It was the summer of '82, my first year at Saint Vincent's. I'd just arrived in the city, a newly minted nurse from the Midwest, and taken an apartment on Perry Street with three other nurses. He was ... [+]
We were living in a small house on a hilltop overlooking a hundred-acre farm near New Hope, Pennsylvania. There were horses, pigs, sheep, and chickens. The barnyard rules were clear: only one rooster could rule the roost. Any potential competition would be expelled—immediately left out for the feral cats, coyotes, or other predators. Fortunately, EJ had found Mister Peepers first, shivering under the henhouse, hidden amongst the weeds, like Moses in the bullrushes.
That first night he wouldn't leave my side. If I moved, he scurried to catch up. When I finally went upstairs, his plaintive cries cut through the basement door. They tugged at my heartstrings. I brought him up to the living room and placed him on a towel in my lap.
We sat there, me watching television and him happily snuggled up in the towel, where he promptly fell asleep. Later I carried him back to his bed and placed the towel on the hay. In the morning, I found him still snuggled in that towel. It must've been my smell that kept him calm.
From that night on, he slept on that towel. When we washed it, I would rub it on my face and body before replacing it on the hay. It sounds crazy, all that for a chicken, but I guess I was lovestruck, too.
For the next several months, Mister Peepers was my constant companion. During the day, he followed me from room to room as I went about my chores, scurrying to keep up. I had to be careful not to step on him, he was so small and stayed so close. In my office, I replaced my rolling desk chair with a straight backed one from the dining room to ensure that I didn't inadvertently run him over. I would close the door and let him explore the room. He would scamper from one side to the other, happily pecking and peeping until I'd feel a tug at my pant leg. Then I'd pick him up and he'd snuggle in my lap till he fell asleep. Life was that simple for him.
Life was not so simple for EJ and me. Several years before, I'd shocked my friends, leaving my wife of twenty-five years for this younger woman. Now she wanted children. I balked. I already had a family. I wasn't prepared to start another. Besides, I hadn't been very good at it. I'd been an absentee father, working in one state and living in another. Now I was paying the price. When my daughter had gotten married, there was no room for me at the wedding table. My son had graduated college the previous spring and I'd received a last-minute invitation, too late to go. I told EJ I'd think about it, but we both knew my answer was no.
My unspoken decision hung over the house like a dark cloud, blocking out the sunlight in our relationship. EJ threw herself into her work. She was a nurse, and she started working nights, not coming home till after I'd gone to bed.
I'd started a telecom consulting business with my ex-wife. Since we'd separated, I'd lost my enthusiasm for it, and decided to close it down. As I sat in my office that winter, signing divorce papers and business termination agreements, I had no idea what I was going to do next. I was a'sea, drowning in my own midlife crisis. I couldn't have guessed a little rooster would be my life raft.
Children take years to mature. Scientists tell us adulthood doesn't really begin until age thirty. But not roosters. By March, Mister Peepers had outgrown his confinement. We'd both been cooped up too long. We were ready to get outside.
Every afternoon, using the field behind our house, we played a game I'd played with my children when they were little. I'd chase him and when I got close, I'd turn around and he'd chase me; a chicken version of tag, you're it. Often, we'd run in circles, me calling to him, "got you now Mister Peepers" or "C'mon, Mister Peeps, try and catch me." Finally, exhausted, I'd fall to the ground, laughing. He'd come over and gently peck my hand as if to say, "C'mon Dad, one more time." And I'd gamely rise and do it once again. If anyone had seen us, I'm sure they would've assumed I'd lost my mind, chasing and being chased by a chicken, but those afternoons were the highlight of my day.
One afternoon, we were playing as usual, when I saw a shadow glide across the ground in front of me. I looked up. Our game had attracted an unwelcome spectator: a large redwing hawk. I'd seen him that winter but had forgotten all about him. He hadn't forgotten about Mister Peepers. Having had the chick snatched from his clutches in January, he had been biding his time, waiting for Mister Peepers to grow into a good-sized meal. Now was that time. He hovered above us, wings spread, motionless in the breeze, head down, focused on his target. Hawks can dive at one hundred twenty miles per hour. I didn't stand a chance against him. I tried yelling, frantically waving my arms, hoping to scare him off, but he just hung there, waiting. Then I heard chirping and looked down. Mister Peepers had scurried under my legs and was looking up at me. I crouched down, like a mother hen, to protect him and looked back at the hawk. It hovered a moment longer then flew away. That's when I realized I was crying—a fifty-four-year-old man, crying over a rooster. But of course, that wasn't it at all. I was crying over my last child, my last chance to be a good parent. I'd almost failed again. When I picked him up to carry him inside, I felt him trembling. "You're safe now," I told him over and over and held him tight against my chest. He peeped softly.
I didn't see the hawk again till later that spring, but by then Mister Peepers had grown into as fine a specimen of Roosterdom as one could imagine. EJ's meals of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and lasagna had done their job. The "ladies" down at the coop had noticed him as well. Several had ventured up the hill. I had chased them away, not ready to let him go just yet.
But I couldn't stop time.
One afternoon, I let him out and he pranced straight down to the hen house. I stood there, watching him go, fighting the urge to go after him, when I felt an arm slip inside mine. It was EJ. "It's time." She said and looked at me with tears in her eyes. "You know it is."
I knew she was right. He'd made his decision. Now, it was my turn.
In early June, I packed up my car, hugged EJ one last goodbye, and headed down the long dirt driveway. On my way, I stopped by the hen house. There was Mister Peepers, surrounded by his admiring harem. I went to pet him, just as I'd done a hundred times before. Quick as a flash, his talon touched my hand, not breaking the skin, but a warning. If I had any doubts they vanished. The boy had become a man. My job was done. I took one last look, then got back in my car and drove away.
I was headed to Rhode Island. My ex and her new husband had invited me to stay at their home while I figured out my next steps, very generous considering how I'd treated her. Our son would be there as well. Perhaps that was the reason. She knew I needed to mend some fences. Still, I was unsure how he'd react to seeing me, after all the time I'd missed. Then, I remembered Mister Peepers that first night in the basement and I knew the answer.
"Just be there," I said out loud. "Just be there."