This house has been my home all my life. I was born in an upstairs bedroom in the middle of an unexpected snowstorm and, with any luck, I’ll die peacefully in my sleep in that same bedroom.
I lived here with my mother, an elementary school librarian, and my dad, a veterinarian. See the red door on the left side of the house? That was the entrance to Sullivan’s Pet Clinic. I always thought dad had the best job in the world – working out of our home caring for animals every day and many nights. Those middle of the night emergency calls were always the worst. I grew up standing by his elbow, engrossed by everything from happy birthings to heartbreaking endings.
Being an only child and a constant figure in the clinic, it was naturally assumed by everyone, including myself, that I would follow in dad’s footsteps. However, that was not to be the case. You see, as much as I loved working with animals, I took the sick and dying aspect of it all very personally; I wasn’t very good at handling the loss. What use is a veterinarian who only treats healthy animals? I might as well be a groomer at PetSmart!
After my second year of college, with no real goal in mind for my life, I dropped out and left home. I found I was adept at quite a few things: I was a carpenter, a pool cleaner, a gardener and a plumber and, while I was good at all those things, none of them brought me the sense of fulfillment I desired. So at the ripe old age of 28 I decided to return home. My parents were overjoyed to see me, of course; however, that thrill diminished rapidly once I told them I had no intention of joining the family practice. My dad made a suggestion: “Find a paying job which will allow you to contribute to the privilege of living in a comfortable house with a roof over your head and food to eat or move out”. I chose the former.
One day while perusing the want ads, I saw a listing for a housepainter. The company was local, the job was full time and since I had dabbled in a little painting at my previous jobs, I applied for, and landed, the position. I was to start the very next day. It wasn’t rocket science but there was skill involved and I enjoyed the work; doing anything with my hands was supremely satisfying. With each brush stroke, time flew by and before I realized it, I was a 46-year-old man married to my dear wife Laurie, the local church secretary. We were the parents of three teenagers – two daughters and a son. Savannah was the eldest at 17; she would be heading off to college next year. Following close behind was Georgia, 16 and Max, 14.
One late summer afternoon while having our traditional Sunday dinner at my parent’s house, my folks stunned us with the news that they were going to retire and move south. Hard as it was for dad to believe, he could not find anyone willing to take over his practice without also buying the house. Sullivan’s Pet Clinic unceremoniously closed its doors and my wife and I and the kids moved into my childhood home. We bid farewell to my parents and locked the door to the clinic, promising we would do our best to find someone who wanted to take over dad’s practice. Unlike my father, I had no problem renting the clinic while my family lived in the main house. Still no one expressed an interest in the practice.
On a rare Saturday off from work, I threw myself into sprucing up the yard. I grabbed the necessary gardening equipment and “invited” the three couch potatoes playing video games to join me. After much grousing and a bit of bribery we were hard at work pulling weeds and pruning dead branches. After a scant five minutes, Savannah let out a squeal and called me over, informing me “there something stuck in one of the azalea bushes” and she was “pretty sure it was alive”. At first I didn’t see anything but upon closer inspection I found that Savannah was right. Mixed in and almost undiscernible among the reddish blossoms was a female cardinal. She was obviously wounded, her left wing hanging uselessly and a small bloody wound on her breast.
Instincts that had been dormant for years arose and came rushing at me like a locomotive. I yelled for the other two kids to run into the garage to get a shoe box and some of my clean painting cloths. They were quick in their return and with gloved hands I gently plucked the wounded bird from the bush, placed her in the cloth-lined box and began walking her into the house. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted something bright red flitting from branch to branch, whistling an unanswered call, and I knew it had to be the wounded cardinal’s mate.
Fumbling through a maze of pens, clips and rubber bands in my dad’s old rolltop desk, I finally found the keys to the abandoned pet clinic. Unlocking the door I was amazed to see my wife Laurie had kept the place clean and organized and I made a mental note to thank her when she returned home.
“First order of business is to assess the bird’s wounds, especially the spot where there’s blood” I announced to my kids in a voice that sounded eerily like my father’s. I asked Savannah to find gauze pads and apply light pressure to the bird’s wound while Max used his phone to search for info on broken wings. When Savannah told me the blood from the puncture was dry, my dad’s voice quietly whispered in my ear not to dislodge the clot; doing so could cause the bird to bleed out. Savannah applied a dab of Neosporin around the wound, replaced the dressing and wrapped a long strip of clean cloth around it, securing it with a small piece of surgical tape.
“There’s a ton of stuff here on caring for a wounded bird” Max shouted triumphantly, waving his cell phone over his head. I read what he found and quickly assessed what we needed to do.
“Ok, we need to fill a hot water bottle to keep the bird warm and a long strip of cloth to wrap around her wing and body. We all worked together efficiently and our patient seemed to sense we were trying to help her. Savannah placed the hot water bottle under the bird and put the box near the window in the sun.
“We did good, guys! Let’s just leave the bird to rest and we’ll check her in a little while.” I started walking toward the door that led to the main house when Savannah called out to me.
“Dad, we can’t keep calling her ‘the bird’. She needs a name. How about ‘Lady C’?” she asked. And we all agreed that was a good name.
When Laurie got home from work, we told her about our adventure with Lady C. “Sounds to me like all those years at your dad’s side is what really got you through this.” I had to admit it – Laurie was right and I felt a pang of remorse for never following in dad’s footsteps.
As we talked, Laurie looked over my shoulder out the window. “There’s a male cardinal flitting around out there. I’ll bet you that’s Mr. C wondering where his lady is.” That’s when I remembered spotting the bright red cardinal earlier in the day.
After dinner we went back into the clinic; Lady C was resting comfortably. Georgia replaced the hot water bottle for a fresh one and on the way out I thought I heard a tap-tap-tapping sound by the window. When I turned to look, nothing was there.
Days went by and Lady C continued to heal beautifully. Her little chest wound was now unnoticeable, covered by new feathers, and her wing was in fine working order. During the whole of her convalescence, Mr. C could be seen in our trees, on our back deck and even on the windowsill looking into the clinic. He must have been the one tapping on the window weeks ago.
At last the time came to let Lady C go free. We removed her wrappings one last time and watched as she hopped around the inside of the shoe box which had been her home for the last few weeks. I reached for our little patient and Savannah stopped me. “Can I do it, please?” Of course, my answer was yes.
We brought Lady C outside and placed her on the wood railing around our deck. Slowly we backed away and in no time at all Mr. C came swooping in, landing next to his lady. They began chirping to each other and sweetly canoodling, completely oblivious of their audience. Then, as one, they flew off into the trees.
Time went by and every so often we’d see the cardinal couple flying around the yard and visiting our feeders. Then they disappeared, gone for a new life somewhere, happy together. A few months went by and then one morning, just as the weather was beginning to change, we heard a clatter of that distinct cardinal chirping. When we peeked outside the window, we saw Mr. & Lady C … and their fledgling twins.
Savannah turned to me, her eyes shining brightly. “Dad, I’ve made a decision. I want to go to veterinary school and follow in Grandpa’s footsteps.”
I hugged my daughter tightly. “Let’s call Grandpa; he’ll be so happy and proud to hear your news.”
I suddenly realized I was grinning like a kid, full of excitement. It was a great feeling.
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