The Sanderling

The Sanderling

Once upon a time, I was a poor veterinary intern on the graveyard shift at an emergency clinic on Long Island. Ahem– I mean Lawn Guyland, you know, the bagel-filled indistinguishable Doppelganger of the Jersey Shore? Yeah, so I lived in this strange place for one terrible year, completing my clinical internship. This humiliating and heartbreaking "educational" experience lasted just under 54.35 weeks. Sometimes, halfway through a 16 hour shift, I would literally watch the second hand tick away in silent desperation. Time moves slowly when you're miserable.

Many times before and since that program, I've made a choice to quit something. It could have been kicking out of a scary wave, walking off a college volleyball team, or abandoning my goal to be a wildlife veterinarian. I'm not always committed just on the principle of commitment. But six months into my internship year, the true believer's zeal still flickered in my heart. Everybody tells you this: you get out what you put in. Every shift, I poured whatever scrap of curiosity and dedication I had to make it all worth it.

My struggle culminated one snowy overnight, about halfway through the year. It was god-awful. Tons of critical cases. Insane clients. Every unexpected complication imaginable. And they just kept coming! The timing of each mishap was darkly comedic. Inclement weather, which the veterinary emergency gods use so often to spare their exhausted creatures, was no help this particular night. Even though the snow kept falling, the roads didn't close, and cars kept pulling into the overflowing parking lot.

But I made it through, sort of. Mercifully, that shift was followed by my "weekend" (who knows what actual day it was). I came back into the hospital after 48-hours of rest and recovery, tested but still standing. As soon as I entered, the practice manager pulled me aside, sat me down and handed me a typed letter. It took me a few minutes to read it, and afterward I looked at him with numb confusion.

It was a letter of commendation. A supervisor who was there that crazy night was commending me– not recommending, no intent to advance my career– for my efforts. She wanted management to recognize my commitment, my improvisation, my compassion, and my patience on that dreadful night with a series of enthusiastic exclamation marks. Every adjective you try to stuff into a cover letter about yourself was right there, except it came unbidden and in the form of pure appreciation. I was stunned, and grateful for her words.

But there was something she had left out.

I ended up keeping the letter, putting it in a folder next to a hand drawn calendar I had made. Each day of my internship was a tiny box, scratched in ballpoint pen, and organized by weeks of three. There were hundreds of them, and after each day I would painstakingly fill that box with ink. It took way longer than it should have, given the sizes of the boxes. It had to be blacked completely out, and then gone over again. Just something to show it had been worth it.

The letter came after about half of the empty boxes had been filled in. On the page, it's just as inconspicuous as all the others. But that little black square contains my breaking point.

The morning after the horrible shift, I collapsed. I was still in the clinic, passing responsibility for "my" patients to the daytime doctor, when my knees just buckled. My colleague (noticing an atypical pallor?) gently guided me down to the floor, and I gave up. I didn't lose consciousness– I remember all of this clearly– but everyone could see I was in no condition to drive, so someone called my girlfriend to come pick me up.

I stayed on the floor until she got there, wedged between stainless steel tables in the treatment room. My colleagues assured me that they would take care of everything, but I still tried with what little energy I had, to rattle off clinical information that might be relevant to them. They took my speech and lucidity as a sign of stability, and let me rest there until my girlfriend arrived. She helped me up, and we started slowly shuffling down the hall. Just at the exit, I asked her to stop. I had forgotten something.

The sanderling.

A "good Samaritan" had brought in the bird last night, unable to fly. No one else on this overnight shift had any affinity (or time, for that matter) for wildlife, so I took it upon myself to set it up in a quiet, soft kennel in the basement. Limiting stress was a critical component of successfully returning to the wild. Fortunately, my cursory exam showed it to be in pretty good condition. Likely just stunned from hitting a window, and would probably be flying again within the next 12 hours or so.

That was a nice thought. It was so disheartening euthanizing wildlife, and I had been doing a lot of that recently. The cardinal rule of injured wild animal assessment is that the patient needs to either have a damn good chance of quickly returning and surviving in the wild, or someone that will take care of it in captivity for the rest of its life. Most of the time, especially with delicate little birds like sanderlings, any kind of trauma is just too catastrophic. Better a merciful end than to be turned out limping to the wolves.

But this little one seemed to be okay, so I congratulated myself for remembering, and gently retrieved it from the basement into a little cardboard box. My girlfriend braced me as we climbed out of the steep stairway and the exit, my strength picking up as I scurried out of the biting winter wind and into our 2007 Honda Civic.

I didn't say much in the car, but made it clear we needed to drop this bird off at the beach before going home. It needed to be released in an appropriate setting if it was going to have a chance. She suppressed the urge to counter-insist on my behalf, but conceded to take the car along the jet black roads flanked by blank white sheets of snow, ice and fog. I broke the silence again to flag a good parking spot, and rolled out of the car with my box.

I trunched through the snow in my tennis shoes. I had a bit of energy now, and was excited to add a nice end note to the crushing evening. The ground under the snow shifted to sand, and I set the box down carefully on the border between land and sea. The snow soaked through the knees on my scrubs. I blew on my hands and slowly opened the flaps, then backed away so as not to frighten it.

Typically during a wild bird release, there's a sudden burst of flapping, and the unpredictable direction of the streak of feathers usually makes you cover your face with your hands. There will be times where the animal builds a bit of tension with a dramatic pause, but wild birds don't ever amble out of their cages. When they decide to go, they sprint like Usain Bolt to the daylight. You don't take your eyes off the box until they do, or you might miss it.

But that morning, the box just quivered in the wind.

Hours later, I pulled the heavy blankets over me, but I couldn't sleep. The gray light bled through the curtains. Although I was staring at the blank wall opposite the bed, all I could see were the little bird's eyes, looking directly at me from the snow-covered ice.

It never moved, even after I went back to tip it out of the box. It could stand. I guessed it could walk if it wanted to, but it didn't. It just stood there and looked at me. It wasn't acting scared. It made no move to get away from me. It did nothing that a healthy wild bird should in this situation. It didn't look like it was in agony, or despair, or agitation. It was resigned.

I don't know how long I stared back. I mentally double and triple checked my exam findings, quick as they were. Maybe I missed something serious? But nothing turned up. It was in good body condition, neurologically appropriate, with no orthopedic abnormalities. Why wasn't it moving? Why wasn't it helping itself? The cold wind ruffled its tiny feathers and flicked snow between its thin legs.

How long did it take me to start begging it to move? I don't know. I was shivering, hoping it would come to its sense and fly off. Please. Please help yourself. Did I scream at it to go? I needed a win. I needed it to know that I had tried to hard to help it, and that it owed me a little bit of effort. Please, I'm trying really hard. Please do your part. I can't take you back. I spared your life, please don't tell me I made a mistake and could have ended your suffering hours ago. Please tell me you're going to at least TRY!!!

The only thing I saw it do, other than stare, was to sit down. Right where it stood. I'm not sure, but it's legs might have trembled, maybe it collapsed? I don't know. I was already turning around. I couldn't take it any more. It must have seen me walk back to the car. Certainly, it would have died within in a few minutes.

I remember the warmth of the running car. My girlfriend laying me down on the bed, starting some tea. The drab, fog-dulled light on the bedroom wall. I remember defeat.

I cried a lot in my internship. It's funny and sad that I still feel strange admitting that. But I cried like a little baby, frequently. I'm an ugly crier, I look like Russell Crowe from that Gladiator scene, snotty and hyperventilating. I'd clean up before going back to work, pretending everything was fine. But alone in my apartment, I'd burst into tears, overwhelmed with incomprehensible sadness.

Sadness for myself, the unbearability of my life. Sadness for the animal suffering I had seen. Sadness for the emotional trauma of so many people, misguided by television and movies, when grief, loss and financial ruin clawed at their psyches in the long winter nights. Sadness for the coldness of dark nights. Sadness for the neglected. Sadness for the callousness of nature. Sadness for the cruel trampling of little victories that might have happened, but not for this or that. Sadness for defeat, and the mad desperation that fights it.

By July, my internship had ended. Within twenty minutes, I was at the beach, perched on a lifeguard tower with my new dog. The ocean always gives me comfort. A sharp wind bit off wave crests and flung them sideways, and a school of plovers scurried through scattered clam shells in the slate gray sand. Bright rays from the setting sun dappled their feathers.

I patted the dog's head. Brought in as a half-dead stray just a few months prior (crazy story for another day), she gently nuzzled for attention. The two of us were otherwise alone on the vast stretch of flat, sandy beach. On the opposite side of the country, my girlfriend had moved on*; internships are not fertile soil for budding relationships.

There wasn't any pain, or really very much of anything at all. My mind was calm and clear. I just watched the whitecaps froth in the wind. It was peace. Pure peace. The ocean as a symbol of the infinite, unfortunately tested by our excessive consumption, nevertheless has truth to it. It was blissful to imagine its width and depth.

I felt defeat again, but this time, no sadness. Just acceptance. It was the most reassuring feeling I had had in awhile. I didn't resent the wind, the stinging sand. I didn't seethe at the meagerness of my upcoming last paycheck, the termination of my health insurance. I thought of the sublimity of nature, or maybe I thought of nothing at all.

I had no struggle in that moment, no terrifying longing for more willpower. It was complete and utter emotional purity. The loss of attachment. The abandonment of pointless self-defense. No resistance to my fate. I remembered the face of the sanderling.

Blissful transcendence, however, has no place on a New York state beach, and the parks service was considerate enough to provide a proactive jerk on that day. Megaphoning across a hundred yards of empty sand, he got right to the point, "No dogs on the beach!" He added a flick of his orange safety lights as an exclamation mark.

No argument from me. No flippant comment or rebellious hand gesture. Even though– I mean, who could we be bothering? The beach was empty except for the birds. I got up and moved on.

*But then we got back together and got married.

Greg Bishop

Greg Bishop

A veterinarian with unquenchable creative impulses. Unquenchable? Hmmm... creative "tendencies"? Well, it depends on how well I slept last night. Also a writer, illustrator and whatever-elser.