A Son, his Mom, and a Bird. © Mark A. Lowery 1998
John sat virtually still in the barely comfortable beige vinyl-covered chair next to his mom’s hospital bed in Harper Valley Medical Center. The bed, fairly new with electric controls, had its rails up on both sides enveloping his mom within a cage designed to prevent her from falling or getting out of bed. She had been drifting in and out of consciousness for several hours, ever since he rushed her to the hospital after she slipped and fell in the bathtub. She went into cardiac and respiratory arrest while in the emergency room, but using the electric shock paddles had brought her back.
He watched the monitor set up above the head of the bed as it beeped a disconcerting irregular high-pitched noise tracking the pattern of a thin blue line that jumped erratically up and down as it made its way across the monitor. Two IV lines and a respirator tube ran into his mom at various points. His mom’s power of attorney and health care proxy, appointing him to make medical decisions for her, was already in her medical records. Stapled to it was her “living will” which indicated that she did not want to live on a machine.
John slowly, almost unconsciously, twirled the edge of his mustache with the index finger of his left hand. His blue eyes were clear, but the nurses often remarked amongst themselves that they seemed somewhat distant and cold. His once black hair was now mostly grayed with a receding hairline well up his forehead. Even sitting, it was not hard to notice that he was tall. Despite his advancing age, he kept himself in good shape. He was always neatly dressed and well trimmed. A small scar ran below his right ear partly across his throat, where a knife had cut him during a skirmish with a North Korean soldier while he was in the United States Marines stationed in Korea. He had been awarded a PurpleHeart and a Bronze Star while stationed there.
John thought back to the time several hours ago, when he had suddenly awoken from a light sleep. He had dozed off for just a short while. That was all it had taken. His mom, now into an advanced stage of senile dementia, had somehow gotten up from her bed, and made her way to the bathroom. Apparently, she had climbed into the bathtub by herself still clothed in her nightgown, wearing her fluffy pink slippers, and turned on the shower. It was still on when he had awoken to the startled cry of pain from his mother, the bathroom a steamy surrealistic scene as he entered. He would never forget her cry he thought as his eyes wandered out the window to the tree outside.
He noticed a blue jay, resplendent in full color, sitting on the large limb partially hidden by the white windowsill, framed in the light flowing out of the window of his mom’s room. Nighttime had settled outside and in the distance he could hear cars driving by on the side street abutting the medical center’s grounds. Seeing the blue jay brought back the memory of an incident from when he was eight years old.
“What is it, John?” she called out from the kitchen where she was preparing the dough to make some cookies.
“This little bird fell out of the tree and he’s hurt. His wing is all bent.”
She quickly rinsed her hands clean in the sink, wiped them dry on a kitchen towel, and went out the back door of the house. She saw John standing there, cradling a little blue jay in his small hands. She noticed how dirty John looked and thought at once that he must have been playing out in the woods again. She made a mental note to talk with him again. She had warned him about that several times. His brother had fallen from the granite rock outcropping a short way into the woods. He had died three days later from a fractured skull and a brain hemorrhage, which two operations failed to stem. John was just four months old when his older brother had died.
Their father, her childhood sweetheart from when they were in the second grade, died in a car accident six months before John was born. A drunk driver crossed over the centerline and hit their car head on as her husband was on his way to work as a train engineer. She was left with very little insurance money and a house with a substantial mortgage. She had found some work cleaning houses and offices, working long hours trying to make a life for herself and John. The struggle was great and she never seemed to have enough time for him, but John did very well in school making the honor roll every quarter.
Like his brother, though, John was a very adventurous little boy with seemingly no fear. In fact, she often noticed that he never cried. Even when he had broken his arm at four years old, and through all the usual childhood sicknesses like the mumps and measles, he did not cry. He nonchalantly took injections in stride and seemed fascinated by anything having to do with medicine.
“Let me see, John.”
John held his hands out, the bird lying in the cradle of his palms. She looked down and noticed that the left wing was bent in odd angles at three places. Feathers were missing and some blood was oozing out through the remaining feathers on the wing. She thought she could see some bone sticking up, but wasn’t sure. The blue jay was making soft crying sounds.
“John, you stay right there. I’m gonna go get a small box and some soft cloths.”
She turned and went back inside the house. Coming out a short while later, she carried a small light brown corrugated paper box and some old torn up pieces of white cotton t-shirts she had grabbed out of the rag bin. She laid the rags in the box and told John to gently lay the bird in the box. John moved gingerly, being careful not to jar the blue jay too much.
He carefully laid the bird on the rags, folding the unbent wing under its body. The bent wing stuck up above the top of edges of the box. Despite his care, the bird let out a decided cry of pain.
“John. The bird is injured pretty badly, and I’m not sure anything can be done for it.”
“Please, Mom, we’ve got to try. I’ll bet Doc Siegel, Daisy’s vet, can do something.”
Daisy was their eleven-year-old tri-colored beagle. She slept on John’s bed, followed him to school, stayed around the schoolyard all day, and then followed him back home. She went everywhere with him, and John’s mom wondered where Daisy was just then. As if on cue, Daisy came padding around the corner of the house. She looked sheepishly at John’s mom. Like John, Daisy was dirty not surprisingly in the same type of dirt as John. They had probably been out playing their usual games of tag and wrestling, she thought to herself. Daisy and John seemed to be able to carry on these games for hours on end.
John did not look up from the bird in the box. He stared intently and she could almost feel his mind working, like gears on some large machine. She told John she was going to go call Doc Siegel. She turned and again went into the house.
John never stopped looking at the bird, even when Daisy came up and nuzzled her cold wet nose against his bare legs, below the bottom edges of his green shorts. She even tried nipping at his toes. John was barefoot as he usually was when out playing. He loved the feel of the grass, and leaves, and twigs, and ground under his bare feet, which truth be told often were so dirty they would take a long time of scrubbing to get clean.
John’s mom came out carrying her purse. She told him the vet said to bring the bird by the office. She did not tell him that Doc Siegel said that most likely he would have to put the bird to sleep. The vet was not very encouraging that anything could be done to help the bird. She went and got the car out of the garage behind the house, a somewhat tired looking old station wagon. They loaded Daisy and the bird in the box into the wagon and off she drove to the vet’s office.
After the short drive, a little over a mile and a half from their house, she pulled into one of the two parking places before Doc Siegel’s office. His car was parked in the other spot.
Doc Siegel had been the town’s vet for so long, nobody remembered just when he came to town and set up his vet office. It seemed like he had always been there and always would be, which was nonsense she often thought. But, it was a comforting thought for he had a way with animals. While some animals when injured could be very vicious and mean, Doc Siegel always seemed to be able to calm every single one of them with ease.
John spent a lot of time at his office during the summer months, helping to clean up, feed the animals, and sometimes even helping Doc Siegel attend to animals in the inner treatment rooms. Despite long hours cleaning and scrubbing other people’s homes and offices, more than once at night she had patiently sat and listened attentively while John recounted to her all that had happened at Doc Siegel’s on certain days, most often when he had gotten to assist Doc Siegel in the treatment rooms.
John had a very good mind and was a quick study. At the young age of eight, he already knew many of the diseases and illnesses that were common to the wide variety of animals brought through Doc Siegel’s office door, as well as many of the common treatments that Doc Siegel administered. While he hated the thought of it every time Doc Siegel decided to put an animal to sleep, in his heart and in his mind he knew almost instinctively without being told that being put to sleep was the right choice.
They left the car, leaving Daisy in the car with the windows down, and went into Doc Siegel’s office. John carried the box with the blue jay, balancing it carefully and keeping his eyes on the bird. Doc Siegel came out of the back treatment room and looked into the box. John did not notice the disheartened frown that passed across Doc Siegel’s face, but his mom noticed it. Doc Siegel quickly and briefly motioned her to keep quiet.
“John, why don’t you tell me what happened,” Doc Siegel asked.
“Daisy and I were playing. There was this raccoon up in this tree and I heard these loud noises, a bird screeching. I looked up and there was a bird’s nest in the limbs among the leaves that the raccoon was swatting at with his front right leg. A blue jay was darting down and around the raccoon. All of a sudden the nest tipped and fell from the tree. This little bird fell to the ground. I threw a rock at the raccoon and it took off. The blue jay swooped down, but after a short while it flew off. Daisy went over and sniffed at the little bird, but then went off into the brush. I went over and saw the bird had a bent wing and picked it up and brought it home.”
“I see. Well, John, this is one of those times when I have to put an animal to sleep. I know you don’t like that, but there is nothing I can do. The wing is damaged too much.”
“There is nothing we can do?” John asked in a small plaintive voice.
“No, John, there is nothing I can do. The bird will never fly again, even if I set the wing and repair the damage. A blue jay is a wild bird, John, not a house pet. They do not live well in captivity.”
John looked at Doc Siegel and then at his mom. He looked down at the bird, and gently rubbed its head with a finger. The bird was barely making the crying sounds anymore, almost inaudibly. He stood there looking at the bird. While it was only a few minutes before he spoke again, both Doc Siegel and his mom felt like it was an eternity.
“Okay. I just wished there was something we could do.”
“I know, John, so do I,” said Doc Siegel.
He picked up the box and walked into the back treatment office. His mom turned to leave, but John hesitated.
“What’s the matter, John?” his mom asked.
“Can we bury him, you know, have a little funeral for him?” John asked in a quiet voice.
“If that is what you want to do, yes we can do that.”
Doc Siegel came out of the back room a few minutes later. He looked surprised to see John and his mom still there.
“Is there something wrong? There will be no bill for this.”
“John wants to bury the blue jay, give it a funeral. I told him if that is what he wants to do, we can do that,” his mom said.
“I see,” said Doc Siegel.
He looked at John thoughtfully, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. More than once, a lot more, John had done the same thing for other animals Doc Siegel had to put to sleep. The yard behind Doc Siegel’s office was a veritable animal graveyard of sorts, replete with little “headstones” made by John denoting the type of animal, the animal’s name if known, and the date of its death. Doc Siegel went into the back treatment room and returned with the box in which the bird now lay silent, still and peaceful. Doc Siegel had folded the broken wing back down against the bird’s body. He handed the box to John, who took it and carried it out of Doc Siegel’s office without a word. His mom noticed that as usual he had not shed a tear, no crying, not even a hint that he might do so.
With a start, the loud unbroken monotone sound coming from the monitor above his mother’s hospital bed jarred John back to the present. In just a few moments, nurses and doctors rushed into the room. A nurse quickly ushered John out of the room, despite his protests. A while later, which seemed like hours to John, but in reality was just over a half and hour later, most of the nurses and doctors left the room. The doctor in charge of his mother’s care, who had rushed in a short while ago, came out and took John to the side of the nurses’ station. He told John that his mom had again went into cardiac arrest. She had been out for quite a long time, but they had been able to get her heart started again. She was not breathing on her own, and was again on a respirator. The EEG showed a virtual absence of brain activity. The doctor hesitatingly asked John what he wanted done. He had been her doctor for years, as well as a close family friend who had eaten at their house on a lot of occasions. He was clearly ill at ease.
“Is there any chance that she might regain consciousness?” John asked.
“There is always a chance, but in my opinion, no I do not see that occurring with your mom. Even if she did, she was out for a long time and likely sustained very severe permanent brain damage.”
“I see,” John said. “Please let me be with her for a while, let me think about this.”
“I understand,” the doctor stated. “I will be in the hospital as I have several other patients to check in on. You can have the nurse page me when you decide what you want done. If it is any consolation, John, I do not believe your mom is in pain.”
John turned and entered his mom’s room as the doctor walked off down the corridor past the nurses’ station. He slowly sank down, slumping somehwat, as he settled into the chair. He looked a good deal smaller than his six foot two inches. The thin blue line on the monitor above his mom’s bed slowly bounced in an even pattern across the monitor, with a steady even beeping sound. John reached over and took his mom’s right hand in his two hands. He sat there for a long time, not noticing the blue jay still sitting on the limb outside the window. The blue jay was quiet. The sky began to lighten as the sun slowly rose on the dawn of the day.
John struggled with a decision, not really believing he should be making this choice. He had promised his mom, however, that he would be strong enough to do so when and if the time came. He was torn between letting his mother go and insisting that the doctors and nurses do all they could to keep her alive.
“But, what is alive?” he silently asked himself.
He knew his mom did not want to live on a machine. As he sat there, Doc Siegel’s words said to John many times so long ago came back to him.
“John, everything which is living dies at some point. I do not know of any living thing that has ever escaped that fate. Sometimes, we have the power to hasten death as a means of bringing pain and suffering to a merciful end. That is something which we should do cautiously, for death is irreversible. But, if we have the power to do so and in our hearts and minds we know that is the just and fair thing to do, I believe we should be courageous enough to make that hard choice. If I didn’t believe that John, I would never have become a vet.”
Doc Siegel had died a long time ago, but his words were clear in John’s mind just as if Doc Spiegel was in the room with John and his mom, speaking to John at that very moment.
“But,” John thought, “that is well and good for animals and pets, it is another thing for your own mom.”
In his heart and mind, John could almost hear a rejoinder from Doc Siegel, “If we are courageous enough to make that decision for an animal or a pet, why should we be any less willing to be courageous for a loved one, a family member? Do they deserve to be treated less just and fair than an animal or a pet?”
“Of course, Doc Siegel never said that to me,” John thought as he struggled with his decision. He could almost swear, however, that would be Doc Siegel’s rejoinder if he was here. The sky was fairly well lighted by the dawn’s sun when John made his choice. He looked at the clipboard lying on the small bedside table next to the chair, picked up the pen and quickly signed the forms authorizing the doctor to disconnect the machines and take out the IV lines and respiratory tube. He picked up the clipboard with the forms, got up and walked out of the room to the nurses’ station and quietly handed the clipboard and forms to the nurse on duty. She glanced at the forms quickly, picked up the telephone and paged his mom’s doctor, who returned to the nurses’ station within a few minutes. He glanced at the forms and at John, nodded briefly and walked into the room followed by John and the nurse. The doctor told John that he did not need to be there.
John stated simply, “Yes, I do.”
The doctor nodded as he walked over and turned off the respirator, quickly disconnecting the two IV lines. A brief pause ensued, followed by an erratic and loud buzzing from the monitor and the blue thin line going crazy on the monitor screen. With sudden abruptness, the thin blue line became a solid straight line and the beeping settled into a monotone. The doctor looked at his watch and noted the time of death to the nurse. He reached over and turned off the monitor. He gently put his hand on John’s shoulder for a brief moment, and then walked out of the room.
John looked down at his mother, noticing a peace settle over her features he had not seen in a long time. Without conscious thought, he glanced out the window noticing the blue jay no longer sat on the limb. Sunlight was streaming in the window. Tears began to roll slowly, silently down his cheeks. The nurse, busy with removing the tube and IV lines, did not notice.