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Wesley the owl, p.20
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       Wesley the Owl, p.20

           Stacey O'Brien
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  I cradled Wesley in my arms as I had done for the last nineteen years. Dr. Coward brought something over to give Wesley and as I lifted him to the table his head fell forward onto his chest. I held his head up but it fell again. I looked into his eyes. He seemed far away. Was he dead? Dr. Coward grabbed his stethoscope, felt around…yes. Wesley was gone. Everyone was crying. One of the vet techs threw herself on me and kissed me on the cheek. I was wet with tears.

  Dr. Coward slipped out of the room with Wesley and did a very small, informal exam to see if he could tell me exactly what he had died of. It was massive liver cancer.

  He told me, “I don’t know how he was alive at all. There’s no viable tissue left. It’s all cancerous. All of it. You did absolutely everything humanly possible for him, but there was nothing you could have done about this.”

  And I had done the best I could to make Wesley comfortable. I had protected him, kept him warm, fed him, made him feel safe, and we made it to the end without anyone hurting him. We’d made it. All of my prayers for Wesley had been answered.

  Wesley changed my life. He was my teacher, my companion, my child, my playmate, my reminder of God. Sometimes I even wondered if he was actually an angel who had been sent to live with me and help me through all the alone times. He comforted me; many times I cried into his feathers and told him my troubles and he tried to understand. He listened and cuddled with me.

  He chose to sit on my pillow while I napped and he washed his face when I washed mine. He tried to feed me his mice and make me his mate. He created hundreds of nests for me. He joyfully poured out his love in loud exclamations and had boisterous opinions about everything. He kept a running commentary on all that happened in our lives, in his owl language. He brought us wild owls to the bedroom window with his joyful and jubilant sounds…We were happy together.

  I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for Wesley at the end. I did take good care of him and I loved him completely. He was amazing, curious, joyful, strong willed, full of life, a huge soul. His eyes were indescribable. I saw eternity in them, and now at last he was free to fly. My last prayer is that we be reunited in the afterlife, and that he is with God now and that God is taking care of him.

  When he died Wesley was lying across my left arm like he always did, with his talons dangling down, his head in my left hand, his eyes closed, and I was grooming him with my right hand. That’s when his spirit went out of his body. I’m glad we had that one final embrace.



  A relaxed and sleepy three-year-old. Stacey O’Brien.

  AFTER WESLEY’S DEATH I fell into a stupor. I hardly slept, instead pouring out my grief by writing our story day and night, driven by a passionate need to remember. My mom graciously stepped aside while I monopolized her computer, even though this virtually shut down her real estate business. In three weeks I wrote the rough draft for this book. Then I slept for months, in and out of a fog.

  Before I got sick, I had been taking Irish fiddle lessons from Cáit Reed, a woman who is a top Irish fiddle player in the United States. She plays in the subtle East Clare style that I love. My illness made it impossible to continue lessons, but by then Cáit had become one of my dearest friends. She was the first person to recognize that I was truly sick and needed help, although I was still trying to hide the seriousness of my situation from friends and family. She stepped in early and often took care of me.

  A few months after Wesley died, Cáit invited me to a writers’ group in Palos Verdes. She’d often bring me to her house so I could sleep until the last minute, then would drive me to the meeting to read my story about Wesley to the group. The first time I went to the writers’ group, I walked by a shop with a stuffed barn owl in the window, which I took as a sign of encouragement and bought. A few months later, when I used the library conference room to work further on the book, a great horned owl came and sat in a tree just outside the room for the entire day while I worked. I kept going outside to check if he was really there and I wasn’t imagining it.

  As the months dragged on, something changed: I began to recover. Since my prognosis had been hopeless, I didn’t even notice at first what was happening. But when I compared my current condition to six months before, I could tell there was improvement. I had switched health care providers and my new doctors at Kaiser Permanente found a way to control my symptoms so I was more likely to have days when I could actually function. They continued to tweak my treatments and didn’t just throw medications at the problem. My primary physician, Dr. Felder, a man of great intellectual curiosity who worked like a research scientist, always went the extra mile. I learned from this experience never to lose hope and never to take a bad prognosis at face value.

  I found solace in continuing to volunteer, when I was able, at wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centers, particularly with wetland and seabirds, birds of prey, and possums. And wild owls still visit me. Even as I wrote these words a barn owl flew over my bedroom and screeched as he went off for his evening hunt. I feel connected to Wesley through these owls. He saved my life; they help me keep going.

  My two friends, Cáit and Wendy, held me up emotionally during this time, kindly calling me every day as I wrote and rewrote this memoir. I had been sick and shut in for so long, hardly ever leaving the house, that I was isolated. Their friendship was the lifeline that got me out into the world despite my poor health and losing Wesley.

  Wendy remarried and has been very happy for many years. She moved to Colorado and started raising Friesian, Andalusian, and Warlander horses and Ragdoll cats. An award-winning painter and sculptor, Wendy has also been a successful recording artist for decades. She also edited this book with me, sometimes going all night until we both fell asleep on the phone, helping me remember things about Wesley and his extraordinary life. Her husband, Don Francisco, is also an acclaimed recording artist and the kindest, gentlest man a woman could ever hope to find. Annie is now a grown married woman, still wise beyond her years, with a recording career of her own. Oddly enough, Cáit and her husband, Richard Gee, also moved to a high-altitude mountain paradise in Colorado, and they get together with Don and Wendy to make music.

  I find great joy in talking about Wesley and sharing his life story with other people. Although I still sometimes feel guilt about his final days, I now know that this is a normal part of grief. Guilt is just anger turned inward—anger at our helplessness in being unable to change the inevitable. But we are not gods. We outlive our animals. There’s no way around this. So we choose whether or not to take the pain with the joy. I know people who have decided it’s too hard and have given up living with animals. But to me there’s no question that it’s all worth it.

  My sister and I had made a vow when I was eight years old. We would live our lives not by staying in the shallow, safer waters, but by wading as deep into the river of life as possible, no matter how dangerous the current. We knew that we had only one chance at this life and we decided to try to make every moment matter. It may seem an odd vow for two little girls to make, but considering the intensity of our childhood—working almost full-time in the recording industry and also spending so much time at Caltech—we had had the unusual opportunity to see many different kinds of people living very different lives. Both of us have kept this vow. Neither of us regrets living this way.

  Wesley taught me the Way of the Owl. In the human world, your value as a person is often intrinsically linked to your wealth or most recent accomplishment. But all the accoutrements of the material world were stripped away from me when I got sick. Wesley made me realize that if all I had to give was love, that was enough. I didn’t need money, status, accomplishment, glamour, or many of the empty things we so value.

  As much as I still mourn him four years later, there’s nothing I’d like more than to adopt another baby owl, to take what I learned from Wesley to the next level. This time I would document and record every little thing—each verbal adaptation, each change in vocalization, every instanc
e of his learning my language. I would make my observations official so they could be verified and stand up to scientific scrutiny.

  We are on the cusp of a new understanding of animal communication. It was recently discovered that ravens solve problems by thinking them through logically, without need for trial and error. Ravens not only use tools, they create tools, making modifications that rival those of the great apes. Alex the famous African gray parrot, who passed away as the final chapters of this book were being written, exhibited an astounding level of intelligence and proved that he had truly acquired language—he understood what he was saying and what was being said to him. Able to create new word combinations to describe objects he had not encountered before, Alex was on the verge of proving even more complex abilities of symbolic thought when he died. May he rest in peace and may he be remembered as a pioneer on this journey of exploration into the intelligence and sentience of the creatures with whom we share the earth.

  There is so much more to be discovered, and I’m sure in decades to come we will look back at this time as one in which we were emerging from the dark ages of understanding animals, their intelligence, and their emotional lives.

  My life was forever changed by a single barn owl named Wesley. I will always be grateful to him for teaching me the Way of the Owl.


  It is no exaggeration when I say that there are some people to whom I owe a lifetime debt of gratitude. When I undertook this project I was still quite ill, and many people made it possible for me to continue forward with their generosity of spirit and kindness, going the extra mile. Without the continued support and effort of Wendy Francisco, I doubt that I would have been able to find an agent, revise the manuscript, get out of bed to write, work through times when I felt blocked, pay expenses related to the book, or edit it. She paid for me to go to the conference where I met my agent, did the artwork and photography and Web site (which she also bought) on time for the conference (she is still the webmaster and creator), encouraged me on the phone every day, paid many of my other expenses, and finally, edited every line with me before I submitted my manuscript to Free Press. Wendy is also the photographer of both pictures on the jacket of this book. She was a relentless and passionate creative partner. We worked together, both of us on headsets, on the phone between Colorado and California, for long hours going over and over the book. It was my first book and her first editing project, so we discussed every aspect of the book until we were, at times, both falling asleep on the phone. We laughed, cried, and relived every moment of this memoir together. After all, it was Wendy, many years ago, who enthusiastically took Wesley into her home as a tiny baby owlet, back when we were roommates. She once delivered kittens while on the phone editing the book with me.

  Cáit Reed is another dear friend without whom this book would not have been written, and to whom I owe a lifetime debt of gratitude. Cáit brought me to her house to stay and brought me to her writers’ group, insisting that I read my rough draft aloud to them. They became a fundamental sounding board, and I learned about the industry and craft from them. Cáit also called me every day and said she would “not allow” the project to falter. She listened, cajoled, laughed with me, and cried with me over Wesley and his book. She was also indispensable as an objective adviser and copy editor. When I worked on the last draft, I stayed in her home and she helped me with it.

  I was encouraged constantly by my family: Ann (my mother) and Wally Farris, Hack (my father) and Emily O’Brien, Warren and Roberta O’Brien, Alicia O’Brien and Tom Kramer, Janis Truex, Linda Caughran, Karen Sandoval, Carol Gilpin, Gloria Gherhart, my sister Gloria O’Brien Fontenot, Ann Blumberg, my Grandpa Haskell (Hack) O’Brien Sr., Grandma Zimmie O’Brien, and by my friends: Cat Spydell; Brenda Gant; Keith Malone; Arleta Okerson; Don Francisco; the Countess Erin Gravina; Linda Conti; Dr. Chandler; Ruth Vollert; Elizabeth McGrail; Mr. Ehring; Lynne Hannah; MyoMyo San; Mike O’Brien; Henry Law; Aileen, Vern, and Guy Ritter; and many others whose enthusiasm touched my heart and kept me going.

  My parents gave me a passionate love of reading and writing from the beginning, and passed on their equally passionate love and understanding of animals. They have been a constant encouragement all my life, never doubting that I could do what I set out to do. My mother has helped me and supported me since I became disabled and is still helping me keep my head above water.

  Richard Gee, Cáit’s husband and my lawyer, advised me many times and helped me with all contracts and legal questions.

  I want to thank the Southwest Manuscripters Writers’ Group that meets in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Library for teaching me all they knew about writing and the industry, what to expect, and how to make my way through the process of finding publication. In particular I want to thank Jean Shriver for convincing me that I should seek publication, Cat Spydell for pulling the fat out of the fire when I had no idea how to write a book proposal. She set up shop in the library with me, we put all my notes together, and she pulled together the basis for the proposal that we used, while a great horned owl sat outside the window to keep us company. Cheryl Romo constantly encouraged me and was the one who urged me to sign up for the Southern California Writers Conference.

  Again, people who did not need to went the extra mile for me. Michael Steven Gregory took special notice of Wesley the Owl and created buzz in the conference before I even got there, as did Wes Albers and Chrissie A. Barnett. This conference taught me so much that it prepared me for the next steps, but most important, it’s where I met my agent, Sally Van Haitsma. I don’t think there is a more dedicated agent anywhere. She was perfect for a new author and has been more than “just” a literary agent by acting as a coach, explainer, mentor, friend, confidante, and ally. She has a work ethic that would make a Puritan blush and never, ever gave up. I am eternally grateful to her for her dedication to the book and to me and her unwavering belief in the project. She went beyond the call of duty by also helping to edit and smooth out the manuscript that we sent to Free Press, offering advice and input on the writing as well.

  I also wish to thank Melinda Roth for her help early on with the structure of the manuscript. She was particularly helpful with the first several chapters’ structures and themes.

  Wendy was especially insightful with the structure of the last two-thirds of the book, too, and had a lot of good ideas and input. Wendy edited the book with me. She is amazing.

  I’ve heard that most books undergo about twelve rewrites before publication. I never believed that, but now I do. I’m not sure how many times I revised the book with help and advice from my editors, but each time, it and I got better, so I’m grateful to everyone who read the manuscript, advised me, critiqued it, and helped with the editing. My parents and sister also critiqued and helped edit the manuscript.

  Thank you to Robert S. Nord and Jany Poitras of Heritage Studios for editing video of Wesley and me, creating DVDs and pictures that are now usable. Also many thanks to Line on Line, Inc. for helping to verify and research some of my questions for accuracy.

  I also wish to thank the people who loved and accepted Wesley and made his happy life possible: my mother and sister, Wendy, Cáit and Richard, Guy Ritter (who once drove two hundred miles every day to feed Wesley when I had to leave for a funeral), Deborah Hicks, Rich Buhler, Connie Fossa, Raylene, Gene, Kurt Mastellar, Jim Tenneboe, and Dr. Penfield.

  Thank you to those of you who answered my many questions and made yourselves available, often going the extra mile: Terry Mingle at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Dr. Don Kroodsma, Dr. Douglass Coward (Wesley’s veterinarian) and his wonderful staff, Dr. Weldy, Dr. Cleland, Dr. Moscovakis, and all the Caltech postdocs from way back when.

  Thank you to Kaiser Permanente for putting together an amazing team of doctors to manage my condition and make this all possible: Dr. Rosenberg, Dr. Felder, and everyone at Kaiser who has helped along the way.

  For believing in me before I’d ever been published, I wish to thank Ja-len
e Clark and Laura Wood at Council Oak Books.

  Special thanks to Jane Goodall for being my inspiration since I was eight years old, for daring to go where no one had gone before, both physically and scientifically. Dr. Goodall continues to find that animals are far more sentient and intelligent than we had ever imagined. She broke down the barrier between humans and our fellow animals, and continues to do so. In spite of her many accolades and accomplishments, she still finds time to help make life better for the little people—villagers, seekers of truth, other wildlife warriors, and the individual animals that need our help.

  On a lighter note, I must admit that I would not have gotten through this process without the help of Coca-Cola, Lindt 70% Cacao chocolate, and Irish/Celtic music: the Bothy Band, Paddy Canny, Solas, Altan, and Ashley MacIsaac in particular.

  At Free Press, I want to thank editorial assistant Donna Loffredo, who kept everything together, input edits, got all the pictures together, and put in the proper places—she was the Grand Central Station for this project and was always calm and collected. I also want to thank Andrew Paulson, former editorial assistant. Thanks to Jennifer Weidman for her insights. I am also deeply indebted to Andrew Dodds, Carisa Hays, Edith Lewis, Patricia Romanowski, Shannon Gallagher, Eric Fuentecilla, and the whole team at Free Press. Thanks also to the sales and marketing staff for their behind-the-scenes efforts and for the lovely cover. This book would never have become what it is without the passionate care and dedication of my Free Press editor, Leslie Meredith. She is an empath for animals and authors, and is especially involved and attentive in a way that is very rare and dear. She poured her heart and soul into Wesley the Owl, improving it without changing its essence, understanding intuitively where to add, where to take away, sculpting, shaping, and shining it. She always had time for me and my new-author questions and concerns, even introducing me to people with whom I can network for the betterment of animals, which is her great passion. There cannot be a better editor anywhere in the world, truly.

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