Bird and Garden Report

The chickadees were already nesting in the birdhouse in our backyard, or so my husband told me when I called home. It was early March, and he had been out back kicking a ball with our daughter, Spencer, when he saw them. The two small birds were bringing dried grass and bits of moss to the weathered pine box in the hemlock tree.

Hanging up the phone, I surveyed the emergency room. It was a busy night at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in northern Philadelphia, and I would be there another eight hours at least. The bay, as we called the acute care area of the emergency room, held four gurneys with the sickest children. I was responsible for a four-year-old asthmatic in pigtails, a seven-year-old hit by a car while riding his bike in the street, a teenager with a stab wound in his arm who was waiting for a surgeon, and a girl on a nasogastric tube getting her stomach washed out (she had taken an entire bottle of Tylenol after fighting with her mother over coming home too late from the prom).

Yes, from my vantage point, spring was definitely here. On the days when the ER was too much for me, when I was numbed by all the earaches and lacerations and vomiting, I would call home and ask for the bird and garden report. My husband, David, would tell me about the oriole he had seen that day or the progress of our honeysuckle vine, and for a few minutes the walls of the windowless emergency room would dissolve. It offered a much needed respite from the tensions of the job.

That night was no exception. A surgeon wearing a robin’s-egg-blue scrub top and gold chain strode over to the counter. Jerking a thumb in the direction of the stabbed teen, he said, “Your choirboy there just got clipped. Nothing major slashed. You can stitch him up and sent him out.”

I cleaned the wound with Betadine, leaving the skin around the neat two-inch slit the color of yellowing leaves. After injection a solution of lidocaine and epinephrine to numb the pain and stanch the flow of blood, I planted the sutures evenly on either side of the wound, weaving the black filament in and out. As I threw the knots and clipped the ends, drops of blood pooled in the holes left by the needle. The crimson spots reminded me of a buried garden image: cardinals flashing through the winter air. Unlike the brown females, the male cardinals were blood red against the snow. I dressed the wound and gave my patient a tetanus shot before sending him home.

When my shift ended I drove home in the early morning, admiring the cornflowers growing wild on the median strips. Our second-floor bathroom window opened onto the garden, so I enjoyed the song birds as I showered. Now that David and I had Spencer, I pushed reset and dressed for a day of adventure with her.

David, meanwhile, was feverishly hunting in the bird book. Out the window he had spied a new bird colored olive and yellow. While I was content to identify plump juncos and gaudy scarlet tanagers, my husband was becoming a consummate bird-watcher: He was starting to differentiate between chipping sparrows and tree sparrows. I could distinguish roseola from scarlet fever, but I didn’t need to catalog my birds as finely. Their presence was enough; it reassured me. Looking over David’s shoulder at the field guide’s description of “confusing fall warblers,” I hazarded a guess that our unknown bird was one of them.

The garden glowed in the early light. After breakfast I helped Spencer water some vines grown from seeds I had picked, dried, and marked “hollyhocks.” Hollyhocks did not climb, though, so what I was growing was a mystery.

Back on day shifts a few weeks later, I was up and out of the house before Spencer even began stirring. By the time David sent out his first page, I’d treated swimmer’s ear, recommended an antihistamine for hives, and plucked a watermelon seed out of a child’s nose. I stole a moment to call him back and learned that our mystery vine had bloomed. It was a morning glory.

“And,” David continued dramatically, our daughter has said her first sentence. Care to guess?”

I wished I were there. I looked out the sliding glass doors of the trauma bay to the little swatch of lawn where I sometimes at lunch. “I can’t imagine,” I said.

“She said, ‘I see a tree.’ Isn’t that great?”

Just then a fire truck roared up to the door, blocking my view. “That’s great,” I said. “Gotta go.”

The paramedics rolled in a boy who looked about two years old, his neck in a collar strapped to the stretcher. He had fallen out of an open second-story window. We planted him in the bay and started to assess airway, breathing, and circulation. Analyzing blood work and computed tomography scans, the team and I, amazed, proclaimed this boy lucky: He was all right except for a laceration on his chin. I had donned my sterile gloves and prepared the field to stitch when my beeper went off. I pushed the small black button, and our home number came up on the display. I put on fresh gloves, sutured the wound, and sent the toddler home.

Afterward I sat down to write up charts, then dialed home. “I was in the middle of stitching up a two-year-old when you paged. What’s up?”

David was jubilant. “That fall warbler of yours in an American goldfinch. He slowed up again today and has black fathers coming in on his head. The greeny gray ones are the females, and one of them has a strange growth on its beak.”

Instead of enjoying the thought of goldfinches in my backyard, my mind locked in on the sick bird. Perhaps we had an epidemic brewing at the feeder. “Can the bird still open its beak to eat?”

David told me that it could. I reminded him that I hated to hear about sick animals. He chided me, saying that I was a fine one to talk: I shared the worst of the emergency room with him but could not bear to hear about an ailing bird or frog-eating snake.

I had to admit he was right. After living in the city for many years with little more than rats and pigeons, I had idealized nature. I liked the bird and garden report, but I wanted it clean. I dealt with enough reality in my job, thank you.

A few days later my first patient of the night was a naked four-year-old brought in by the police. He had been found wandering around under a train trestle near an abandoned warehouse. The bruised and bleeding child told me that his name was Joey, but he didn’t know his mother’s name, or where he lived, or what he was doing alone. We wrapped him in warm towels and did a thorough trauma evaluation, which uncovered no serious physical injuries. Hours after he was admitted for observation, his mother would finally notice he was missing, call the police, and come to the hospital. For the moment, however, Joey was still orphaned.

Knowing that he as tucked in for the night with us, I phoned home to check on Spencer’s evening. She and David had watched some goldfinches picking seed from the coneflowers. I told David about Joey and wondered aloud whether wild creatures’ instinct provided better childrearing skills than human nature.

“Instinct isn’t all warm and furry,” he said. “You know how many cardinals and robins the neighbor’s cat has killed in our yard?

More weeks passed. One night at the end of summer, I sat with David and Spencer on the back porch, eating homemade pesto and tomatoes still warm from the vine. I picked up a handful of seeds from the drooping sunflower heads, and Spencer ran and scattered them over the grass. She pointed to the birds that flew down, correctly naming them “robin” and “blue jay.” I felt a drowsy stirring of pride.

Soon the frost would come and the leaves would turn. The emergency room would be flooded with children suffering from asthma, pneumonia, and the flu. The finches would head south, but the juncos would move back here. And the bird and garden report would continue to remind me that I have a refuge, and that even the peaceable kingdom is not always so.