The Callback & the Crow (and the dog who saw me through it all...)
February 19, 2018
As an actor, getting a callback is incredibly good news. It’s thrilling. Affirming. It makes you feel so good! When, right after an audition (especially a big one), you see the phone number of the casting agency on the Caller ID as your phone rings, it can almost stop your heart as you race to pick up the call and find out they liked you, that they want you to come back.
That movie role or commercial, that stage role that you love (that's me as Wendy in Peter Pan as a kid) - it’s now so close that you can almost taste it and there’s nothing like that beautiful feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of the chance to come back in and show ‘em what you’ve got. It’s kinda what we actors live for.
As a woman though, when it’s the hospital calling right after you have had a mammogram, that callback stops your heart in an entirely different way. It’s terrifying. With one phone call, the disease you know is out there, might now be on your doorstep. In your chest, beside your lungs and heart. It’s a different feeling of possibility altogether. There’s nothing like it. It’s kinda what you hope will never ever happen.
But then it does.
After a couple of years of mammograms in which I’d gone in, had the test, and gotten a letter saying all was fine - it hadn’t really occurred to me that there would ever be a problem. That blissful ignorance ended in the fall of 2015.
While getting the big squish that Monday morning, for reasons still unclear to me today, I asked the tech a question.
"So, if they call you back - it’s not necessarily a horrible thing, right? It might just mean they need more pictures to prove I’m fine?"
"That’s right.", she said. "I’ve been called back 5 times, and it’s always been nothing.”
“Okay, great." And back to the squishing we went. It was all over pretty quickly, as it can be when there’s nothing wrong.
The next morning, my phone rang. There was something abnormal on my right side. Could I please come back for another mammogram, and also for an ultrasound. And could I do it Friday?
"Yes." I said, shaking. "I’ll be there."
It was October. Breast Cancer Awareness month. Before the phone call, I’d really only given it thought (both the month and the disease I suppose) as it related to other people. With no family history of the disease and no known risk factors (except, of course, being female) it - stupidly - didn't feel like something I figured I'd have to worry about. But now, as I prepared to get re-imaged, it felt like breast cancer was literally everywhere - knocking on doors of every part of my life. And damn, did it feel personal.
On every morning television show, anchors were sharing their personal stories, and telling viewers that mammograms save lives (they do). Every product in the grocery story had a pink ribbon. Sneakers and baseball bats, shampoo, professional athletes’ uniforms, automobiles, makeup, donut shops, and coffee cups: pink versions, all of them. Even every episodic television show, it seemed, had its ‘very special episode’ - tied somehow to someone dealing with breast cancer. Breast cancer seemed like it was everywhere.
Including, maybe, in my own body.
For added fun (and I use that term quite loosely) I was, as it turned out, also now the exact same age as my mother when she died of appendicial cancer. A horrible coincidence, I thought, that now it was my turn to face the chance that I might have to battle cancer too.
Of course, I can see now that I was getting ridiculously ahead of myself. I didn’t even know yet if what they’d seen was anything. That's why I was going back - to check. But still, at the time, it felt impossible not to jump to that conclusion. I was so scared.
The hospital told me I’d get the results after they did the additional testing on the morning I went back in. Right then, they told me. On the spot, on Friday.
And so the waiting began.
Dawn was already breaking and my schedule was already off. I’d hardly slept the night before. My appointment was for 8:50 am, and since I didn’t know how long I’d be there, or what the results would show, I had planned to walk Donovan as late in the morning as possible, in case it might be late when I got home.
Still, by 5:45, the anxiety of what was to come had taken over and I had to get out of the house. We would go walking now.
I uncharacteristically tossed a big blue scarf round my neck, and together he and I headed out into the day. Minutes later, Donovan was engaged in his typical morning routine, sniffing one of the old tall trees beside the beach. The only sounds I heard were the waves gently breaking against the rocks, and the insistent morning call of seagulls.
Until I heard those wings.
Beating urgently in small spurts, the sound coming from somewhere both above and behind me.
Wings. Again and again. Then silence. What was that eerie sound?
I turned around, and gasped. Donovan looked up too. Upside down in the tree, was a large black crow. He was caught, hanging there, head to the ground, his feet bound by a long piece of leftover kite string that had somehow repeatedly wrapped itself around his fragile legs and then tethered him to a narrow leafless branch. A branch that, while small, was sadly still strong enough to trap him. I watched as he would beat his open wings, trying to free himself, then tire and hang again, listlessly.
It was tragic.
On any morning, it would have been a profoundly sad and disturbing site. But in a week where I’d spent more time than I’d like to admit hoping and praying for signs from anywhere that I wasn’t going to die - this was not the kind of omen I’d been hoping to see.
This beautiful bird. Helpless. Hopeless. Left alone to die at dawn, right beside the ocean.
Dammit, not on my watch, I told myself.
I had to save that crow. Somehow, in my head, saving that crow’s life meant also saving my own. I didn't know how, exactly, but I was going to save that bird.
First thing I did, was look down to the water. There was a man with a fishing pole, tossing his line into the waves. The sun had just begun to rise - so everything was still bathed in that beautiful dark blue/orange light of morning. I called to him, two or three times. I waved my arms and Donovan barked - but we couldn’t get his attention. Clearly getting his help wasn't going to be an option.
So, I looked down at Donovan, and he looked back at me. And we decided: together, we would do this.
I dropped his leash. He took my side. And with a strength and creative problem solving ability I never even imagined I had, I turned us into a bird saving superhero team. Now, I got kicked out of Brownies when I was a kid, I can not tie knots, hate camping, and have no wilderness or wildlife training whatsoever. I am SO not a likely suspect to make this rescue happen. But as they say - desperate times call for desperate measures.
With my big brown dog in tow, I began the rescue. The cement picnic tables nearby would have been the perfect height to climb on so I could reach the branch where he was trapped - but since they obviously weren’t moveable, instead I grabbed a nearby metal trashcan. I turned it over on its head under where the crow was hanging - climbed up on top of it, and balanced there. Sadly, even on my toes, I still was too short to reach that branch.
And then I remembered my scarf. Now I knew why I’d thrown it on - it was a tool! Still atop the trashcan, I took it off and tossed one end over the branch. Grabbing both ends back together now, I could use the scarf to bend the branch down close enough to reach the hanging bird.
With one hand on the branch, I freed him with the other, and brought the bird oh so gently to the ground.
Donovan sat quietly beside me, watching. The bird looked me right in the eyes. I looked back. And I promised him. I promised I would save his life. The words came out so fast....
“I will free you.”, I told him.
“Don’t you dare die on me.”, I told him.
“Trust me. Believe in me. Stay with me. I will free you to fly again." "Please, please, please, please try…”
The bird looked at me. Donovan looked at me. I looked back at them both. And I swear, the three of us…we made a pact.
The bird’s legs were bound. I had no knife. No way to cut that thread. If you’ve ever seen kite string you know - it’s fine but super strong. It had no plans of letting go. To try to keep the bird from thrashing, as I kept talking to him and telling him it was all going to be okay, I wrapped him up in the same scarf I’d used to free him from the branch - and laid him gently on the ground - with only his tiny bound bird legs still exposed. He laid there quietly, and I began to work.
I had no tools. But I had to find a way. So with one hand still lightly on the bird’s chest for connection - I began searching for a rock with the other - hoping I could find one with a sharp enough edge to cut the string. The first one I found didn’t work. Nor the second. Nor the third. But then…
There it was. Right by Donovan’s foot. I grabbed it. He still watched quietly, sitting by my side. Slowly but insistently, both hands now at work as the crow stayed still on the ground and waited, I began to try to break the string.
It felt like forever. The gnawing at the rope with the rock. Trying to find the balance - to hold the string so I could cut it with the stone - without putting too much pressure on the bird’s fragile legs. Again and again, I tried.
But I was determined.
The bird laid still.
And I kept going.
“Don’t die,” I told him. “We’re almost there.”
The bird laid still.
And I kept going.
“Please please please don’t die”, I said. “I promised you I’d save you, didn’t I? I promised..."
The bird laid still. And I kept going.
And then, in one perfect moment, I heard the string snap. The bird’s legs were free.
The bird laid still.
I took a deep breath. And gently, so so gently, pulled the string’s remnants from both the bird’s legs.
The bird laid still. So so very still. So very frighteningly still.
And as I was unwrapping him from the scarf where he’d laid, cushioned against fabric and the sandy soil beneath the tree, suddenly, the horrifying thought registered. It hit so deep in my gut that I felt my body shake as it landed.
What if the bird was free, but gone?
What if I’d not been fast enough?
What if he had died right here in my hands as I’d so desperately been trying to save him?
I tentatively lifted the fabric from his face, and saw two big black kind and knowing eyes look up at me.
They blinked! He was still here!
He stirred a bit, seeming tired but healthy. And safe. And able to fly.
So, with his body still gently wrapped in the scarf, and Donovan still anchored by my side, I lifted him up from the ground and pointed him towards the ocean. I lifted him down slowly, and then back up to the sky in one swoosh motion.
And - as the sun rose in delight - he lifted off.
His black wings took flight. And he sailed, unencumbered, out over the sea.
And he was gone.
We’d done it. We’d saved the crow. I looked down at Donovan and wept. I wrapped my arms around his chest and held him tight. He laid his body over my shoulder, leaning his head on my back, and crooned a high high-pitched whirling whine as only Donovan could in utter celebration. Together, we jumped up and down like children having the best day ever - completely forgetting for a moment what was yet to come.
"We did it! We did it! We did it!”, I exclaimed in awe to him as we lept about wildly. Even a very old dog can cavort like a puppy on special occasions. And this, turns out, was one.
As we headed back home, something told me. I was going to be okay. I’d gotten my sign. From the bird typically seen as the angel of death, I had instead been given a beaming ray of hope. Of joy. Of possibility and redemption. That beautiful black bird had given me an experience I will never, ever, forget.
Later that day, I went back in. And I got squished, again.
I waited in a room with 15 or so other women, one of whom came out of one of the treatment rooms, grabbed a magazine, ripped out a recipe, and exclaimed to us all with a strength and resiliency I still find amazing "if I have to be here for all of this nonsense, at least I’m taking home this recipe for brownies". Which made all of us in the pink gowns laugh at a time we all most needed to do so (proof that humor is in fact always a way to make things feel just a little bit better).
Then I got ultrasound-ed. I waited alone in a chair in a separate hallway with my head between my legs trying not to throw up, then had them come tell me they were going to have to do the ultrasound again because they still couldn’t quite get what they needed to see. And then - finally - (third time’s the charm I guess), while reading a book about American Birds in yet another waiting room, someone came to get me and told me that I could go home. And that I should come back in six months to be sure, but that what they were tracking, they thought, was going to be okay.
I took a breath again, for the first time in hours, it felt like. While I wasn't out of the woods yet, I sure as hell was closer than I'd been before.
Grateful, and relieved, I made my way back home. And on the way, I stopped to get a donut. Which I never ever do. Except on special occasions. And turns out, this was one. I got one for Donovan too. And when I walked in the house, before I ever gave him the treat, I plopped down on the couch and exhaled.
He jumped into my lap. He looked me straight in the eyes. He put his giant curly brown paw right on my right breast, and I swear to you, he smiled.
Then we both had our donuts. Cause that's how we roll...
I went back 6 months later. And all was still okay. There was a lump. It was still there. But it was stable, and did not look suspicious. A lot of fear, a lot of worry, a lot of tears. But I’d made it. I was no longer under ‘surveillance’. I was now back to the normal screening cycle.
As the crow flies…
I knew the time would come. And actually, I waited longer than I should have to go back to the hospital and get squished again. Yes, when I went back - it had been a year since my right side had been checked, but for good ole ‘nothing to see here’ lefty - it had actually been two. As the date approached, I found myself swirled up again in that tangle of terrors - the tricks your brain can play on you thinking that something horrible is going to happen, even when there’s literally no evidence of anything bad actually happening.
Still, my brain.
Thinking I was going to be going through the same thing as last time, I readied myself for immediate results. But this time, the woman simply told me to get dressed and said I’d be getting a letter. Or a phone call if they found anything.
“Have a nice day!”
Huh? When you've readied yourself to face the cancer dragon, and someone unexpectedly tells you that you will, but not today, it’s pretty unsettling.
“How long till the letter?”, I asked.
“Oh you know, a week probably. Maybe two. Of course if there’s a problem though they’ll call you.”
“Yes.”, I said. I know how that goes.
So, all dressed once again, I headed back out to my car and tried to get on with my day. It had taken all of 15 minutes or so. And now, again, the waiting.
I thought about all the times I’d been in before - the routine ones before they got scary, and the awful ones after they did. And, of course, I thought about Donovan. And the beautiful black crow. I thought about how, on that day, he stood with me to save that bird. One could say he had no idea what was happening, but of course (I think) that isn’t true. He probably understood the goings on - the symbolism and the mission - on a mystical level that I can barely even imagine. And he knew, when I came home that day, that all was well. He was with me, through all of it - his spirit giving me strength, his giant curly brown paw on my chest giving me comfort. And all of a sudden, I missed him all over again - the acute and desperate way you miss someone when suddenly you smell their perfume, hold their favorite watch, see their favorite coffee shop, or hear their favorite song.
I was crying. I knew I was. From fear and relief and fear again. From ‘what ifs’ and ‘what’s next’ and when will I know. It was one of those times when you know you definitely do not have your shit together, but you know trying to get it together isn’t gonna help just yet because, well, it just won’t…so you gather yourself as best you can and just let it be what it is.
I got in my car. And sat for a moment. I took a deep breath and decided to buck up buttercup, and get on with my day. I wiped my tears. I put on some lipstick. And I started my car. The radio automatically came on.
The song: Sunshine Superman.
My Donovan’s registered name? Ildanoch Sunshine Superman.
I laughed. And laughed. And laughed. And laughed. Of course he was still with me. Of course he was. And of course, when I needed him most, he was going to find a way to tell me that it was going to be okay.
A week or so later, I got the letter. An hour after that, I went and got two donuts.
One for me, and one for Donovan - most of which Coco was more than willing to share. Then we both went down to the park and left a bite (and some peanuts) on the picnic table, under the tree, for the crow.