by guest blogger Leah Zerbe, online editor for Rodale.com
The start of 2013 hit my family with an emotional sledgehammer. Instead of teasing each other over broken New Year’s resolutions, we took turns camping by my mother’s bedside in the heart and vascular ICU, praying she would recover from a life-threatening pneumonia, a freak case of Legionnaire’s disease.
Watching modern-day medicine at work—the ventilator, teams of doctors and nurses, and last-line-of-defense antibiotics—was fascinating. We became accustomed to all of the chirping monitors, the feeding tube, the round-the-clock anxiety. Steady beeps and oxygen levels brought deep breaths and temporary peace for family members; flashing red lights, emergency calls for medical backup, and screaming alarm bells reminded us that our mom was still very much fighting for her life. When things got rough, I’d plant my feet by the side of her bed, cling to the bedrail, and fight off the incredible urge to faint. “Just breathe, Mom. Just breathe.”
Thankfully, her infection cleared, but my anxiety lingered. It worsened. It started playing tricks on me. I was on high alert, with every sneeze or sniffle potentially signaling the early symptoms of a serious disease, a bad ailment waiting to steal someone I love away from me. I was living in fear, and nothing escaped my worry—not even subtle changes in the behavior of the animals in the barnyard.
As my flock of 70 healthy, pastured chickens clucked about, I noticed my three pet Royal Palm turkeys acting increasingly strange. They seemed less active and started staring me down, seemingly in a weird turkey trance.
Then, one Sunday afternoon, my visiting brother ran into the house with a big smile on his face, “You HAVE to see this! Look out there.”
Two of the turkeys sat in the middle of our yard beside the swing set, my 6- and 3-year-old nieces quietly petting their black-and-white–striped backs. “Get them away from the birds!” I screamed. “There’s something wrong with them! Wash your hands, girls!”
I started googling myself into a panic over the next few days, trying to figure out why my previously standoffish birds were lying in the middle of the yard, completely unfazed by people, dogs, and circling red-tail hawks they previously took great efforts to avoid. Did they have some bacterial infection? Were they poisoned? Oh, my gosh, could it be avian flu?
As poultry panic set in, I started feeling guilty. Was my quest to bring farm animals back to the family farm going to kill my family? (It was a dairy farm before I was born, but had been livestock-free until my husband and I moved back four years ago.)
As catastrophic turkey diseases played on a continual loop in my brain, the rest of my family went about its business. During her recovery, my mom took to taking long walks around the farm. Then, one of the turkeys took to joining her.
Things kept getting weirder.
The turkeys started performing what my mom described as a “ritual,” flaring out their wings and sitting at her feet. I watched one lower onto the driveway gravel one day, adopting a strange breathing pattern and shaking all over. “Oh, my gosh, is it wheezing?? Seizing? Is this respiratory?”
I couldn’t take this anymore. I turned to my friend Jean Nick, a fellow Rodale employee and my poultry-raising mentor. After describing the symptoms, I drew in a deep breath and waited for the news. The final verdict: “Sounds to me like they’re looking for a boyfriend,” Jean said.
I felt kind of silly. Silly but relieved.
That next weekend, one of the 11-month-old turkeys flew out of the mobile coop in the morning and did something it had never done before. It flared its feathers out in a beautiful turkey strut, proudly displaying its lovely heritage-breed markings. I said mental thanks.
Two days later, my mom called me at work. “A turkey’s hanging out in the old milk house building,” she reported. I tossed a slice of straw in an old wooden box in the building. The next day, there was a beautiful speckled egg in a freshly built nest.
By the weekend, the hens had given us five eggs, ones my mom says look like dinosaur eggs. On Easter morning, we cooked them up into omelets, and I felt a mental reset occur. One shifting from senseless worrying about things I can’t control to allowing myself to absorb the little moments that make up life. I took a second to focus on the experience, a time I’d like to remember forever: My mom and I whipping up breakfast in the kitchen, just a couple of gals cooking up dinosaur eggs and sharing a pot of coffee.
Leah Zerbe is online editor for Rodale.com. Prior to working at Rodale, she was the senior online editor at NBCPhiladelphia.com, where she headed up the station’s online “Going Green” initiative, wrote about center city crime and traffic jams, and blogged about her beloved Philadelphia Phillies. She and her husband run a sustainable organic farm in Schuylkill County where they grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers, and raise heritage breed chickens.