like a fire alarm — coming from the back seat: “MOMMY IT IS COMING OUT!” Instantly I pulled over and leaped into the back seat in time to see the seagull free its hot little feet (and I know they were hot because in the ensuing hubbub I accidentally touched one of them) from the towel and pedal them madly. I snatched up the bundle, and a moment later the seagull had freed its head from the towel, displaying another, older, badly healed injury. To its eye.

So there I was, gripping a flailing, grizzled, dead-eyed, ghost-pirate seagull that was now attempting to bite me, while my two boys were laughing and screaming their heads off.

I ended up stuffing the bird into a mostly crushed canvas bin I scrounged from the back of my SUV, wrapping the whole shebang in the towel and shutting it under the shelf in the trunk. (This, obviously, should have been Plan A. Mistakes are how we learn!) I got the crazy train back on the road, but the novelty of our adventure wore off during the drive – my older son complained bitterly that we were ruining our beach day, and my younger son fell fast asleep.

When we arrived at the rescue center, I managed to get myself, the bird, the bin, the sleeping toddler and the reluctant hero out of the car and into the building, where the professional rescuers thanked us for our time and efforts. My big kid seemed excited, interested in everything and glad we had come after all. Animal rescue accomplished, I doused us all with hand sanitizer, and we headed home.

While I was lying in bed that night, the creepy doubts and frantic worries sneaked into my brain the way they do, with nightmare visions of what could have happened – mostly disease and Alfred Hitchcock. Disaster can strike in ordinary ways, too, and we drive and bathe and eat hot dogs and climb on stepladders anyway. Sticking our necks out to save a seagull was worth it, I think. It gave me the chance to ask my boys: Why did we help? Why did not anyone else? What would have happened if we had not? What will happen to the seagull because we did? And especially: Why should we care about one scuzzy bird’s little life?

I want my boys to know helping is not always easy or convenient but it really matters. I hope when they grapple with some future question of self-sacrifice and moral courage, they will think of the people who saw the injured bird and walked away. I hope they will remember we helped not because the bird deserved it or had somehow earned it (Again: It tried to bite me), but simply because the bird was suffering. Right now, at this moment in history, those lessons seem so precious and necessary to me.

If I could say thank-you to that mean, spooky, broken-winged bird, I would. It gave me a rare and treasured moment of motherhood, a chance to walk the talk of kindness and compassion with my children, on a day that felt like I got things — the big things, anyway — mostly right.

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