Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intervention

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I don’t know what kind of bird this is, I don’t know its sex. All I know is that for five days it occupied my backyard, walking around among my herb pots with a bemused air, as if hoping any minute to find a familiar face or landmark. There was no visible injury, no reason that I could see that it wasn’t flying but there it was, grounded among my pots of parsley, basil, sage, mint.

We came upon one another early the first morning when I went out my back door to empty the kitchen compost pail. The bird scuttled out from beneath my pots and, thinking it was a rat, I almost spilled a few days worth of coffee grounds and veggie peelings all over my pajamas.

When I calmed down I realized that this bird was not even trying to fly away. It moved around like a chicken, keeping its eye on me and edging away if I moved too close but it never flapped its wings. In fact it seemed not to realize it had wings.

I zapped into rescue mode. There was no sign of injury but the bird was clearly young and vulnerable. She (?) would be no match for the cats who patrol my yard, the raccoons, bigger and meaner birds, or the coyotes rumored to be in our area. I would have to keep our terrier out of here. How would she eat?

Resentment reared its head. Why did she have to pick my yard? Where were her parents anyway?

While I stood there trying to figure out my next step, the bird settled on the edge of a pot of cilantro and stayed very still as if hoping I would just go away.

So I did. I confess, I was hoping that she would somehow be gone the next time I wandered through. But there she was that afternoon and, after a long night, the next morning. I called the local wildlife rescue folks and reached a man who sighed into the phone as he explained about adolescent birds. They are sometimes out of the nest before they are sure of their wings. It’s pretty common. When I went online in search of more answers, the folks on a Cornell site explained that adult birds liked to get their kids out of the nest and care for them in nearby locations because they were more vulnerable if they all stayed in one place. The man on the phone and the folks at Cornell said if there were no adults in evidence over the next few days, that the only step I could take would be to throw a towel over the bird, scoop her into a box and take her to the refuge where they would keep her.

I wanted her to be someone else’s problem. But every time I thought of tossing a cloth over her, holding that fragile frightened body in my hands, something inside me resisted. So I gave it one more day. Then another. Every morning it seemed like a miracle that she was still alive. She even took a bath in a little dish of water I set out for her. I got used to her. I looked for her. I kept our dog away from her. I went to bed every night thinking of her. Then on the fifth morning, I walked out, said “Good Morning,” and proceeded to water my herbs as I had done twice during her stay.

A beat of wings and she was suddenly on top of our fence looking down. I was struck dumb by a sense of deliverance. When I checked a little later, she was outside the fence, on a cement retaining wall near the compost. That night, she was gone for good.

What if I had intervened? What if I had chased her all over the yard with a towel, forced her into a box and then into a car? What if I had left her with people with much bigger problems to solve? In other words, what if I had tried to save her and made her suffer or, at the very least, complicated her struggle in ways I could not begin to imagine?

I blush to think how many times I’ve done this. In the name of friendship, motherhood, or trying to be a loving daughter, I have intervened, rushed to the rescue with advice, books, quotes, lectures, analysis, yes, analysis. I love to dig into the facts, research, and present people I love or even some I’ve just met (I cringe as I type these words) with tomes of information about their illness, family dynamic, emotional pain, along with hugs and an intense desire to show them a way out.

Someone else’s problems are irresistible to me. Just ask my husband. Or my son. Both have watched me kill perfectly good plants (even the indestructible mint) with too much attention, too much watering. Both have let me know, gently but firmly, when I cross the line from loving kindness into interference with them.

My bird friend came along just as I was penning a long letter to a loved one who is struggling right now. My chest had been tight for days about what to say, what not say, how to find the words that would somehow fix what I saw as his problem. I sent it but not before backing way off the analysis and advice and just letting him know what I saw and that I cared. In some way, I suppose, the earlier version of the letter was like the towel I was considering throwing over the bird’s head. I would be trying to scoop up my friend, hold him in my arms, fix his problem for him so he would be safe.

That’s not what the bird needed. It’s not what my loved ones need either. It’s not even what I need. The bird reminded me that sometimes the best we can offer each other is a little room to breathe and a friendly place to sit and figure things out on our own.

I’ll keep trying.

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