I wrote the following piece after Rob, one of our counsellors, came into my office to tell me about the most remarkable evening he'd had the night before. Intriqued with his story, I found 'the star' and asked her if I could share it. She smiled and said, Please do.
I share it with you this morning. A Christmas Gift from the human condition.
Like Good King Wenslaus of yore leading his page through the storm, Google Maps led the travelers through the deep and blowing snow towards the animal shelter. It was the second animal hospital they had tried that night of the storm. With Google Map in hand, they found the first one only to be informed they handled animals of the four legged kind, dogs and cats. Definitely not birds.
Their patient was a bird. A pigeon with a broken wing. She had fallen onto the smoke deck on the second floor of the shelter where I work. “She landed right in front of me,” Bernice said, her round face wreathed in a beautiful smile. “I couldn’t just leave her lying there. It was pretty obvious she was wounded. I had to save her.”
Bernice tucked the wounded bird under her vest where it snuggled into her armpit. “And then staff found out.” She chuckled. “It was the second time I was caught with a bird. The first one was a baby sparrow. They wouldn’t let me keep her. I was so scared for her. I let her go over by the trees along the river.” Pause. A sigh. “I hope she survived.”
When informed the pigeon would have to be put outside Bernice insisted she would go with it. “It won’t survive out in the cold,” she exclaimed. “I’ll go with it.”
Staff Carrie was persistent. ‘You can’t sleep outside Bernice. It’s too cold.”
But Bernice was not to be dissuaded. Finally, Carrie and another staff member, Jordan, convinced Bernice to allow them to take the pigeon, whom she now called ‘Little Bernie’ to the animal hospital. The floor was busy, the shelter crowded as it has been every night for months. Carrie and Jordan couldn’t leave the floor so staff Rob, a counselor on the fourth floor, leaped to the rescue.
“I’ll drive,” he said. And Bernice promptly announced she was going with him. She was not prepared to let the little bird go. And by this point, the bird was not prepared to let go of Bernice. It snuggled into her neck, nipping at her throat, burrowing deeply into her sweater.
“It was so amazing,” said Rob. “To watch Carrie caring for Bernice. Bernice caring for ‘Little Bernie’. It was a beautiful moment.”
With imminent death by cold weather averted, Bernice and Rob set out only to return, bird still in hand, to search again for another shelter that would take a pigeon.
“It’s sort of like our clients,” said Rob. “They don’t fit in or they’re intoxicated and the only place they can come to is the shelter. Driving Bernice and ‘Little Bernie’, I felt a real connection to the plight of our clients. Snow was blowing. We were lost. What were we to do to save this little bird?” He shakes his head. Clears his throat.
“At one point the pigeon was puffing and Bernice said, ‘It’s thirsty.’”
He pauses to let the emotion of the moment settle. “She let saliva collect on her tongue and drip into the pigeon’s mouth. And the pigeon opened its beak to receive her gift. Bernice was so scared it would die and there we were in a snowstorm, no visibility, no hope we’d find our way, even with Google Maps and there she was feeding the bird the only water we had, her saliva.”
He shakes his head again. “Finally, we were so lost, we realized we’d have to go back to the shelter and then, there we were." He laughs. "I was turning around in a parking lot to head back to the shelter, looked up and saw this big red cross glowing in the dark, snowy night. We were in front of the animal shelter.”
They took the bird inside and released it to the staff of the animal hospital. It didn't want to let go of Bernice. Bernice didn't want to let go of it but was finally convinced it would be best to let them care for it.
“It’s what a momma bird would have done for its child,” Bernice says. “Anything to keep it alive.”
It is like that at the shelter. ‘Anything to stay alive.’ “I just wanted to help it out,” says Bernice. ‘You know. Be its family while it needed care. It’s a small creature. A being. Just like us. We gotta take care of each other.”
Taking care. It was someone else’s lack of care that landed Bernice at the shelter six years ago. She was a construction worker. “I was cribbing,” she tells me, pride straightening her shoulders. “My co-worker up above loosened a bolt on some scaffolding and it crashed down upon me.”
That crash landed her a ride in an ambulance and time in hospital. “My back has never been the same. My shoulders were dislocated. My knees were already shot and now,” she shrugs and smiles, touches her long black hair. "There was a dent in my hard hat but it missed my head." Another pause. “I miss working. When I see the logo for the company I used to work for, I want to go back so bad. I miss working.”
“And I miss my kids,” she adds quietly.
And then she laughs. “But, it’s one day at a time. Calgary’s my home now. I’ve been here six years. This is my home.” She pauses. “I was just trying to help a little bitty bird. That’s what we do here. Help each other. We share. Laughter. Friendship. It keeps the spirits up.”
Keeping spirits lifted – it’s what we do here. No matter the weather. No matter the storm.