Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Saddest Day

Two weeks before last Christmas, a co-worker slipped on the icy sidewalk and broke her ankle.  On that same day, another co-worker’s wife totalled her car in a ditch, a student was hospitalized for anxiety and the only thing on NPR was people agreeing with each other about the Senate Intelligence Committee report claiming that the CIA’s interrogation techniques amounted to torture.  There was no snow, just an imperceptibly thin layer of ice that seemed to highlight every barren and gnarled tree limb, discarded beer can or sandwich wrapper and abandoned lawn furniture.  It was not a great day.

For a variety of reasons, I took a different route home from work that led me through an unfamiliar neighborhood.  I don't remember feeling particularly angry or sad, but with all of the bad news of the day, I think it is fair to say I was feeling a little bit down.  I was driving slowly to judge and admire the tacky holiday decorations when I suddenly had to veer closer to my side of the road as I met a hulking brown UPS truck that came careening towards me from the opposite direction.  After the truck had disappeared and I had passed several more inflatable snowmen, I found myself squinting at several large, shadowy figures moving awkwardly in the road up ahead.  Although it was nearly dark, there was just enough light for me to make out the shape of small heads and skinny legs sandwiching the fat bodies of wild female turkeys, stuffed from a fall of collecting neighborhood acorns and birdseed.  I slowed to a stop and waited for six big galumphing turkeys to cross in front of me from left to right before continuing on.  

As I passed the six on the right, I noticed one more on the left.  It was flopping around in a terrible way, with one wing outspread and one leg dragging.  My mind jumped from blaming the UPS truck for hitting it to sympathy for both of my coworkers to anger at terrorism and torture and before I knew it, I was pulling a U-turn and returning to the spot where I had seen the poor injured bird.  By the time I got there, another car had stopped and there was a middle-aged man standing with his arms crossed and brow furrowed looking down at what I can only describe as a beautiful, brown, feathered creature.  Our cars were on either side of her with headlights shining directly towards her, so each feather glowed with iridescent purples, blues and teals.  She had calmed from her earlier frenetic movement and was now just sitting, as if on a nest, looking from me to the stranger and back as she made low, warbly gobbling sounds with her throat.  

Both of us had stopped on impulse, not because we had any idea what we should do and so there were a few silent moments, where each of us was hoping the other would come forth with a plan of action.  There was no blood, and the only injury seemed to be in the turkey’s left knee joint.  Her head, neck and body seemed fine, and her demeanor was cool, calm and collected.  Based on this, we made the truly anthropomorphic decision to give her exactly what either of us would want were we to be abandoned and injured on the side of the road.  I got a warm blanket from my car and wrapped the turkey in it.  Then the man gently picked her up and held her in his arms as he swayed back and forth telling her that she was beautiful and that everything was going to be okay.  Since we weren’t really sure what to do next, I took out my phone and started calling around for help.

My first call was to my firefighter husband, who was working through the night, thinking that he would know what to do.  He didn’t answer, which meant that he was dealing with someone else’s real emergency, which is legitimate, but still frustrating.  I was tempted to call 911, but envisioning a headline on that said ‘She Called 911 For WHAT?!?’ stopped me.  So I looked up the number for the local police department and called them.  When I explained our situation, a very nice dispatcher explained that the police department was for handling crime and suggested I call the animal control officer.  I dialed the number he gave me and learned that animal control was only available until 4:30, and it was currently 4:35.  I called the police back to ask for a second suggestion and they told me that they could either send an officer by to shoot the turkey or I could try calling a local representative from the state’s Fish and Game department who might be able to help me.  

When my new friend and partner in compassion overheard me discussing whether the turkey should be shot or not with the police officer, he simultaneously glared towards me and drew the turkey in towards his chest.  He kissed her on the head and said, “I will NOT let them SHOOT her!”

Each subsequent phone call reached a dead end, and we found ourselves standing in the pitch dark under a freezing drizzle that had started to fall, trying to figure out what to do.  What I had learned was that if we could get her through the night on our own, there were several options for getting her to an animal rehabilitator in the morning.  And somehow, in the light of all of the sad and bad things that had happened that day, I just really wanted to make one good thing happen.  So next thing I knew, the man was tucking the turkey in the front passenger seat of my car, snuggly and warm in a blanket, and buckling the seat belt to hold her securely in place.  Her demeanor hadn’t changed and she was still looking from left to right, blinking at each one of us with eyes that truly seemed to overflow with raw emotion.

We shook hands and drove away in opposite directions, which is when I was hit with the reality that I now had to take this seat-belted and injured turkey with me to pick my daughter up at daycare and to then somehow nurture it through the night.  Fortunately, three-year olds ask a lot of questions about everything, so although Harper’s questions were many, they wasn’t much different than when I  came home with a bag of groceries: “Where did it come from?”  “Why is it in your car?”, “What are you going to to do with it?”, “Can I have it?”

When we arrived at our house, the rainy drizzle had frozen to ice, so we carefully trod the brick walkway into the house.  On my first trip in, I carried backpacks and lunchboxes in one hand and tightly held Harper’s hand with the other, lifting her up over the really slippery spots.  We got inside and began the evening routine:  let the dog out, turn the lights on, open the woodstove and get the fire going.  Fix a snack, turn the radio on, unpack our school bags.  We had just decorated our Christmas tree, so I plugged the lights in.  When I turned the radio on, I switched the station away from talk radio about terrorism and found a station playing the cheesy Christmas music of my childhood.  Once we were settled in, I grabbed some old towels and made a little nest in front of the warmth of the now roaring fire.  I went out to the car and gingerly took out the turkey, who was nearly as heavy as my daughter.  She was alert and bright eyed as I carried her in and sat her down on the towels, carefully tucking her injured leg under her body.  After a hectic day, I was happy to just sit next to her, gently stroking her back and gazing at her as I wondered what was going on inside her cashew sized brain.  My dog came and sniffed her uninterestedly before laying down next to me on the other side.  Then Harper came and sat down next to our odd trio:  dog, mom and turkey, all gazing at the leaping flames, breathing in, breathing out to the rhythm of the Charlie Brown Christmas special theme song.  She put her hand next to mine on the turkey’s back and made such a pure, clear statement of fact:  “Mommy, she is so beautiful!”  

No doubt, the turkey was brownish and blackish with weird lumpy growths and odd dark hairs and feathers coming every which way off her face, which you would think made her homely and gross looking.  But  there something about her dark eyes and the curve of her neck and the intricate detail of glittery striped, spotted and plain feathers that made me feel oafish and ungainly sitting on the floor next to her in my turtleneck and corduroys with only some gaudy beaded earrings for decoration.  I have read that it is a primarily female trait to constantly compare ourselves to others, which perhaps explains our awe at this bird as we sat on the floor with her by the light of the fire on this cold December evening.  

Regardless, it was a genuinely nice moment on what had mostly been a crappy day.  So you can imagine my surprise when the turkey cocked its head, drew a breath, and dropped dead on the hardwood floor next to us.  There was no wheezing or gasping, just alert and upright one second and then limp and cold on the next.    

Not wanting to lie to my daughter about the turkey ‘sleeping’ or wanting to tell her that a living breathing animal had just died in front of her, I decided to try to dodge both.  I quickly picked up the turkey and carried her down into the basement.  It was striking how different she felt when I carried her this time: a cold solid mass, absent the pumping and beating and breathing of life.  I set her down on the cold concrete floor and took a moment to figure out what to do.  The ground was too cold to bury her and I figured that the internal injuries that had caused her death made any meat on her bones unsalvageable.  

What I wanted to do was to go back upstairs and restart the evening.  Sit of the sofa, eat cookies, read Christmas books and open the cards that came in the mail.  But I knew that I had to deal with the cold dead turkey corpse first.  With no coat, and only a pair of rubber rain boots on my feet, I carried her out into the cold.  I walked straight back from the basement door towards the woods.  It was very cold and very dark and I imagined being spotted by a neighbor in this ridiculous situation.  Still I trudged onward.  Finally I ended in a little hollow in the woods, where I knelt and gently laid the turkey to rest at the base of a large white oak tree.  I felt like I should say something, but I didn’t know what, so I just paused for a moment before turning and running inside to escape the cold.

Once I got back inside, I made dinner and did some laundry as I would have on any other night.  Harper asked me what happened to the turkey and I explained that she died.  I found myself actually grateful that I was explaining what it meant to die in the context of a wild turkey instead of a close family member or pet.  She asked where the turkey was, and I explained the spot in the woods.  When she asked what would happen to it, I explained that it’s hard to find food in the woods in the winter and that some lucky animal would come across her body and eat it in order to have enough energy to make it through the long cold months.  

As January and February passed, one coworker’s ankle healed and the other got his car fixed after haggling with the insurance company.  My teenage students continued to suffer from and learn to deal with anxiety and the CIA remained questionable.  While I certainly wasn’t devastated by the death of the turkey, I can say that I wondered about what happened to her out there in the woods.  As the temperature stayed low and snow continued to fall, I wondered what coyote, bobcat or fox, pushed to the limits of endurance would stumble across pounds and pounds of meat, nestled in a sheltered alcove.  I imagined a pregnant mother, struggling for food in the hopes of delivering healthy springtime pups, able to rest and eat instead of trekking over treacherous terrain in search of small morsels.  

I honestly don’t know stopping on the side of the road to help a wild turkey was a good thing or a bad thing or if it even mattered at all.  If there was an easy lesson I could ascribe to it, I probably would have moved on and forgotten it.  Had I saved the turkey, I could have ended this story with some version of a ‘do the right thing’ quote.  Had I been ticketed or arrested for tampering with wildlife, I could end with something about how good deeds rarely go unpunished.  But as it is, all I have to reflect on and wonder about is a plethora or turkey feathers uncovered by melting snow and blown into my yard by the wind, and the lingering memory of a moment shared with my daughter, my dog and a random wild turkey.