Wild turkeys roam the grounds of Staten Island University Hospital. When my mother was hospitalized in April 2011 with a respiratory infection, I had the opportunity to observe them in detail. Turkeys stand around a lot, sort of like escaped mental patients who suddenly find themselves free, but then what. One day, they might be inside a fence, another day they might be outside a fence. On occasion, you might just discover them sitting atop the fence; which doesn’t look comfortable. They graze on grass seed, but will consume a dandelion in one peck. They love peanuts, though these large birds, with their sizable beaks, are incapable of cracking the shell. They try their darnedest, pecking away at it, and slamming it to the ground, their heads thudding, until finally conceding and swallowing it whole. They'll eat out of your hand, but, while non-aggressive, "gentle" is not in their vocabulary. The one exception is when a hen holds a crumb in it's beak, while stretching toward its poults.
In the first days of my mother’s hospitalization, when she was being given steroids and fluids, and getting oxygen, and we expected her stay to be brief, my father and I stopped to feed the turkeys. Passing two birds while approaching the hospital, we pulled over and got out of the car. There was more than enough food for both, but apparently, they didn't think so, and a territorial battle ensued. It began with their heads intertwined, barely touching, as they rotated. Finally, they locked beaks as the grace of their tango gave way to something far less beautiful. Several passersby stopped to watch, mouths agape. They were still engaged when, ashamed of ourselves, we made our getaway.
My mother’s condition worsened, and she was admitted to ICU, and eventually intubated. It was during this period my father and I happened upon a hen, sitting atop her nest in the low-cut bushes just outside the revolving door of the hospital's main entrance. Something I discovered about turkeys: while defending their eggs, they hiss like a snake. We checked in on her daily, often bringing bread and (shelled) peanuts, though it wasn't uncommon to find that someone had already scattered bread. Over the next weeks, as setback followed setback, and my mother moved back and forth from a regular room to ICU, we anticipated the eggs hatching. Finally, in a moment that makes you stop and point, we spotted the hen and her ten chicks -- an estimate, since it's nearly impossible to get an accurate count on the kinetic furballs – walking along the side of the road.
One afternoon, while my father and I arrived at the hospital, and crossed the parking lot toward the rear entrance, we noticed a woman standing in the street, flapping her arms in a desperate bid to get someone’s attention. As we approached, she explained how a chick had fallen through the grate. Upon entering the lobby, we informed the security guard, who seemed genuinely concerned as she promised to alert the proper authorities. That night, while leaving, the same guard smiled at us as she said that the chick had been rescued. Later in the week, there was an Animal Control van parked around back, and we speculated that the earlier incident had lead to the chicks being rounded up for relocation. But as we neared, cheeping could be heard coming from the grate -- another chick had taken the plunge. Peering down into the storm sewer, a security van stopped, and the guard asked, rather sarcastically, "Somebody fall down there?" When we told him it was a chick, he replied, "They fall down there all the time. Sometimes six or seven of them. We pull them out when we can."
The discovery of blood in my mother’s bed triggered a Rapid Response, as a dozen doctors filled her room. Unrelated to the reason she was initially hospitalized, what was diagnosed as a cyst in her intestines, and the ensuing complications, lead to life and death surgery. With her recovery now a long-term prospect, a tracheostomy was performed, and she was transferred to the Vent Unit, as she struggled with two illnesses that complicated one another. Over the summer, as my father and I sat on the benches surrounding the clock tower in front of the hospital, feeding the turkeys Saltines from the cafeteria, the number of chicks dwindled to seven, then five, and finally, two.
When my mother’s condition stabilized, she was transferred to Silver Lake Nursing Home, as a “short-term rehab patient.” Rehabilitation went well, but then her belly swelled, as adhesions resulted in a blockage, and she was sent back to SIUH, and a second surgery became necessary. Her recovery, this time, was particularly trying, as an ileus left her intestines dormant for ten days, and she survived on an intravenous TPN drip. The chicks, grown into turkeys now, were trying to find their way in the world. Three images stand out in my mind from that period: A turkey buzzing the clock tower, like a low-flying plane in distress. Several turkeys gathered outside an idling Access-a-Ride van, as though waiting to board. A crowd watching as a turkey digs up a flower garden, circling the border, kicking the dirt out with as much enthusiasm as any dog.
The day my mother was discharged, rolled out on a stretcher, the medic paused outside the door and exclaimed, “Look at the turkeys!” and she turned to the turkeys who’d come to see her off and smiled. Back at Silver Lake, she was eating chopped-consistency food, and tolerating the speaking valve for twelve hours a day, and going down to physical therapy five times a week, culminating in her standing up, with the therapist’s help, for the first time in months. The doctors came by on rounds, and their assessment was: “She’s getting well.” In early December, the belly swelled again, and it was back to the hospital.
The turkeys were nowhere to be seen, and I feared that, long considered a nuisance in the surrounding neighborhood of South Beach, they’d finally been eradicated. I went out of my way to search for them, and eventually discovered the gang in the corner of the fenced-in field, huddled beneath the bare trees that provided desperate little shelter. This is where they spent the winter, as my mother made three additional ambulance trips to the hospital, each stay wearing her down a little more, as her albumin level dropped, and the infections lead to sepsis, until she fell into agonal breathing, and on February 4, 2012, Dianne Elaine Diriwachter lost her most courageous fight.
Tom Diriwachter is the son of Thomas and Dianne Diriwachter.