(c) Shannon Doyle, 2020
To Whom it May Concern:
I feel it’s important to explain some things, to set the record straight in case I don’t survive this night.
I first learned that I could heal animals when a bird flew into the sliding glass door of the house in which I grew up. It was a tiny thing, as most songbirds are, but the thunk its body made against the glass startled me out of whatever I was doing. I was too young to be doing homework (back in those days elementary school children didn’t really get homework), but I was reading or coloring or something similar at the kitchen table when the sparrow hit. The evening sunlight streaming through the glass illuminated the fine dust on the outside of the window, showing the outline of each miniature feather at the moment it smashed into the invisible barrier. I stared at it, marveling at the pattern and tracing the spray of feathers with my fingertip, before seeing a flutter of movement on the cement outside.
Without telling my parents, I quietly slipped out the door and tried to comfort the tiny bird, which at first seemed not too badly wounded. It twitched and shuddered, and I immediately scooped up the trembling animal in both hands. The whitish feathers on its breast parted as its head lolled backwards, and I could see that underneath the fluff of brown and tan feathers, the body was even smaller than I’d imagined. One eye seemed to bulge from the small head, and that’s when the injustice of it filled my eyes with tears. Such a tiny animal couldn’t harm a soul, and it didn’t deserve to die. I cupped my small hands protectively around the bird, and I could feel the claws shake and tremble against my palm. It wasn’t fair! Do something! I whispered with all my heart. Do something! To God, to Mother Nature, to whoever would listen, I pleaded: Do something! And then, separate from the salty tears that came easily to my eyes in those days, I tasted a hint of sweetness on the back of my tongue. I didn’t yet know what that meant, but I would learn.
The trembling stopped, and I fearfully opened my hands. The bird did not move, and one inky black eye stared up without blinking. I heard my mother call for me, and I knew a proper burial would have to wait until after dinner. In the garage, I gently laid the bird in the pocket of my brother’s baseball mitt, the leather thumb curving protectively over the small body.
The bird didn’t die, though. When I was excused from the dinner table, it was flitting about the garage, from the rake tines to the canoe hanging from the ceiling and onto the garage door chain. Bursting with joy, I proudly offered my hand as a perch, ready for my Snow White moment of mutual affection and love. The sparrow, of course, was ready to get the hell out of the garage. Slightly disappointed, but still thrilled at the little life I had saved, I pressed the button to open the big door. The sparrow darted back and forth in a panic until the gaping mechanical maw had opened far enough for a safe escape.
I know you probably don’t believe me when I say I saved the bird’s life. You probably think it was just stunned, and given a few more moments, it recovered on its own. You’re wrong, though. I healed other animals, too. I had to be touching the animal, and I had to whisper my fervent prayer three times: Do something! Do something! Do something! And then I would get that hint of sweetness on my tongue, and I’d know it worked. Sometimes the sweetness didn’t come, but at least I knew I’d tried. I had to try.
Admission to my middle school’s National Junior Honor Society had a community service requirement, so I convinced my parents to let me volunteer every other weekend at the local animal shelter. I was paired with an adult volunteer and helped clean out cages, walk dogs, socialize kittens, and portion out kibble. But I knew I was also treating their illnesses, easing their suffering. Whenever I could, I hugged an animal close and said my prayer, hoping for the sweetness. I never told, though. Even when the friendly orange tomcat named Frank somehow overcame his feline leukemia, and the shelter employees celebrated that the earlier tests had apparently been wrong, I didn’t tell them it was me. What if someone brought me their dying dog and the sweetness didn’t come? Then it would feel like my fault. So I healed in silence, wishing for less pain and more love for each and every animal I touched. And all along, I assumed it wasn’t costing me anything.
I kept volunteering through high school, and occasionally drove to other shelters nearby to do what I could. Having established my reliability at Soft Paws in my community, it was easy to get on the schedule at other shelters. Everyone likes cuddling with puppies and kittens, but when it comes to wielding the pooper scooper and giving meds to unwilling patients (many of whom have sharp teeth and claws), the competition for jobs tends to thin out. When I quit the track team because the weekend meets interfered with my volunteering, my parents expressed concern. But I explained that I wanted to become a veterinarian, and these gigs would be great resume-building experience.
My first attempt at healing a person came without warning. If I’d had time to really consider the implications, maybe I wouldn’t have tried. But then again, how could I not? When I saw my best friend’s little brother in the hospital bed, dwarfed by the machines and tubes and pillows, I immediately remembered holding the tiny sparrow in my hands. Both were so small, and so innocent. One had flown into a window, and the other had run out in front of a car. My friend stood in terror and agony, looking at her brother who hadn’t even graduated from kindergarten yet. I stood next to her and reminded her what we’d talked about on the way there: that we should try not to sound scared, and that we should tell him we were going to work on his Minecraft castle for him while he was in the hospital. If anything could pull him out of the coma, it was someone messing with his Minecraft world. Well, that… and one other thing.
A narrow band of soft skin peeked out above the cast on his arm and below the sleeve of his cotton gown. I reached over and put my hand on his small bicep. I remember the plastic smell of the tape holding various tubes in place, the ominous shadow of color beneath the bandage on his head, the hissing of the machine that was breathing for him. How could I not try? I thought of the sparrow’s tiny dark eye, and I shouted internally, Do something! Do something! Do something! Please! I felt a sob swell in my chest, and I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting. And then it came. The sweetness. I gasped and stepped backwards in horror, the specter of my future clouding my vision. I hugged my friend quickly and then hurried to find a visitor’s restroom, where I heaved the contents of my stomach into a clean and sanitized toilet bowl.
And so my weekends at the animal shelters began to shift to weekends at the children’s hospital. It’s not easy to touch patients you don’t know, though. It’s not like I could just walk into reception and ask to visit whoever they had laying around. I thought about learning to juggle, or to dress up as a cartoon character, or become a full-fledged Junior Volunteer in the nursing department. As it turned out, though, the fastest way in was still with the animals. A Comfort Animal visitation rotation had already been established, and with my experience at the various shelters, I could use those groups to gain access to patients. Kids loved petting the visiting dogs and cared much less about germs or fleas or whatever adults worried about. And with each visit, I offered to hold their hand and show them how to gently pet the soft fur of our certified emotional support dog, Tinkerbell. Sometimes the sweetness came, and sometimes it didn’t, but I always tried.
I spent every moment I could at the children’s hospital. Again, my parents expressed concern. I explained I was thinking about nursing instead of veterinary school, and I wanted to help people. My friendships suffered a bit, I guess because I filled my schedule with strangers. I didn’t sleep as well, and I lost weight. As soon as I walked through the whooshing automatic doors into the waiting area, my thoughts would be drowned out by the words Do something! pounding like a drumbeat. The waiting rooms were torture. So many faces, pale and drawn with shock and fear and exhaustion, waiting for news, waiting for hope. I felt the heaviness and silently promised them all that I would try. I would try to save their children. What could be more important than this? I could study for English Literature quizzes, or I could save lives. My grades started to slip.
There were just so many. If not for the strictly enforced visiting hours, I may have slept under the stairs there. The needs overwhelmed me. Literally endless, the next child no less deserving of help than the last, this parade of tragedy marched day and night through my conscience. But no one expected me to do anything, obviously. Tinkerbell was getting a bit of a reputation, though. The miracle of a dog’s unconditional love, they said. I know what it sounds like, some random high schooler claiming to be a miracle healer. I couldn’t help anyone from inside a 5150 hold. So I tried to manage it alone.
You have to believe me that I was only there to help. What happened next wasn’t my fault, or even my will. It’s when I figured out that I was not a healer, I was an instrument.
It had been a pretty good morning, lots of sweetness. I walked slowly with Tinkerbell down the hallway, scritching behind her ears and murmuring encouragement, when I heard the wail from a few doors ahead. Everyone who works in a hospital knows the wail. I was too late. I felt my chest tighten. What had I been doing? Why had I stopped to grab a candy bar from the vending machine downstairs? I could have been there. I might have prevented this, if I hadn’t been so selfish. A whole life had just disappeared, a future evaporated, hopes and dreams and plans dissolved, hearts broken, irreversibly.
I knelt down beside Tinkerbell and buried my face in her fur. She sat obediently and leaned into me as I clutched at her canvas vest. My useless tears plopped down onto the ID card hanging from her collar, her pink-tongued smile captured and printed under her name. It felt like I was disintegrating, my insides turning to dust and the shell becoming desiccated and brittle. I couldn’t do this anymore. Then, a hand on my shoulder.
A priest with a kindly voice offered assistance. I looked at him through bleary eyes, and he nodded slowly, understanding. I wasn’t particularly religious, despite my near constant prayers for intervention, but this felt important. I mumbled that I wanted to help them all, but couldn’t, and I couldn’t bear it. He again nodded solemnly, and I stood up, wiping my tears away with my shirt sleeve. He looked barely middle-aged but leaned heavily on a cane with one hand. He offered me his other hand, and I took it. As he softly recited his type of prayer to his type of God, asking for my strength and protection and comfort in the face of His will, I instinctively concentrated on my own type of prayer to my own type of entity, whatever it was, for him. His arthritis, or injury, or whatever it was… maybe I could help him, too. Do something! Do something! Do something! I gave his hand a squeeze of thanks. And then I tasted the bite of bitterness spreading across my tongue.
Tinkerbell and I were with a young glioblastoma patient down the hall when the commotion erupted. I would later read in the local papers about the priest’s chronic total obstruction, or “widowmaker” heart attack, which has only a 12% survival rate even when it occurs at a medical facility. He was not in that 12%. The sudden death uncovered extensive financial mismanagement and, even more newsworthy, the unsavory search history on his computer at the parish. Though he had offered me comfort, and I had asked for his, he had not been a good man.
So that’s how I came to understand that I could not control the intervention, once I asked for it. The entity with which I plead, the Jury (as I now call it), renders judgement based on information I can’t know, and precipitates outcomes I can’t predict. This complicated things. I thought of the animals, the children, the innocence, the sweetness. And the complexity of adulthood, the anti-heroes and struggles and darkness, always lurking just out of view. All along, I thought I was choosing between helping someone, or not. It had only been good fortune, and the purity of my targets, that I hadn’t accidentally caused harm before this. But was I causing harm? Or merely manifesting the justice that someone deserved?
I took a break from the hospital, in part because my acceptance to my college of choice was under threat if I didn’t pull my grades back in line. I suffered nightmares of the children dying, waiting for Tinkerbell and me to come and save them while instead I studied for my American Government final. I pushed the hospital from my mind as best I could, thinking if the Jury wanted to save children, surely they could do it without me. I tried to forget the taste of the sweetness, and of the bitterness, for different reasons. I accepted the gentle suggestion that I might benefit from better serotonin regulation, and I started a low dose of an antidepressant. Even chemicals can’t help you escape yourself, though. I sometimes wished I had just let the sparrow die.
It seemed too risky to use my power on anyone I knew, or at least anyone I liked. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t up to me, and that people got what they deserved. I began to realize the world might be full of others like me, and that maybe all kinds of miraculous recoveries and sudden tragic deaths were just other instruments at work. I came to think of fate as both callous and fair, but most of all, as inevitable. If it wasn’t me, I assured myself, it would be someone else. But I was still afraid. Since any attempt to intervene might go wrong, I decided I would only ever use it on people I wouldn’t miss.
College campuses pulse with new opinions, untested personal mantras, and experimental banners to fly as students frantically search for what they stand for, what they truly believe in. What they would die for. And these groups have such porous edges that people slide in and out, they show up for some events and maybe never come back. Someone might march in protest of a policy, might shout along with whatever the mantra of the day is, and might scream at the deviants on the other side, might chant about the Constitution and what core beliefs are central to the American soul, all the while rubbing shoulders and shaking hands and saturating in anger, roiling in righteousness before disappearing back into the crowd. And that person might bring along a bottle of soda to wash away the taste of bitterness at the end of the day. It’s easier to slip beneath the surface of hatred, to swim among the ignorant and the cruel and the wrong, than to witness the complexity of my own friends and to risk seeing that their goodness comes with complications, with nuance.
What becomes, then, of a sentient instrument? I chose judgement. I chose intervention for those I thought would fail the test. Not all did, and sometimes the Jury ignored me altogether. But I did taste bitterness much more often than I tasted sweetness in those years, though I tried not to keep track.
Sorry for the blood on this page. I suppose it’s time to explain this. I don’t know why I held onto my backpack, really. Everything inside could have been replaced, though not without a lot of hassle. But when someone snatched it out of my lap as the train doors started to close, both fists tightened instinctively, and I was dragged out onto the platform before I even had time to consider what I was doing. Last train of the night, I should have known better. I didn’t see the gun, and I don’t think I heard it either, but I saw the flash, and that’s when time slowed.
From my spot on the ground, the train windows hung like panels of an illuminated artwork for a moment, too bright in the darkness, until they slid sideways out of sight. I listened to the screech and whoosh of the train slowly fade as it got further and further away, and I still hope someone saw me and has called for help. But just in case, I figured I’d better tell my story. I suppose I should be thankful the thief only took my phone and wallet, and dropped the rest of my belongings within reach. This notebook has helped me pass the time, and distracted me from the slow burn of pain, but it’s getting worse now. Help might be on the way, though I can’t hear any sirens. I hear the scratching and squeaking of the nighttime rats emerging from their hiding places. It’s interesting how rats live among us but have no concern for our little dramas. I’m reminded that it’s been many years since I’ve been in an animal shelter, among so many innocents.
So this is my reckoning. I must decide if I dare to use the instrument on itself. Would I heal this wound, or hasten my own death, before help could arrive? And you, stranger, would you believe I manifested either outcome? This power, which is real whether you believe it or not, has twisted my life in regrettable ways. Perhaps it would be justice that I should die with bitterness on my tongue. Only the Jury would know.
You must be logged in to post a comment.