The Most Traumatic Thing That Has Ever Happened To Me

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

{This does not end well. I'm serious. Consider yourself warned...}

Once upon a time, I had a Saturday job. Every Saturday morning from the ages of about 15 to 17, I would run along the seafront, inevitably five minutes late, to open up the quaint little florist's in the quaint little High Street of the quaint little town in which I lived. Essentially my role was to be polite, presentable and occasionally creative, and to endlessly scrub buckets with Sisyphean amounts of bleach.

Me being me, there were occasional mishaps. I once apologised for a delay by telling a rotund and somewhat imperious customer that I was very sorry about her wait. It was clear from her face she was quite happy with her weight thank you very much and she did not appreciate my impertinence. That was awkward.

Then there was the time I was filling in a gift card on a bouquet on behalf of a gentleman whose proper name, I presume, was William. Unfortunately, instead of signing the card "Willie" (as in, the well-known contraction of William), I signed it "Willy", (as in, well, you know). Again. Awkward.

There was also the time I melted my trousers on an electric heater but I think you probably get the picture so I'll stop there. Yet despite (or, I like to think, because of) these... eccentricities, they kept me on, I tried not to offend any more customers, and we soldiered on.

On one particular sunny Saturday, the High Street was all a-bustle and the florist's was brimming with spring blooms. We always had a little afternoon lull, so my boss had (unwisely, as it turned out) left me alone to tend the shop. I was idly watching the world go by and probably agonising over some minor high school drama when all of a sudden

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What the hell was that that?

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What?! Where is that coming from??

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I stick my head out the open shop door into the busy street - no, definitely not coming from there...

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After much frenzied searching around the shop and some brief but earnest questioning of my own sanity, finally, hidden behind a vast bucket of lilies, I uncover the source.

A bird. In the shop. A tiny, too-young baby bird, its breast beating wildly in panic and fear and its newly-formed wings fluttering ineffectually against the dusty floor, delicate as eyelashes.

I freeze. I can't leave the shop; I'm here on my own. I don't know what to do. My experience as an erstwhile budgie-owner has not prepared me for this moment. As an interim measure I upend one of the buckets over the bird, catch it like a spider under a glass. This seems like a good idea, although I'm not sure what I think I'm going to do with it now. I can't exactly toss it out the window - I have no idea how it got into the shop but if there's one thing it didn't do, it was fly here. It must have hopped here. Maybe it can hop back? It's not far to the woods, it's just around the corner, a few teeny hops and it will be safe and free and maybe it will be reunited with its mum and it will learn to fly and all will be right with the world. That's it, it can hop back. All I need to do is point it in the right direction and it will be fine. I've saved a baby bird! I'm like Snow White or something! This plan can't possibly fail!

Oh, Kirsty. Silly, stupid, teenage Kirsty.

I shuffle the upturned bucket towards the door. I can't abandon my post but I take it over the doorstop and onto the narrow pavement. Gently I lift the bucket. The bird hops out, more confident now. "Go, little birdie," I whisper. "You're so close - go and find your mum." I watch as the bird hops once, and then again, off in the direction of the safe, leafy trees that beckon to it, calling it home.

Then, no. Wait. Where are you going? Before I can move, the little bird hops to the left, towards the edge of the pavement, towards the stomping feet and the black tar and the rushing, growling cars.

You think you know where this is going, don't you? Oh, it's so much worse.

Hop. Hop. Ho- 

I watch in horrified slow motion as the little bird leaps from the pavement, yearning to fly, stretching its butterfly wings, and then drops oh-so-inevitably between the dull metal grates and into the water-filled drain below.

Oh. Fuck.

I am filled with a terrible dread. I grasp at the bars, I strain against them with all my weight, but they don't even twitch. I look wildly up and down the street and desperately beg passersby for help, but in the end all I can do is watch in horror as the little bird beats its fledgeling wings against the dank, dirty water, in the most futile act I have ever had the unhappiness to witness. I almost want it to stop but it doesn't, it carries on thrashing and striving and clinging on to its short life.

But, eventually, it begins to tire. The frantic flapping slows, and slows, and slows, and, finally, stops. The sight of that still little bird bobbing there in that dark place is one of the saddest, most guilt-tinged images I have ever seen.

Why did I not wait for my boss to come back? Why did I not release it into the garden behind the shop? Why am I even telling you this story?

The answer, to any of those questions, is that I don't know. But I do know that I have carried that little bird in my heart for more than ten years, and it will stay with me for many years more.

When I asked Fin to name The Most Traumatic Thing That Has Ever Happened To Me, this story was the third one he guessed (after my mum getting cancer and the girl I once met who had a really inappropriate relationship with her dog). In some ways, he said, you could argue that this story just shows that life, in the end, is pointless. Thanks, Fin. Cheerful.

But I don't think that's it. What it shows, to me (without wishing to get overly anthropomorphic about it) is that life is often unfair, it's certainly unpredictable, but above all it is short. It's the same mantra that has hummed in my ear ever since my mum's diagnosis, and the humming is getting louder. Life is short, life is short, life is short. Better make the most of it!

I'm still working out what that means for me, and how to cherish the things I love in my life and change the things I don't. I still have a lot of thinking to do. But I'm working on it (here's a hint: Zan isn't the only one with a life list to share).

In the meantime - anyone else got any traumatic stories, to make me feel better (please)?!

All images by Sweet Eventide via her flickr

11 boats moored

  1. This is awful! I can't think of anything that traumatic offhand but sure something will pop in my head and I'll let you know. Just had a nosey over at Zan's blog. Since it's my birthday today and I am now exactly 1 year from the big 3-0 I might be inspired to make a 'this year' list, life seems too daunting :)
    Also, APW book club - I'm there (hopefully) x

  2. Ugh. Been there, done that. Not with a bird exactly, but you know sometimes the best intentions fall apart and it's doubly awful when you were trying to do the right thing in the first place.

    It's early in the morning so it's a little early for actual trauma of the death variety (for me at least) but I will share this one story with you:

    When I was in college my BEST friend went away to study abroad in a faraway land for a year. A no-communication kind of faraway land. The day that he was coming back home my friend S and I were crazy excited.The three of us were like a little musketeer's gang. So S and I put on silly matching outfits and made T-shirts that said "Welcome Home!" and went to the airport to meet him.

    When we saw him come out the gate S got a little excited and pulled me forward to run up to him and smash him into a human sandwich of a hug. Just as we reached him I kind of tripped (Good one, Zan) and then she kind of tripped and then I reached out and grabbed his shoulder and ... well. We ended up in a giant knot of people on the floor of the airport.

    What makes this traumatic? Well, about one second after hitting the ground a flight attendant walked up to us, stood directly over me, and shouted in her most scolding voice, "I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING MORE RUDE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE." and continued to yell at us as we clambered up.

    In retrospect she was in the wrong, we were welcoming home a friend and it was an accident (and kind of funny even) but I still remember that day sometimes and it makes me want to crawl into a hole and hide. I was so humiliated that the rest of the day was kind of ruined since she sucked all the happiness out of that moment. We ended up just going home.

    Anyway, there's lot's more where that came from but this comment is already veering into post-length so I'll call it quits.


  3. Omilord. This is so horribly horribly awful. I feel so bad for teen you.

    I once knew a girl who had an inappropriate relationship with her CAT. I've never quite gotten over it.

  4. so there is one story from my childhood that STILL comes back into my head any time my self esteem is a bit low. no animals died, just mortification for me.

    so when i was in primary 6, we used to go into paisley town centre "shopping" on saturday afternoons (this primarily involved going to mcdonald's and buying lipbalm from the bodyshop.) on this one occasion i had gone with alison from next door and her friend nicola. we were in superdrug and decided to buy a big massive bag of sweets. off we went to the counter to pay, where we met our VERY SCARY deputy head teacher miss stewart. now nicola was a big suck-up and let her cut in the queue in front of her, separating me from the others. i did not let her cut in because i am stubborn. so we chatted politely until it was my turn at the till. i'd ended up with the sweets, and now, as the cashier looked bored and impatient, i realised i did not have enough money. minor panic, then terror swelled up in my throat. i had to get some more money from the girls with my teacher acting as go between. for some reason this sticks with me as the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me. much, much worse than when i was caught by the cape cod police doing rude things in a car with a boy. stupid childhood memories.

    thanks for sharing your story! sorry my comment is so long. was quite cathartic to get that out there...

  5. This made me think of three debacles, two of which were bird related, all of which happened my first year at university.

    The first was actually not my fault - I was at the beach with some friends, one of whom threw a rock at a couple of seagulls to make them fly away. Unfortunately he got one of the gulls square in the back. It collapsed at the edge of the water and we watched in some horror as it was immediately pulled under and out by two large waves.

    The second avian incident involved my getting a chunk of my thumb bitten off by a parrot in a pet shop. Lesson learned - never verbally abuse a parrot when your hand is within 12 inches of its beak, they don't have a sense of humor.

    Then there was the time I was in a surfer bus full of fellow students and we got pulled over by the LAPD at 3 in the morning somewhere (still have no idea where) because our so-called designated driver had been secretly getting rat-arsed along the way. That wasn't fun, but it did prompt me to be the designated driver for the rest of my checkered college career.

    Overall, though, the biggest one - two emotional trauma was getting on the wrong side of the curtain during Leah's birth by c-section. There is such a thing as too much knowing your wife inside and out, and I was completely unprepared for the emotional force of becoming a father. Rather like a brick to the forehead. Still, the result was much much better than watching a fledgling drown in a drain. And once I had calmed down (about a week later), I was forced to admit that not having a 24 hour labor followed by surgery perhaps limited my right to use the word "traumatic."

  6. oh, oh my goodness. that is the saddest thing I've ever heard. I'm so sorry! But when things go wrong like that it's always easy to see what you could have done, after the fact. huggo.

    note #1: had no idea Willie and Willy had such very different meanings (I mean I knew it could double as a name, I just figured the spelling didn't matter and a William with that nickname just had to live with it).

    note #2: all this about ladies with inappropriate relationships with their pets--! a: gross. b: why do they Tell you about it?

    note #3: when I was about 7 or 8, I accidentally stepped on a little kitten that was hidden under a blanket in the living room. it didn't even die quick and painlessly, it writhed around a good while as I stood there helplessly screaming. so that was pretty traumatizing.

  7. Oh honey, I'm so sorry. Your poor teen-aged self. Your poor current self, still carrying guilt over this. Let the guilt go, it's time to forgive yourself lady. You did the best you could, even if it did end tragically.
    I once shut my boyfriend's little dog's leg in the car door. I'll never forget the awful pitiful cries he made, or the fear that I had broke his little leg. The way he snuggled into my lap for comfort after he was free just made me feel even more guilty.
    On a lighter note, I used to work in a pharmacy in my very early twenties. A gentleman came in to get a a prescription filled for a gallon jug of liquid he had to drink within a few hours before amedical procedure. I commented that that must be pain in the butt. Yeah, turns out that he was getting a colonoscopy.

  8. Another story about a bird:
    In 1st grade our class raised baby chicks (incubated the eggs, watched them hatch and all that jazz). There was 1 black chick in the batch and being special, it was everyone's favorite. One day I noticed that it looked like the baby chick had something, like a piece of string, stuck around his beak/in his mouth. I was [am] painfully shy and my teacher was intimidating, and I was just too scared to speak up about what I saw. Long story short, the little black chick died the next day and no one knew why. I was never able to forgive myself until about 2 years ago when I was on the way to yoga class and found a tiny little bird (a red-headed kinglet) laying on the ground outside the building and shaking. Remembering the chick, I stood there until someone else came, a couple also on their way to class. When I showed them the husband scooped up the bird, held it for a moment, and then let it go, and it flew away as though nothing happened. His wife turned to me and said he was magical like that. And it was. It felt like after all those years I'd finally gotten to the chance to speak up for another little bird.

    It's funny how I've dealt with cancer and death among family and friends, but that bird still ranks awful high on the list of traumas.

    Looking forward to your life list. Perhaps it will inspire me to write mine. :)

  9. To add some levity: I had a good neighbor-boy friend when I was in primary school named Willie, and yes, that's how we roll in America.

  10. Oh gosh that's some story... how traumatic that must have been at the time :/

    My little sis has a similar one with a bird (I was with her at the time) in that she was holding a baby chick in her hands, at a petting farm, and it sort of just jumped/fell out of her hands... right at the moment that a little boy should go running past and stamp on it. There wasn't a happy ending there either... and I don't think either of us can forget that image.

  11. That is really traumatic! Practically had me in tears reading it - I can't imagine how bad it must have been for you.