Everyone Was a Bird

I had my appendix removed. For days after the procedure I did what I was supposed to: slump around the house, slow-step up the stairs, studiously avoid anything resembling useful behavior.

I was under strict orders to take it easy. This boy’s a good soldier. You don’t need to tell me twice.

The episode shall henceforth be known as “my convalescence.” I imagined myself a war poet sloughing off shell shock in a quaint sanitorium. Dulce et decorum est convalescere.

When you’re housebound and hunchbacked, you notice stuff that may otherwise slip by. Staring absently out the window one morning, I spied a bird with a busted wing flailing around at the end of the driveway.

It’s the kind of thing that happens every day in the big, bad world. It’s not the kind of thing you see every day in your driveway.

She was a female cardinal, not bright red like the boy bird on the baseball hat, but “buff brown,” per the Peterson Field Guide on our bookshelf, “with some red on the wings and tail.” The red on the poor girl’s broken wing was impossible to miss because she was dragging it behind her and pecking at it. She seemed to regard it more as nuisance than body part.

The lady was in trouble. A bird can’t fly on one wing, and a bird that can’t fly is a bird that won’t last. She might have worn a sign that said: I Am Weak and Vulnerable. Someone in the big, bad world was surely going to take advantage.

Nature, red in tooth and claw, abhors the feeble. Big animals eat little animals. Hale creatures prey on frail creatures. The food chain is not sentimental. War doesn’t pause for poetry.

A century ago appendicitis would have dealt unsentimentally with me too. Slumping and slow-stepping led straight to the grave. Big medicine was the turning point. Before penicillin, a funky infection like the one in my belly would have been my war over.

I was brushing my teeth while I watched the bird. What she was doing looked painful. She’d have been better off doing what I was doing, playing the war poet, looking for a safe place to rest up, dream, and get her strength back.

But who was I kidding? These are human impulses, not the kind of rational, considered behavior to expect from a cousin to the pterodactyl. She’d starve before she healed. Did she have any idea of the danger she was in, or was she too prehistoric to realize it?

Just at that moment I rubbed a stinging heap of toothpaste into my eye. When I looked back, the cardinal was gone. A robin had chased her off.

A few weeks earlier I’d awoken with a pain in my gut that couldn’t be ignored. Luckily I don’t live in a state of nature but rather Connecticut, with its Saturday-morning walk-in clinics and top-rated emergency rooms.

Smart doctors, kind nurses, CT scanners, and more big medicine—much bigger than penicillin—means that acute gangrenous appendicitis isn’t the widowmaker it once was. During a fitful night, my busted wing got the care it needed.

I managed to keep my wits, something many of the war poets—not to mention my feathered friend—couldn’t do. Still, a hospital isn’t always the place where our best selves shine. I overheard moans, groans, and harsh words such as “I just want to sleep” and “Stop asking me so many questions” and “Why are you even here?”

Maybe we’ve all got busted wings like that bird in my driveway. Maybe we’re all dragging something behind us and don’t quite know what it is. Maybe sentimentality is what separates us from all the wild animals, all the birds of heaven, and all the living creatures that creep along the ground.

My convalescence is nearly over. Time to leave war to the warriors and poetry to the poets. Time to resume useful behavior.

From the July 2017 issue of Fairfield County Catholic

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