Saturday, June 30, 2012

True Stories-- June in Oktoberland, Con't.

 In a darkened back bedroom, I break from sleep at the sound of soft clicking movements-- the slight scrape of nails or claws against the wood floor. I raise my head from the pillow, fogged in mind and sight, to look for the reason I've woken; to find the disturbance. In that second, it grows quiet.

 A slip of muted light from a hidden source casts the room into a Rembrandt-murky scene of purest chiaroscuro. Our closets have come unclosed; the doors open onto hollowed depths of velvet dark. Subtle motions inside the patchy black there could just be my eyes playing tricks on me. I try hard to focus, searching for the comfort of clarity. Then I see him, terrifyingly real again.

 The robin.

He hobbles towards me, broken-winged,  flapping and menacing, with such an accusatory look that it seems his tiny beak and eyes have been drawn by Friz Freleng for the specific purpose of inducing guilt and horror. And they do...

Because I killed him, and he knows it. It's been years that I've been having this dream-- this recurring nightmare born of remorse. Every year or two since the incident, which happened when I lived in Indianapolis, Indiana, only a ten minute drive from the famous Speedway.

 It was during a bad month sometime after the hubby-man and I had made a full-length feature film together, but before we had financially recovered from the expense to any great degree, (unless you've made a movie, you have no idea how expensive even B&W 16mm film is-- not to mention the developing, promoting, etc.) and I was sick at home with bronchitis again. I'd called in sick to my second job, and wouldn't have to go in to work again for two days. But I had no medical insurance, no cash reserves, no money for a second doctor's appointment to obtain antibiotics-- they always made me come back again, two weeks later, before they'd accept that I had needed antibiotics all along. The fact that it happened annually made no impression on anyone but myself.

 I got bronchitis every year, just like my mother, whose exact body shape, and fertility, I inherited. We both still get bronchitis every year, but we each also suffer from having doctors ignore our understanding of our own body's patterns, and so we both end up spending a minimum of a month sick, which leaves our lives and finances perpetually in catch-up mode. Being sick for a solid month is expensive, in dozens of little ways.

 The month I killed the robin, I had been to the doctor once already, and had him tell me that to be sure I needed drugs they'd have to do a chest x-ray, which I couldn't afford.  I went on with my life, coughing up bloody green chunks when no one was looking and trying not to be physically close enough to the children I took care of to infect them too-- which is impossible. Children from birth to age five own you, when you take care of them regularly. They don't allow boundaries on what they can grab onto-- your arms, your breast, your hair, your tongue, your eyelashes. It all belongs to them, and they will jump into your face or your lap with equal abandon, unstoppable. They want you when then want you.

 It is sweet, in that you're constantly aware how they trust and need you; it's problematic, in that it can put you in odd situations in public or around their parents; and you can't help sharing germs, just like a family. Unlike a family member, you will get some sharp and questioning looks when you hang around the living room pale and coughing, and you may get more than concern when it appears, to the fully insured people whose homes you spend your days working in, that you have not made an effort to secure the health care necessary to maintain your professional lack of contagion.

 Because the class system in America is/was semi-fluid in the middle, it is perfectly possible to be a well spoken, highly trained, well educated pauper. It's easy to mistake yourself for someone that will be able pay back the college loans that the wily admissions department of your chosen university assures you everyone has, only to find (when it's too late to avoid a state of default) that you'd have to be making thrice your current market value to do that and still eat, no matter how much money per hour or day your generous bosses pay you, no matter how big and luscious your Christmas bonuses.

 You can work for upright, socially conscious folks that cannot and will not realize that multiple doctor visits in a month, along with refills of high cost prescriptions, could make you homeless while you're still in their employ. They may be ready to suggest that you find a different doctor or medical group, but not ready to understand that a new patient fee on top of what you've spent before would mean that you could starve, or have to forgo vital brake work on the car, or have your heat shut off.

 Let me admit that I have a great fault, here. It's important for full disclosure, and to set up the situation of this story. I lived then, and somewhat less now, on the Bohemian fringe of an adult life, paying as I went, avoiding both credit debt and savings; consuming what I earned and using it to make art or joy for myself & others, rather than future security. For one, I'm not a materialist by nature. For another, financial security is a tale I can't quite believe in, a myth spun from secret rites I've never learned, entailing a lifestyle I have no blueprint for.

 Growing up poor is a condition you carry with you, that can hamper your ability to become not poor. It's a mindset, which others have written of eloquently; I'll add that it obscures and aggrandizes some possibilities, the life opportunities others might approach calmly. It can puncture determination as easily as spur it on. It creates a relationship with money that is sicker and more co-dependent than a love triangle between abused meth addicted parrots. Some survivors respond by becoming either miserly, or brash with any wealth they can find, some by becoming uber-responsible; some find themselves leery of financial commitments that seemingly everyone else takes for granted, takes on and fulfills.

 I got a little of each. It's been a long struggle, to cast off the confining outlook that poverty engraved on my childhood. Taking out student loans, for instance, had been a bold strike for freedom, one I'd never imagined I'd make. I took the chance and gradually envisioned the amazing idea of a life in Academia, a life where my plethora of talents might be an asset, not a downfall. A life, it turns out, that I became separated from by a sharp scalpel of grief and loss.

 That's another story, though. It's a story that took me out of the race to catch up with the many smart, kind people I used to work for, who hadn't grown up quite as poor, or not poor at all. They could imagine and create lives based on reasonable risks, with reasonable credit. Unlike myself, they could create children without a true worry those children would ever go hungry. They could be sure of their ability to keep those commitments. So the world has different rules for them.

 They may be too consciously and conscientiously trying not to be unaware, to see the small ways that they are, already. So when you're sick, you skip work days, and piss them off, losing more of your income, that way instead. And you know, all the time, that it's your own fault for being irresponsible to normal standards, and a little unconscious of your own societal shortcomings; for not living the way real people live.

 That's how it was on an early autumn morning-- it was cooler than usual, pouring buckets, windy as hell. I moved from the couch in our tiny living room out front into the kitchen to make a pot of tea, hoping to loosen the gunk in my lungs over the steam. Our kitchen was not large, but the back wall was half windows looking out into the double lot yard, with a ramshackle shed to the left and a giant maple in the middle. This gave a wide view and a feeling of openness to the small space. I often looked out the side windows, or the one in the back door, as I worked in there at table, stove or sink. It was my favorite room in the house, a place to gather peace and reconnect with homey pleasures.

 I set a few tea bags into the glass pot, looking out as usual, and saw an animal moving oddly by the roots of the maple. The kettle boiled, got turned off and poured out, and I went to the window in the door to investigate. A variety of wildlife passed through our yard regularly-- raccoons, possums, bluejays, woodpeckers, red-tailed squirrels, chipmunks, a mated pair of mallards that liked to sit and sun themselves in the grass, and once or twice, a hawk. But this was something smaller.

 Some bird was twisting, almost dancing, against the ground, unable to right itself. I watched for a minute, hoping it would rise and fly away, but it kept up the same strange, fitful pattern of flopping, and I had to go help.
 Once outside, I saw clearly that it was a robin. Something had happened to its neck, and the head was thrust back into an unnatural arch. Possibly the work of a cat, but there were no visible scratches, no blood, no ruffled feathers even. It may have been poisoned by some horrible chemical lawn treatment: my neighbors on either side avoided such ridiculous evil, as did we, but some in our neighborhood did not. Or the poor bird may have flown into a windowpane and gotten hurt that way, or been blown into a branch by the high winds.  
 The rain slashed coldly at both of us, and the bird's struggle grew more frantic. His shining small eyes showed terror. I was afraid to touch him, but would have to, I knew. He made not a single sound from his throat as he tossed wildly from side to side, trying to get up, to get his head to go forward. He was not going to live, probably, but I didn't want to let him die like this, cold and soaking and desperate. I set a chair over the area he lay in, for a little shelter, and went in to find a box.

If I brought him inside, warmed him up, maybe he would stop struggling, which could be hurting him more. At least he wouldn't die of exposure. I spent a moment first to call the ASPCA, and ask for help, or a clue. They had no help to give but a phone number-- they didn't take birds, not wild ones.
 It began to thunder, and lightning. I put on a jacket and leather gloves and went out with the box. It was hard to figure out how to approach the patient, though. Each time I reached for him he rolled away, his wings active, feet scratching the air. It made his struggle more horrible. His chest was heaving rapidly in fear, and after a few minutes of trying to get him into the towel-lined box without hurting him, I gave up and went back inside to look for some real help.

 No could help me, it seemed. I called the county Wildlife & Forestry office, and they gave me the number of the Humane Society, who gave me the number of another local animal shelter, who told me they couldn't help. I called an exotic animal place, Wild Birds Unlimited, and spitballed ideas with them. I called the Audubon Society, who didn't deal with robins. I called five vets/animal hospitals, and finally found one who would give the bird a kill-shot for 35 dollars, if I could get it to them within the hour before they closed. They were a forty-five minute drive away, and I had no money, plus my car was low on gas. They wouldn't bill me later, either. It had to be upfront. No one could help me help the robin... it was a wild animal, yes, but a common one, not covered by laws of preservation or mercy. It had fallen through the cracks of our mish-mash attempts at control and coexistence with the natural world. Unlike a cormorant heron or a spotted owl, bobins were everywhere, and no one gave a crap.

 I was getting desperate, now. I called my mother, my sister, my friends, for ideas. Someone suggested I wring the bird's neck, or step on it with a heavy boot, to put it out of its misery. I just didn't have the courage for the first, and the second suggestion would have been absurd. Stomping a bird to death! Every vegetarian's dream sport.

 I realized that I would have to kill it, out of kindness, or watch it die slowly and painfully under my maple tree. While I dealt with that, it got colder outside, and nastier.
 In between calls and silly or brutal suggestions, like backing my car over it (when I couldn't even lift it into a box), or hitting it with a shovel, I braved the storm again to try to bring the dying bird into the warm garage, with no success. We were both getting weaker, and we were both full of despair. We'd been pushed into a bad situation together, a set of shitty circumstances that I would have to resolve, and I felt the lack of preparedness I lived with as a weight around my neck, now.
 Inside again, shivering and much sicker than I'd been a few hours before, I got a return call from a friend that had grown up on a farm, and still lived on one, though not a fully functioning one now. They did keep chickens and a couple of horses, and about eight acres full of mulberry trees. He asked detailed questions about the robin, agreed it was unsavable, and then told me to do what they did with unwanted kittens and the like-- drown the bird in a bucket.

 I was horrified, but as I considered the impossibility of trying to deliberately run over a robin in my driveway (what would my neighbors think of me, then?), it seemed worth a try. We talked about how to do it, and then I hung up and drank a quick shot of my cooled tea, to steel my nerves.
 The biggest bucket I had would do-- it was a forty gallon white tub of food grade plastic, bought for a buck from a donut place I'd worked long ago. They sold the tubs the donut fillings came in, since they couldn't be recycled and took up lots of space in the dumpster. I had two or three, and used them for hauling my homemade compost out to the vegetable garden. I set one in the yard near the tree and filled it from the hose. It was more than wide enough at the top, thankfully. I didn't want to break the wings while killing the bird.

 Today, at this moment, I can't quite recall exactly how I got it into the water-- I believe I lifted it, squirming and shaking, onto a wide shovel, and dropped it into the water from that, where it flapped and tried to swim. I didn't have the heart to hold and push its head under the water, but my friend had assured me it would not take long for it to drown, and he was right. After a minute or so of tortured scrabbling, it stopped moving.

 I left it in the bucket, to make sure it would not revive, and went in the house to shower off the cold, evil feeling that soaked me. When I was clean and warm, I had lost the will to face the rest of the mess-- throwing out the water, putting the corpse in the trash, along with the bucket, which I'd have to toss as well, since it carried a taint I couldn't scour out, mentally. I left the whole thing undone overnight, feeling awful in every possible way.

 In the morning, the body was gone.


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