I remember being a kid rolling down a grassy hill in my friend’s backyard. The hill ran from the back of her house down to her barn. There was a shed at the top of the hill, near the house where her family housed their chickens. Once, as we rolled down the hill, my friend looked up and screamed.
She was pointing to the sky. I sat up and waited for my eyes to focus. I followed her finger and shaded my eyes from the sun to see birds with wings outstretched soaring above us in wide circles. They weren’t the barn swallows or robins I saw everywhere or even the bats we came out at night to see. These birds were huge and they were floating.
They hovered in the air. No effort at all. My friend and I ran, shouted, and flailed our arms in the air above our heads, trying to save the chickens. We didn’t know it was a misnomer. Hawks don’t usually eat chickens. But we fought them anyway, valiant in our futility.
Chickenhawk is a common name for the red-tailed hawks, who are easily recognizable from their red-stained tails, size, and uncanny ability to hover in the air. Red-tailed hawks conserve their energy staying stationary as long as possible only flapping their wings when necessary. They are opportunistic feeders. Chickens aren’t easy enough of a kill. So they focus on smaller prey like rodents or rabbits. Red-tailed hawks go after their prey talons first, diving in and scooping up the small animal. Meal in hand, they either return to their perch with their kill if it is small, or, if it is too large, then they do a type of hopscotch with it in their talons. Hopping and banging it against the ground until it’s easier to consume or dead. I’ve never witnessed a hawk in the wild slamming the body of an animal on the ground. But years later, my body and my mind would be trapped in the clutches of a predator, one whose force and violence I was incapable of outsmarting or outworking.
More than two decades later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was thirty-three and my only child, Elizabeth, had just turned nine. Multiple sclerosis is my red-tailed hawk. At first floating in without warning until circling back and settling in and just like the hawk, it sat perched and waited somewhere in my genetic code, looking for an opportunity to swoop in and seize the life I had known. MS dove in with hawkish focus, talons first, clawing away at the protective layer of my myelin sheath so my immune system devoured itself. The first thing he went for was my left eye and my vision.
When MS attacks my vision goes wonky, my brain becomes fuzzy, my hands grow numb off and on, and fatigue grips me as if it were the hawk’s talons on the cotton-tailed rabbit’s neck. I wasn’t paying attention to outside dangers. I allowed external factors at work to stress me out. I was eating too much, not sleeping, and living in a state of perpetual anxiety. There was no waving my hands above my head to scare it away. That, too, would have been futile. Multiple sclerosis sat waiting perched on the gray matter of my brain.
Eight years after the diagnosis, I found myself sitting in graduate class one evening, I received a text from my daughter, Elizabeth. She and our dog Roadie were being held captive in our house by a large bird that swooped down at their heads and tried to eat Roadie when she was taking him out to the backyard.
I had no idea what it could be. We lived in a city with telephone poles instead of trees and the only open fields were baseball diamonds and soccer fields. I told her there was nothing I could do. I was an hour away. Just stay in the house. She sent me pictures. I glanced at the grainy pictures. I forwarded the pictures to my brother-in-law. He was Elizabeth’s godfather and a hunter. He’d know if I needed to be concerned. A second later he texted back with his answer: a red-tailed hawk. I looked again at the picture of the bird perched on the corner of my neighbor’s garage. It had the white chest and walnut colored feathers with a tail just tinged red that gave it its name. It wasn’t so much the coloring of the hawk that identified it but its size. It was as big as an adult-sized human head.
Elizabeth texted again. How is Roadie going to go to the bathroom? I told her to bring him in the front yard. In the third picture she sent me, the hawk was in the grass with his kill and the message read, “It’s eating something.”
I knew the excitement was over for the evening. He got what he came for.
When I arrived home that night, after being gone for the last sixteen hours, Elizabeth was perched on the couch watching television,
As soon as I walked in the side door, she told me, “Don’t let Roadie out in the morning until you get rid of whatever’s out there.”
“I know,” I responded automatically while reaching out the front door to get the mail.
“He may get sick if he gets into whatever’s out there,” she insisted.
“I know that, too, Elizabeth,” I called from the bathroom.
Walking back into the living room I said, “Maybe a scavenger will come and take whatever it is away during the night.”
It was wishful thinking. I remembered our cat, Phoebe, when she was alive, used to litter our sidewalks and patio with an array of moles, mice, and voles. One morning, I counted ten dead rodents strewn throughout my yard. Every once in a while, as if by magic, a carcass disappeared.
“If whatever is still there in the morning,” I assured her while putting the leftovers in the microwave, “I’ll get rid of it before I let Roadie out.”
I woke up the next morning and just like I have for the last five years, met Roadie at the side door. He stood there with his head jutted out waiting for me to place the choker chain with leash attached over his head, but instead of leading him out to the backyard, I left him standing at the side door confused.
It was still dark out. I braced myself for what I was going to find back there. It didn’t matter how many times I had to do this type of chore, I never became accustomed to it. It was one of the many aspects of being a single homeowner I didn’t like. I had to be the adult. No one else was going to take care of it.
As I walked in the backyard, the light from my kitchen window lit up the part of the driveway closest to the house. First I saw the splattered crimson stains on the concrete patio where the chain link fence gates came together.
“What the heck happened here?” I wondered. I’ve never seen blood left over from a kill, let alone that much. The animal must have been larger than the hawk could handle. It must have used the metal gate as a sort of lever to help in the kill. I imagined the hawk banging the animal against the fence or maybe using the gate as a brace to complete the kill before taking it to a nearby patch of grass to finish his meal. More blood than what I expected for a field mouse or a vole.
A white spot in the middle of the green grass caught my eye as I walked over. I expected a mass of black or gray, maybe the color of jack rabbit but not a bright white. I braced myself to see the remains of whatever it was that the hawk had feasted on the night before. As I stepped closer, the white spot came into focus. It was attached to a perfectly formed, fully grown, cotton-tailed rabbit.
The last decade of my treatment has consisted of injecting myself twelve times a month with a medication that has no guarantees. Research says it may prevent or slow down the disease from consuming my brain and spinal cord, but there are no promises. My injection routine is cyclical just like those hawks floating in circles about my head when I was a kid. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday before bed, I walk to the glass cupboard in my kitchen and grab one of the three syringes I took out of the refrigerator for the week. Immediately I slide the capped syringe in my bra between my breasts. The medicine is not as painful if it is warmer than room temperature. I try to remember where I injected two days prior. Most days, I can’t and end up guessing the rotation of my shots. I grab a washcloth from the hall closet, and clean the area with soap and water. I remove the cap from the syringe, shake off the droplets of medicine already formed at the end of the needle. Pick a spot, gather flesh, place the needle against my skin and slowly apply pressure until the needle disappears. I slowly press down on the plunger. The burn begins.
I remove the needle from my flesh and press the needle against a hard surface, so the needle is bent. I recap the syringe and drop it in an empty liquid laundry detergent bottle. I massage the area. The medicine hovers in my blood. Two days later, I will circle back around and do it all over again.
The ritual is mindless now, which is part of the reason I forget the rotation. That wasn’t always the case. When I began this regimen, it took nine months for my body to adjust to this immune-modifying drug. I felt hung over twelve times a month without ever drinking a drop of alcohol. My neck and spine ached. Inflammation riddled my body with fevers and chills that woke me in the night when the eight-hour Tylenol wore off. My body has adjusted and as long as I don’t miss a dose, I am usually okay. So far the hawk has not fully claimed me. I imagine him perching, scanning waiting for an opportunity to come swooping down. I won’t stay still long enough. I keep moving.
Every spring, I go to the same neurologist. I’ve grown accustomed to his lack of personality. So I continue to call for an appointment every year. I close my eyes when my vision goes blurry, I rub my hands when my fingers go numb, I avoid extreme temperatures, and I sleep when I tire which is more often now. I continue to adapt. I do all of this because I cannot run away, not really. There is nowhere to go. The hawk is the thing within me. Yet, I cling to life. I refuse to let the fear of the unknown dictate my life.
I grabbed the shovel and as I scooped up the rabbit, I noticed it was perfectly formed. It had all of its limbs. No patches of fur were missing. I didn’t see the wound or even where the hawk had feasted. The hole must have been in the back of the head or at the neck but I couldn’t see it. There were no obvious signs of the cause of death.
My symptoms too are hidden behind the excuses I make when I am too tired to go out or when I have to go home early or when I stumble over my words.
Such a waste, I thought as the rabbit slid off my shovel into the garbage can. I refuse to waste my life waiting for an attack. I have too much left to do, both monumental and mundane. Thinking about the next two years before Elizabeth graduates from high school, I flipped the lid of the garbage can shut, leaned the shovel up against the house, turned, and walked back into the house to bring Roadie out. Quitting is not an option. Today, I am not prey.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.