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Wesley the owl, p.19
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       Wesley the Owl, p.19

           Stacey O'Brien
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  I began leaving Wesley piles of mice in case I was suddenly out of commission. They keep for a few days, since they’re insulated in fur. At work, I had achieved enough seniority that I was treated with respect and given incredible leeway as I tried to cope with my bizarre condition. I didn’t want to admit that anything serious was wrong with me. But it finally got to the point where I couldn’t function in the workplace anymore and my doctors and I realized that this was not going to go away anytime soon. So I had to tell my bosses that I was too sick to work, and I went on disability.

  Since I lived alone, I had to try to carry on with the basics of life. One afternoon I took some Advil and went shopping for groceries. I loaded the car, sat down in the driver seat, and passed out. I lay there for over eight hours. People in the parking lot eventually noticed I was unconscious and banged on the driver’s door. Unable to rouse me, they finally called the police and told them that someone had died in an SUV at the grocery store.

  The paramedics broke into my truck and pulled me out. They put me into an ambulance, started IVs, and revived me, but my vitals were bad. When I woke up in the hospital I kept insisting that they let me go home, as it was “no big deal.” The doctors insisted that it was a very big deal.

  I endured an endless battery of tests, going to this famous clinic and that famous hospital—with the final conclusion being that I had a brain tumor that was inoperable but not cancerous. I had something called massive basilar hemiplegic migraine disorder with complications. The complications included vasospasmic strokes, comas, seizures, ministrokes that cause temporary paralysis, fugue states, narcolepsy, and syncope. It never stopped. The migraine was almost continuous, and I was in excruciating pain 24/7 as they tried this medicine and that treatment, all with bewildering side effects.

  If you let some kinds of migraines progress too far you can have a full-blown stroke, as I found out the hard way. Waiting for a prescription at the pharmacy, I decided to try their free blood pressure measuring machine. It read 278/195. I stood up to tell the pharmacists that their machine was broken and collapsed, unable to speak. The same paramedics who had rescued me at the grocery store were rushed over to the pharmacy.

  I was in a wheelchair for a month and experienced speech and memory lapses, but eventually recovered. That’s the “hemiplegic” part—becoming paralyzed on one side of the body because of the intensity of the migraine, which caused the blood vessels to close, preventing blood from getting to parts of the brain. The tumor, however, eventually calcified and quit growing, but I still struggled with constant excruciating pain.

  Whenever my pain level got out of control, I landed in the hospital and they had to give me 20 to 24 units of morphine. To put this in perspective, a badly wounded soldier in the battlefield is given 10 units to treat his pain. Twenty units will kill a grown man. Only a doctor would administer my injection, since no nurse would take that risk. Yet, after this massive dose, my blood pressure fell only slightly. When you’re in that much pain, your body goes into a hyper state of “fight or flight,” pumped up with so much adrenaline that it counters the efficacy of the morphine. This fight-or-flight state can be so powerful that it accounts for the stories we hear about people possessing superhuman strength in an emergency—a small woman lifting a car up off her child, for example—it overrides your system’s normal limits. When I was in this state, my pain could only be dulled.

  Another complication from my brain tumor was that I couldn’t stay awake for any length of time, a form of narcolepsy. I’d be eating dinner and wake up a half hour later with my face planted in the food or fall asleep standing in the aisle of a store.

  I was really sick and hardly able to care for myself, much less Wesley. But Wesley’s well-being was something worth fighting for, and it focused my attention away from my troubles. I remembered something that Dr. Penfield had told me when I first adopted Wesley, “To that which you have tamed, you owe your life.”

  The neurologists told me I needed to move closer to a relative, so someone could check on me regularly. Once they explained the seriousness of my prognosis and that I could die, my mother intervened and insisted that I move back to her house.

  Wesley and I had lived quite happily with my mom when I first worked in the aerospace industry, but this time around I felt helpless being so dependent and having to ask her for money. My disability insurance company discontinued payment after a while, and I didn’t have the resources or energy to take them to court. Paying for all the specialists had emptied out my 401(k) and savings, and I was left with only a tiny fixed disability income—and huge medical bills. It was a nightmare that only seemed to get worse.

  All I could think about was that I’d become a terrible drain on my hardworking mother. She and her boyfriend Wally were seriously involved now, and my presence was interfering with any plans they might have to get married. Truly, I’d had a great, exciting life and couldn’t have asked for more. Now I was going to be an incurable, constant burden on my mother—financially, emotionally, and socially. Of course, she never said any of these things to me, but there were some panicky times as she looked over her finances and questioned whether she would be able to retire. (My dad had already retired and was dealing with his own health issues.)

  My doctors said I would never get better, that I would always be in this state of outrageous pain and lassitude, lost in this deep pit, unable to climb out. I felt like such a medical anomaly; neither side of my family had any history of serious illness. Even in old age, no one had ever been a “burden,” but had lived a long healthy life. For three generations both sides of my family were professional musicians or TV personalities. “The show must go on” was our motto.

  Even as a child of six, when I had worked in the recording and television industry with my younger sister, we learned to ignore sickness, hiding it from Mom when we had a touch of the stomach flu, for instance. We’d just tough it out, knowing that we would eventually get over whatever illness came our way. But now, here I was, unable to snap out of it, unable to perform the simplest tasks, drowning in pain, breaking all the family rules.

  At my lowest point I considered suicide. There seemed to be no other answer. Normally, I think suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do, leaving family and friends in grief and guilt and recriminating what-ifs. Two longtime friends had committed suicide, so I knew firsthand the aftermath for the survivors. But I thought my situation was different. My young friends had had their whole lives ahead of them, but according to the prognosis, my life really was over. I reasoned that, if I thoroughly explained in a letter to my friends and family about how I had lived a happy, satisfying life and didn’t want to be an endless burden, then perhaps everyone would eventually come to understand that it was for the best.

  But Wesley still needed me. He loved me and would die of shock and grief. Wesley couldn’t read a letter or comprehend my explanations; he’d just know that I had abandoned him in his final days. And what would happen to this glorious little soul in his angelic body? Would he end up being handled roughly by strangers who couldn’t have cared less who he was? Would the absolute tranquility in those dark inscrutable eyes turn to fear, confusion, pain, knowing he had been betrayed at the end? When would that look of peaceful confidence turn to realization and primal terror?

  I knew who Wesley was, and I did consider an alternative—that we could die together. But there was no way I could have killed Wesley. That would also have been a betrayal that was just beyond me. I had chosen to tame him and thereby made him vulnerable; I had taught him to trust me implicitly, no matter what. After so many years this trust was perfect and unbroken. I had no right to break it. That would have been an obscene act.

  Wesley had been my constant companion, my teacher, and my friend. I now made the decision to honor this little body with the huge soul, and to see him through to the end. I had promises to keep. It was the one thing that I could still do. It’s the Way of the Owl. You commit for life, you finish wha
t you start, you give your unconditional love, and that is enough. I looked into the eyes of the owl, found the way of God there, and decided to live.


  The End

  AFTER TRYING EVERY single medication protocol in the latest and not-so-latest literature, my neurologists hit upon a combination of prescription drugs that worked to mitigate the pain. Even better, the meds didn’t make me “high” and didn’t make me gain as much weight as the other medications. From 2000 to 2002 a new doctor was finally able to get me off the roller coaster of hospital stays and drug treatment experimentations. My mother found me a place to live just a few blocks from her house and helped me move in. Wesley came along with me, of course, and I installed him on his perch in my bedroom.

  I was still very sick and slept constantly. I fed Wesley and we talked, but we hardly ever cuddled anymore. He mostly slept and I mostly slept. “Teep deep deep, teeple teeple teeple…” We slept for a couple of years, he and I. Wesley was eighteen years old, ancient for a barn owl, so he didn’t seem to mind.

  One day I looked into his obsidian eyes and saw a faint grayness. Very faint, but as time went by, there was more and more. Wesley was going blind. But he didn’t show any signs of distress; he still looked healthy, beautiful, and glossy. He did finally lose interest in mating on my arm, however, after one last halfhearted attempt. And that July, he skipped his molt. I waited and waited, wondering if perhaps I had altered the light cycle that triggers the molt by putting a night-light in my bedroom.

  Wesley was also getting stiff; his movements now were slow and tentative. His poop stuck to the feathers around his bottom. He could no longer reach back there to groom, so I trimmed his feathers and, like a nursemaid, cleaned that area for him every day. He began to screech at odd hours of the night, and I had to move into another bedroom to get enough sleep.

  His sight was failing, but his hearing was still sharp. If I walked quietly downstairs or got up from the couch, Wesley could hear my footfall, even barefoot on carpet, even with his door closed upstairs. He would screech in acknowledgment and I would answer “Hi, baby!” Although I could no longer sleep in the same room because of his erratic screeching, he was always aware of my presence, and we conversed back and forth. I could speak to him in a soft voice from the opposite side of the town house and he could hear me perfectly.

  I kept thinking Wesley would molt soon because he was demanding more and more mice. And more. However, I’d find whole mice and mouse parts left on the perch despite his begging for food (a very distinct verbalization). Perhaps he could no longer see the mice, though he certainly could feel them with his feet. Was he just getting picky? I would give him new mice, which he would attack as if he’d been starving for days, sometimes holding one mouse in his beak and clutching another in his talons. He would turn his back to me, and hunch over the mice protectively. It was strange. Why was he so paranoid and worked up about food? Did he have some eating disorder? I usually could figure out what he was trying to communicate, but now I was confused.

  One day Wesley was hanging upside down off the edge of his perch, as he loved to do. He’d hang there by one leg, perfectly still, and quietly observe the world. After tiring of this amusement, he’d grab the towels on the perch with his talons and chin-up onto the platform. By habit, I’d walk by his perch and cup my hand under his hanging body, and swing him back up onto his platform. But when I did that this time, he fell forward off the perch and just hung there by his leash. I tried again. He fell. I unhooked Wesley and set him on the floor and he fell forward on his face. What was going on here?

  I decided his eating problem had gone too far and he was probably hungry or dehydrated, so I injected him with a large dose of IV fluid with electrolytes and held him in my arms until his blood sugar rose. My diagnosis was correct and he was fine. But now I knew he couldn’t stay on his perch anymore. He wasn’t eating his mice properly, and if weakened, he could no longer pull himself back onto it.

  It was time for new quarters. I had a super-size travel carrier—the kind used for very large dogs—for Wesley, which he adored. It was exactly the kind of nesting site he would have selected as a young owl, with lots of room to flap his wings and walk around. I set him up with dark towels draped over a stack of books set on the carrier floor, so he had a soft, elevated perch. I filled a heavy white dish with seven or eight mice per day. This new living arrangement made it easier for him to find his mice. And now that he knew he always had mice, he settled down and no longer begged for food.

  Things seemed to improve for a while. I still believed that I could handle whatever new situation Wesley threw at me, since for almost twenty years I had always been able to improvise with very little outside help. But not long thereafter, Wesley began to beg for mice again, even when he knew they were there. This drove me to tears. Everything else about him seemed fine, his feathers were gorgeous, he still played in shallow water and took face baths and drank, so he was generally well hydrated, even if he didn’t eat the whole mouse. But he was too skinny.

  One day I was driving home from an appointment and took a country road, the scenic route. I was listening to a morbid Scottish song, translated into Irish Gaelic, about a man discovering his beloved—dead and frozen to her bed during the famine. I was always learning songs in Irish, but this one was even more morbid than most. As I drove along, singing this lament, I suddenly spotted a dead barn owl by the side of the road. My heart leapt into my throat. It was like seeing my own child, my Wesley, dead by the road. I stopped to check, just in case it was alive and not moving. This gorgeous young owl was unmarked but dead. I had a horrible premonition and felt ice cold as I stood in the warm sunlight. I picked up the owl, cradled it, and took it out to the field nearby. I got a camp shovel out of the truck and buried him slowly and carefully, knowing now that this was a portent. Tears streaming down my face, I kept saying to myself, “No, I can’t lose him. I just can’t.”

  The one thing I hate about animal stories is that after you’ve almost read the entire book and you really care about the animal, they go and tell you all about how the animal died. In fact, I often read the end of these books first so I can at least brace myself for the inevitable. So you should stop reading now if you don’t want to hear about Wesley dying. But I need to tell you.

  Of course, I knew it would come. Wesley was ridiculously old. Dr. Coward said it was like a human still living at 120. He told me I had taken exceptional care of Wesley, there wasn’t a single stress line in his feathering; he was perfectly groomed and gorgeous. When I protested about how skinny he was Dr. Coward said, “Well, a 120-year-old man is very skinny and weak, too, you know.”

  If only I had cuddled him more that last year, but he didn’t seem to want to be cuddled. If only I had spent every last moment with him instead of sleeping so much on the couch. If only I had figured out what was going on with the mice. But there’s nothing I could have done. I had done everything I knew for Wesley and I knew a lot, but Wesley was masking an illness from me, as wild animals do.

  The night of January 8, 2004, at a time when Wes would normally wake and start talking to me, I heard a weird sound upstairs. I immediately raced up to his room, knowing something was very wrong. Wesley was in his carrier house, trying to greet me, but the only sound he could make was a raspy wheeze. I brought him out of his carrier and stood him on the floor. He swayed. Oh, no. Please don’t sway. He made a pathetic whistling noise. What was wrong? Did he need water? I gave Wesley water and he took a sip but couldn’t swallow properly and it came back out of his nose. I dried him off and began feeling desperate.

  Wesley was so weak it must mean he needed nutrition. I felt his tummy and it was empty. I brought him a mouse, but he wouldn’t even look at it, so I tried to force-feed him. I fed starving raptors as a wildlife rescue worker, so I knew what I was doing. After a few minutes, he spat out the piece.

  I held Wesley in my arms and raced downstairs to my animal medical station and gave him IV fluids. He
lay on his back on the couch, gazing at me with his solemn eyes. He didn’t seem perturbed. I kept telling him he was okay, I was with him, I loved him, I’d help him. I was sobbing now. I called Dr. Coward’s office and cried, “My bird is in an emergency! He is collapsing! Tell Dr. Coward!” They replied, “Come right away. Don’t worry that it’s after closing time. We’ll be waiting for you.”

  I tucked Wes into his small travel carrier and propped him up with little pillows and rolled towels so that he wouldn’t have to brace himself during the drive. He lay his head down and watched me silently as I put the seat belt around his carrier and jumped into my SUV. I opened his carrier door and caressed his head and talked to him all the way to the vet.

  “It’s okay, Wes. I love you. I’m your mommy, I’m here. It’ll be okay. Just rest. Dr. Coward will help you. I love you so much. You are my light and my joy. You’ve been my best friend and I’ll always love you. Thank you for letting me into your life. Mommy loves you so much.”

  I ran into the vet’s office with Wesley in his carrier, then gently lifted him out and cradled him in my arms. Dr. Coward gave him more fluids and a shot of vitamins and tried some other tricks of the trade. Wesley didn’t even try to resist. By now we were all crying in the room, and I was spilling out my guilt about why didn’t I do more and what if I could have done this or that for him or figured it out…And Dr. Coward kept telling me it was a miracle that Wesley had lived this long, that my care for him was possibly the best he’d ever seen as a vet, that Wesley obviously had an incredibly full and happy life and that he had grown older than was seemingly possible.

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