Feeding the Deer
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81 Feeding the Deer Only three months after my granddaughter’s life-threatening illness, my father died. An only child, I instantly became an orphan. Five months later, I found myself in surgery, undergoing an unexpected, major emergency operation. After I recovered, my mammogram, like a bad joke, came back abnormal, and once again I returned to patient status for a biopsy. Even the benign outcome didn’t lift my increasingly dark mood. So who wouldn’t be a little down? I asked myself and went about my life and my work. But my mind and body twisted in ever-tightening knots. In the clinic, always feeling just a beat or two removed, I laughed with the residents and nurses. Worse, I felt increasingly distanced from real contact with my patients. Before every exam, I pulled on the latex gloves that protected my patients and me from infection but also blunted the comforting sensation of touch. And there were other restraints: lots of patients and little time; conversations siphoned through translators, deadening the understanding that accompanies real communication; so many hungry or homeless women and not enough resources . If I’d had to name my emotions, I would have said not lonely, but alone. Ineffective. Driving home, I’d cry, inexplicably moved by radio commercials. In that world, families laughed together at dinner and the laundry always came out spotless. Such innocent happiness was wrenching and unattainable, but it was what I desired for my family, my patients, and myself. At night, I worked hard to finish a book I was writing about women’s health and the lessons I’d learned from those same patients. They were brave and resilient. So why couldn’t I just snap out of it? What was missing from my life? I tried to answer that question the way I unravel a patient’s symptoms, by ticking off the probable causes. Was it an absence of spirituality? Was I lacking in generosity or expertise as a caregiver? I tried the cures I urged on others: eat Davis text.indb 81 11/12/08 10:00:38 AM 82  the heart’s truth well, drink more water, exercise, sleep eight hours, stop listing those undone tasks, and open yourself to the mercy of time. Then, the winter arrived, and with it, the first big snowstorm. The clinic closed, and I stayed home, thankful to have one day in which no patient called my name, no woman sat crying before me. Drinking tea and isolated in my numbing sadness , I watched three deer claw at the snow looking for food. Their stomachs were drawn up with hunger. When they sensed me standing at the window, they lifted their snow-clotted muzzles and sprinted away, thin-muscled and ephemeral. The next morning, I drove to Agway and came home with five fifty-pound bags of deer food, a sticky, grainy concoction that resembled the sweet feed I once scoopedoutformychildren’spony.Ifilledabucketandcarriedittotheedgeofthe driveway. The sweet feed made molasses-smelling pockets in the white drifts. Soon, eleven deer were arriving every morning at 6 a.m., some with fawns trembling in their speckled coats. I got up before my husband, pulled on boots, and threw a coat over my bathrobe. Going into the dawn, I felt as naked and vulnerable as the women I examined in the clinic. Cold air stung my bare legs and fluttered up under my nightgown. The deer snorted and jumped back, hungry, waiting for me to dump the sweet feed and leave. Day by day, the sun’s angle changed. The skies were pink or gray and, most mornings, clouds blew like rags across the sunrise. By nightfall, the deer gathered again in quiet circles. My interaction with them seemed elemental, involving neither obligation nor expectation. I could offer my full bucket twice a day, but I had no control over how many would come forward and eat or how, if what I gave wasn’t enough, they would help themselves to survive. I was, for the first time in a long time, content. In April, when green, spear-headed shoots began to emerge, I stopped feeding the deer. All winter, I’d felt exposed and innocent, unable to shield myself from sound or smell, from the small nuances of weather, or from the realization that I could only do so much, a small trespasser with her bucket. But I could do something. It seems, in retrospect, such a simple thing. Every year, I...


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