In a flock, sick birds are driven off or pecked to death by their family. This is why most birds mask illness, pretending to be healthy until the brink of death. Even domestic birds such as chickens will conceal weakness. It’s common for a keeper to detect that an individual chicken is sick only when it’s too late to do anything to help it—the bird continues to behave as a robust hen until moments before she dies.
Because we live on the Pacific shore, my husband and I come upon storm-battered birds each winter, caught unprotected in winds they didn’t have the strength to resist. Too weak to fight any longer, they leave the flock and settle alone on the shore, resigned to death. Over the years we have attempted rescues of gulls, grebes, cormorants, and murres. Sometimes they respond to our care. With the guidance of the local wildlife agency we fed an unfledged rhinoceros auk for two weeks and then turned him over to a shelter to complete his rehabilitation. Other birds survived after resting a few hours in our yard. Mostly they die.
Within the flock, any show of weakness is a death warrant. With no expectation of pity from their own kind, they resist revealing themselves.
My mother behaved like that. Her cheerful optimism concealed ferocious independence. Although I was present several times when Mom fell and talked to her daily, she always hid her weakness from me when she could. I learned of her colonoscopy only after the polyps were removed and found benign. The breast biopsy was revealed only after tests proved the lumps were “nothing to be concerned about, but I thought you should know.” She didn’t expect to live to see the year 2000. By then she’d outlived every relative of her generation. Terrified of allowing others control, she almost never accepted help or took advice. When someone suggested what she should do and why, she would do the opposite. Even when she asked for an opinion, she rarely acted on a suggestion.
In May of 2002, Mom drove to the Post Office to pick up her mail and realized she didn’t have the strength to get out of the car. A week later she had back surgery in Portland and shortly after that was moved briefly to “Long Term Care” at the local hospital. Once home again, she needed help to do almost everything, but she accepted assistance only under her terms. From her chair in the living room she would shout instructions to my husband and me about preparing toast or coffee, sorting her laundry, sweeping the floor. Twice a week, visiting physical therapists gave her lists of exercises she would not do. Thursdays the occupational therapist cleared her floors to make her pathway safer from falls and by Friday Mom had put everything back. She would not use her walker. She would not take her pain pills. Although she tracked her vitamins and bowel movements, she would not eat the recommended diet or drink water at all. She lied to her doctor—which I know because she invited me to go with her for check-ups. Every couple of weeks she went to the ER for constipation. Her back healed slowly but when she became strong enough to move unaided, she fell and broke her hip while running to answer the phone before the third ring.
During the next five years, Mom fell many times. She broke her nose, suffered a concussion, broke her arm and her other hip. We were with her. My husband and I lifted and carried and listened and called 911 and drove her to the ER and sat in the waiting room while X-rays were evaluated and talked to doctors and nurses and held her hand and walked her dog and urged her to eat and drink and brought her funny stories and books and groceries. We were there when she needed us, whether she asked or not, doing whatever she told us or allowed us to do. Often she tried to keep injuries secret, but bruises gave her away or nurses and friends called me without her permission. Caught between her determination to be independent and her inability to drive herself to the hospital, she hated to ask only slightly less than she hated to pay for an ambulance. When she called for help, it was an emergency. The emergency was most often constipation and dehydration. But because he was rarely around, my brother believed her on the phone when she sounded strong and confident, concealing visible signs of frailty.
The last Thanksgiving before her back surgery we drove Mom to my brother and sister-in-law’s row house for dinner and she charged unaided up a flight of stairs. In her real life she was slow walking to the bathroom, and she climbed the three steps to her back door one at a time. But for the evening she was vigorous and cheerful. It would be her last time away from the coast except for ambulance rides. She maintained the illusion that she was stronger than she was so that my brother wouldn’t worry. Often, a day after a visit from my brother and his wife, my husband and I would be with Mom in the emergency room. She exhausted herself proving to my brother that she was fine, nothing to worry about. Like a mother who lifts a car off her child and the next day discovers she has torn muscles and ligaments, she found the strength for the moment and paid later. One horrible week she went to the ER three times: on Wednesday for constipation, back on Friday after a visit from my brother, and again the following day after a fall in the kitchen.
My brother missed it all.
Mom didn’t think her children would turn on her for her illness, but she wanted us spared. She always said she was uncomfortable around sick people. She felt the imposition of her illness was more than even her loved ones should bear. She carried on, insisting cheerfully to everyone: “I will be fine—nothing to worry about” even as she lay on her back with a broken hip, in preop for replacement surgery. Determined to remain in control, she would be the one to decide when she needed help. Again and again she resisted our concern, perhaps expecting to die, but surprising us all with her tenacious grip on life. She lived past her 82nd birthday, long enough to fall in love again and see her grandsons settled. Long enough to fool us all.
During those last years of my mother’s life, I didn’t share my troubles at work, my worries about the future, or the death of our dog. I didn’t want to burden my mother when she had so many pains already. By doing that I may have spared Mom, but I also closed a door between us by not allowing her to help me.
We mask our pain even from the ones who love us—especially from them. Like birds, we alter our behavior to make ourselves appear strong and healthy in our moments of greatest vulnerability. We’re not afraid of our loved ones turning on us; we’re afraid to impose.
This is why the furniture salesman in the Pearl doesn’t cry in front of me as he describes finding his seventeen year old cockatiel on the bottom of her cage. The bird masked her illness from the person who cared for her, who would not have pecked her or driven her away, but would have cared for her, stayed up through the night to hold her through the last moment. If only she’d let him know.
My mother tried to shelter her children, and I tried to shelter her from my sorrows as well. But the truth I’ve come to understand is that to carry the pain of a loved one is not only a burden, it’s a blessing. I wish my mother were alive so that I could tell her that.